“Dracula Was the Original Thug”
by Douglas Starr
Slate, October 30, 2012
Dear Laura [Helmuth, science editor]
I know it’s well before Halloween, but if there’s a slot for science stories on that day, I’d like to pitch for it. The story I propose would tell the ugly truth about today’s prettified vampires.
If you watch the popular television vampire series nowadays you’ll conclude that the undead were handsome and glamorous creatures (and tormented and misunderstood, which is what makes them so appealing to young people). But the original Dracula was not at all attractive. In fact, he was the very model of a thug.
When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 he based his villain on theories of Cesar Lombroso, the widely admired Italian criminologist. Lombroso had studied the brains and skulls of thousands of criminals, and concluded that the criminal tendency was acquired but inborn. One could recognize such “Born Criminals” by certain “stigmata” – traits such as lantern jaws, jug ears, and uni-brows – that were evolutionary leftovers from our primitive past.
Lombroso’s work played into the era’s mania for measurement and popular belief that human nature was predetermined. Almost overnight “criminal anthropology” became a respected field of scientific study and a fertile theme for social scientists, philosophers and writers, such as Max Nordeau and Robert Louis Stevenson. Bram Stoker too – his description of Count Dracula matches Lombroso’s Criminal Man almost word for word. His Count was more a beast than a sophisticated man, with a massive single eyebrow, pointed ears and highly arched nostrils. Mina Harker, the heroine of the book and one of Dracula’s victims describes him as, “a criminal and of the criminal type… Lombroso would so classify him.”
I think this would be an intriguing story to tell on Halloween, not only for the intersection of science and literature but for the window it offers into an important movement in the history of science that had long-lasting and tragic implications. As Steven Jay Gould pointed out in The Mismeasure of Man, criminal anthropology held sway for decades, resulting in the persecution of whole populations. It’s also worth noting that the discussion over Criminal Man marked the earliest days of the nature/nurture debate – a discussion that remains with us to this day.