Count Dracula is the fictitious yet infamous vampire who lives a timeless and eternal life. In Bram Stoker’s gothic horror classic Dracula (1897), Stoker created his vampire Dracula from various vampire folklore, myths, legends, and historical accounts of the vicious and blood-thirsty warlord Vlad Dracula, Prince of Wallachia. Stoker’s story is the classic piece of literature that created a vampire legend that has only gained popularity and recognition over the past 100 years.
The popular legendary vampiric tale begins when the reclusive and aristocratic Count Dracula of Transylvania purchases real estate throughout London and meets Jonathan Harker, the law clerk sent to finalize the real estate paperwork. Dracula is described as an old man, clean-shaven, except for a long white mustache that nearly hides his ever-protruding long canine teeth. The Count’s complexion is colorless, and he is dressed in black. His grip is firm yet icy, with hairy palms and long pointed fingernails. The Count’s touch is like the touch of a dead man. His breath is foul and nauseating. Harker notices the Count casts no shadow, can enter and exit a room unnoticed, and has no reflection in a mirror. In a very short time, Harker becomes fearful for his life.
The story describes other legendary characteristics. Dracula must sleep in earth that is “unhallowed” or taken from his birthplace or native land. He is immortal, living forever, and unable to succumb to mortal wounds. Garlic, religious icons, and holy water can be used to repel vampires but not to kill them. Vampires such as Dracula become stronger as they age. Although a nocturnal creature, the Count can move in daylight, but his powers are somewhat diminished. He also can better tolerate Christian icons than novice or young vampires. In addition to transforming himself into beasts of the night, such as wolves and bats, Dracula can also force these beasts to do his will. He cannot enter a home unless invited. He can travel as mist or fog but is reluctant to cross a body of water, taking special care while traveling to and from London and Transylvania.
On its initial publication in 1897, Dracula was considered ordinary by the standards of that genre. It competed with several other superb tales of Englishmen conquering villains and monsters. To create the character of Count Dracula that has become a timeless icon, Stoker studied factual historical accounts of one of the best-known Romanian historical figures, Vlad Dracula, otherwise nicknamed Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler). This Prince of Wallachia ruled in 1448, from 1456 to 1462, and again in 1476, the year of his death. Tepes was also called Vlad the Impaler because of his brute force and diabolical manner of impaling enemies, political dissidents, and Romanian citizens and criminals on long wooden stakes, where they would wither and die. He preferred to display his victims prominently, raising them in the town square for public viewing. Stealing was equally as offensive as murder, and in each case, the criminal faced public impalement. Under his rule, crime and corruption ceased to exist. Simultaneously, commerce and culture thrived, and Vlad Tepes became a highly regarded hero who fiercely demanded integrity and order in Wallachia.
The legend of Dracula is deeply rooted in vampire legends and folklore that spread from the Far Eastern trade routes, through India, the Mediterranean, Romania, and Transylvania. Belief in such legends of the undead was abetted by the lack of medical expertise that by modern standards diagnoses and treats illnesses. The spread of plague could wipe out entire communities as victims wasted away. An uneducated and unscientific populace rationalized that vampirism was the cause of such unfortunate deaths.
The spirit and appearance of Dracula have metamorphosed through time into countless derivatives. One of the earliest and most haunting vampire films, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), was a silent film and the German interpretation of vampirism. The legend of Dracula began haunting popular film and fiction during the 20th century, beginning with the Hollywood film release of Dracula (1931), staring Bela Lugosi. Films starring actors such as Frank Langella, Christopher Lee, George Hamilton, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Gary Oldman all showed a departure from Dracula prototypes. The undead creatures whose existence defiled all living souls would become transformed in the 1980s and 1990s and replaced with a sexier and more alluring Dracula. Hollywood film incorporated the American epitome of success into its later 20th-century film versions of Count Dracula. He is a sultry, debonair, aristocratic, and seductive man. Film vampires became beautiful, virile, and sexually irresistible. A modern Count Dracula is a distinguished, well-mannered, and youthful aristocrat who can show human emotion, including love for a woman and remorse for the inevitable death of those he feeds upon.
Although vampire stories existed before Stoker’s novel Dracula, it has become the premier literary work or story that recorded the most widely held beliefs. The novel Dracula is a tale told through the letters, journals, diaries, and phonograph recordings of the novel’s major characters, Jonathan Harker, his wife Mina Harker, Dr. Seward, and Lucy Westenra. The novel’s characters all contribute to the legendary definitions of vampirism, in fact, doing a superb investigation and compilation of the facts each had learned through interactions with the Count, his servant Renfield, and his first female victim, the beautiful and seductive Westenra, who was later resurrected into vampiric life.
Dr. Van Helsing’s expert knowledge, investigative techniques, and medical credentials help the cast untangle the mystery of Lucy’s death, followed by the temporary disappearance of several small children who claimed that they had been playing with the “bloofer lady,” the undead Westenra. Collaboratively, their observations of vampire characteristics and lifestyle habits later assist them in creating their plot to assassinate the Count.
See also Frankenstein, Legend of; Vampires; Voodoo; Werewolves
Auerbah, N., & Skal, D. J. (Eds.). (1997). Dracula: Authoritative text, contexts, reviews and reactions, dramatic and film variations, criticism. New York: Norton.
Day, W. P. (2002). Vampire legends in contemporary American culture. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
McNally, R. T., & Florescu, R. (1972). In search of Dracula: A true history of Dracula and vampire legends. Greenwich, UK, & New York: Graphic Society.
Twitchell, J. B. (1985). Dreadful pleasures. New York: Oxford University Press.