Dracula is primarily an example of Gothic fiction, a genre that developed in the late eighteenth century and remained popular in the nineteenth century. The earliest Gothic novels established many of the genre’s characteristic features: ominous castles filled with dungeons, secret passages, and other mysterious features; sublime landscapes that inspire both awe and terror; young heroines threatened by dangerous and diabolic villains; sensational, macabre, and suspenseful plot twists; and seemingly supernatural elements, which often turn out to have non-supernatural explanations. While a single Gothic novel does not necessarily have to feature every one of these elements, they appear consistently enough that they have become hallmarks of the genre.
Dracula begins and ends in a conventional Gothic setting: a ruined castle in the foreign land of Transylvania. Jonathan Harker’s experience as Dracula’s prisoner is also classically Gothic. Moving from initial suspicion to outright terror, Harker engages in a life-and-death struggle to escape the castle and its supernatural threats. But Harker’s entrapment reverses the gender roles of the traditional Gothic novel, which usually features a young woman trapped by diabolical villains. Harker almost dies at the hands of three female vampires, in a reversal that highlights the novel’s anxieties about the threat of female sexuality. Lucy and Mina, meanwhile, are more classically Gothic heroines, embodying the moral goodness and, in Mina’s case, the resourcefulness characteristic of such heroines.
After Harker’s encounter with Dracula in Transylvania, Stoker moves the action to the “familiar” terrain of modern England. The heroes face the threat of vampirism in their own homes, rather than in foreign lands. Instead of exploring mysterious castles, they must use their ingenuity to hunt for Dracula’s boxes of earth in London. Before traveling to England, Dracula actually “modernizes” himself through careful study of modern English business, geography, speech, and social customs. Moreover, Dracula initially gains the upper hand in England because his opponents neither expect nor recognize signs of the supernatural. Stoker’s English protagonists, especially the rationalist Dr. Seward, are initially unable to see that they face a supernatural threat. Their collective unfamiliarity with the supernatural highlights the price of living in a modernized world, where scientific advancement and “enlightened” rationality have all but replaced traditional beliefs. It takes the leadership of Van Helsing, who embraces both modern science and ancient superstition, to convince the others that the threat they face is indeed a vampire.