This essay was originally posted on Lunch.com in an abridged review format on October 26, 2009.
How did one of the most violent tyrants in history help to inspire the most legendary of fictional villains? Well, to answer that question, one must examine not only Bram Stoker‘s Gothic horror novel, but also the terrible and fascinating history of Roumania’s most famous prince. There are so many influences and inspirations that went into the character of Count Dracula and not all of them are well-known. Today, Stoker’s vampiric villain is now a cultural icon and he has undergone many changes, some of which are barely noticeable and others that radically contradict the original character that Stoker invented. Indeed, Count Dracula must be undead for his image and his legacy never seem to die.
The Historical Vlad Dracula, The Impaler
Prince Vlad Dracula was born in Sighişoara, located in Transylvania, in the latter part of the year 1431. Vlad Dracula received his name from his father, Vlad Dracul, whose name means both dragon and devil in Hungarian, which meant that Dracula’s name meant quite literally the son of the dragon or the son of the devil. Sighişoara was a heavily fortified town with a complex history. The town had been occupied by a group of rich, merchant Saxons who controlled the trade in the regions and generally exploited the native Transylvanians. His father Vlad Dracul was a Catholic, and a member of the Order of the Dragon, a fraternal brotherhood of aristocrats who swore to defend the Church from all threats. During that period of time the main threat were the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, who were driving Christians from the lands that were considered holy for both Christianity and Islam. Vlad’s father made a deal with the Saxons of Sighişoara, so that he and his family could live within the protection of the city walls.
Vlad Dracula‘s father ascended to the throne in 1436, when Dracula was only five, but rival noblemen overthrew him in 1442. Vlad and his younger brother Radu were then sent as hostages to the court of the Ottomans. This was a common practice during these times and was used as a protective measure to ensure that feuding parties would not attack their enemies. During his imprisonment, Vlad was frequently and severely punished for his outspoken nature. He also became resentful of his brother Radu who had befriended the Sultan’s son, Mehmed II and was allowed into the luxurious court of the Sultan while Vlad remained in an underground dungeon. This ignited a passionate hatred of Mehmed II in Vlad and lead to his strong dislike of his traitorous brother. These years imprisoned in Turkey also shaped Vlad’s character and introduced him to concepts of torture and punishment that he had been unfamiliar with before. One method of torture and execution, which quickly became a morbid and all-consuming obsession for young Vlad, was the Turkish method of impalement. Vlad would watch with fascination as prisoners were staked through the abdomen and placed in the courtyard, where they would take sometimes days to die. While a prisoner, Vlad also was given a comprehensive education on all matters. He proved to be an adept student of history and language and showed a growing talent with his military-training.
In 1447, with the help of the boyars, Vlad’s father was killed by the regent John Hunyadi. Vlad’s eldest brother was blinded with a red hot poker before being buried alive. Vlad swore an oath to himself, promising that he would seek revenge and he knew how to get it.
The Ottomans were fearful that Transylvania was becoming politically unstable and that they needed a strong leader in place to guarantee the longevity of the region. They chose Vlad because of his knowledge of both cultures, thinking him an ideal ruler. In one way, they were right, however Vlad was not going to be a pawn for either the Boyars or the Turks. So, Vlad took the throne of Wallachia for the first time. His reign was short, for a number of enemies conspired against him and soon Vlad would be replaced by Vladislav II, a member of the Danesti Clan. Vlad fled to Moldavia, where he was taken in by his uncle. In 1451, his uncle was assassinated, so Vlad returned to Hungary. Unexpectedly, he and Hunyadi, who were sworn enemies, bonded over their mutual hatred of Mehmed II and the Turks. They began a cautious alliance and Vlad became Hunyadi’s advisor. Two years later, the Turks took control of Constantinople and began to drive out the last remnants of Christianity in the Mediterranean. From there, they began to focus their attentions on the Carpathians. In 1456, the Turks began a siege at Belgrade, threatening all of Hungary. While Hunyadi began fighting the Turks in Serbia, Vlad returned to Wallachia and killed Vladislav II, his rival and reclaimed his throne. Thus began Vlad’s second reign, which proved to be one of the bloodiest in history.
