Vampire legends have existed, in some form or another, in every culture on this earth. They predate the written word, so tracing their origin is next to impossible. But the origin of the specific vampire who has and always will continue to first spring to mind when one hears the word is a much easier thing to get a handle on. While England was actually sparse on its own vampire folklore, there were enough in neighboring European countries to fuel the imagination. These stories thrived in Mesopotamia, they were of course layered so strongly throughout Eastern Europe, but the British Isles were aggressively modern and intent in their decision to leave myth and legend far behind them. The only exception would really be Ireland, which had historically seemed to be a paradise for spooks and specters. The country was home to the birthplace of Halloween itself, not to mention centuries worth of folklore depicting banshees, ghosts, werewolves and vampires. And, of course, it was also home to Bram Stoker.
Born in Dublin in 1847, Abraham Stoker was a theatre manager and largely unsuccessful writer. He had penned a few stories, had been published, but had not done anything that had yielded any real kind of success. Nothing to cement his name. If anything, he did the opposite. Stoker lived in the shadow of fame. He was personal assistant of renowned theatre actor Henry Irving, who—by all accounts—treated Stoker like dirt. Irving was a cruel man but a commanding presence, tall and thin and wholly regal.
Stoker wrote at length about how terrible it was to work for Irving and yet he completely admired the man. He had deep, deep feelings for the actor and no matter what he was writing, Henry Irving was never far from his mind. So it should come as no surprise that the man became perhaps the chief inspiration for Stoker’s most famous creation, Count Dracula.
Even on the page, Dracula is a commanding, regal, authoritative presence. Those qualities make it into almost every adaptation, though they constantly change, proving to be as chameleon-like as the Count himself. Most of all, Stoker’s own feelings toward Irving may have manifested themselves in the core theme of the character of Dracula; someone who commands love and respect, but does nothing to deserve it.
But we should back up, because while Henry Irving was a chief influence on the creation of Dracula (1987), he was one of a great many. Stoker’s research for the novel was extremely in-depth and yet wildly varied. As mentioned, the book’s chief setting of London was never known for its own local vampire mythology—although, in some ways, that’s exactly the point of the book. Stoker branched out, looking at the customs across the globe and picking and choosing the details that stood out, taking many of his inspirations from the Romanian strigoi as that is the setting from which the titular vampire hails.
The biggest inspiration, at least in terms of factual headlines, though, actually came from America. Stoker had read about the bizarre case of Mercy Brown, a factual vampirism case in modern times and in the New World. Everything about this sounded like something torn from the pages of folklore. A family plagued by a mysterious illness. They exhaust all medical methods at their disposal and nothing works. Their children are dying. The youngest claim that their older sister, Mercy, has returned from the grave to sit on their chest and suck the air from their lungs at night.
Believing this to be an epidemic of vampirism, the father excavates Mercy’s corpse finding her astonishingly full-faced and looking as though she were alive. He cuts out her heart and burns it, believing it to be the only way to be sure. After that, there are no more nightly visits from Mercy, though the sick young Edwin who was forced to drink water mixed with the ashes of Mercy’s heart, still dies from his disease two months later.
It sounded like a crude practice from the days before modern medicine, and yet at the time Stoker was beginning to write his novel, this was a modern headline. That is crucial to the overall conception of Dracula, which is at its very core about a vampire—a folkloric being of the old world—dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age. After all, for the time, Dracula is an aggressively modern book, even using techniques like blood transfusions, which were hardly common practice at that moment.
The Mercy Brown incident morbid as it was, proved that people could still entertain the thought of vampires in the modern era, simply in the fact that it was happening in its own way under a series of very bizarre circumstances in then-modern New England.
The entire middle section of Dracula owes a great deal to the Mercy Brown case. That whole section revolves around the mysterious illness of Lucy Westenra, who went sleepwalking in a vicious storm only for her friend Mina to find her with a shadowed figure draped over her. Lucy’s three suitors, Arthur Holmwood, Jack Seward and Quincy Morris, all fail in their efforts to help her. Seward calls in Professor Abraham Van Helsing, a scholar of obscure diseases and by all accounts the man best qualified to save her life—and he doesn’t. It is only after Lucy has died and has begun to rise from her grave at night to stalk children, that Van Helsing and the men in her life are able to finally bring her peace by desecrating her corpse—in this case, driving a stake through her heart and removing her head.
