"Blood of My Blood" Bram Stoker's Dracula and the Origins of the Modern Vampire

The sun sets and the night falls. Various terrifying creatures emerge. It’s a motif as ancient as time itself, and today, we’ll explore one of those terrifying “creatures of the night”. This creature is a unique one. Their faces are pale and their demeanors insatiate. They might wear a cape and slick back their hair. Their fangs distinguish them from other nocturnal denizens (that… and their hatred for and/or fear of garlic, sunlight, and wooden stakes). They need permission to enter a person’s home, and some say they can’t see their reflection in the mirror. Moreover, they also allegedly live forever! Yes, that’s right! Today we are talking about the “vampire.”

Vampires are the stuff of both nightmares and legends. Your familiarity with them may stem from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003), “The Vampire Diaries” (2009-2017), the Twilight series (2008-2012), Interview with A Vampire (1994), based on Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, or “True Blood” (2008-2014)- based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. The latter- an HBO production set in southern gothic Louisiana- uses all sorts of supernatural characters to allegorize racism, homophobia, other forms of bigotry, religious fanaticism, and hookup culture. None of those incarnations would exist without the OG vampire, Count Dracula!

Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897. The epistolary novel (one in which newspaper articles, diary entries, or letters convey the narrative) begins when Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified English solicitor, visits Count Dracula at his castle in the Carpathian Mountains (i.e., Transylvania, or present-day Eastern Europe). Dracula wishes to purchase a home in London, and so Harker obliges. However, the straightforward and uneventful business trip Harker hopes his excursion will be doesn’t occur. One night, Harker encounters three vampiric women in Dracula’s castle. Dracula rescues him but gives the three women a bagged child and then disappears (boarding a ship with three boxes of earth). Harker- once again alone with the three women- escapes. He then ends up delirious in a Budapest hospital.

Carfax Abbey- Count Dracula’s Transylvanian castle.

Back home (London), Lucy Westerna corresponds with her best friend, Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée). They travel to Whitby, England for the holidays. Lucy’s own fiancée, Arthur Holmwood, and her other suitors- Dr. John Seward and Quincy Morris- join them (all remain good friends). During their stay, Lucy begins sleepwalking, and Count Dracula, who has arrived ashore, begins stalking her. Mina receives word that her fiancée is in Budapest, and the crew travels there. Lucy becomes very ill. Dr. Seward consults with his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing, who determines Lucy’s condition. Van Helsing is initially reluctant to disclose her condition, but he then explains it as “acute blood loss” (and places garlic flowers beside her). As more creepy, violent, and morbid events unfold, everyone learns the truth about Count Dracula, and, with the help of Dr. Van Helsing, they eventually confront him.

There have been countless adaptations of Stoker’s famous literary work. Universal Pictures’ 1931 version of it with Bela Lugosi undoubtedly takes the cake, but let’s not forget Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Anthony Hopkins. Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather) directed and produced this version, while Tod Browning directed the former adaptation. There have also been several “spin-offs”, including Van Helsing (2004) with Hugh Jackman, and Renfield (2023) with Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult (Cage stars as Dracula and Hoult as his unhappy, sycophantic assistant).

Stoker was an acting manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London1. Although he described himself as “secretive to the world,” Stoker was a very public person1. To supplement his theater salary, he wrote various romance stories and sensation novels2,3. By the time of his death in 1912, he’d written 18 books1.

Where did his inspiration for Dracula come from? According to Stoker’s biographer, Harry Ludlam, the primary source of inspiration was 15th-century Wallachian/Romanian ruler, Vlad III (a.k.a. “Vlad the Impaler”)4. Vlad the Impaler was arguably one of the most sadistic human beings who ever lived. He was almost cartoonishly evil. His atrocities were so gruesome they’d even shock Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones.

Vlad led a series of violent campaigns to regain his father’s throne. To deter Ottoman forces though and to “send a message”, he flayed, boiled, beheaded, and disemboweled his enemies. His preferred method of punishment (and the one that earned him his nickname) was impalement. Not just any run-of-the-mill, spear-to-the-chest type of impalement, though. Vlad’s method was “unique” (shall we say). Picture the skewered meat samples you find at your local Costco deli counter. Now imagine those as live meat samples turned upside down and left in the open sun for two or three days, and you have a rough analogue for his brutality. The fictional Count Dracula doesn’t match the same level of cruelty and barbarism, but he does drink human blood, which Vlad the Impaler also allegedly did.

