One Hundred Twenty Years of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The landmark novel, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” has proven to be as immortal as its vampire antagonist. May 26, 2017 marks the 120th anniversary of the novel’s publication, during which time it’s never been out of print, sparking a wildly prolific, vampire-fixated century in literature, stage, cinema and television. Eventually.

[Large excerpts in this post were sourced from my 2016 book “Backpacking with Dracula: On the Trail of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula and the Vampire He Inspired.” If you enjoy this post, the book has about 260 additional pages of Dracula, Impaler, vampire, Romania, travel and other humorously-delivered subjects waiting to be absorbed.]

The author

Though being an admirably productive writer, Abraham “Bram” Stoker was no overnight success. (And let’s take a moment here to breathe a collective sigh of relief that he opted for the Gothic-sounding nickname “Bram,” rather than the Disney-esque “Abe.”) Born in Dublin on November 8, 1847, Stoker already had several published works under his belt before sinking his teeth into the seven years of researching and writing that would produce his celebrated novel.

Stoker’s first piece of fiction was “The Crystal Cup,” published in the London Society in 1872. He would eventually focus on fantasy and horror novels, notably “The Snake’s Pass” (1890) and “The Lair of the White Worm” (1911), but before that liveliness Stoker also produced the blistering page-turner “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland” (1879), written during his nearly 10-year stint as a civil servant.

His work moonlighting as a theatre critic led him to a 27-year career as the business manager for the Lyceum Theatre in London, a double-duty job that included serving as personal assistant to the theatre’s owner, the idiosyncratic, renowned actor Sir Henry Irving. As someone who has taken on writing projects on top of a (far less punishing) day job, I can attest that Stoker’s significant output while at the Lyceum makes his publishing career all the more heroic.

The path to “Dracula”

It wasn’t until 1890 that Stoker visited the English town of Whitby, where it’s believed he was first inspired to study the European folklore and mythology of vampires that would lead him to write “Dracula.” Though Dracula is the first notable and, unquestionably, the most popular vampire of all time, Stoker was in fact somewhat late to the vampire literary scene.

Starting in the late 17th century and building steam throughout the 18th century, vampirism, then considered by doctors to be a legitimate affliction by the way, was a hot topic in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary and the Balkans, where reports of infections were reaching epidemic proportions. Travelers returning from these areas accelerated the spread of vampire gossip to Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and eventually England. Being that fear, superstition and/or fascination with vampires persists to this day, one can only imagine the hysteria it created back in a simpler time.

Sensing a treasure trove (and potential riches) in this new, possibly authentic horror material, authors and playwrights started incorporating vampire themes into their work. Eighteenth-century German poets were among the first to milk the “vampire craze” for material. Soon, long-form works began appearing, including John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), which first used the aristocrat-turned-vampire theme; James Malcolm Rymer’s “Varney the Vampire” (1847), a massive, serialized Gothic horror book composed of story pamphlets (a.k.a. “penny dreadfuls”) published in 1845-47; and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1871), about a lesbian vampire who preys on a lonely young woman.

So, while Stoker’s novel eventually went multi-platinum (or whatever), he had the luxury of absorbing and building on more than a century of vampire material from previous writers.

Several elements set Stoker’s novel apart from the existing vampire genre. For starters, the novel’s style, narrated entirely via the protagonists’ diary entries, letters, telegrams, ship’s logs, and newspaper clippings—writing styles Stoker honed as a newspaper writer—served to enhance the story’s sense of realism for the reading audience of the time.

Another brilliant decision was staging Dracula’s origin in enigmatic Transylvania, meaning “The Land Beyond the Forest,” a region the West generally viewed as a distant, backwater, hillbilly corner of Europe at the time. In fact, the area was still more or less living in medieval conditions when Stoker was amassing research for his novel.

As I hinted earlier, the novel wasn’t a hit right out of the gate, despite widespread critical praise. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, even sent a personal congratulatory letter to Stoker, saying “I write to tell you how very much I have enjoyed reading ‘Dracula.’ I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years.” Considering that Count Dracula only appears on 62 of the novel’s 390 pages, barely speaks and, when he does, shares sparing details about his motivations and almost nothing about his origin story, the character’s enduring popularity is kind of astonishing.

Dracula makes it big

It wasn’t until after people started producing vampire films in the 1920s, many years after Stoker’s death, that “Dracula” exploded onto the general reading audiences’ radar. It was F. W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of the novel in the film “Nosferatu,” which debuted in 1922, that got the Dracula bandwagon rolling. The studio didn’t, or couldn’t (it’s unclear), get rights to the story from Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, who was acting as his literary executor, so they changed just enough names and details in the film to put themselves in the litigious clear. Or so they thought.