Vlad despised the political climate of Wallachia, finding it rife with corruption and foreign influence. In an attempt to restore some semblance of law and order Vlad would embrace policies of brutality and severe punishment and go to great lengths to maintain control. His chief goal was to return the country to its former greatness and to do that he would have to strengthen its economy and military power, both of which had virtually been depleted by the Boyars. Vlad came to the aid of local merchants by limiting the presence of foreign trade to only three towns, one of which was Tîrgovişte. Vlad formulated a plan to deal with the Boyars and to revenge the death of his father and brother.
One night, Vlad invited over 500 Boyars and their family members to a banquet to be held at his new fortress. Upon their arrival, he greeted them with great hospitality and appeared to enjoy their company, however, it was their ultimate fate that he was preparing to relish. During the dinner, the conversation was turned to politics and Vlad questioned the Boyars as to how many rulers there had been in the last fifty years. As he had hoped, none of them could remember because there had been so many rulers. The reason for this, of course, being that the Boyars had betrayed so many rulers and replaced them with whoever was most likely to benefit their financial and political prospects. So, Vlad had them all impaled and then sent their family members as slaves to help build his new castle. This was one of many, countless acts of brutality that propelled Vlad into the realm of legendary rulers of his day. In fact, the body count that he raised would be unrivaled until the days of Hitler nearly five hundred years later.
After Vlad’s death in 1476, his country adopted him as a nationalist hero and a defender of the realm, despite the fact that he was a ruthless and sadistic ruler. But often legends grow from the seeds that history plants and in the case of Vlad Dracula, he has been glorified and raised to the heights of such legendary figures as Robin Hood. However, he is not the Transylvanian Count of Stoker’s novel, not yet. In order for that transformation to happen, we need to dig a little deeper into Eastern Europe’s history and look at the life of a violent member of the Hungarian nobility, a woman known as The Blood Countess.
The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory
Countess Erzebet Bathory, also known as Elizabeth Bathory, was one of history’s most notorious women and one of the first documented serial killers. Her influence can be felt in a number of different literary works and some feel that she may have been an inspiration to Stoker in his creation of Count Dracula, but also to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu who wrote the subtly erotic vampire novella, Carmilla.
Elizabeth Bathory was born in the year 1560, in Hungary. Growing up, Elizabeth had a very thorough education and had lived among the privileged nobility of Eastern Europe for all her young life. Elizabeth was married to Nádasdy Ferenc when she was fifteen. Their marriage proved difficult since Elizabeth was not attracted to Ferenc and since he was a very demanding and cold man. As a wedding present, Ferenc gave Elizabeth his home, Csetjte Castle in the Carpathians, along with the large country house Čachtice. This gift can’t really be seen as generous, since it wasn’t given out of love, but more as a way to impress Elizabeth and win her respect. It’s likely that during the early years of their marriage, Elizabeth grew cold and hard as a defensive response to her unloving surroundings and to her frequently absent husband. It should also be known that Elizabeth was likely a bisexual, if not completely homosexual woman. At this point in time, lesbianism was considered a sin, although it was not so severely looked upon as male homosexuality. Still, Elizabeth must have been romantically and sexually frustrated that she could not express her physical and emotional longings openly.
When Ferenc went off to war in 1578, Elizabeth took over the responsibilities that were his and began to make most of the decisions in the castle. She also participated in giving medical care to the sick and the injured servants in the house. During this time she would learn much about human anatomy and various procedures that were common in that portion of Europe. Elizabeth also showed signs of growing political prowess as she watched over her husband’s defenses at home. But most telling, she took a keen interest in the plight of various women while Ferenc was away. In one instance, she came to the aid of a girl who had been the alleged victim of rape at the hands of a Turkish soldier and impregnated. Another time, she was said to have negotiated the release of a woman who was kidnapped. Indeed, Elizabeth had the makings of a great noblewoman, but she had a dark side that was waiting to get out.
Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Anna, in 1585, when she was twenty-five years old. Her next two children were both plagued with health problems and died young. During these years, Elizabeth developed a morbid fascination with violence and found that it gave her a sexual satisfaction she had not known in her marriage. In 1604, Ferenc died of a battle wound and Elizabeth found herself the head of the household. It’s easy to imagine that after years of being married to a man she bore little affection for that she must have felt some freedom or release when he passed away.
