Bram Stoker’s Dracula contains many underriding themes, but one of the most obvious, certainly one of the most talked about, is the heavy element of xenophobia that the author injected into the text. Dracula is, after all, about a foreign figure—a nobleman, no less—inflicting himself on English culture.
The fear of the vampire in that novel is the fear of the foreign, through and through. Yet, to be fair, it could easily be interpreted that Harker’s xenophobia is what leads to the horror in the first place, as he disregards the beliefs and customs of all those who warn him against his journey to the castle. He’s perfectly polite with these people, for the most part, but nonetheless makes it clear that he views their beliefs and traditions as primitive. Dracula, meanwhile, has a deep hunger for culture. He wants to get to know London, to the point that he has been excitedly studying up on the city before Harker even arrives.
Folklore and superstition are at the forefront of Dracula. In the novel, they are used as tools to treat a disease—which is what Van Helsing frequently claims to consider vampirism to be. Superstition, in Dracula, is something that is all too often ignored, leading to greater horrors, to death, to being seduced by the vampires themselves, both through the ignorance of the characters to those customs as well as the need on the part of many characters to cling to rationality and their own sense of modernity. These things are incredibly worth pointing out, as Stephen King never had any single novel in his mind during the process of writing any book as he had Dracula in mind when he wrote Salem’s Lot.
There are fundamental differences between the two, however, and they start right with the town itself. After all, Salem’s Lot is an incredibly important part of both the novel and the miniseries. One could even call it the main character. It’s the town that has been infected with this terrible plague, and the residents turning into vampires at rapidly increasing rates are only symptoms of a terminal condition that worsens by the minute.
When King was teaching Dracula in a high school English class, he asked his wife what it would be like if the Count returned in the present day, at which point she joked that he’d cross the street in Times Square and get hit by a bus. It’s a story that King has told many times. The important thing about it, though, is that it led King to the realization that if he set the tale in—for all intents and purposes—his own backyard of rural Maine, the vampire would likely have a great deal more success.
And he’s not wrong. While this is of course a generalization, if a vampire wants to find new victims and go largely unnoticed, New England is the perfect place to take up residence. Even in 2018, most of Maine is still largely undeveloped forest. Outside of Portland, in the southwestern area of the state, in which the fictional town of Salem’s Lot is located, you’ll pass some farms, some houses, but mostly? Trees and more trees.
It’s not necessarily the backcountry, but it is the country and Salem’s Lot fully embraces that fact. This isn’t even small town America as we think of it. Those towns are typically tourist traps, attracting enough visitors in the summer to more or less fuel their economy for the rest of the year. That’s not the kind of small town we find here, though. Jerusalem’s Lot is an accurate depiction of one of dozens of towns in Maine with a population of a few hundred, if that. Towns that are too out of the way to attract city folk who want to watch the leaves turn. These are the villages that are barely a blip on the radar to anyone but those who live there. They’re the kind of town that could genuinely disappear without anyone noticing.
And because of that, it’s natural that a town like this would exist in its own bubble, at least on some level. It’s not like these rural towns live in the stone age, by any stretch, mind you. There’s an awareness of the outside world, but not necessarily an involvement.
Towns like this are defined by local government, local matters and local gossip. And in some cases, they still cling to superstition in a way that you don’t typically see from a larger city. Walk these streets long enough and you’ll find someone who’s genuinely afraid to step on a crack on the sidewalk, less they naturally break their mother’s back. They know that probably won’t happen, it’s just that probably isn’t enough for them to chance doing it anyway. Small town superstitions aren’t about actually believing in the power of bad luck, ghosts, magic or anything of the sort, but rather keeping that shred of doubt alive when most of the world has lost it. It’s about that persistent question of, “I know it probably can’t happen, but what if it did?”
Even still, in an area of the world where people still regularly throw salt over their shoulders and stay mindful not to walk under ladders, it’s not a huge stretch to think that someone might actually believe that vampires have invaded their neighborhood, let alone that an entire village could come to believe the same.
In fact, it’s definitely not a huge stretch because it actually happened. In 1892, only eight years before the turn of the twentieth century, Mercy Brown’s corpse was exhumed in a small village in Rhode Island. Her father cut out her heart and burned it. But he was not arrested for digging up and defiling her corpse because he had a court order to do what he did. Mercy Brown had died of consumption and had returned to plague her younger siblings. Even though they all loved Mercy dearly, this was the only way to stop her siblings from meeting the same terrible fate she had. They did know how crazy it sounded, but they also ultimately believed that as far-fetched as it was, what they were doing was the only way to save Mercy’s soul and the lives of her family.