Florence Stoker went after them anyway, and it was the press coverage of the ensuing legal circus that caused the novel’s popularity to finally spike. Florence was ultimately successful in her lawsuit against Murnau, which resulted in the order for all prints and negatives of “Nosferatu” to be destroyed. Though, as we know, some prints survived and the film eventually achieved classic status of its own.

The novel’s second life in the literary world opened the door for a wildly successful stage adaptation, which toured the U.K. for three years before hopping over for a U.S. tour. Hollywood pounced and an American film based on the book was released in 1931, starring one Bela Lugosi, who coincidentally, like Count Dracula, was a native of Romania.

Stoker’s legacy

Stoker died on April 20, 1912. Like so many artists before and after him, Stoker tragically enjoyed only modest literary success while he was alive. Indeed, he was so poor near the end of his life that he had to appeal for a compassionate grant from the Royal Literary Fund to survive. A few years after his death, his wife Florence, flirting with destitution herself, sold Stoker’s “Dracula” notes and outlines for a pitiful 2 pounds. Today these are housed in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Stoker is, of course, now considered one of Ireland’s greatest authors. Dublin holds an annual Bram Stoker Festival each fall honoring his literary achievements, funded by the Bram Stoker Estate, Dublin City Council and the Irish national tourism body Failte Ireland.

Romania gets an unwelcome national icon

Count Dracula’s legacy in Romania is spotty, complicated, and not always welcome by its citizens. It has long been theorized that Bram Stoker’s main inspiration for his vampire was Prince Vlad III “The Impaler” Dracula of Wallachia, located in southern Romania. With Count Dracula-related connections to the country being wholly invented, Romanians tend to get a little irritated that this is one of the primary associations foreigners make with their country. It’s roughly the equivalent of everyone’s first, and sometimes only, association with England being the Spice Girls.

Romania was so incensed by Count Dracula’s rising fame infringing on their treasured culture and history that “Dracula” wasn’tt translated into Romanian nor sold in any form inside the country until after the fall of its communist leadership in 1989.

That said, the Romanian National Tourist Office has little choice but to work with what they’ve got. While their incredible mountains, hiking, skiing, culture, and historic fortified churches remain all but anonymous to the outside world, they frequently end up leaning on the Dracula crutch. The most notorious of these endeavors was a horrifyingly short-sighted “Dracula Land” theme park proposal that made the rounds in the early-2000s before mercifully dying on the vine.

It’s understandable that Romanians might cringe at the thought of demeaning Vlad Dracula, one of their greatest national heroes, by associating him with a cape-wearing velvet enthusiast. That said, shameless tourism profiteering off legends, fake creatures, and doubtful events has a long, glorious history in tourism.

Even today, people travel insane distances and spend stupid amounts of money to not witness imaginary supernatural attractions. For starters, Bigfoot tourism is mushrooming, including week-long “hunts.” Point Pleasant, West Virginia actually erected a public art piece of the Mothman. And UFO tourism is still booming in Roswell, New Mexico.

And then there’s the mother of them all, the Loch Ness Monster, which attracts roughly one million annual visitors who spend nearly $38 million in the region for the opportunity to stare blankly at murky water. Nessie’s economic power is no joke to these folks. In 2013 two members of the local Chamber of Commerce had to resign after a cruise-tour owner slammed the Chamber’s website for containing too much “science” suggesting that Nessie was a myth.

Vampire lore in Eastern Europe

Descriptions of vampire-like reanimated corpses go back for millennia, related by many peoples including the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. The condition was blamed on a number of factors, such as suicide, witches, spirits, demons, other evil entities and, of course, being bitten by an existing victim.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word vampire (appearing as “vampyre”) first appeared in 1734 when it was cited in a travelogue titled “Travels of Three English Gentlemen.” However, the word actually appeared two years earlier in the London Journal on March 11, 1732, in an account of the famous Serbian vampire cases of Arnold Paole and Petar Blagojevich.

When vampires were thought to be present, people engaged in some rather bizarre and complex rituals to detect the vampire before killing them. One documented method involved putting a virgin boy on a virgin stallion, dousing them in extra virgin olive oil, then leading them through a graveyard. (I may have made part of that up.) When the stallion threw a fit, it signaled that a vampire was buried beneath. A simpler method was searching the ground of a graveyard for telltale holes vampires used to access their coffins.