Between 1602 and 1604, a series of complaints were made by peasants to the Church and to the local government. Girls had been going missing and rumors were circulating that Elizabeth was to blame. When these rumors and reports were first heard, little was done, but when they reached the ear of King Matthias, action was finally taken in 1610. Matthias sent Juraj Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary to investigate the claims of abductions. Two notaries were given the task of questioning locals and collecting evidence. It quickly became apparent that the accusations were true and that much more had taken place. Elizabeth had a predatory, sadistic streak that had claimed the lives of 600 girls and young women. It was discovered that Elizabeth had been luring young women to the castle and that she and four of her servants had been kidnapping them. She had made a habit of surrounding herself with beautiful, virginal, young handmaidens. At one point, at least according to legend, she became angry with one of the girls and slapped her, getting blood on her skin. Elizabeth then noticed a few days later that this blood had seemingly rejuvenated her skin and made her appear younger. Thus began a deadly obsession. Elizabeth and four of her most trusted servants began luring girls to the castle, having them believe that Elizabeth was offering a finishing school-type environment for young women wishing to advance their social position, but they weren’t being educated or cultured. Once inside her castle the young girls were tortured physically, emotionally, and probably sexually and murdered. Elizabeth would then drink and bathe in their blood. This would continue for nearly twenty years, between 1590 and 1610, after which more than 600 girls had gone missing.
Since Elizabeth was a member of the nobility and a public trial and execution would have been too controversial, so her life was spared. Her four servants were put to death, though. Elizabeth was privately tried in 1611, though she did not appear in person, and afterward she was sentenced to house arrest in her own castle. She had no contact with the outside world and she went completely mad in her isolation. She died in 1614.
Historical, Mythological And Literary Inspiration
When Bram Stoker set about outlining his now famous novel, he drew much of his inspiration from existing literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Stoker did a great amount of research into Eastern European customs, geography, and history and it is one of the elements of Dracula that makes the novel so believable. Though Stoker never traveled to “the land beyond the forest”, he did read numerous books on Transylvanian and Hungarian culture and history. It was during this time that he came across the name Dracula as well as the historical accounts of Elizabeth Bathory. Intrigued by these two bloody figures, he combined certain aspects of both to create his vampire Count.
Perhaps the greatest influence on his writing style came from a combination of Shakespearean plays and Gothic horror novels. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was one of the literary works that Stoker frequently made references to in his novel, possibly because of Stoker’s fondness for and familiarity with that particular play. Even the three brides of Dracula were inspired by the three prophetic witches in Macbeth. These three vampiric women, who possess great physical beauty, but are morally ambiguous and will serve whoever has the greatest power are just a more recent take on a classic mythological motif. In Ancient Greek myths, there were the Three Fates, who determined the fate of humanity and the gods by ruling over the past, present, and future. There were also the Three Furies, vengeful goddesses who punish those who break their promises or betray their comrades. There’s also a hint of the Three Graces or Three Charities of Greco-Roman myths. They represented Beauty, Mirth, and Cheer. Then in Germanic and Norse myths, there were the Norns, who essentially served the same function as the Greek Fates in that they sowed together the tapestry of time and destiny. Stoker may also have been inspired by the Hindu deity known as Devi. Devi was essentially a composite figure comprised of aspects of three the gods Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati.
He also made some references to Goethe’s Faust and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Count Dracula is very much like the tempting and corrupting Mephistopheles in Faust and much like Lucifer, the fallen angel of Paradise Lost. In fact, Stoker intended that readers made the connection between the Devil in his many protean forms and Dracula, who also possesses the ability to shape-shift. They are Earth-bound monsters that live at the expense of humanity and vilify the virtuous with their accursed, demonic condition. In terms of other works of literature, Stoker drew heavily from the Romantic Movement as well, which is evident in his use of sexually predatory villains. One character that likely helped him in his shaping of Count Dracula was Bluebeard, a fictional aristocrat in a popular French folk tale written by Charles Perrault.
