Bela Lugosi's Dead
by Lesley Reece
Three more weeks, and I'll have my degree. I won't have any practical skills, like computer programming or accounting. No, I had to pick English, which has left me with nothing save a burning compulsion to deconstruct absolutely everything. Advertisements, song lyrics, movies and television have all become statements of deep ontological import.
Even the back of the soy milk container has fallen prey to the big pair of scissors in my head. "Hmm, why don't they say anything about how it doesn't really taste like cow milk? But they refer to it up here as a 'substitute,' which implies --"
How embarrassing. Luckily, only the cat was there to hear me.
Sometimes, though, literature really does apply to life. This quarter I've been reading a lot of vampire novels for one of my classes. Most of it's been rereading. But my new ability to take things apart has uncovered a common theme in the stories; namely, those characters who are unwilling to accept the "irrational" don't do very well when confronted with vampires.
Take Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula. He's an apprentice lawyer/real estate agent, who gets sent to Castle Dracula to meet the Count and tell him about his new property in England. The first section of the book is Harker's diary. As he travels through Budapest, the locals seem curiously upset about his destination. One landlady flings herself to the ground in front of him, begging him to turn back. When he refuses, she gives him the crucifix from around her neck. His reaction: how un-Anglican, yet one must be polite. As he boards the coach to continue onward, he overhears the words Satan, hell, witch, and vampire in some other people's conversations. "Mem.," he writes, "I must ask the Count about these superstitions."
Poor, oblivious Jonathan! Clearly, he would rather be drained of all the blood in his body than give in to fear (and the self-preserving behavior fear induces) at the sight of something uncanny. He arrives at the castle and, unable to figure out that the Count is a vampire, gets trapped there.
His most unforgivable mistake, though, is ignoring Dracula's warning not to fall asleep anywhere except for his own room in the castle, ". . . for it is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely."
But the Count -- perhaps on purpose -- didn't make the right case for his advice. Bad dreams? So what? They are exactly the kind of thing a stubbornly rational thinker would instantly discount. So Harker promptly wanders off and falls asleep someplace, violating what every fan of horror movies knows is the one unbreakable rule: if the "don't go in there" music is playing, then for Pete's sake, don't go in there!
Three female vampires then spring on Harker. Rationality fails him when he's confronted with this empirical evidence -- for a strictly rational thinker, something like this is bound to cause a small meltdown. "Vampires don't exist, yet my senses are telling me they do. Was I mistaken, or have I gone insane?" But there's no way to figure that out right then, and right then is when Harker needs to act, because these girls are about to eat him for lunch. Ironically, Dracula comes in and throws them a baby to ravage instead, saving Harker from the paralysis of his own logic.
Harker does get away from the castle eventually, but his hair turns white, and he's a big milquetoast for the rest of the novel.
"Ahem," I hear the rational thinkers out there saying, "I thought you said this applied to life? This may be news to you, but there aren't any vampires!"
I will admit that's probably true. I've never seen one, and I don't know anyone else who has (I have been accused of being one, but that's quite another issue). I can't say I "believe in" them, any more than I believe in the Evil Eye or monsters under the bed. The likelihood that they do exist is small, but believing vampires don't exist requires an equal amount of faith -- it's another belief, and is therefore just as subjective. What reason -- what concrete evidence -- do I have in favor of rejecting supposedly irrational arguments out of hand, especially if I'm about to become undead?
As I've been told over and over by people who refuse to think any other way, rational thinking is essential to life. You have to remember practical considerations like fire burns you and cars run you over, or you will die. I don't disagree. In the face of that, it is hard to make a case in favor of the irrational, especially since argument itself belongs to the rational world. But I maintain that acknowledging the possibility of things which can't necessarily be explained isn't faulty thinking; it's flexibility.
For those of you who haven't read the novel, Dracula doesn't win. Luckily for England, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is one man who's willing to use any weapons at his disposal -- garlic flowers, crucifixes, and pieces of the Host included -- to vanquish the Count. A nation composed entirely of Harkers would have lost the battle. Because of their fossilized ideas about what can or can't be real, they would not have had enough time to act at the crucial moment.
Again, I realize that's fiction. But if I'm ever confronted with a vampire -- or some other, more mundane mystery I may run into, say on the job -- I don't intend to waste any time wibbling on about how the problem can't possibly exist. Flexible thinking will allow me to act, using whatever method I have available, giving me a better chance of avoiding potential bad consequences.
Sounds like a practical skill to me. "Fearless Vampire Killer" is going to look great on my resume.
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