A variety of amusing vampire defensive measures developed over the years, including brandishing a branch of wild rose or hawthorn plant, sprinkling mustard seeds on one’s roof, and the ever-popular methods using garlic, a crucifix, a rosary, and holy water.

Furthermore, people could elude vampires by going inside churches or temples, or, oddly, by crossing running water. Though it wasn’t a common theme before Dracula, mirrors were also sometimes said to repel vampires. Another myth adopted by Stoker was that vampires could not enter a house or structure without being invited by a mortal. Once invited, however, they could enter the structure whenever they pleased. Like Dracula, the vampires of legend could go out in sunlight without being harmed, though natural light robbed them of their powers, so they were generally nocturnal.

Once you had found and immobilized a vampire who was bothering you, there were a number of ways to put them out of their misery. Staking was most common throughout the Balkans, up into the Baltic region, and into Russia. Stakes had to be made of wood, ideally ash, oak, or hawthorn, and driven through the heart, though some regions staked their vampires through the mouth (Russia) or stomach (northern Germany and northeastern Serbia). If you really wanted to make sure the vampire wouldn’t get up again, you’d decapitate them, a practice developed in Slavic areas and Germany.

By the early 18th century, reports of vampires had become frequent all over Eastern Europe and East Prussia. The spread of these delirious tales was particularly strange as this was happening concurrently with the Age of Enlightenment, when Dark Ages myths, superstitions, and supernatural folklore were otherwise fading from popular culture or being actively suppressed. Preemptive grave diggings and stakings became a common practice in some regions.

Officers and doctors were dispatched from Austria to investigate supposed outbreaks in Serbia. One doctor admirably kept his wits about him for a while, sensibly concluding the people were likely dying of malnutrition, a common problem in the region, combined with the masochistic Eastern Orthodox practice of severe fasting. However, the doctor’s resolve broke upon examining corpses that didn’t appear to be decomposing, while more recently deceased corpses showed normal decomposition. It was also discovered that some organs were filled with fresh blood instead of coagulated blood. Plumpness, dark/redish/purple-ish color of the skin and the presence of blood around the mouth were theorized to be the result of recent feeding. Of course, these are all conditions now known to be perfectly normal states of decomposition.

Furthermore, studies also theorize that rabies may have been the cause of vampire-like symptoms in some instances. Vampirism and rabies have several similarities, including hypersensitivity to garlic and light, bloody frothing at the mouth, sleep disorders that effectively make the victim nocturnal, the urge to bite people and even revved-up horniness. Coincidentally, wolves and bats, whose presence was a telltale sign of vampire activity, can carry rabies.

If you’re chuckling to yourself about all those gullible simpletons of the 18th century, hold that thought. Belief in vampires is widespread in Serbia to this day, with documented reports occurring on a regular basis. Furthermore, there have been several episodes of vampire group-hysteria in the late-20th century in Bulgaria, Malawi and even such enlightened places as London and Birmingham, England.

One case made it onto ABC News during a presumably slow news day in 2012, when the tiny village of Zorazje in western Serbia went to pieces after a water mill collapsed, which was widely believed to be the home of a notorious vampire named Sava Savanovic. The villagers concluded that Savanovic was likely searching for a new home, putting them in danger. “People are very worried,” said local municipal assembly member Miodrag Vujetic. “Everybody knows the legend of this vampire and the thought that he is now homeless and looking for somewhere else and possibly other victims is terrifying people. We are all frightened.”

The nerds, of course, couldn’t resist weighing in. In 2006, phys­ics pro­f­es­sor Cos­tas Ef­thi­mi­ou of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Flor­i­da in Or­lan­do, with the help of a grad student, published a paper proving that vampires can’t possibly exist. Using geometric progression and the random supposition that the first vampire in the world had been created on January 1, 1600, Ef­thi­mi­ou argued that even if vampires fed only once a month, far less than myth suggests, and every victim was infected, every human on the planet (roughly 537 million at the time) would be transformed into a vampire within two and a half years. Of course, as any halfwit knows, the gaping hole in their theory is that the vampire infection isn’t necessarily passed along every time a vampire feeds. In your face, math!

As mentioned above, both Bram Stoker’s and Dracula’s legacies live on in many forms. Here are a few resources if you’re interested in delving further.

The annual Bram Stoker Festival

The Vampire Historian podcast

The Dracula Society

Large excerpts in this post were sourced from my 2016 book “Backpacking with Dracula: On the Trail of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula and the Vampire He Inspired.” If you enjoyed this post, the book has about 260 additional pages of Dracula, Impaler, vampire, Romania, travel and other humorously-delivered subjects waiting to be absorbed.

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