Are you with me so far?
It’s a very visceral method of execution, and some movies (specifically The Lost Boys and Dracula: Dead and Loving It) have had fun with characters who weren’t expecting to end up covered in blood and facing a monster who thrashed violently as they died. Because it is so up-close and brutal, it can be played any number of ways, and the Hammer films offer more than one way within their Dracula series. This illustrates any number of things- why the Peter Cushing movies were the best, why they need a good protagonist, the 1960s’ confusing ideas about sex- but also why symbolism should always be thought out beforehand.
Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is, as the films take pains to show, a kind and gentle man. In The Horror of Dracula, he can barely bring himself to dispatch Lucy; there are shades of the book’s scene with his confrontation against the sleeping brides as he hesitates, then forces himself to perform a single strike against her sleeping form. In Brides of Dracula, he encounters a woman turned against her will, who bemoans her fate and says that she cannot bear to face eternity. Van Helsing gently tells her that there is another way, and stays by her side until she goes to sleep in the morning- and with her full permission, he performs a mercy kill.
Does this symbolize anything? I’m not sure, but it does wonders for establishing character. Becoming a vampire is explicitly stated to be awful, and we know what a terrible monster Dracula must be to inflict it. Notably, the villains in these films don’t get the mercy of a quick staking, but are slowly and painfully dispatched by cross and sun.
Flash forward to Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Cushing is gone, and we are soon to enter the age of interchangeable protagonists named Paul. The closest thing we have to Van Helsing is an unpleasant monk who demonstrates how to perform a staking in a fittingly unpleasant way. This scene has been described as analogous to gang rape, and I’m not sure I can really disagree. The screaming, fully-conscious female vampire has each of her limbs held down by a different man, while the monk provides the killing blow. She’s not even treated as much of a threat, but as a mere demonstration. Van Helsing would have been appalled.
Aside from the obvious discomfort this induces, the problem with this scene is that it’s symbolism that doesn’t serve any purpose. Is it there to show that the normal folk are bad guys and the vampires are good? No, because we’ve already watched an innocent man have his throat slit and his blood dripped onto Dracula’s corpse. Is it meant to show that the monks and vampires are both awful, and the hero must go his own way? No again. Is it meant to show how brutal the work of the righteous must be? That would be better accomplished with a fight than with a helpless vampire. Is it meant to be titillating? I sincerely hope not.
In the novel Dracula, there were other steps to killing a vampire after staking- you must cut off their head and stuff the mouth with garlic. These steps haven’t survived into the movies, and the stake often doesn’t even come with the necessary hammer. It’s potent imagery, and there’s lots it can be used to symbolize or establish. But with great symbolic power comes great responsibility, and if it isn’t used with care, it can result in something awful.