Bluebeard was based loosely upon Gilles de Rais or Gilles de Laval, a 15th Century aristocrat and a knight in Jeanne d’Arc‘s army. After the war, Gilles became something of a violent eccentric. He became fascinated by the occult, which caught the eye of the Church. After his death, rumors circulated about a possible Church conspiracy against Gilles, but the real reason for his falling out of favor with the Church and with society at large, was that he was a prolific child murderer. His victims may have been in the hundreds, but an exact body count is impossible to make because Gilles was no fool and he managed to cover up many of his crimes, though most historians believe the deaths that can be attributed to him range from about 100 to 200. Despite his attempts to keep his bloody activities a secret he probably confessed to a priest, because a number of hostile exchanges occurred between Gilles and members of the Church. At one point, he even kidnapped a cleric during a dispute, which lead to an investigation by the Church and a rather shocking trial. During his trial, Gilles confessed to the murders, but said that they were done as a sacrifice to a demon called Barron. However, Gilles’ accomplices in these murders testified against him and proclaimed that these murders were sexual in nature as well as occult. During the trial, he was excommunicated shortly before his death. On October 23, 1440 Gilles was executed by hanging. Since his death, his story and the legends that grew around it have inspired novels, poems, songs, and films.
The three vampire stories which seem to have had the greatest impact on Stoker and on the vampire genre were John Polidori‘s The Vampyre, James Malcom Rymer‘s Varney the Vampire, and Sheridan Le Fanu‘s Carmilla. He particularly liked the use of the narrative device in Carmilla, which he ended up elaborating upon in his own book. However, the only book that had a direct influence on Stoker’s writing of Dracula was Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Like Stoker’s novel, Carmilla unfolds as a record of events put down by one of the characters, although in Stoker’s case there were many characters giving the story its narrative. Stoker also drew from Le Fanu’s use of erotic undertones in his book.
Interpretations of Count Dracula
There have been numerous interpretations of Stoker’s novel and what it’s meaning is in a broader scale. Most scholars and literary critics agree that Dracula was Stoker’s best work, both in terms of themes and characters, but also as far as execution goes. It certainly proved to be his signature work and his only masterpiece, but why has it been absorbed into the culture so? What’s made it so popular and so acclaimed?
When Stoker set about outlining his novel, he didn’t originally intend to tell it the unusual narrative structure the he ended up adopting. When he had finally completed the book, it had evolved into a complex and brilliantly convoluted novel. The story is told from multiple viewpoints and all through the use of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and phonograph recordings, which needless to say were used by the author to form not only the narrative structure, but also to inform the readers of his characters’ psychological inner workings. Because the novel isn’t told from a singular first or third person perspective, it manages to obtain a kind of moral and political neutrality or ambiguity. Most Stoker historians and biographers agree that Stoker, himself, was a fairly conservative Christian (albeit liberal by the standards of his own time) and that the story functions on the rather simplistic level of good versus evil. Still, there is a complexity to the book that has enabled readers to interpret the characters, the story, and Stoker’s own personality differently.
Rather than detail every single popular interpretation, I have listed and explained the most common ones and the ones that fit best into context with Stoker’s life story.
Interpretation I: The Matter Of Religion
There have been arguments as to whether Stoker was supporting Christianity or mocking it. Some feel that his very theatrical use of Christian rituals, such as exorcisms and the methods in which vampires are disposed of, are ironic and that he was proposing the idea that these rituals were in contrast to real spirituality and a closeness with God. However, this is very likely too liberal of an idea when one takes into consideration Stoker’s Protestant religious raising and his views on Christianity.
The pervading theory is that the book is actually supportive of Christianity and that Dracula, whose name means son of the devil after all, is a metaphor for all the evils of the world and the various heroes are sort of crusaders fighting against an ancient evil. But there are issues with this theory as well, because in a very obvious way, it contradicts itself. The idea that God would allow for the existence of an immortal creature capable of corrupting his followers can be found in the Bible in the form of Satan, a fallen angel. Yet, it’s hard to imagine that there would be another powerful figure in opposition to Christianity with the many powers that Dracula possesses. In fact, Dracula’s greatest weaknesses are typically Christian relics and images. Dracula can be driven off by the crucifix or by the quoting of scripture. Taking this into careful consideration, Dracula could be seen then, not as the embodiment of the Devil, but perhaps as something else. Some people have felt that Dracula represents paganism and the pagan revival of the late Victorian era, which was reflected in artwork and the rise in spiritualism. In that case, Dracula would serve as an allegory for the continual threat of minority religions and the conflict with Christianity. That would partly explain why the vampires in Stoker’s book are repelled by artifacts of a Christian nature, although that is part of vampire mythology long before Stoker’s novel. Another interpretation along similar lines is that Dracula represents the antichrist and that the group of heroes that rise up to challenge his power, are essentially angels. This would imply then that the apocalypse is at hand when Dracula shows up in England. However, there is no singular figure to represent Christ, so I find this hypothesis to be unlikely.
