Sex, Blood, and Disease: Examining The Lost Boys and Dracula as Pandemic Responses

Sex, Blood, and Disease: Examining The Lost Boys and Dracula as Pandemic Responses

It’s May 2021. I’m fully vaccinated and I’m following the new CDC guidelines for congregating with other fully vaccinated people. As a natural hermit and introvert, the thought of rejoining society scares and delights me. Sure, I like the safety of my deep, dank swamp hole, but I understand the role civilization plays in my life. Who’s going to trim my rats’ nest of hair? Who’s going to examine my body when it gives out? Who’s going to replace the ignition module on my car after a recall? I can’t do any of these myself, nor can I order any of these online as much as I’d love that technology to exist. I’m going to have to rely on people and contact with people for all of that. 

Luckily, watching movies has been one activity that doesn’t require much reintegration back into the world. Being at home elevated my movie-watching experience as movies became more accessible than ever. Because I had a lot of time (other than writing this book that I’m working on), I decided to take advantage of that accessibility and watch and re-watch as many movies as I could during Pandemic 2020. I didn’t have a goal in mind. I just wanted to have fun and enjoy movies in my downtime. 

And then I watched The Lost Boys for the first time. 

Perhaps because I’ve lost my mind a bit or because I’m working on a book whose themes are deeply sexual in nature (or both!), I had an eye-opening realization about The Lost Boys’ context. This movie, which is ostensibly about teenage vampires on motorcycles tormenting a beachside community, has to be an allegory for 1980’s gay panic and AIDS, right? I mean, this is beyond coded. At some point the subtext is just, text right?

I’ve been locked in my house for 13 months. 

More recently, I re-watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is a masterpiece in practical effects, decadent costuming, and heaving bosoms. Like The Lost Boys, the vampire menace in Dracula has a sexual component (though much straighter). But rather than stand in for a sexually transmitted disease, the vampiric infection is as common as the seasonal flu. Again, this is a film where Gary Oldman dresses like a giant red cicada, so I have my English degree to thank for these deep dives.

Vampires, while often thought of as sexual beings, don’t get enough criticism for their roles as disease spreaders. But I’d argue that the vampires in both The Lost Boys and Dracula are responses to pandemics of their time periods. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both movies take place during the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic or shortly after the Asiatic Flu pandemic. In either film, the vampires torment the protagonists with disease, but still traffic in sex to spread it. 

The year The Lost Boys came out (1987), the AIDS crisis within the LGBT community had gained critical mass. This was the year the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed. This was also the year that the US instituted a travel ban on HIV-positive people, a ban that would not be lifted until 2010. In that decade alone, over 100,000 young adults died from AIDS — it became the leading cause of death among gay or bisexual men. In the early 1980’s, when AIDS research and education were in their infancy, homophobia and moral panic manifested in the form of “gay cancer.” While AIDS has never discriminated against any sexual orientation, it has left an indelible mark on the LGBT community in the form of homophobia, gay/trans panic, and a cruel presidential administration

With all that in mind, The Lost Boys provides an albeit campy lens to examine the 80’s response to AIDS in the LGBT community. The movie’s focus is a group of young men actively “recruiting” another young man, Michael, into their community of “vampires” through the sharing of blood. As his body deteriorates, Michael agonizes over his family’s reaction to his condition and identity. His younger brother, Sam, hangs out with the Frog brothers — two disturbingly paranoid vampire-haters — and becomes radicalized to their side. The vampires’ leader is Max, who courts Michael’s single, struggling mother by day, convinced a mother figure will complete his vampire family unit and his presence among Michael and Sam’s family will complete their nuclear family unit. The movie does little to separate the “disease” of vampirism from the “identity” of vampirism, either. If you’re a vampire, you must have vampirism; if you have vampirism, you must be a vampire, right? That’s what the 1980’s thought.

