Author Frank Delaney just released a Kindle Single that deconstructs the myth of Dracula, exploring historical and mythological roots of this iconic character of book and film. Along the way, Delaney considers the life and work of Dracula author Bram Stoker and his influences. At only .99 cents, Delaney’s single, UNDEAD: the Birth of Dracula, is a great bargain for anyone interested in the world’s most famous vampire.
I’ve been a Dracula fan and vampire aficionado for as long as I can remember, and have read a great many books on both topics. The vampire myth is probably as old as man himself, and nearly every culture on earth has some variant of the hungry, restless dead. My theory is that the vampire evolved from the cross-pollination of the near universal ancient religious practice of making offerings to the dead – to curry their favor and/or avoid their wrath – and ignorance of germ theory and the human decomposition process.
Driving a stake into its heart – a common but not universal practice – may have even produced a “groan” that in actuality was the sound of gases escaping through the throat. Does this sound far-fetched to you? If so, then you may be surprised to learn that just such a thing occurred in late 19th century New England, an incident now referred to by historians as the New England Vampire Panic. We are only a handful of decades removed from our forebears, huddling in the dark and praying for protection from the vampire that stalked their village.
Dracula himself is an amalgam of fact and fiction. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler, or “Dracula” was a real person: a 15th century prince of Wallachia legendary for his ferocious resistance against the incursion of the Ottoman Empire. His father was the member of a religious organization known as The Order of the Dragon, or “Drakul”. When Vlad III succeeded his father, he became “Drakula”, or “the son of the dragon”. Vlad III despised the Turks. He and his brother Radu spent several years as wards of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III eventually returned to Wallachia, but his brother remained with the Turks and converted to Islam. If you’ll pardon the pun, there was “bad blood” between Dracula and the Turks.
Vlad III carried his hatred to the battlefield, where he was utterly merciless against his enemies. He earned the moniker “the Impaler” after he surrounded his castle with hundreds of impaled Turkish soldiers in an attempt to demoralize his enemies. Apparently it worked…at least for a time. Vlad III’s reign was rocky. He lost his throne three times, and eventually died in battle. Some stories hold that his death was the result of trickery at the hands of the Turks, a probable myth that was nicely referenced in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was beheaded – incidentally, another method recommended for the dispatch of vampires – and buried…somewhere. No one is one hundred percent certain where his body lies, but a number of researchers believe it to be interred in an Island monastery in Snagov, near Bucharest. Today, Vlad III is considered a national hero by the Romanians, an honored defender of his people.
There were ghoulish rumors during Lad’s reign: a famous one is that he dined on bread dipped in the blood of his enemies. Any of these might be best taken with a grain of salt, as they may have been spread by his enemies. No one knows. What we can say for certain is that none of these rumors, as horrific as they were, described Vlad as a vampire. His association with Dracula began with Bram Stoker, an Irish part-time author and theater manager. Stoker probably ran across the story of Vlad Dracula while researching eastern European folklore and history. It’s a good thing that he did: Stoker’s original name for the character was “Count Wampyr”. Not exactly subtle, right? Stoker vampire count was a hodge-podge of vampire lore and Transylvanian history whose personality was possibly inspired by Stoker’s overbearing, preening actor boss, Henry Irving. This all came together to become the Dracula we all know and love…or fear.
Dracula was a popular and successful novel upon its release: one part scientific mystery, one part adventure novel and one part Gothic horror. It cemented his reputation as an author of merit, but he never repeated the success of Dracula again. The book itself eventually sank into semi-obscurity before its adaptation as a series of movies. The first was an unofficial, unapproved adaptation as a German silent film titled Nosferatu (Stoker’s widow Florence sued and all copies of the film were to be destroyed – thankfully a few escaped the flames.) and the second was Tod Browning’s classic – approved – adaptation simply titled Dracula. An interesting point of trivia: prior to portraying the count on the silver screen, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi had also portrayed him on stage, and was instrumental in getting Florence Stoker’s permission to make the film. You may also find it interesting to know that Lugosi had to learn his lines phonetically, which accounted for Dracula’s strangely stilted delivery.
Dracula has become a cultural phenomenon, and images of the count can be found all over the world. Even the Romanians have gotten into the act, hoping to grab some tourist cash by playing up Vlad III’s incidental connection with the vampire who shares his name. You can even stay the night in Dracula’s Castle, Bran Castle, although there’s no real proof that he ever stayed there, much less lived there. To this day, Count Dracula continues to terrify and delight the young and old alike, perhaps proving that you can never truly kill a vampire.
In addition to Mr. Delaney’s new single, I’d like to recommend a few other books for those who want to delve deeper into Dracula’s story.
Vampires: a Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night, Bob Curran
Bob Curran’s field guides are light reading, but packed with interesting anecdotes and gorgeous illustrations.
Vampires, Burial and Death, Paul Barber
As a rather scholarly tome exploring the connections between the decomposition process and vampire myths, I can only recommend it to serious students.
Vampire Forensics, Mark Collins Jenkins
A highly approachable book that covers much of the same ground that Vampires, Burial and Death does – a good one for the layman or casual reader.
The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, J. Gordon Melton
Exhaustive, but focuses more on the vampire in pop culture than anything else.
The New Annotated Dracula, Bram Stoker, Leslie S. Klinger
A fantastic annotated edition of the classic novel, packed with anecdotes, historical references and more.
In Search of Dracula: the History of Dracula and Vampires, Radu R. Florescu, Raymond T. McNally
The classic book that set off the search for the historical roots of Dracula. May be hard to find now.
Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times, Radu R. Florescu, Raymond T. McNally
A follow-up to In Search of Dracula. Highly recommended.
Sundays with Vlad, Paul Bibeau
A hilarious whirlwind tour through the Dracula myth, culminating in a honeymoon stay in Romania, Vlad’s old stomping grounds.