Interpretation II: Antiquity Versus Modernity
One of the most common ideas about the book is that the story is a parable for the conflict between conservative and progressive ideologies. Much of the book focuses on the battle between ancient preconceptions of evil and godlessness represented by Count Dracula and more contemporary ideas about science and the emerging understanding of psychology represented by psychiatrist Dr. John Seward and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. What is so interesting is that in many ways, Stoker was criticizing both attitudes.
Stoker was a devout Christian and while relatively liberal in a social sense, he was quite conservative by contemporary standards like the majority of writers during the Victorian Era. One of the concerns that many Victorian Englishman has was that science was becoming the new religion and that we, as a society, were entering into an era of atheism and immorality. In a way, Dracula could bee seen as a parable for evolution, since he possesses the ability to shape-shift into numerous animals as well as take the form of man. He is an embodiment of primal urges, being both violent and sexually domineering, but he also is highly evolved in that he can control people’s wills. He is the nemesis of virtuous Christian morality and the threat he poses is both physical as well as spiritual.
What’s interesting is that Seward and Van Helsing also represent the encroaching modern scientific views that would become fashionable in the late Victorian Era and up through the 1930s. Spiritualism was a commonly held belief that human souls would progress to an afterlife and that science could be used as a way to prove the existence of the supernatural. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the most outspoken believers in Spiritualism, particularly after the deaths of his wife and son. While believers in Spiritualism practiced various religions, most of them championed more modern thinking and supported causes ranging from women’s rights to the abolition of slavery. While Stoker was never officially involved in Spiritualism, he was clearly fascinated by progressive sciences and the occult. However, he deeply desired that pagan superstitions should be replaced with a knowledge in science and a devotion to the Christian faith.
Interpretation III: Racism And Sexism
There have also been many theories regarding Stoker’s personal feelings about people from other ethnic groups and his attitudes towards women.
As I’ve mentioned before, Stoker was very much a Victorian Englishman, and as such he had a sense of British superiority. Yet this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as supremacist or racist in the modern sense. Many Victorians believed in eugenics, an emerging belief that through selective breeding a “superman” could be created. This idea came in part from a misunderstanding of Darwinism, but also from a number of philosophers who felt that inter-racial reproduction would be a genetic setback for the human race. Many believers in this pseudo-scientific ideology were convinced that certain people were higher up on the evolutionary scale than others and therefore that those people should be given greater social preference over people from other ethnicities or cultures. It was essentially a Eurocentric class system that favored wealthier people of Anglo-Saxon descent. Followers of this philosophy included such prominent individuals as H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and John Harvey Kellogg. Later, eugenics would fall out of fashion because of its association with the Nazis and with institutionalized racism in general.
Some readers have seen evidence of eugenic ideas in Dracula and from that assumed that Stoker was a racist. One of the most sited examples of eugenic ideas in the novel come from the main character of Jonathan Harker who refers to the native peoples Eastern Europe as “quaint” or “barbaric”. More examples can be found in the physical description of Count Dracula himself. Dracula is described as being tall, having strong aquiline features, a unibrow, reddish eyes, and hair grows on the palms of his hands. In many respects, he is regarded as being more animalistic or even demonic than human. Whether Stoker was consciously trying to suggest any ideas about racial superiority is up to debate amongst scholars, however most agree that there is a strong xenophobic undercurrent to the novel regardless of what Stoker may or may not have intended.