To break this movie down blithely:

  • Teenage Michael hangs out with vampire David and his crowd of vampire boys, shares some blood with him
  • David tells Michael, Hey, you’re one of us now, Michael. 
  • Michael replies, What?! No I’m not! I’m totally not a vampire, I’m into your girlfriend over there! I’m totally not like that!
  • David says, Her? The girl with whom you have zero chemistry and are clearly using as an excuse to get closer to me all the time? Yeah, keep telling yourself that, bruh. You’re a total vampire. Also, she’s a vampire too. 
  • Michael’s little brother, Sam, finds out he’s one of those “vampires” that his vampire-phobic pals Edgar and Allen have been talking about and he freaks out. At first Michael tries to lie his way out of it: No, Sam! I’m not a vampire! I don’t know why I’m floating right now! I don’t know what’s going on! Then he starts to back-peddle a bit: Sam, I’m not a real vampire. I’m only a half-vampire. But when this doesn’t work, he finally settles on honesty: I would never hurt you! I would never turn you into a vampire! 
  • Yet, none of Michael’s reassurances are enough to convince the vamp-o-phobes. The Frog brothers are true militants. They have tons of vampire-bashing literature in their comic book store and are ready to go vampire-bashing at the drop of a stake. They’ve been so fully indoctrinated they have a plan to kill their presumed vampire leader, David.
  • In the climactic battle scene at Michael and Sam’s house, David levels with Michael: You know, I don’t want to fight you, Michael. I want to be with you. I want you to accept your true nature as a vampire. But Michael is not having any of that. He says, No! I’m not a vampire because I haven’t bitten anyone yet! And David goes, Yeah, that’s not how any of this works. You can’t just call yourself not a vampire because you suppress your urges, dude. You’re still a vampire, just an in-the-coffin vampire. But Michael kills him anyway. 
  • However, the true leader of the vampire pack wasn’t David. It was actually Max — the Focus-on-the-Family square dating Michael and Sam’s mother. About his brood he chided, If only they had a mother, it would keep their and my vampire tendencies in check! Which we all know to be bullshit — a vampire is going to become a vampire regardless of their family disorder. The movie ends when the grandfather drives his car through the house, killing Max and declaring there are “too many vampires” in Santa Carla.

With the death of Michael’s maker, he’s cured of the “vampirism,” so that means he’s no longer a “vampire.” He can go on to marry the girl he thinks he likes and they go off to have a terribly unfulfilling marriage where both have to suppress their inner vampire urges for the rest of their lives. Or, at least until their youngest goes off to college.

The last great pandemic of the 19th century came in the form of an influenza outbreak between the years 1889-1890. It spread from Russia to North America, down to South America, over to Asia and Australia within a year. Though figures are not exact, the estimated deaths for the “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” — totalled over a million people. Recurrences of the illness would crop up until at least 1895. 

Dracula, published a few years later in 1897, is a Victorian gothic horror novel by Bram Stoker. For the portion of this essay, I’m going to focus on the 1992 film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, because I believe the film is a decent (though not entirely accurate) interpretation of the novel’s anxiety emerging from the flu pandemic. In the film, young, sexually virile women help spread vampirism and put men’s lives at, well, stake. Those suffering are left untreated — in a padded room of a mental institution — or given experimental treatments from mad doctors. 

Like the Asiatic Flu, the vampire comes from the mysterious East (the Carpathians) and rides toward London via boat. Jonathan Harker, engaged to Mina Murray, falls ill first after he’s surrounded and attacked by Count Dracula’s three brides. The brides writhe against him, biting and weakening him, but he never succumbs to drinking from them. He escapes their lustful clutches and secures safety in a convent, where holiness rehabilitates him enough to marry Mina. Once Dracula reaches England, he brings the illness to the sexually liberated Lucy Westerna. Lucy, unlike Mina, doesn’t shy away from suggestive illustrations or discussion. She freely welcomes the affections from three men, and when seduced — that is, falls ill — it’s her suitors’ health she threatens next. Finally, Dracula spreads the disease to Mina, who unsuccessfully tries to spread it to Dr. Van Helsing all in the form of a failed seduction. Van Helsing’s “cures” for vampirism — garlic, rest, prayer for the miasma — even mimic Victorian treatments for the flu, as modern medicine had yet to identify viruses and establish vaccines for preventative treatment. 

