In his 1994 book, Movie – Made America, Robert Sklar said the horror movies of the 1930s, like the 1931 film Dracula, expressed the public’s “fear for the survival their society and pleasure at seeing someone… vent his rage at it” (179). Rather than venting rage, one could suppose that it was more along the premise of seizing personal power over society; remembering that society is simply the term for groups of people and their social mores. This combination of fearing for people’s well being and wanting to take control of people (society) was seen not only in horror movies, but in other movies made as a political commentaries as well. In fact, it is probable that Dracula was a political commentary, veiled in the analogy of a vampire story. Although, on a superficial level, there may not seem to be any connection between a horror movie like Dracula and a political commentary movie like the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, a comparison of their basic story structures and implicit social messages show several striking similarities. The comparison of these two films clearly illustrates that Dracula belongs in the category of a socio-political commentary film.
In both films, the main villain was a single, powerful individual with a reluctant servant to do his evil bidding. In Dracula, Count Dracula was the powerful villain and Renfield was his reluctant servant. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jim Taylor was the powerful villain and Senator Paine was his reluctant servant. While one used supernatural powers and the other used money and extortion, they both sought to gather control over people using immoral methods and were both hidden in plain sight. Both villains sought to corrupt society from within, whether it was through the transformation of society’s people into, apparently immoral, undead sycophants or through use of some people’s capacity for greed and hopelessness to turn them into political sycophants.
In both films, there was a team of heroes: one with the intellect to figure out the evil plot and its possible solution, another with the courage and purity of heart to charge forth and take on the villain. In Dracula, Van Helsing was the intellectual and Harker was the courageous, pure-hearted fighter. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Saunders was the intellectual and Smith was the courageous, pure-hearted fighter.
The shared message in these two movies is to beware the enemy within, that which is only visible if one is looking for it. Smith didn’t see it at first because he was ignorant of such corruption. Similarly, Van Helsing said, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” Thus, any claims that there is, as Smith put it, a “Taylor machine” or a vampire named Count Dracula exercising control over, or killing, people makes the claimant of such notions seem paranoid or insane to the other characters in these stories. Thus, in each movie, the subtle villain seeps into society as the heroes fight for morality, and as good vanquishes evil once again.
Just as the audience fears for the survival of society when it is endangered by a vampire who drinks people’s blood and enslaves them as the living dead, a similar fear can strike an audience when society is endangered by a corporate gangster who can make or destroy any number of people’s lives and control the government of the most powerful country on Earth with no more than a few phone calls. Furthermore, if an audience could take pleasure in seeing a supernatural monster like Dracula wreak havoc on society, it isn’t such a leap to imagine this same audience taking a similar pleasure in watching Jim Taylor bend people to his will with the power offered by a seemingly unending supply of money and a complete lack of morals.
In conclusion, the similarities between these two movies of seemingly disparate genres illustrate that Dracula is, in fact, a story of the fight for social and political morals, told through the subtle analogy of the “monster movie.” Much like his quote about horror movies, Sklar said of Capra’s later films, “Capra’s fantasy style… [had] a way of pleasing audiences with glimpses of forbidden or impossible without upsetting conventional values or beliefs” (206). Despite the use of the different devices used to tell each story, this description also holds true for certain horror films. Dracula gave audiences a glimpse into the impossible world of a forbidden evil, but reinforced the values and beliefs inherent to the culture of that time with the eventual defeat of the villain and his evil influences on society. Although the socio-political message in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is explicit and clearly stated, the same message is delivered as through implicit meaning in Dracula.