Dracula is one of the most iconic supernatural creatures of all time—there is a reason we’ve had endless iterations and takes on him in the wake of Bram Stoker’s legendary novel, from tragic figure, to cold and calculating mastermind, to bloodthirsty monster and everything in between. But for all its revelry in blood and gore, Netflix’s Castlevania takes its own Dracula to a fascinating place.
The Dracula we meet in the opening of Castlevania is, as you’d expect any good version of Dracula to be, an ominous individual, stalking about his castle isolated and with little time or patience for the foolish humans of Romania’s Targoviste. He has no use for peasants who look toward faith and mysticism for guidance, until one day, a young physician named Lisa defiantly marches to his door and completely upends his view of humanity.
Together, the two explore Lisa’s medicinal research, combining their intellects as Dracula offers Lisa information about the world around her while she, in turn, educates him about the people who live in it. Time passes, and their relationship grows from students of each other to love, culminating in their marriage. After years alone, this is a Dracula—or Vlad Tepes, to give him his true name—that, despite all our connotations of what Dracula is as a character, happy and content.
Which is why you know that it absolutely cannot last. Eventually, Targoviste’s clergy come for Lisa, cruelly casting her medicine as witchcraft and heresy rather than science for the good of her—and now Dracula’s—community. Before Dracula can intervene, Lisa is dragged from their home and burned at the stake, to the total devastation of her husband.
In a stunningly gruesome sequence, Castlevania’s Dracula becomes the monster we have come to expect: swearing vengeance upon Targoviste, he returns to the town a year later commanding storms of blood and swaths of demons, appearing in the sky as a flaming embodiment of his anger and fury. He butchers every human he can find as punishment for Lisa’s death and then casts his minions out far and wide—his passion and hatred seemingly endless.
But what’s fascinating is that, after this moment of nightmarish bloodshed, Dracula fades from Castlevania’s first season entirely. The show’s heroes, Trevor Belmont and Sypha Belnades—eventually joined by Lisa and Vlad’s Dhampir son, Alucard—are left to deal with the lingering legacy of this violent, emotional outburst. When we finally meet Dracula again in the show’s sophomore season, he is radically changed. The Dracula of Castlevania’s second season is not the bloodthirsty, vengeful, and emotive figure of tragedy we left after that opening episode. He’s withdrawn and brooding, but not in the way he was before he met Lisa. This Dracula is devoid of any feeling on anything, and wholly broken by it all.
He is so utterly despondent, so wholly consumed by his loss, that he has shut himself off from any kind of emotion, be it anger at his wife’s persecution or heartbreak for his loss. There’s a point in which he confides in one of his underlings, Hector, after a flashback to a prior vengeful act of violence, where Dracula simply admits that even his appreciation for the detail of killing, the satisfaction he could take from ending lives, is long gone. He feels nothing. He is nothing. It’s a stunning contrast from the powerful, horrifying lord of the night we saw at the apex of his wrath.
This Dracula feels horrifying in some ways still, but only in the fact that he has been turned into the counterpoint of everything we’d expect a Dracula character to be. He’s curled up, defensive, small and weak in his chair as he aimlessly stares at an ever-dwindling fireplace—diminishing in strength as he himself is diminished in his capacity to feel and care about anything. And that is how he basically spends most of the season.
This serves as a twofold dramatic undercurrent to the show’s arc across its second outing. With Dracula so utterly consumed in a void, we’re given the time for both our heroes and the actual villains of the season, the squabbling Vampiric generals of Dracula’s armies, to build up their own plans and explore their respective emotional arcs. But when the series reaches its climax and our heroes storm Dracula’s castle, seizing upon the opportunity that a distracted Dracula has left his backstabbing servants in a state of disarray, Dracula’s broken, emotionless self serves as the show’s greatest gut punch.
When he first starts fighting Alucard, Trevor, and Sypha, Dracula is more active than he has been since that opening episode of Castlevania, but he is still on emotional autopilot. That his generals lie in literal pieces about his castle, that his forces are being held back by the heroes’ advance, are of no concern to him. That yet another Belmont in a long, decaying line of Belmonts stands in front of him with a legendary vampire-killing morningstar inspires little but a moment of scorn. It’s not until Dracula begins going ham on Alucard that he starts opening up again, opening himself up to the hurt he felt at Lisa’s loss. And it breaks him all over again, sobbing to his long lost wife that he stands on the precipice of killing his boy—their boy.
This Dracula is not some mighty overlord or cackling schemer. He’s barely even a monster. He’s a heartbroken, lonely man, so totally lost in his own grief that allowing his son to end his life, to end this state of complete emotional catatonia, is a welcome respite. With the thrust of a stake, Dracula enters one void to escape another.
Tragedy is inherent to how we understand vampires as a fantasy—the idea of the curse itself granting terrible power and terrible pains, the idea that these figures are doomed to wander eons alone, sustained only by bloodied moments of terror and violence. But Dracula himself as a figure is one that is, more often than not, portrayed as above that. Tragic, yes...dramatic, absolutely. But as the apex of what we know as the vampire, Dracula as a character often takes the tragedy of the curse and uses it to fuel a vast power and knowledge beyond his opponents. His deeply held emotions are his strength, as he channels them into audacious plans or supernatural fury, to overpower and overwhelm with that Gothic fury.
Even in the Castlevania games, Dracula is a constant, almighty threat to line after line of the Belmont family. Stakes, holy flames, generations of heroes, more whips than you could shake a whip made entirely out of other, separate whips at—they cannot touch the dread might of Dracula. He always has followers, always has plans, he always returns. Dracula endures, fueled by his hate, his passion, his tragedy.
So rarely does that tragedy, as it would any of us, just wholly break him.
In the end, that is what Castlevania finds great pathos in—Dracula’s curse, his grief, comes not from his vampiric side, but the shred of humanity he had learned from Lisa Tepes. A shred so cruelly taken from him that it robs him of who he is entirely. After iteration upon iteration of Draculas that relish in their immortal, defiant power, to be given one that wants nothing more than to escape it for good is a compelling thing to watch unfold.
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