It’s quite a lot to pick from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie that straddles the line between melodrama (only Gary Oldman can deliver “I have crossed oceans of time to find you” and sell it) and horror (the bat monster costume is genuinely terrifying). But to lay it out in bullets:

  • Jonathan Harker eats dinner at Count Dracula’s really badass but really drafty castle in Transylvania. 
  • Drac says, My place is really old and drafty and you’re not even dressed for London’s weather. You look sick. You should lay down. But Jon’s like, Hmm. You seem like you know what you’re talking about. I’ll go do that. Drac: Cool, bro. Hey, while you’re there, watch out for my girlfriends. They get naked a lot. Jon: WHOA…wait what? Drac: Sorry, gotta go to London to hit on your fiancé now. Bye!
  • Meanwhile, Mina Murray is in London with her best friend, Lucy, talking about boys. Mina goes, I’m totally buttoned up and repressed, but I can’t wait to have sex with my fiancé — once we’re married of course. My girl, Lucy, on the other hand, is a total freak bitch and goes, Oh honey, you don’t have to wait. We’re rich, we can do what we want. Look, I have three boyfriends! Mina: No way, only sex within the confines of marriage for me. Don’t wanna get any diseases now…
  • Drac shows up in London and sees Mina. You look like my long lost wife who killed herself. I’m going to spend the rest of this movie projecting my bullshit onto you. Mina: ‘Kay.
  • Lucy does what our moms told us not to do and wanders around in the rain. Oh weird, I’ve been bitten by a vampire while dancing around in a thunderstorm. Now I’ve got the chills and a fever. I’m sure glad one of my boyfriends is a doctor who can help me. One of her boyfriends: I know nothing about women. Maybe it’s your period. I’m going to call my teacher, Van Helsing. Van Helsing: SHE’S A VAMPIRE. LET HER WRITHE AROUND WITH HER TITTIES OUT. Lucy: Um, no? I’m pretty sure I need hygienic implements, inoculations, and medicine. Can I have a hot towel so I don’t get pneumonia? Van Helsing: CONSULT THE LORE! BITCH CRAY! COO-COO! CAA-CAA! HEY DOL! MERRY DOL! RING-A-DONG-DILLO!
  • Back in Transylvania, Jon escaped the naked women and recovered from his illness among less naked women. Because they’re very godly, they don’t get sick and write to Mina: You better come get ya boy. Only someone’s very married vagina can rescue him. Mina tells Drac: Oh crap, that’s right. My fiancé is still out there. I’d better go save him. Bye! Drac: WOE IS ME.
  • Lucy dies from her illness because none of Van Helsing’s homeopathy worked. Later, Van Helsing brags to Mina and Jon that he chopped off her head and drove a stake through her heart so she couldn’t get anyone else sick. It makes for lovely dinner conversation. 
  • Drac finds out Mina is back in town and pays her another visit: I still think you’re my long dead wife. I crossed oceans of time to find you. Mina: That line is SO fucking hot. Have I mentioned my husband is about as wooden as one of those stakes Van Helsing carries around? Why do I suddenly have the chills?
  • Jon, Van Helsing, and Lucy’s boyfriends realize this Count Dracula fellow is responsible for infecting their womenfolk with the sickness and decide to chase him back to Transylvania. Mina says, All you have to do is give me clean water, plenty of rest, and access to public health facilities. Instead you’re dragging me across the entire European subcontinent by boat and train, which is infecting other people. Those other people include the Romani servants you’re using and abusing and will continue to treat as subhuman. The men: LOL, quiet woman; you’re delirious. Van Helsing: I take a particular interest and delight in staking women! I’ll also motorboat you before I remember you’re becoming a vampire! FA LA THE WILLOW!
  • One of Lucy’s boyfriends (I think it was the Dread Pirate Roberts) stabs Drac in the heart, and he staggers into his chapel. Mina follows him, wailing, I get it! This is a metaphor for antiviral treatment and the spread of infectious disease in modern times! By locating the source of contaminants and destroying viruses at their origin, health workers can fight the reach of seemingly simple but deadly diseases before another pandemic occurs! Drac: Um, sure babe, but I’m dying here — can you just do me in and cut off my head and we’ll be done? Mina: Oh, sure.

