Dracula: The First Modern Vampire

November 17, 2019 0 By William Hollis


Stories of blood-sucking monsters are universal
and have been around for centuries. There’s the Greek lamiae, the Chinese jiangshi,
the African asanbosam, and the Australian yah-mah-ya-who to name a few. But let’s focus on the one who has outlived
them all, whose monstrous legend lives among us even today—Count Dracula. The stories of blood-sucking monsters constantly
shifts to reflect the culture and issues of its time. For instance, there are real-life diseases
with symptoms similar to the traits found in some vampires: sensitivity to light, a
sudden decline in health, even the desire to bite other people. So, before we understood concepts like viruses
and germs, creating a fictional explanation makes a lot of sense. Also, if you look at the sharp teeth and long
fingernails of the typical western vampire, and how they use these to attack their prey,
the vampire becomes a metaphor for a human’s capacity for great violence. Vampires often appear humanoid and primarily
attack humans, so associating their violent attacks with the violence we see in the real
world is easy—because both predator and prey look like us. We can find this monster in folklore, legends,
and literature long before the word “vampire” appears for the first time in English around
1730. However, it wasn’t until the Irish author
Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker wrote his 1897 novel Dracula, that the characteristics of this
creature became widely recognizable in the modern world. Stoker actually started outlining the novel
in 1890, years before he even encountered the name ‘Dracula.’ We know this because he wrote notes, a lot
of notes. Emily Gerard’s book of Transylvanian superstitions
The land beyond the forest and Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves were
two books which clearly inspired him. He clipped newspaper articles, recorded tombstone
inscriptions, and transcribed ship captain’s logbooks to make his narrative more realistic. He was also influenced by Victorian theatre,
including his friend and employer – the actor Henry Irving. Stoker’s original list of characters shows
the famous vampire was first only known as the “Count.” It is most likely that he read the name “Dracula”
for the first time in William Wilkinson’s book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia
and Moldavia while on vacation with his family, after he had already started writing the story. In tradition with a lot of Gothic literature,
Dracula is a member of the aristocracy, which also explains the dramatic castle setting,
and the Count’s great wealth of “old gold.” In his memos, Stoker combined many existing
literary and folklore traits that we now see as typical vampire characteristics: no reflection
in mirrors, never eats or drinks, has enormous strength, and the ability to see in the dark. It was already accepted that vampires could
turn others into the undead, have large canine teeth and pointed nails, and be vulnerable
to garlic and wooden stakes. But Count Dracula was the first vampire to
have all of these traits. And influenced by werewolf legends, Stoker
gives Dracula the ability to shapeshift into a bat, a wolf, or mist, a first for vampires! Seven years of making vampire notes paid off,
and when the book was finally published, it was a critical and popular success. The 1922 movie Nosferatu, which tells the
Dracula story with a few names changes, was not authorized by Stoker and came dangerously
close to copyright infringement. Stoker’s widow even tried to have the film
removed from public circulation. The controversy surrounding the film increased
the popularity of both the book and the Count himself. The prevelance of Dracula movies in the 40’s,
inspired a 16-year-old Richard Matheson, to contemplate his own version of a vampire tale:
he wondered quote “if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would be really
scary.” Matheson published I am Legend, in 1954, telling
the story of the only apparent human survivor in New York City after a vampire plague infects
the population. Matheson’s vampires becomes monsters not
from a bite or curse, but because of the Vampiris virus. This is one of the first times the metaphor
of vampirism as a disease is explicitly stated. Urbanism, immigration, sexual transmitted
disease, politics, corporate greed, capitalism, racism, sexism, the fetishization of youth—
these are only a few of the things vampires have represented. In 1975, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot modernizes
Stoker’s original story. King admits he was inspired by Dracula, as
well as the divisive political atmosphere at that time in the United States that in
King’s own words gave him a quote “fear of the future.” Fun fact: thanks to the window-scratching
scene in the tv-movie version of Salem’s Lot, the first monsters I remember being really
scared of were vampires. Which, given that I am now an expert in the
undead, is so perfectly ironic I could die. And then reanimate. It wouldn’t be a post-Dracula vampire episode
if I didn’t mention the two names that made the modern vampire “sexy”…Anne Rice’s
Vampire Chronicles and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. In 1976, the publication of Interview with
a Vampire introduced the world to the beautiful, soulful Louis, whose cold dead heart is still
capable of love and regret. Rice gave us the first reluctant vampires
in literature, those who were more concerned with self-identity and morality than any previously
portrayed. Then in 2003, we were given the brooding,
abstinent, “vegetarian” Edward Cullen in Twilight. Meyer makes turning someone into a vampire
the most romantic thing you can do because it ensures you and your true love will be
together forever. Also, vampires now sparkle. Thanks for that. Other vampire stories reframe the undead monster
in exciting ways. Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories features
a black, feminist vampire heroine who uses her undead life to explore her education and
her sexuality while helping to create progressive change in society. Octavia Butler’s Fledgling features vampires
who actually engage in symbiotic relationships with those they feed from. The narrative addresses themes of polyamory,
intimacy, race, and genetic experimentation through the eyes of a black female protagonist. In contrast, Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain
trilogy gives us parasitic worms who inhabit living human bodies, and whose failure to
value human life makes them monstrous even without their need for human blood. Even though all modern vampire stories have
their roots in Stoker’s original Dracula, each one is unique in its interpretation. As times change, so do vampires. The vampire reflects the culture and time
of its creation. I wonder what form they’ll take next?