On the Trail of Dracula

ByABC News
August 25, 2005, 1:12 PM

Aug. 26, 2005 — -- The Romanian farming district of Transylvania has been shrouded in so much mythic lore many Americans don't even think it exists. Generations have learned of the rural Eastern European district only through the tale of Count Dracula, one of the most shadowy and famous figures in all of literature.

And the tale of a toothy Transylvanian vampire continues to transfix readers and moviegoers around the world.

"Every generation will re-create its own Dracula," said Dracula scholar and author Elizabeth Miller.

Dracula's first generation began in London in 1897. Theater manager and writer Bram Stoker published a novel that brought a vampire out of the wild Transylvanian mountains and onto London's streets.

But Stoker's macabre myth took on a life of its own. Since it first appeared 108 years ago, Stoker's "Dracula" has never been out of print. It's been translated into 29 languages and adapted in every artistic medium.

Michael Barsanti, of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia -- which holds a rare collection of Stoker's papers -- said Stoker would be surprised by his character's longevity. "I think Stoker would be of course pleased, but also really kind of mystified at the amount of attention this story still has," he said.

"Stoker has an interest in the macabre, in those moments where a really civilized, sometimes aristocratic, world comes up against really scary and violent chaos," Barsanti said.

David Skal, Dracula scholar and co-editor of the new Norton Critical Edition of "Bram Stoker's Dracula," thinks German director F. W. Murnau came closest to capturing the essence of Stoker's creature in his 1922 silent film "Nosferatu."

"He's a totally frightening creature, half-rat, kind of insectoid and closer to the spirit of Stoker than anything else has done," Skal said. "Stoker's Dracula was a cadaverous old man with hair on his palms, with bad breath. He seduced no one. His idea of a social call was smashing through your bedroom window in the form of a wolf."

Dracula's second generation dawned in Hollywood in 1931 with Bela Lugosi's classic portrayal of the caped Count Dracula. Lugosi's character would become the classic image of the vampire count -- smooth, elegant and seductive.

But the Hungarian-born Lugosi almost didn't get the part that made him world famous. He arrived in America with little command of English and had to learn many of his lines phonetically, according to Skal.

"The result was that unforgettable accent that will ever be associated with Count Dracula," Skal said.

And with this summer's best-selling novel, "The Historian," author Elizabeth Kostova has re-created Dracula yet again for a new generation that seems as fascinated as ever by Stoker's legendary character.

Kostova got a reported $2 million advance for her book, a seven-figure movie deal, and readers have kept it on the best-seller list all summer.

Kostova spent 10 years researching her subject. She traced the Dracula legend back through the centuries and found the count actually has a family tree. The search for the truth about Dracula's Eastern European lineage gives Kostova's tale its new and modern twist. It wraps the old story in new scholarship.