There was certainly a fictional precedent to vampires prior to Stoker’s novel as well. Vampires had only rarely found their way into English history, but they had certainly found their way into English literature. The same stormy night that produced the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) led John Polidori to write The Vampyre (1819), antagonistically based on his largely unrequited love for Lord Byron. The vampire Lord Ruthven is sophisticated, arrogant and many other exaggerated qualities of Byron that Polidori hated while also finding them deeply attractive.
Stoker’s biggest literary inspiration, though, came from J. Sheridan LeFanu’s fantastic Carmilla (1872). In it, a young woman named Laura, living in a lonely castle in Styria finds a new friend—and lover—in the weakened girl left in her care, who looks exactly like a woman Laura saw standing over her bed in a dream as a child. The girl turns out to be a vampire in a tale that is equal parts pure gothic horror and doomed romance.
Stoker borrows heavily from Carmilla, especially in the novel’s opening few chapters, which seem to inverse Le Fanu’s plot. Here, Jonathan Harker is the traveler and Count Dracula is left to the ruins of his lonely castle. In Dracula’s case, it’s the human who finds himself in the care of the vampire, instead of the other way around. The subtext of Carmilla also weaves its way in, though it is less overt. Many have pointed out over time that the Count has been depicted as a sexual, desirable being over the course of so many adaptations, but that there is hardly anything sexy about the character in the book. There’s no romance between the Count and Mina, nor Lucy, despite what the Curtis, Badham and Coppola adaptations would leave one to believe.
Yet that longing in the Count does come from somewhere, it does have its place in the text. Even if it’s barely explored, Dracula clearly does appear possessive, perhaps obsessed and even doting toward someone. Only it’s not Mina, it’s Jonathan. His feelings are still largely unrequited and even abusive, as he goes through Jonathan’s things, tries to keep him prisoner and even forces him to stay within the castle and keep him company for a month even though he could flee to London at any time after signing the papers. There’s an intimate scene in which Dracula closely helps Harker shave, and a particularly noteworthy moment when the Count’s vampire brides show desire for Jonathan—and more importantly, he for them—causing the Count to fly into a jealous rage.
Sexuality is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Dracula and that’s largely because it’s all there in the text, perhaps despite Stoker’s best efforts. It had literary precedent, particularly in Carmilla, so it’s no shock that it so strongly made its way into the novel. Still, with so much research on vampires in both history and fiction, Stoker found maybe the most crucial element at the last possible second: the name. Throughout much of the writing process, the book was simply called The Un-Dead and the vampire was named Count Wampyr.
These things are, of course, hardly memorable and the author recognized that. In his research on the history of the Transylvanian region in which the book opens, Stoker came across what little history was available at the time on Vlad III Dracula, notoriously known as Vlad the Impaler. The latter nickname was something he had earned over time as Prince of Wallachia, at that time the neighboring region to Transylvania. A ruthless lord, he made all crime punishable by death and would impale his enemies on long spikes and leave them outside the gates to the city as a warning. Vlad did not sign his documents with “The Impaler,” though. He signed them “Dracula.” There are many who believe that Stoker took nothing from the historical Vlad other than the name, even a few who believe that the name is entirely coincidental, but that’s almost astronomically unlikely.
For one thing, there’s a similarity between the look of the Count in the novel and the historical Dracula. They have the same large eyes, aquiline nose, high cheekbones and mustaches. Stoker had already committed the description of his vampire to paper, but it’s possible he took interest in Vlad because he bore such similarity to the character he had created. More than that, though, there’s the fact that Dracula explicitly refers to this history in the book, passing it off as that of an ancestor who waged a valiant effort against the invading Turks, while Van Helsing later even claims it to be the same person. It’s wildly infactual in places, yet it’s more than simply an allusion but a clear reference to the life and times of Vlad the Impaler.
Despite the amount of research that went into it and the time spent on it, Stoker was sure he had written nothing more than a simple penny dreadful, a “schilling shocker” as he referred to it. The novel didn’t even sell right away. It took a long time to gain traction, it only just received a stage adaptation before Stoker’s death. It was much longer after that that it started gaining any recognition as an actual work of literature.