Author Raymond McNally suggests in his 1983 book, Dracula was a Woman, that real-life 16th-century, female serial killer Elizabeth Bathory also inspired Stoker’s Dracula5. Two of the analogues between Bathory and Dracula that McNally points out: a cage which resembles an Iron Maiden that Dracula uses, and the motif of drinking human blood to regain or sustain one’s youth6,7. It has been noted that Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla (1872) and Abhartach, a vampire from Irish folklore, also inspired Stoker’s famous work8,9.

There are theories as to what themes Dracula underscores. One interpretation focuses on gender and sexuality. Stoker was possibly homosexual10. He wrote intensely homoerotic letters with American poet Walt Whitman (a contemporary of his)10. He also wrote the novel one month following Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality10. “Transgressive sexuality” is another subset of this interpretation. Dracula takes place in the Victorian era, a very sexually repressed time. The author fiddles around with various representations of passivity and dominance by inhabiting his world with vampires. A vampire attack is close and intimate. It involves teeth, blood, and the act of “draining someone.” HBO’s True Blood certainly ran with this “wildly erotic” interpretation of the vampire genre and filled their entire series with graphic sexuality.

True Blood (2008-2014) with Stephen Moyer (left) and Anna Paquin (right) as Bill Compton and Sookie Stackhouse (respectively). This modern-day southern gothic series adheres to a lot of Dracula’s original themes of bigotry, violence, and sexuality. Image courtesy of HBO.

Another theory is race. Bear in mind, Dracula was published in 1897, a time when xenophobia was as backwards, “proud,” and outspoken as ever. Not only did various European countries dehumanize people across African and Asiatic countries, but they also regarded many people within Europe as “beneath them.” Dracula contains many not-so-flattering, animalistic descriptions of Slovaks and Romani people as well as plenty of antisemitic allusions.

A third interpretation is disease. Victorian-era people were very anxious about diseases, especially sexually transmitted ones such as syphilis. Syphilis really is a nasty illness! Known by many as the “great imitator,” it can mimic symptoms from other diseases11,12. The bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum causes it, and its signs and symptoms vary by its different stages (primary, secondary, latent, tertiary)11,13. These signs and symptoms can include (but are not limited to) firm, painless, and non-itchy skin ulcerations, rashes on the feet and hands, non-cancerous growths, neurological problems, heart symptoms, fever, sore throat, hair loss, weight loss, kidney disease, joint inflammation, liver inflammation, spinal cord inflammation, papules, nodules, chancres, and meningitis14,15,16,17. Sure enough, it’s a deadly disease and sufferers can even pass it on to their children17. So, people then were right to greatly fear it! 

Where did the archetype of vampires come from? Vampires need not be supernatural. While we usually associate them with immortality and heliophobia, all that a vampire really needs to be a vampire is to drink blood (which is why we label one species of bat “vampiric”).

As far as the literary figure is concerned, vampires go back millennia. “Vampire” is etymologically very old- derived from English, Latin, and French. Other linguistic parallels are found in various Eastern European languages, including Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian. In Albanian, the words lu(v)gat and dhampir are used18. Dhampir is further derived from two Gheg Albanian words: dham (“tooth”) and pir (“drink”)18. An alternate definition is “someone who thrusts, bites”19.

Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, and Manipuri all had tales of demons and spirits that predated vampires. 18th-century southeastern Europe is where the modern “vampire” originated, though20. Oral traditions held in most cases that they were revenants, suicide victims, or witches, or they were corpses that came to life when malevolent, possessive spirits bit them21. In an era of intense superstition, these legends frequently contributed to mass hysteria and the public executions of those accused of vampirism21.

Europeans generally regarded vampires as bloated and ruddy, purplish, or dark in appearance22. Slavic and Chinese people thought that animals (particularly dogs or cats) that jumped over corpses created vampires, while Russians believed they were witches who rebelled against the Russian Orthodox Church while they were alive22,23.

Various methods for preventing the recently deceased from “turning” were also created, such as burying a corpse upside down or filling a grave with earthly objects like scythes and sickles22. People also devised “apotropaics”- items designed to ward off vampires/revenants. Some apotropaics have included wild rose, hawthorn, mustard seeds, and garlic22. Sacred items (holy water, the rosary, and the crucifix) were also used24.

Garlic is one of the supposed “apotropaics” against revenants and vampires.