There have also been some critics who feel that Stoker’s book is sexist, a common accusation during the latter half of the 19th Century when the majority of writers were male and of a more old-fashioned mentality in regards to women’s rights. Throughout the novel, Stoker’s characters make a number of disapproving comments regarding the “New Woman” and how ideas that women were equal to men were in direct contrast to traditional Christian and English values. Stoker was one of those individuals who held women on an idealized pedestal, where virtue and virginity were synonymous and where sexual independence was seen as amoral. In a way these ideas had been almost proto-feminist in that women were finally being recognized as more than just domestic servants to men. The problem arose from the fact that women still weren’t being acknowledged as complex, intelligent, independent,and that they weren’t seen as equals. In the novel, Stoker shows his belief that women should be subservient to men, but he also allows his women to be intelligent and accomplished.
The controversy comes from the way Stoker portrays the five main female figures in Dracula. Harker’s wife, Mina, is the idealized female of her day. She is chaste, intelligent, and loyal. Even after being tainted by Dracula’s blood (a metaphor for rape), she continues to serve the best interests of the group in their attempts to defeat Dracula. Mina’s friend, Lucy, is another matter. Lucy is a seemingly virtuous woman, albeit naïve and vivacious, who is desired by many men. Lucy, in most respects, starts off as the Victorian feminine ideal, but she soon becomes a foul creature of the darkness after being bitten by Dracula. In the story, she is given several blood tranfusions by multiple men (a metaphor for promiscuity) and her nightly visits by Dracula are clearly symbolic of rape. In this way, Mina responds to her metaphoric rape as a Victorian woman should by feeling guilt and continuing to be faithful to her husband, while Lucy develops an insatiable (blood) lust that leads her to damnation. In a sense, Dracula is the ultimate nightmarish villain for a 19th Century Englishman, because he arouses women’s desire for sex (or thirst for blood). To even suggest that women were capable of lust during this period was rather controversial. Before the Victorian Era, women were though to be mentally frail and sexually aggressive and ill-disciplined. During the Victorian Era, women were idealized for their beauty and grace, but they were also denied any form of sexual expression within the upper echelons of society. These two conflicting views of women are best exemplified in Count Dracula’s three brides. Although they are subservient to Dracula, at least in his presence, they are also promiscuous and prey upon Dracula’s house guests. It is in the passages where Stoker describes their effect on Harker that he conjures up some of the most erotic images in the novel. Dracula’s brides are essentially the inverse of Mina. They are sexually predatory and deceptive. They are modeled on the archetypal seductress and they are clearly created in the same image as Lilith. At one point, they even feed on the blood of a kidnapped baby while Harker looks on in abject terror.
Interpretation IV: Vampirism As A Metaphor For Venereal Disease
It’s well known that during the time period that Stoker was writing his novel, venereal diseases were on the rise. Some critics and scholars feel that the novel uses vampirism as a metaphor for the spread of these diseases of the blood. Evidence suggests that Stoker may have even died of complications arising from tertiary syphilis. The very act in which spreads vampirism is symbolic of intercourse (the parting of the lips, the baring and extension of the elongated fangs, the penetration of the victim, and then the fluid exchange). A wonderfully illuminating passage from the book has given credence to this theory. After her blood union with Dracula, Mina declares herself “unclean” and is reluctant to have Harker even look upon her. The consequence of such an act is perhaps what makes it so fascinating. With the bite of the vampire, you are drained of your energy and usually drained to the point of death as you fade away, both in physical strength and in terms of spiritual conviction. There is also an allure to the bite of the vampire, for if he lets you drink of his blood, then you become like him… an immortal, powerful, and free from the moral restrictions of humans. Vampirism is a disease of the blood and transmitted through an act of predatory penetration. Furthermore, it is associated in the novel with foreigners. During the 19th Century, many venereal diseases were blamed on immigrants because most British civilians didn’t want to believe that members of their family or members of their social group could be “unclean”. So, in a manner, Count Dracula’s brides can be seen as a parable for the rise of prostitution and vampirism as a parable for sexually transmitted diseases, which infect both the innocent as well as the lustful.
Stoker’s Vampire Count And His Pop Culture Legacy
It’s hard to imagine what the face of popular culture would be like without Stoker’s iconic Count Dracula. He’s been the subject of more films than any other fictional character. More than 300 films either feature the Count or bear his name in the title, yet ironically the Dracula that we know and love has little to do with Stoker’s decrepit, creepy, old man. He’s become an anti-hero in romantic literature, a villain in comics and pulp magazines, the subject of songs, the star of his own movies and television series, and his likeness even appears on tee-shirts and underwear. An orchid has even been named after him. The Count, a character on the children’s television program Sesame St. was even based on him. There’s even a breakfast cereal called Count Chocula, which plays with the name and appearance of Count Dracula. On the 1960s television comedy The Munsters, the character of Grandpa is based loosely on the Dracula character of the Universal horror films. These incarnations are far more family friendly and comedic in nature.
