19th-century psychologist’s theories on the origin of evil, criminals has parallels to Dracula
Vampire movies and TV shows are the rage nowadays – perhaps because their heroes are attractive, tormented and misunderstood, which is how many young viewers see themselves. But the original Dracula was not quite so attractive. In fact, he was the very model of a thug.
When Bram Stoker wrote the novel Dracula in 1897, people were in a panic about crime. They had difficulty understanding why – in an era blessed with prosperous empires, flourishing arts and sciences and a burgeoning consumer culture – crime rates were rising throughout Europe and the United States. For answers they turned to science, itself one of the glories of the Victorian age.
One popular theory, devised by the Italian psychologist Cesar Lombroso, was that criminals were born that way. Lombroso spent his career searching for the roots of criminal behavior, interviewing and examining thousands of living criminals and dissecting the brains of thousands who had been executed. One gloomy day in December 1871, he found what he was looking for. He was conducting an autopsy of the notorious robber Giuseppe Villella when he noticed an unusual malformation: a small hollow at the base of the skull under which was an enlarged portion of the spinal cord. He had never seen this before in human beings, only lower animals and certain “inferior races.”
The inspiration struck him like lightning: Criminal behavior was not something people learned but a malformation they were born with. Lombroso dissected hundreds more brains and claimed to find the defect in most of them. Lombroso’s observations and statistics were notoriously sloppy, but to his mind his theory fit perfectly with the most advanced science of the day. Only a decade earlier, Paul Broca, the father of neurology, had discovered that damage to a particular part of the brain caused an inability to form words. Wouldn’t it also stand to reason that a malformation of a different part of the brain could lead to criminal behavior? He borrowed from Darwin’s theory as well, or at least as interpreted in the late 19th century. If people evolved from primitive beings, could there not be the remnants of a primitive being in each of us? Some scientists proposed that in some people those primitive traits only not survived but thrived, magnified by generations of defective blood lines.
All this led Lombroso to suggest the existence of a kind of a subspecies of human, which he called “Criminal Man.” Possessed of congenitally criminal brains, these creatures roamed the modern world like savages misplaced in time, lacking any sense of civilized morality. “Theoretical ethics passes over these diseased brains as oil does over marble, without penetrating it,” wrote Lombroso.
Criminal Men bore traits that went along with the more primitive brain, including insensitivity to pain and the inability to blush or feel shame. They also bore telltale physical characteristics – which Lombroso called stigmata – including lantern jaws, jug ears and unibrows. Such people, ruled by their primitive instincts, had poor impulse control and a tendency toward violence.
Lombroso’s theory became immediately popular, for it played into the era’s mania for measurement and its fascination with the dark side of human nature. He served as an expert witness at trials, determining guilt not by the evidence from the crime scene but by analyzing the defendant’s appearance. In one case, two brothers were accused of murdering their stepmother. After examining the defendants, Lombroso testified that one of them was “clearly the criminal type, exhibiting huge jaws, swollen sinuses, extremely pronounced cheek bones, a thin upper lip, large incisors . . . and left-handedness.” The man was convicted.
Not everyone agreed. The French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne felt that social conditions, not heredity, led to most criminal behavior. His group, called the French School, or Lyon School, saw the criminal as a product of his environment, including factors such as family, education and poverty. Someone might have a propensity to crime but the “social milieu” could either magnify or repress it. The two schools of thought waged battle for decades, a rivalry that marked the beginnings of the nature-nurture debate.
Yet it was much more convenient to blame criminals, not society. So for decades the field of “criminal anthropology” flourished among scientists and crime-fighters alike. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics” and introduced fingerprinting to Great Britain, used Lombroso’s theories to create a crime-fighting manual. He collected dozens of photos of criminals, sorted them according to the crimes they had committed, and then used photo overlays to create composite prototypes of thieves, con artists, and murderers. It was a field guide to the identification of born criminals.
Lombroso’s theory also fired the imaginations of philosophers and writers. The Hungarian philosopher Max Nordau, who in his landmark book Degeneracy condemned modern art and culture as retrograde, was a pal of Lombroso’s and dedicated the book to him. Nordau felt that not only had certain individuals slid back on the evolutionary scale, but so had society, with its carnal pleasures and bohemian lifestyles. The characters in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exemplified the contrast between the civilized man and his primitive counterpart, albeit within the same body.
Which brings us to Dracula. While we can’t say for certain whether Bram Stoker read any of Lombroso’s 30 books or more than 1,000 papers, it’s clear from the text that he was influenced by Lombroso’s thinking. Consider this cluster of behavioral characteristics: “excessive idleness, love of orgies . . . craving of evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to . . . drink its blood.”
Sounds like a description of Count Dracula? It’s actually from Lombroso’s book Criminal Man.
Or consider this passage from Dracula, in which Van Helsing, the fictional Dutch professor who pursues the Count, asks the book’s heroine, Mina Harker, to describe the villain. Harker has been bitten by the vampire and is gradually falling under his sway.
“Tell us . . . dry men of science what you see with those so bright eyes,” asks Van Helsing.
“The Count is a criminal and of the criminal type,” says Harker. “Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him.”
(Given the evidence, maybe it’s time for a fact-check on the vampire’s image as presented today. Tormented? Yes. Misunderstood? Maybe. Attractive? Not at all. The original Dracula was the embodiment of brute evil – much like his literary contemporary, Mr. Hyde.