His name sparks curiosity and brings to mind the numerous adaptations of his story. We know him as Dracula, Count Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes… even as Blacula. He is cloaked with a cape, enjoys a diet of blood and seducing damsels with his mystic powers. Dracula is the predecessor of the sparkling Cullens and for centuries we have seen him as a misunderstood hero and insidious villain.
The Hollywood stories of a Transylvanian count who rose from coffins and feared garlic, as made popular by Bela Lugosi with his signature scowl in the 1930s, was an adaptation of the Gothic Bram Stoker novel Dracula.
The Irish writer published this rousing novel in 1897, during an era where the Gothic novel was a burgeoning genre, with the publication of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein already published. Although it was not an immediate best-seller, it was received well by Victorian audiences and it was thrust into the limelight and pop culture at large following its film adaptations.
The Stoker story unfolds in an epistolary style – it is told through diary entries, letters and logs. While it is historically incorrect, it is a rich adventure story which would have easily alarmed Victorian audiences. It starts with a young English clerk’s business trip to Transylvania, where he is welcomed by the mysterious Count Dracula, who has hopes of leaving his eerie castle in the Carpathians for smoggy and crowded London. Soon enough, Jonathon Harker, the visiting clerk, realises he is Dracula’s prisoner and becomes aware of the count’s nocturnal habits.
As the story unfolds, we travel from the mystical Carpathians to London, where a gang of Victorians – including Harker’s wife Mina and led by Dr. Van Helsing – are on a quest to vanquish the fiendish vampire who has a taste for pretty and young girls.
Stoker’s Dracula paints the consequences of modernity as well as the possibility of women’s purity to be tainted and therefore make women voluptuous and sexually wanton, as we saw in Lucy’s vampirification. The theme of Christian salvation is also always relevant.
So while this piece of literature has captivated readers for decades, how was it spawned? Where does Vlad the Impaler come into being?
The factual figure Vlad Dracula III was a Wallachian ruler (now modern Romania) and not a Transylvanian ruler, as the myth has suggested. Although he was not a vampire, in some respects he was just as malevolent. His father’s epithet Dracul, meaning ‘of the dragon’, was carried to Vlad since his father was a member of The Order of the Dragon, a society approved by the pope to fight against the spreading Ottoman Empire and protect Christendom in the 1400s.
Vlad became Vlad Dracula, meaning ‘son of the dragon’, although in some interpretations it has been described as ‘of the devil.’ He had a tumultuous childhood as he and his brother were handed to the Ottomans as ransom. While his brother thrived in the Ottoman court and embraced the new culture, Vlad did not, and it is said that he learned his subsequent torture techniques from the Turks.
Years later, when he was ruler of Wallachia, he ruled with an iron fist. Although he had aims to strengthen Wallachia’s economy and army, he is most renowned for his barbaric treatment of enemies and even his own Wallachians. His preferred torture and execution was through impaling, hence his moniker Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Tepes. It is said that invading Ottoman troops were petrified and retreated because of the grim sight of thousands of impaled bodies on the banks of the Danube. Vlad the Impaler was also a connoisseur of blinding, cutting of limbs, scalping and skinning – regardless of whether you were man, woman, child, peasant or noble.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was loosely based on the factual Dracula; they bare the same name, they hail from similar regions and Stoker’s Dracula boasts of his family’s rich history of valour. It has been said that Dracula’s signature cape may have even been inspired by the Order of the Dragon capes. Perhaps through the legend of the blood-thirsty Vlad the Impaler and subsequent rise of vampirology, Stoker was inspired to write his beloved novel.
Following Stoker and even following Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula, we have seen this mythical creature rise again as disco-loving Blacula and in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, starring a wily Gary Oldman as Dracula. In recent years, even Stoker’s descendant Dacre Stoker has written his own sequel to his ancestor’s novel, in which we see the famous characters decades after allegedly slaying Dracula – who, lo and behold, was not the villain they imagined. Long live Dracula!