How Dracula became the icon he is

Vampires, they are a staple of the common folklore and a gold mine when it comes to shows of the drama and fantasy genre. They are amongst the most recognized when considering mythical creatures, and with numerous TV shows and movies constantly showcasing them one could very well say that they are the top of the chain in show biz as well. And even among the vampires, there is one figure who lives on in people’s minds as the most famous vampire ever, Dracula. While he is neither the first fictional vampire nor the most popular of his time, he may very well have remained buried in obscurity if not for a twist of fate.

Before Dracula came along, blood sucking monsters had already been a part of folklore for at least 800 years. It was the Slavic folklore that gave us the name vampire or “upir” in old Russian. The terms first known written mention came from the 11th century. Vampire lore in the region had predated Christian arrival and despite the church’s attempts to eliminate all pagan beliefs, vampiric folklore persisted. The stories of vampires originated from misinterpretations of diseases such as rabies and pellagra, and even decomposition. In the case of the latter, gasses swelling the body and blood oozing from the mouth could make it look like a corpse had recently been alive and feeding on blood. Vampires were often described as bloated with sharp teeth and overgrown nails, which had a perfectly well reasoned scientific explanation, however since the people then were ignorant of them, they fell into superstition. This gave rise to many rituals intended to prevent the dead from rising, such as burying bodies with garlic and poppy-seeds as well as having them staked, mutilated and even burned. Vampire lore remained a local phenomenon until the 18th century, when Serbia was caught between the struggle of two great powers of that time, the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman empire. Austrian soldiers and government officials observed and documented the strange rituals and their reports became wildly publicized which resulted in a vampire hysteria. It got so out of hand that in 1755, the Austrian Empress was forced to send her personal physician to investigate and debunk the rumors. The panic subsided but the vampire fascination had already taken root in western European imagination. This spawned books like “The Vampyre” in 1819 and “Carmilla” in 1872. These would go on to influence a young Irish drama critic named Bram Stoker who was born in Dublin in 1847. Until the age of seven he was severely bedridden with an unknown illness, during which his mother would tell him folktales and her experience during an outbreak of cholera in whose real-life horror would inspire Stoker to write. In 1897 he wrote “Dracula”, although the book’s main villain and namesake is thought to be based on historical figure Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler, it is only his name that they share. The rest of his characteristics were influenced by various works of the Victorian Era. The novel upon release saw moderate success and was only briefly ever mentioned in Stoker’s obituary in 1912. However, a critical copyright battle soon changed Dracula’s fate. In 1922 a German studio adapted the book into the now classic “Nosferatu” which despite minor changes was largely plagiarized, and was sued into bankruptcy. Stoker’s widow decided to copyright by approving a production by family-friend Hamilton Deane. This became a classic largely due to Bela Lugosi’s performance on Broadway. Lugosi would go on to Star in the 1931 film version of it by Universal, lending the character many of his signature characteristics.

Since then Dracula has risen again in many adaptations, finding eternal life beyond the humble pages of his birth.