In 1972, Marvel Comics began their popular horror comic book series The Tomb of Dracula, which was a contemporary twist on Stoker’s story, characters, and themes. Dracula has gone from being one of the world’s cruelest tyrants, to one of literature’s most memorable villains, to an icon of popular culture. The question is, now that Dracula seems to have conquered the world, where can the character go from here? Well, due to the popularity of the novel and the films, tourism has been boosted in Roumania and in Transylvania in particular. In fact, there are even plans to build an elaborate Dracula-themed amusement park at the site of one of his castles. Ironically, while modern Roumanians are eager to capitalize on their country’s folk hero and his fictional namesake, the majority of tourists have little interest in the real Vlad Dracula. They want to hear about Stoker’s vampire Count. They want someone to tell them that he actually existed and prove that vampires exist. Sorry, folks, that’s just not going to happen.
A Dracula Filmography
Since Count Dracula has been depicted in so many films, it’s not surprising that he’s been portrayed in different ways by the various actors who have played him. Unfortunately, most actors have simply played the Count in a very similar and stereotyped fashion, however there have been some extraordinary exceptions. Stoker’s novel describes the Count’s physical appearance and his mannerism in detail, but he does not go much into the psychology of the character, which leaves the actor playing him room to be creative and original. This means that some actors have given viewers very different versions of the character, some of which are memorable and others that are not.
Max Schreck is likely the most memorably unique vision of Dracula, partly because he is more repulsive than later versions, which is more accurate to Stoker’s character in the book. Schreck’s look is also unusual. Unlike later Draculas, Schreck’s Dracula, or Count Orlok as he is called in the film, resembles a bald rat with pointy front teeth, bat ears, and long talon-like fingers. The character doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, but his body language and his appearance speak volumes. He’s a parasite and a plague-spreader, pure and simple.
Béla Lugosi is without doubt the most iconic and memorable Dracula ever. Béla was perfect for the part, although he is something of a departure from Stoker’s character. Ironically, one of the things that made him so well-suited for playing Count Dracula was his thick Hungarian accent, which gave him a sense of authenticity that most other Draculas lack. Lugosi had many other attributes which made him the perfect embodiment of the vampire Count. First of all, he had a uniquely exotic look about him, which tended to attract women and unnerve men in the audience, Lugosi was also fortunate in that he was quite tall and had an unusual physicality. He would take advantage of this by posing in strange crouching positions or by holding his long fingers in an odd claw-like manner. Lugosi first played the Count in the 1927 American version of the stage play, which was loosely based on Stoker’s novel. When the film was made in 1931, Lugosi was the default actor to fall back on after numerous other actors were unable to take the part. Since his 1931 film role as Dracula, Lugosi only played the part one other time on screen and yet he is fondly remembered as the Dracula of the cinematic medium.
John Carradine was an unusual choice as the follow-up to Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., because he didn’t resemble either actor in appearance or mannerisms. However, Carradine was closer to the Count Dracula described in Stoker’s novel than his predecessors were. Mainly, this was due to his age and his mustache, but also because the Dracula described in Stoker’s novel does not have an accent. Carradine was the first actor to play the part in two separate franchises, first for Universal’s classic horror cycle and then in the B-film Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.
Christopher Lee has played Dracula on film more times than any other actor as far as I know and in many ways, he has been the most faithful to the character as described in the novel. Lee, who stands at 6’5″ tall, certainly is the most physically imposing of the many actors to play Count Dracula and he is also perhaps the most celebrated alongside Schreck and Lugosi. Lee also had an advantage that many of the other actors who played the part didn’t. Lee was able to play Dracula multiple times in different franchises. Not only did he get to star in the classic Hammer films, but also in numerous other vampire films with varying degrees of quality. Perhaps his most stand-out performance as Dracula was in Jess Franco‘s 1970 film Count Dracula. With this film Lee recreated the character from the novel as closely as he could and did an amazing job of it.
