The early buzz on The Strain was filled with dramatic adjectives. “Unique” got tossed around several times, though not by every reviewer. After watching the pilot episode, I can’t imagine how anyone could have applied the word unique to anything about The Strain, which is perhaps the most derivative vampire story to come to the small screen in years. In recent years, we’ve had vampire detectives (Angel and Moonlight), vampire lovers (True Blood), vampire teens (The Vampire Diaries), vampire aristocrats (The Originals), vampire slackers (Being Human), vampire capitalists (Dracula), and a bunch of Canadian vampires on the Syfy channel. The Strain, from producers Guillermo Del Toro, Chuck Hogan, and Carlton Cuse, wanted to reverse the trend toward human and relatable vampires and return them to their roots in horror.
To do so, The Strain steals shamelessly from earlier vampire fictions but wraps the borrowings up in Del Toro’s ambiance of originality. I was surprised that none of the critics who wrote before the show aired (at least that I could find) seemed to recognize that the pilot episode is modeled very closely on an incident from the novel Dracula. The arrival of a derelict plane at JFK airport, all souls aboard dead, a vampire preying upon the passengers, and an eastern European coffin filled with dirt carried in the hold—all of this is a near verbatim paraphrase of the Demeter incident from Dracula, in which the Count, traveling aboard ship in a box filled with his native Transylvanian soil, preys on the crew until the ghost ship glides into port at Whitby carrying only doom.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in recognizing the similarity. Del Toro told the Daily Beast in an article published this morning that he purposely modeled the scene in the show (and presumably in his novel on which the show is based) on Dracula:
The first image I came up with as a kid was the idea of a plane stopping in the middle of a runway. I was thinking of the Demeter, the ship in Dracula, which arrives in the port with all of the sailors dead and with the pilot tied to the wheel. That was what I liked: the idea that they find that ship, and like in Dracula there is a coffin on board, in the cargo. So that’s how the pilot begins.
I’m not sure Del Toro recognizes the plane image, but it very closely parallels the Twilight Zone episode “The Arrival,” in which a phantom plane arrives silent and empty on a runway. The difference, of course, is that in 1961 this didn’t involve a full-scale military assault on the plane of an international panic. Such are the times we live in.
But the elements of The Strain drawn from previous vampire fictions go much deeper. The show has received enormous praise for the supposedly unique or original idea of making the vampires into the carriers of a parasitic disease that mimics the traditional bloodsucking parasitism of the Eastern European vampire. I’m sure you immediately recognized this idea from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which was the first novel to introduce a scientific basis for vampirism. In that book, the strain was a bacterium easily destroyed by sunlight. In The Strain it seems to be some parasitic worm-things carrying a virus. The idea that vampires are a folklore reflection of a biological monstrosity, however, is still older—Lovecraft fancifully explained vampires as a rationalization of strange horrors from subterranean monsters in “The Shunned House.” The appearance of the vampires—with clouds of worm-like tentacles reaching out for blood—very closely resembles popular conceptions of Lovecraft’s tentacle-bestrewn monsters.
More famously, Nosferatu (in both F. W. Murnau’s 1922 version and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake) casts the vampire Orlok as the metaphorical embodiment of the Black Death, bringing a plague to Wisbourg that doctors at first think is in fact the actual plague. The plague metaphor is strong in The Strain, and it is quite obvious that the pilot episode is modeled not just on the Demeter scene but on accounts of plague ships sailing into port with all aboard dead—plague ships Bram Stoker used as the model for the Demeter.
The borrowings don’t end there.
The sinister retainer in The Strain who organizes events to allow for the vampire’s passage from Europe to America mirrors Richard Straker from Steven King’s novel ’Salem’s Lot. Straker acted as consigliere for the vampire Kurt Barlow. The series’ Abraham Van Helsing character is so closely modeled on his Dracula original that they share a first name! This version is Abraham Setrakian, though he draws more on the film versions of Van Helsing than the novel version.
From what I have read of the novel version (which I have not myself read), the Master vampire is depicted as a comic book supervillain trying to take over the world with a plot roughly similar to one of Doctor Doom’s schemes.
Del Toro, however, seems to think his vampire story is more original than it is—though he recognizes to an extent how much he borrows. Strangely, though, he doesn’t seem to see these borrowings as specific but rather as “beats” of the genre—as if they existed independently of the horrors that originated them:
You need to do the same things differently. You cannot just come up with a vampire who is green and has an antenna. You need to do it through the introduction of familiar beats in the vampire genre, then take the audience to places that are unexpected. […]
In The Strain Del Toro seems to mistake making things bigger and louder for making them different. There is nothing wrong with reusing old material and making it fresh. Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot is in all its essentials a retelling of Dracula, but it works because it brings out new motifs and new meanings by placing the events of Dracula in a small-town American setting rather than among the English aristocracy. The Strain, however, seems more interested in the how of vampirism—the science fiction explanation for it—than with telling a human story, or even, like Lovecraft, a cosmic one. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness—which Del Toro toyed with adapting—similarly describes monstrous biology, but its goal wasn’t to explain how aliens work but to create a sense of the uncanny.
I get a sense here that The Strain isn’t so much an independent story as it is a piece of vampire fan fiction attempting to reclaim parasitic horror from zombies, those undead creatures whose modern forms derive from the same revenants that yielded vampires. Carlton Cuse made that fairly explicit in speaking to the Daily Beast:
You have these zombies, and they all do one zombie thing. But with The Strain there’s a range to what the vampires can do, depending on where they sit in the hierarchy. There are all these levels.
I know that bureaucracy is why I tune into vampire shows. I can’t wait until the thrilling episode when the CDC bureaucrats fight for jurisdictional control while the vampires have feudal negotiations over whose liege lord is in charge of operations. Game of Thrones it is not.
Horror works best when it is individualized. One monster attacking one person is terrifying—a breach in the order of the cosmos that the audience can identify with—but the more the monsters multiply and the more organized they are, the more abstract the horror becomes until there is very little difference between a horde of zombies overrunning the earth, a flock of vampires killing everyone, or just a marauding army.
The pilot of The Strain is often effective, frequently creepy, and mostly entertaining. But it is also an overripe fruit that threatens to burst at any point into an unwatchable mess as soon as the focus shifts from what works (the recycling of earlier elements, which long ago proved their value) to what doesn’t (sinister hierarchies, deranged billionaires, conspiracies). I think I’d have preferred a modern-dress Dracula where the Demeter was an airplane to this science fiction-horror hybrid that probably should have been a graphic novel.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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