Dracula and Vampires

In his famous novel first published in 1897, Bram Stoker describes Dracula as follows:

His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily around the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bush hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth…under the heavy mustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Stoker further enhances Dracula’s description by noting that “there were hairs in the center of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point.” The image that emerges is one of an other-worldly terrifying creature, from the far corners of an unknown world – in this case, an unknown Europe, Eastern Europe – that receded into the shadows of academic inquiries in the 20th century just as the figure of Dracula emerged in the popular imagination.

Dracula has been a mainstay of films, TV shows, plays, novels, and comic books for decades. Most notably, Stoker’s Dracula informed film renditions for much of the 20th century, with creative adaptations that transformed the protagonist from a spooky monster, as seen in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, to a mysterious gentleman in the 1931 film featuring Bella Lugosi, and, finally, in the closest visual adaptation of the novel, the 1992 Hollywood production, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

We know that the novel takes place in late-19th century London and Transylvania – two extremes of Europe – a well-known one in the West, and a mysterious realm in the East. The novel also makes loose historical references to the life and afterlife of Vlad III “the Impaler” (1431–ca.1476) of Wallachia in modern Romania.

 Anonymous Artist, Portrait of Vlad III
oil on canvas, second half of the 16th century
Castle Ambras at Innsbruck, Austria

The massive popularity of the novel and the imagined characterization of the main protagonist had the effect of generating considerable curiosity about Vlad III Dracula, his brutal reign, and the historical context in which he lived, contributing to his transformations from a medieval hero into a postmedieval vampire.

Within the mystical aura of Eastern Europe, there was only a short leap to the vampire culture that developed around Vlad III. Through Bram Stoker’s famous novel, he became associated with a vampire, essentially someone who returns from the dead in the guise of a creature in order to attack people or animals, who in turn also become vampires.

A bat, Cod.min.130, fol. 82r
Studies after nature from the bestiary of Rudolf II
Vienna, 1577-1612

Bats, as the only mammals that can fly, were especially apt for such analogies. Lots of different names for vampires emerged in the Eastern and Central European cultural contexts, through stories and folkloric accounts. The Bulgarian language, for example, has over 22 variants for the word "vampire."

Along with the names, various characteristics were also established. Vampires came to exhibit a corpse-like appearance, bloodshot eyes, red cheeks, no nose, long hair, either no nails or really long nails. They were also creatures that mostly appeared at night in the guise of their living person or as an animal or a bat.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, vampires were of interest to doctors, philosophers, and theologians who were routinely concerned with the relationship between the body, the soul, and the spirit, as well as with what exactly happens to the body after death. The numerous stories about vampires also encouraged various defenses against them, including religious symbols (cross, rosary), garlic, wooden spears or heated iron bars through the heart, decapitation, burning, light, bells, and even filling the holes around the graves with water.

In Romanian folklore, it was believed that the devil can change into animals, and so the connections and fantastic transformations between Vlad, the devil, the bat, and the vampire become not as far-fetched as in other cultural contexts.

To return now to Stoker’s description of Dracula, mentioned above, it very much draws on vampire lore in an Eastern European cultural context, but also on contemporary textual descriptions of Vlad III and his cultural milieu.

To learn more about this fascinating historical figure and his later transformations, read the special issue of Medieval Warfare focused on Vlad the Impaler.


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