The reason for the sacred items seems very understandable (at least from a folkloric perspective). Why did garlic emerge as a protective item, though? That’s hard to say. According to one source, garlic contains the chemical compound allicin (a powerful antibiotic), which “kills” vampires by destroying the “disease of the blood” that gives rise to them25. The “mirror myth” arose to allegedly demonstrate their lack of a soul, while “sunlight as kryptonite” …that’s an easy one. Vampires simply aren’t scary in the daytime.

Vampires are strange, peculiar, and terrifying, folkloric entities. Their proclivity for blood…their aversion to sunlight…their pseudo youthfulness and good health. What sort of persona exists at the basis of this collective, mythological creation? The vampire is someone or something that lurks and preys; something that defies the laws of biology; something that gleefully challenges the framework that governs our mortal state of being!

SOURCES

[1] Hopkins, Lisa (2007). Bram Stoker: A Literary Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Eighteen-Bisang, Robert; Miller, Elizabeth, eds. (2008). Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition. Jefferson: McFarland & Co. Pub.

[3] Belford, Barbra (2002). Bram Stoker and The Man Who Was Dracula. London: Hachette Books.

[4] Ludlam, Harry (1962). A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker. W. Foulsham.

[5] Fitts, Alexandra (1998). “Alejandra Pizarnik’s “La condesa Sangrienta” and the Lure of the Absolute”Letras Femeninas24 (1/2): 23–35.

[6] McNally, Raymond T. (1983). Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[7] Mulvey-Roberts, Marie (1998). “Dracula and the Doctors: Bad Blood, Menstrual Taboo and the New Woman”. In Hughes, William; Smith, Andrew (eds.). Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic. Basingston: Macmillan Press.

[8] Signorotti, Elizabeth (1996). “Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in “Carmilla” and “Dracula””Criticism38 (4): 607–632.

[9] Curran, Bob (2005). Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night. Career Press.

[10] Schaffer, Talia (1994). “”A Wilde Desire Took Me”: the Homoerotic History of Dracula”ELH61 (2): 381–425

[11] “Syphilis – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed)”CDC. 2 November 2015. Archived from the original on 6 February 2016. Retrieved 3 February 2016.

[12] Kent ME, Romanelli F (February 2008). “Reexamining syphilis: an update on epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and management”. Annals of Pharmacotherapy42 (2): 226–36.

[13] Ghanem, Khalil G.; Hook, Edward W. (2020). “303. Syphilis”. In Goldman, Lee; Schafer, Andrew I. (eds.). Goldman-Cecil Medicine. Vol. 2 (26th ed.). Philadelphia: Elsevier. pp. 1983–1989.

[14] Kent ME, Romanelli F (February 2008). “Reexamining syphilis: an update on epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and management”. Annals of Pharmacotherapy42 (2): 226–36.

[15] Bhatti MT (2007). “Optic neuropathy from viruses and spirochetes”. Int Ophthalmol Clin47 (4): 37–66, ix

[16] Longo, Dan L.; Ropper, Allan H. (3 October 2019). “Neurosyphilis”. New England Journal of Medicine381 (14): 1358–63.

[17] Woods CR (June 2009). “Congenital syphilis-persisting pestilence”. Pediatr. Infect. Dis. J28 (6): 536–37.

[18] Husić, Geoff. “A Vampire by Any Other Name”

[19] MACHEK, V.: Etymologický slovník jazyka českého, 5th edition, NLN, Praha 2010

[20] Silver, Alain; Ursini, James (1997). The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Interview with the Vampire. New York City: Limelight Editions. pp. 22–23.

[21] Cohen, Daniel (1989). The Encyclopedia of Monsters: Bigfoot, Chinese Wildman, Nessie, Sea Ape, Werewolf and many more …. London: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

[22] Barber, Paul (1988). Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University Press

[23] Reader’s Digest Association (1988). “Vampires Galore!”. The Reader’s Digest Book of strange stories, amazing facts: stories that are bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing, incredible … but true. New York City: Reader’s Digest. pp. 432–433.

[24] Burkhardt, Dagmar (1966). “Vampirglaube und Vampirsage auf dem Balkan”. Beiträge zur Südosteuropa-Forschung: Anlässlich des I. Internationalen Balkanologenkongresses in Sofia 26. VIII.-1. IX. 1966 (in German). Munich: Rudolf Trofenik. p. 221.

[25] Booseum: Vampires! (carnegiemnh.org)

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