Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes…It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows. Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard all full of tombstones. This, to my mind, is the nicest spot in Whitby…
– Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
When I said I don’t go on literary pilgrimages, I lied. Since moving to the UK I have gone to Whitby almost every year, and have read Stoker’s Dracula numerous times. It loses none of its uncanny terror and strangeness in multiple readings, despite the countless films and derivative fictions which threaten to steal its undead soul. Part of this fortitude must be due to the novel’s structural rigor and the Stoker’s wonder at the clash of new technology and superstition or folklore which remains fresh and relevant over a hundred years later.
I have yet to find Lucy and Mina’s favourite “seat”– the grave of a suicide– though this is what I would most like to discover. I have avoided any of the touristy “Dracula” tours and “Experiences”, hoping one day the “real thing” or some suitably fictional inspiration will make itself known to me.
I go every year for the Gothic Festival, where the pubs in town welcome the goths with Halloween decorations and pints of cider & black. All the charity shops do up their window mannequins in tarty stretch velvet and fishnets, and put out special rails of black clothing.
The goth weekend has little to do with any literary pilgrimage. Goths have gathered en masse here twice a year for a decade and a half now. It’s more fancy dress than rock and roll, which is curious coming from the West Coast of the US, where the worst thing ever is to appear costumed or pretentious in any way. Many goths that show up will claim to have been coming since the good old days when it was just a pub meet at the Elsinore, shortened to “The Elsi,” the facade of which is festooned with a banner that reads “Home of the Goths.”
In many ways Whitby does feel like home, this place where Dracula arrives on a ghost ship with a corpse tied to its helm. It must be that the town owns a great deal of its notoriety to an infamous immigrant– Count Dracula. All the locals are quite welcoming to the goths who often challenge modest rural norms with their sartorial choices. Everyone wants to know how far you have come to visit, as a point of pride.
The winding streets and cobbled alleyways are especially captivating at night. Unlike Dracula‘s London locales, Whitby almost feels pristine. One can climb the countless steps up to the abbey, just as Mina might have, to witness the graves all blankly staring out to sea, the only sound the wind hissing through the grass. The star-pricked sky above merges with the black sea in one great, silent mystery… full of the somnambulists and changelings of an aging sub-culture.