This movie ends with Count Dracula dead at Mina’s feet. Mina is supposedly “cured” of her ailment, free to go back to her life with Jonathan. I assume both of them won’t have the most pleasant of marriages after the trauma bonding wears off.

Since 1987, science has made significant strides over 3 decades in medicine, technology, and education, science to improve the quality of life of those who are HIV+. The American sexual education system — while falling behind our contemporaries — now includes safe sex practices to prevent viral transmission. Medications like pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis, and antiretroviral therapy work to reduce exposure of the virus and lower the viral load within the person with HIV. However, as important and exciting as these advancements are today, they come at the price of remembering the loss needed to get there. 

Unlike HIV, we’ve had the science behind fighting influenza for over 80 years. The first flu vaccine was developed in the 1940’s and each year a new shot comes out, updated for the next variant. With population increases in the last century, new zoonotic strains, like 2009’s H1N1 strain, lead to serious global pandemics. Despite this, modern medicine can produce a vaccine for a pandemic flu in roughly the same time it takes to produce a vaccine for a seasonal flu. Quick production timelines and disbursement for availability means an able, healthy person can access a flu shot once a year at their local pharmacy and be protected from both seasonal flus and their variants. All this in mind, even with the precautions of available medication, 9-45 million people contract the flu and 12-61,000 people die from the illness in the United States alone each year. 

The current Covid-19 pandemic is not over. As of this writing, only 33% of the total US population is fully vaccinated (that link is going to change as the stats change, by the way). The country of India is undergoing a massive wave of new cases, lockdowns, and tragedy. At the end of this, what’s the vampire/sex/pandemic movie we’re going to get? My predictions are, once again, in bullet form:

  • No one knows the exact origin of vampirism. It’s just a lot of speculation and racism.
  • There has to be some level-headed doctor or scientist telling people that they can avoid becoming a vampire if they just, you know, stay at home. But then there’s this insane leader — say, a president — telling people, there is no vampirism, then the vampirism is under control, it’ll be gone by the end of this month, then you can get rid of it with, I don’t know, household cleaner? Then at one point, he himself becomes a vampire. In this version, he dies.
  • Then, en masse, tons of people start catching vampirism. Lots of people start freaking out. A good many people go, Oh my god, vampirism is REAL! But a lot more people go, It’s a hoax! Vampirism isn’t real! Then those people catch vampirism and die.
  • The doctor who warned everybody goes, Hey, we have a vaccine against this now! Normal, clear-thinking people are like, Thank Christ! Can I have one? But other people are like, No way! I don’t want a vampire vaccine! What’s in it? How did you make it so quickly? It’ll turn me into a vampire! I’ll skip it, thank you! They too, die.
  • There’s a mass rush to get the vaccine and not everyone can get one. A bunch of people turn into vampires and die.
  • Did I mention that the first people to get the vaccines are in the United States and some parts of Europe? Developing countries don’t get the vaccine so they catch vampirism and die.
  • Soon, most of the world dies, leaving only the vaccinated people left. You’d think they’d be smug and happy, but most people are miserable. Most knew a loved one who died and now most of the world doesn’t function anymore. People are depressed and don’t know how to go on. This is a downer of a movie.

Someone else should write this because I don’t think I have the goddamn constitution. And I write some dark-ass stuff.

%d bloggers like this: