Dracula is without question the most famous vampire in fiction. Based on Bram Stoker's interpretation of Eastern European vampire myths and with a very tenuous relation to the 15th-century historic figure Vlad the Impaler (called Draculea in Romanian) the story of the blood-sucking fiend and his mysterious quasi-sexual allure coupled with the terror of turning his victims against those who dare to fight him have shocked, delighted and fascinated readers throughout the world since the 1897 publication of the novel by British-Irish author Bram Stoker.
This page is primarily about the fictional character, but not only does Dracula have real antecedents, but his myth has come to prey upon them.
|“||Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!||”|
—Dracula welcoming young Jonathan Harker to his castle
The original 1897 novel is set in numerous places throughout England and continental Europe - largely areas under the control of Austria-Hungary at the time. While Stoker did meticulous research with the written material available to him (railway timetables are accurate to the minute and geography is generally as reliable as the maps he used), the author never actually visited most of the continental locations in his novel. By contrast, he knew the English settings well and had to expect his intended audience would, too, so those descriptions are usually pretty spot on for the era.
A reader revisiting the original Dracula novel may be surprised to find several of the tropes now associated with the character absent - Dracula is only weakened by sunlight, not defeated by it, and unlike the endless sequels of some of the film adaptations in the books Dracula's "death" or rather destruction is final. Stoker also makes heavy use of quasi-religious symbolism and the prejudices and moral mores of his time.
The main characters of the novel - Jonathan Harker, a plucky everyman and young solicitor who is hired by the Count to facilitate his move to England; Mina Harker, Jonathan's fiancée and a "strong female character" avant la lettre; Dr. Abraham van Helsing, a Dutch Doctor with broad medical knowledge (albeit none about blood types) and surprising command of both the German language and Vampire lore - travel through Europe largely by train, throwing bribes at every problem along the way not caused by vampires. Money they can afford to pay through the fortune of side characters Quincey Morris, an eccentric rich American, Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming) and the head of an insane asylum, Dr. John Seward who called Dr. van Helsing onto the scene to get into the strange illness and ultimate death of Holmwood's fiancée Lucy Westenra and the peculiar behaviour of his patient Renfield.
The subject of Dracula was very soon picked up for stage and movie adaptation with perhaps the most famous and enduring a blatant German copyright violation - the 1922 silent film Nosferatu - A Symphony Of Horror. While the Count's name had been changed from "Dracula" to "Orlok" and the - now iconic - animalistic look of Count Orlok in the classic of German expressionist cinema has nothing in common with the moustachioed old man who is visibly rejuvenated with the consumption of blood in the novel, the heirs of Stoker sued for copyright infringement. This led to almost all copies of the movie being destroyed - ironically the only one to survive was an American copy as the American movie industry at the time was unwilling to enforce foreign copyright claims.
One of the first stars whose portrayal of Dracula would become iconic was Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian who fled his native country in 1919 after the Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed (Lugosi was a lifelong leftist). He added a certain elegance to the horror and his Hungarian accent has become part of the stereotypical image of "classic" Dracula even if many parodies focus on features actually not present in Lugosi's speech. The film Dracula was released in 1931, the same year as the first internationally-successful film adaptation of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the nameless monster. At least since then, these two horror stories have been associated with each other.
Another horror movie actor who would give his own suave style and gravitas to the Dracula canon would be the Englishman Christopher Lee who mostly portrayed villains and the blacker side of morally-grey characters throughout his decades-long career.
The original Dracula was Vlad III of Wallachia (born between 1428 and 31, died 1476 or 77), better known as Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Țepeș. His father Vlad II was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon (Dracul), so the son was the little dragon, Dracula. Romania in that era was three kingdoms: Transylvania to the north, Wallachia to the south and Moldavia to the east. Vlad was born in Sighișoara in Transylvania but as ruler of Wallachia, he was often at war with Transylvania, allying himself to the Ottoman Turks. He didn't suck blood, but he impaled his foes on spikes in industrial-going-on-genocidal numbers. The principal associations and bases for exploring are around Sibiu, Sighișoara, Brașov and Bran. So while people there are aware of their real heritage, they also know where their tourist bucks come from, and play upon the fiction. Every street artist and beer-cellar themed dinner is howling in the night: "Give us your euros, it's our life blo . . o . . od!"
Get in if you can on the Transylvania Express, which trundles daily from Budapest via Arad (worth missing) to Sibiu and Brasov. (The stricken heroine Mina Harker née Murray knows the timetables off pat, thanks to Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide.) The Express is a daytime train, and you can also take sleepers, which are prone to halt in the middle of the night in forest clearings, washed by a cadaverous moon. You may even see a bear or a wolf, and other creatures flit half-seen through the shadows. Some of them - especially the bats - carry rabies, and one tiny bite may sunder you from all that you've been, to become a slavering thing feared and shunned by mankind. The silence is broken by a tapping, and a sepulchral voice from the corridor: "Tickets please!"
- 1 Sighișoara is a citadel perched on a rock, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Vlad senior was exiled here, formulating the town's present name from Hungarian Segesvár "the six-sided fort". It's the likeliest birthplace of Dracula, in Casa Vlad Dracul on main square. His bust glowers outside, keeping a gimlet eye on the town clock, ready to deploy a sharpened minute-hand should its chimes displease him.
- 2 Poenari Castle teeters on a clifftop above the canyon carrying the Transfăgărășan highway. Vlad repaired the castle and lived there for some years. It's a crumbling ruin, even more so after 20th century earthquakes, you come for the views and the fun of lumping up 1480 steps.
- 3 Bran subsists off Dracula tourism, although the link is tenuous. It has a medieval castle (prettified into a bling-palace in the 1920s) guarding a mountain pass, so it's plausible that Vlad stayed here as he and his enemies chased back and forth. There's no record that he impaled anyone here, his hosts must have fretted that he wasn't enjoying himself.
- 4 Sibiu is the main base for exploring this area; it's a well-preserved medieval town, with budget flights from across Europe.
- Medieval fortified churches are clustered around Medias north of Sibiu, especially at Biertan and Valea Viilor. When the area came under attack by Vlad and his successors, the cities were protected by walls but that wasn't possible for small rural places, so they fortified the churches. And when the attackers breached the walls and closed in on the women and children huddled in the church, the last act of the tragedy was to seize a sturdy cross and brandish it in the attacker's face . . .
- 5 Brașov is a charming old walled city in the mountains, set among forests and ski trails. If you arrive on the Transylvania Express, you'll walk into town along a boulevard lined with funeral parlours. Within the old town, Strada Vlad Țepeș is about the only street to be lacking a body-piercing salon or a kebab shop. True homage: he set the bar too high.
- 6 Tokat's castle has few claims to fame. One is Vlad was reputedly imprisoned here after turning on the Ottomans in his later life.
- 7 Whitby is a fishing port and seaside resort in North Yorkshire, where the moors tumble abruptly to the North Sea. Bram Stoker holidayed in Whitby in 1890, and his fictional Lucy is likewise on holiday, pestered by suitors. Then Dracula bounds ashore from a ship whose crew have mysteriously disappeared one by one. He's disguised as a giant black dog, perhaps not realising that the town has saturnine head waiters so his usual rig would have been fine, even if he didn't happen to catch one of the many Goth Festivals. The "199 Steps" lead from the harbour up to a plateau, on the edge of which stands St Mary's Church. In a suitably macabre touch, its cemetery is eroding, so human remains from time to time roll down the cliff and clatter into the village. Further back is the imposing ruined abbey. Whitby Goth Weekend is the largest goth festival in the UK, taking place bi-annually the last weekend in April and the last weekend in October or first weekend in November.
- 8 Cruden Bay is the small beach resort north of Aberdeen where Stoker wrote most of Dracula. Slains Castle, a 16th century turret, struck him as a perfect des-res for his vampire.
- 9 Dublin was Stoker's birthplace. In the crypt of St Michan's Church, conditions have naturally mummified the bodies, so they're a popular visitor attraction. (One Irish superstition, a nice little earner for the priesthood, was "holy clay", which if placed in your coffin protected you from less righteous corpses around.) In 1878 Stoker married Frances Balcombe, presumably as camouflage since he clearly preferred men. And Frances was also being courted by fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde - what if? But for the flutter of a female heart, that elegant Epstein sculpture in Paris' Père-Lachaise Cemetery, continually kissed by lipsticked visitors, might instead have been the tomb of Dracula.
- 10 Orava Castle. This castle was used to shoot many scenes of the 1922 German expressionist movie Nosferatu, which did perhaps more than any other work of visual media to popularise Bram Stoker's story. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat likewise chose this castle to shoot their 2020 Dracula adaptation.
- 11 Čachtice Castle is in the mountains north of Bratislava. It was the redoubt and later the prison of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614) who really did drink blood - or so her enemies claimed. She was convicted of sadistic mass murder with blood-orgies, but her real crime was probably in being a powerful independent woman. The legend of her misdeeds grew in the telling. Stoker never visited Eastern Europe but he learned many of its tales from the writer Ármin Vámbéry and set about researching them.