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Bram Stoker's Inspiration for Dracula

Many folklore tales about vampires originate from Eastern Europe, although scholars have found evidence of similar blood-drinking monsters in ancient myth. The Greeks and Romans had imagined entities in their mythology with vampiric traits. And yet, when we look at early Eastern European tales of blood drinking ghouls, we don't find anything like the aristocratic and elegant Count Dracula, who is the archetypal vampire in the minds of many today. In Eastern European folklore the vampire is very much a monster, ugly, putrid, with rotting flesh, a semi-human creature bloated with rot from the grave. In colour it was often purplish in hew, due to recent blood intake, evidence of which could be seen dripping down its chin. This makes sense, as a vampire is one of the un-dead, risen from the grave to seek the life force it needs from the veins of the living.

Vampires in folklore

So how did the modern day idea of Count Dracula as a smooth talking, elegant aristocrat come about? What possible link could there be with the foul creature of folklore? Bram Stoker took many different traditions and ideas about vampires and incorporated them into his creation. He assimilated widely-held beliefs about vampires from several countries and blended them together into a hideous whole. Traditionally, members of society who were outcast and feared, those who were excommunicated, children who were un-baptized, those thought to be witches and magicians could all, it was believed, become vampires. To defend one's self against vampires a stake made of ash wood must be driven through the heart during the hours of daylight. It was still common practice to do this to suicide victims up until 1823 in England. In Romania red-hot bars were the preferred method, before the body was burned, or reburied at a cross-road. Other beliefs included the aversion of vampires to garlic, and even today people in some rural areas of Eastern European hang garlic over the door. Farm animals would be rubbed with garlic to ward off vampires in the night, and poppy seeds scattered in and around cemeteries in the belief that the rising vampires, who were believed to be compulsive counters, would be compelled to stop and count them. Remember The Count in Sesame Street? That is why he counts everything.

Aristocratic Traits

Bram Stoker's Dracula is a fusion of various ideas and traditions, which he learned about by studying Eastern European folklore at some length. But, like all literature or art, Dracula is also a reflection of the time in which the work is created. When Stoker wrote Dracula (1897) there were many anxieties surrounding threats to the British Empire, and a genre called Invasion Literature was current. Invasion Literature often depicted a threat to the nation by foreign forces, which threatened to end a way of life forever. Other writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G Wells (War of the Worlds, 1898) and Robert Louis Stevenson were writing novels in this genre at the same time. The fears were triggered by the Paris Siege in 1871, when Prussia surrounded the city and defeated the Napoleon's massive army in a very short time. The arrival of a foreign monster from Transylvania in the form of blood-sucking Dracula, intent on dominating England, symbolized those fears perfectly.

Dracula the Aristocrat

Bram Stoker's Dracula was strongly influenced by a novella, printed in 1819, called The Vampyre, written by a young doctor called John William Polidori. In 1816 – known famously as the rain-soaked 'Year Without a Summer, he and Lord Byron were staying at a villa at Lake Geneva. During a storm Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont visited them. The group took laudanum and passed three days of torrential rain inside Byron’s villa telling ghost stories and tales of horror. Later Mary Shelley went on to write Frankenstein inspired by a tale she began here and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre. It was Polidori's creation of an aristocratic vampire feeding off high society that inspired the creation of Dracula.

It is fascinating to trace the origins of the most famous vampire of all. Next time you have your friends round and you are lounging on your black leather sofa bed telling horror stories by candle light, remember that rain-drenched holiday in Geneva, and how two of the greatest gothic horror stories ever written arose from friends doing exactly the same thing.

By Isabella A. Woods

 

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