There were cases prior to that as well, throughout the 1850s, of vampirism breaking out in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. These weren’t just reports or sightings, these incidents are all found in official town records. They’re a part of New England history.
While the story of Mercy Brown is well known today, thanks lately to Amazon’s Lore, it’s unknown exactly how much of the story Stephen King may have known when he set out to write Salem’s Lot. He was without a doubt aware of local history and superstitions, but even if he was unaware of the nineteenth century New England vampire epidemic, those accounts only prove the genius of King to set the story where he set it.
Folklore and superstition play a heavy role in Salem’s Lot. Matt Burke, after his first encounter, arrives at the conclusion that vampires have come to town very quickly. His rational mind acknowledges the absurdity of the situation, but he pursues his suspicions regardless. He becomes the Van Helsing figure of the story, something that is directly pointed out by Ben Mears in the novel. But there’s a fundamental difference between the way these vampire traditions are treated in Salem’s Lot and the way they are treated in Dracula.
In Dracula, the characters question these things every step of the way, even after learning of the vampires in their midst. Folkloric treatments to ward off vampirism are used alongside state-of-the-art techniques, in some cases—such as Van Helsing’s blood transfusion device—technology that did not even exist at the time, which is certainly not the case in Salem’s Lot. King’s characters rely solely on the tried-and-true old world defenses, using Dracula as a reference, as well as a knowledge of the general folklore.
Also worth noting is that as much as Van Helsing preaches these methods of thwarting vampires, none of them are actually what wind up defeating Dracula in the novel. As much talk as there may be of stakes and crosses, he’s ultimately defeated by Quincey Morris’s bowie knife.
That’s certainly not the case in Salem’s Lot, in which these superstitions are depended upon, ultimately providing the characters with their only sense of safety and self-defense from the vampires in their midst. Ben Mears creates a crucifix from two tongue depressors almost on instinct when he first sees Marjorie Glick rise from the dead with his own eyes.
Belief, in Salem’s Lot, varies from character to character, with each of the main heroes signifying a different level of acceptance. Mark Petrie and Matt Burke, the youngest and oldest, respectively, believe the hardest. Their certainty of what is happening to the town is unwavering. Ben Mears is almost to that point, he believes after he’s seen enough to know for sure, but there’s a level of doubt—especially in the likelihood of anyone else believing their story—that allows him to maintain the level head that’s necessary for a leader in a situation like this.
Jimmy Cody, who basically becomes Susan’s father Bill Norton in the Hooper adaptation, is the agnostic. He sees what’s happening. He knows what’s happening, but accepting the facts and believing in them are two different things. He’s one of the most efficient members of the crew before meeting a grisly fate in both the book and movie. And then there’s Susan, who can only bring herself to at best acknowledge what’s happening and simply can’t bring herself to believe it, which is ultimately what gets her killed.
The acceptance of superstition, the respect for folklore, these are the things that keep Ben Mears and Mark Petrie alive. They are the things that allow them to escape while the rest of the town wastes away under the weight of its own doubts, dies for its inability to acknowledge the disease that has claimed it. The old-world nature of Salem’s Lot is especially present in the depictions of the vampires themselves.
It’s incredible that the same year that gave us Frank Langella’s deeply romantic, suave, literally fangless Dracula. The vampires we see in Salem’s Lot are the furthest thing from. They’re ghouls, demonic things that have crawled out of the grave, silver eyes shining with cunning intelligence. They’re luring in their loved ones simply by being there, by showing up and giving a glimpse of hope that the grieving process is over, then exploiting that momentary weakness to drink the blood of those they loved in life and create more creatures like themselves. Frequently referred to as insect-like in the novel, they share a singular hive-mind, connected to their nightmarish master.
Hooper’s Barlow is a silent monster, an animal whose features are so twisted that he cannot even speak, nor would he need to if he could. He is a far cry even from the Dracula of Stoker’s novel, who for all his ghoulish moments still has an eccentric hunger for exploring English customs. The vampires in Salem’s Lot are nothing more or less than old world demons. And as such, it only makes sense for them to take root where people may still have the faintest shimmer of belief, where they can spread their evil without even being noticed, and where they can only be dispatched by old world means.