The ultimate success of Dracula as a work of fiction is that it is a novel that can be read dozens of different ways and none of them necessarily incorrect. You get everything you need out of it as a work of pure gothic horror, as it is an incredibly tense, atmospheric and spooky book. Subtextually, it is fundamentally about two things on the surface: the fear of the outsider and the fear of disease. These are the most common themes that are generally drawn from reading the book.
Dracula is a foreign nobleman from a far off land who comes to London to force his customs and beliefs on its people. It’s not a flattering theme, but while the trace elements are surely there, it’s hard to think of Dracula as fundamentally xenophobic. After all, it is a foreigner who matches wits with the Count in Abraham Van Helsing, and it is even a foreigner who delivers the killing blow to the vampire in the form of American Quincey Morris.
Instead of simply being ruled out as xenophobic, there’s at least something to be drawn from Dracula about the price of xenophobia. Jonathan is given ample warning in his journey to the castle. The locals lay on him their beliefs and give him all manner of things to protect himself with, and he does not listen, he does not even take them seriously even as he writes these encounters down in his journal after they have happened.
Dracula is a fundamental story of good against evil, but from another perspective can also be seen as a study of Christian oppression, as vampirism is often nearly described as its own religion, particularly through the manic Renfield, being literally destroyed through Christian iconography. Through that religious oppression and repression, we find our way to the book’s most discussed theme: sexuality. With what would at first glance appear to be an entirely sexless cast of characters, it’s hard to think of Dracula as a particularly sexy book. There are times when it even feels like a war on sexiness. But, bless Bram’s poor, repressed heart, it often reads as anything but. Vampires here are horrifying, particularly in those shadowed glimpses of the Count’s red eyes in the darkness, but also appealing, most notably in Jonathan’s encounter with the three brides and the undead return of Lucy.
Still, there’s no deliberate attempt at sexiness in the Count himself. Whereas most adaptations find him pining for Mina, often depicting her as a reincarnation of his long-lost bride, there is absolutely none of that in the book. Stoker’s Dracula seeks Mina as nothing more than a cruel way to get back at those hunting him for staking Lucy and destroying his boxes of Transylvanian earth scattered around Carfax.
His reasoning is completely petty. He wants her because he they love her and he wants to destroy something they love. He targets her because she is the weakest of the group, and in doing so plants the seeds of his own destruction, as Mina is the novel’s most perennially underestimated character. He does not think of the psychic link he has established between them and the fact that she could use that to hunt him as easily as he has hunted her.
There’s another rarely discussed theme running through that book; one of failure. The heroes here could be seen as wish fulfillment for the author, especially as Bram named the authoritative Van Helsing after himself. But each of them is defined, at first, by failure. Each of the men in Dracula has something they may even feel as though they need to atone for, or at least something they proved unable to achieve that could have helped in a profound way. Jonathan, for example, is unable to kill the Count when he discovers him sleeping in the opening chapters. Jack, Quincey and Arthur each give blood to save Lucy with no luck whatsoever. Van Helsing, so calculating and authoritative in so many adaptations, does not actually figure out what is wrong with Lucy until the last possible second. And by then, it’s too late. Not only do they each have something to prove to themselves when they seek their final mission against the Count, but they only start to see genuine success when they finally adopt Mina into their raiding party. She is the missing, crucial element that they have been ignoring all along.
All of these pieces have made it into most of the film adaptations in their own way, but almost never together. Stoker never lived to see any of them, though, although his wife did sue over the unofficial Nosferatu (1922). Instead, he only got to glimpse Dracula on the stage once, and died without knowing the immeasurable pop culture impact his creation would have. The first truly successful adaptation—in many ways the most successful even now—was a 1924 Broadway play written by Hamilton Deane and revised by John Balderston. Toning down the locations and the large cast of characters, the play took many liberties with the story, but it also captured the imagination and became so popular that it formed the basis for a feature film, bringing along its stage star, Bela Lugosi.
Since that time, Dracula has gone on to nearly become tied with Sherlock Holmes as the single most filmed fictional character of all time and still holds the distinction of being the single most adapted novel ever. These adaptations are all wildly different, combining characters, swapping them, or erasing them completely. Over the course of hundreds of movies, the iconic ensemble cast of Dracula can be seen almost as a traveling theatre company. They might keep their names, but they’ll often play each others’ roles. And all things considered, one could imagine Bram could be proud of that.