“Welcome to my house. Come freely, go safely; and leave something of the happiness which you bring”.
“I am Dracula; and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house…”
And so, the reader of “Dracula”, by Irish writer Abraham Stoker, is introduced to the most famous vampire in the history of the world…Count Dracula.
Even a cursory look at the movie-lineups, or the local TV guide will tell you how popular vampires are at the moment. There’s the Twilight series, Vampire Diaries, The Gates, Moonlight and True Blood.
Vampires have been part of folklore for centuries. They have a hold over us because of the lure of the mythical, the horrific, the supernatural, the forbidden and the natural fear of death. But where do all the myths and legends of vampires come from? Where do we get all our modern preconceptions of what vampires are, what they can, or can’t do, and how they survive?
Although the classic vampire, the tall, handsome, pale-skinned mystery-man with the dark eyes, cold skin and a birth-certificate that’s literally carved in stone, does not exist, the roots of vampire folklore are taken from the lives of actual people. Two of the most famous of these people are Vlad Tepeche, and Elizabeth Bathory.
The Original Vampires
‘Vlad the Impaler’ and the ‘Blood Countess’, two of the most ruthless and sadistic killers in history, lived lives almost literally drenched in blood. They lived about a hundred years apart (the mid-1400s and the mid-1500s respectively) but they have survived to this day as the original inspirations for the vampires we think of today.
Vlad the Impaler was the ruler of the Principality of Wallachia in the mid-1400s. Wallachia is part of modern Romania and Transylvania. He received his nickname from his favoured method of execution…impalement. A horrific form of torture and death in which the victim was literally impaled by a wooden shaft or stake, several feet, or even yards long, in any number of ways, through the abdomen, through the anus, or in the back. It was a long, slow and agonising death. Vlad was known for feasting amongst the stake-forests of his victims, eating and drinking while the dead and dying surrounded him on all sides. He was feared and reviled by everyone. As ruler, his power was absolute and his word unchallenged. He worked his enemies to death, or killed them, mostly through his most favoured of all methods, for which he is remembered.
Elizabeth Bathory, the ‘Blood Countess’, was famous for torturing and killing hundreds of young women and girls, virgins, for their blood. She and four others were eventually arrested in the early 1600s, and put on trial. Three of the four collaborators were sentenced to death for the suspected, upwards of 650 murders they’d committed (although they were only tried for 80 of them). They were variously, decapitated, or had their fingers ripped off and were then burned at the stake. Only one woman was granted imprisonment, after it was proved that she acted under duress and coercion. The Countess herself was walled up inside her castle. She died there in 1614, at the age of 54.
These two legendary blood fiends and the legends surrounding them have given rise to the classic image of the vampire: A bloodsucking monster who preys on human victims, young girls, boys, virgins, and who lives in the wilds of Eastern Europe.
Myths and legends of vampires stemmed from such stories, legends and peoples as these. But while they are the elements of vampires, where do we get our modern conceptions of them?
“Dracula”, by Abraham Stoker
Abraham “Bram” Stoker, is the novelist who put the legend of the vampire into popular print. His 1890s horror extravaganza, “Dracula“, fed the Victorian obsession with death, demons, religion, ghosts, technology, science, science-fiction, life, rebirth and mortality, like nothing else before it, with the possible exception of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece “Frankenstein” (written while on holiday with friends during a ghost-storytelling session).
It is from this one book, Dracula, that we gain nearly all our popular concepts of what a vampire is, what it can do, what it can’t do, what its limitations are, and what abilities it has.
“Dracula” is one of my favourite books. I’ll admit that freely. It’s a real classic gothic horror story that has lasted over a hundred years as one of the spookiest and scariest stories ever written. And in such a convincing way, you’d almost think it was true, if it wasn’t.
For those of you who haven’t had the chance to read “Dracula”…you have my pity. The entire book is written as an epistolary novel. Never heard of the word ‘epistolary’ before? It means that all the chapters are written, and formatted in such a way that the entire book is supposedly made up of ‘actual records’ of a ‘real-life’ vampire-hunt. “Dracula” is composed of diary-extracts, journal-pages, shorthand notes, telegrams, letters, typewritten copy, newspaper cuttings, and, showing how modern Mr. Stoker wanted the book to appear, even audio-recordings, from the recently-invented cylinder phonograph. The start of the book begins, not with a chapter, but with the following passage:
“How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilties of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them”.
This was all designed to give ‘Dracula’ a feeling of realism, to make it even scarier to the reader. And it is from ‘Dracula’ that we get many of the main elements of vampire lore, such as driving stakes through their hearts, decapitating the bodies, the fangs, the holes in the neck, the coffins stuffed with soil, the cold skin, bats, wolves, no reflections in a mirror, a fear of the crucifix, holy water, vampires being impotent in sunlight and only gaining their full power after sundown…all of this comes from just ONE book. Even the alternate word for ‘vampire’, the more old-fashioned and creepy-sounding ‘Nosferatu‘, comes from this book! ‘Dracula’ was one of the first publications to use this word. Bram Stoker came across it during his research, and must’ve reckoned it sounded pretty cool and creepy! Etymologists believe it is taken from the Greek “Nosophoros“, meaning ‘disease-carrying’ or ‘infected’.
Dracula fed the Victorian desire for the new, the fantastic, the old, the gruesome, the scary, the splendid, the forbidden and the fanciful. You have old castles, carriages, demonic beings, but you also have the latest of Victorian technologies: Telegraphs, steam-trains, typewriters, gramophones, electric lights, even blood-transfusions, which were pretty new technology during the Victorian era.
“Dracula” in Film
It is interesting to note that, despite Dracula’s ongoing popularity, there has never been a single film that is a true and complete adaptation of the story. Not one. Go ahead and read all their synopses. Every single film deviates from the book in one way or another.
Dracula, and vampires in general, remain popular. Dracula is the second-most popular main character to be featured in film! A total of 217 films thusfar. The most popular is of course the master detective, Sherlock Holmes (with a mind-boggling 223 films!)
Popularity of Vampires?
What is it about the Vampire that keeps us coming back for more? Why do we keep creating new and more vampire TV shows, vampire books, vampire movies? Why is one of the most famous characters on Sesame Street a vampire count!?
The vampire feeds our morbid fascination with death and the possibility of life thereafter. The idea of immortality and the ability to live forever and never die…but at a terrible price. Also, vampires are cool! They can fly, change forms, they can control weather, climb walls, sneak around, they can control dogs, they can do damn near anything!…Except eat garlic-bread. Like wizards in the Harry Potter series, they feed our desire to have something outside our everyday lives, and our fantasies to have more than our everyday abilities. It’s this combination of fear and awe, of repulsion and reverence that, in my mind, keeps vampires coming back for another bite…