Frank Langella is an important figure in the history of Count Dracula’s evolution. He is very much the antithesis of what you would expect Dracula to look, sound, or act like. First of all, he is young and perhaps equally as surprising, especially since he is starring in a remake of the 1931 Dracula, he has a British accent. Another element of his performance is peculiar… Langella’s Dracula is not frightening, not in the least. He is, however, a very attractive and sexually appealing Dracula, which upset many of the fans of the novel but delighted film critics and female viewers.
Klaus Kinski holds a unique place in the history of Dracula films, in part because he only sort of starred in one. Kinski starred as Count Orlok in Werner Herzog‘s remake of Nosferatu, which was filmed in both English and German language versions. In the English he plays Dracula and in the German he plays Orlok. Kinski was also remarkable in that he didn’t try to scare audience members, but instead creates a Dracula who is actually pathetic and pitiable.
Gary Oldman had the unfortunate bad luck to appear in a film of Dracula that claimed to be Bram Stoker‘s version and yet was not. Many films critics had mixed feelings about his performance and most agree that Oldman was quite good at playing Prince Vlad in the film’s prologue as well as playing the aged Count Dracula. However, when he makes the shift to the romantic younger version in London, Oldman loses sight of the character’s essence completely and turns him into a sappy romantic figure.
Leslie Nielson is probably the last person you would think of when it comes to Count Dracula, however he gave one of the funniest performances of his career in the Mel Brooks film, Dracula: Dead and Loving It. The film was created as a companion piece to the classic comedy, Young Frankenstein and when compared to that film is rather disappointing, but it does feature some memorable performances and scenes that are hilarious. Over all, the film is a great spoof of the Dracula films of the past.
Dracula made his cinematic first appearance in a now lost Hungarian silent film called Drakula’s Death about a madman in cape, who taught music and wreaked havoc in an insane asylum. The story really had nothing to do with Stoker’s book other than the name Dracula. The real film history of Dracula as we know him begins with the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu. Since then, the vampire count has appeared in over 250 films (over 300 if you include those that reference him in the story or title). Here’s an extensive, although not exhaustive, list of Dracula films.
(1920) Drakula Halála (a.k.a. Drakula’s Death)
(1922) Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (a.k.a. Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, Nosferatu: A Night of Terrors)
(1931) Dracula – Spanish Language Version
(1936) Dracula’s Daughter
(1943) Son of Dracula
(1944) House of Frankenstein
(1945) House of Dracula
(1948) Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
(1952) Drakula İstanbul’da
(1957) The Blood of Dracula
(1957) The Return of Dracula
(1958) Horror of Dracula (a.k.a Dracula)
(1960) The Brides of Dracula
(1966) Dracula: Prince of Darkness
(1968) Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
(1969) Taste the Blood of Dracula
(1970) Scars of Dracula
(1972) Dracula A.D. 1972
(1974) The Satanic Rites of Dracula (a.k.a. Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride)
(1975) The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (a.k.a. The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula)
(1966) Billy the Kid vs. Dracula
(1968) Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula (Santo and the Treasure of Dracula)
(1969) Blood of Dracula’s Castle
(1970) Count Dracula
(1971) Countess Dracula
(1971) Dracula vs. Frankenstein
(1972) La Saga de los Dracula
(1973) Scream Blacula Scream
(1973) Dan Curtis’ Dracula
(1974) Old Dracula
(1974) Andy Warhol’s Dracula (a.k.a. Blood for Dracula)
(1976) Dracula and Son
(1977) Count Dracula
(1978) Zoltan, Hound of Dracula
(1979) Love at First Bite
(1979) Nosferatu, the Vampyre
(1985) Vampire Hunter D
(1992) Bram Stoker’s Dracula
(1995) Dracula: Dead and Loving It
(1999) Modern Vampires
(2000) Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (a.k.a. The True Story of Dracula)
(2000) Dracula 2000
(2003) Dracula II: Ascension
(2005) Dracula III: Legacy
(2002) Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
(2004) Van Helsing
(2004) Dracula: 3000
(2004) Blade: Trinity
(2005) The Batman vs. Dracula: Animated Movie