On the Trail of Dracula

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.

From Macabre Monster to Caped Seducer

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.

" 'The Historian' is about a superstition that there are vampires. It is about a fictional creation, Bram Stoker's Dracula. It also is about history and about real places. So some of it is fact and some of it is fiction," Kostova explained.

Tracing Dracula's Nobility -- and Brutality

Central to Kostova's story is a name that actually exists in the pages of history -- Dracula.

A national folk hero in Romania known as Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century ruler who successfully staved off invasion by the Turkish Empire, called himself Vlad Dracula.

According to scholar Elizabeth Miller, Dracula was a nickname derived from his father, who went by Dracul, the Romanian word for dragon.

"Dracula was sort of like the son, the little dragon or the son of the dragon," said Miller.

Vlad Dracula, who led his army in a famous stand at the Poenari Fortress against the invading Turks, was known as both a great warrior and a brutal tyrant, Miller said.

He called himself Vlad Dracula, but he is known by Romanians and Medieval historians as Vlad Tepes -- Vlad the Impaler in English for his preferred method of execution.

Vlad Dracula was known to have impaled Turkish prisoners as a tool of psychological warfare against the threatening Turk forces. "Vlad had to impale Turkish prisoners in what was labeled a forest of the impaled. The response was, 'We don't want anything to do with this guy. Let's turn around and go home,' " said Miller.

Historical opinion on Vlad also was influenced by a rare German pamphlet. One of the few remaining copies in the world is at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Barsanti said the pamphlet lists atrocities committed by Vlad, including accounts of Vlad impaling visiting monks and other visitors.

Vlad's legend got even darker and more mysterious after he died. It is said he was martyred at the hands of Turkish enemies who beheaded him.

"After he was killed, the story goes, his head was taken back to Constantinople as a trophy for the Sultan and Vlad's headless body was buried at a monastery in Snagov, which is about 25 miles from Bucharest," Miller said.

But four centuries later when the monastery site on Snagov Island was excavated, the grave was empty and a historical mystery began. Where was Vlad Dracula's body?

Kostova's novel follows a contemporary woman on a trail through history. In that plot the grave at the monastery is empty because Vlad Dracula is still alive.

"There are really two Draculas," Kostova said. "One of them of course is Vlad the Third of Wallachia, this historical figure who had been named Dracula. And the other is the creation of an author, Bram Stoker's Dracula. In my book I've made a jump to fuse the two."

The connection between the two has been made before in a work of nonfiction. In their groundbreaking 1972 work "In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires," Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, Boston College historians, traced the history of Vlad the Impaler and suggested that he was the prototype for Stoker's Dracula.

"The merit of that book is that it did bring into Dracula's scholarship a whole new group of people," said Miller.

Stoker's personal notes held at the Rosenbach Library suggest that the author read about the 15th-century ruler Vlad Dracula in a book published in 1820 by William Wilkinson called "Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia." In Wilkinson's book it stated that the name Dracula also meant devil.

Stoker seemed to like this name. His notes show that he crossed out another name he'd been using, "Count Wampyr," and wrote in Dracula.

"It's interesting though, that he actually didn't change the title of the book until the very last minute. The book, the working title of the book was 'The Undead,' " said Barsanti.

But Michael Barsanti and other scholars say the nickname "Dracula" was essentially all Stoker took from the accounts of Vlad the Impaler. There's little evidence Stoker knew much else about Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracula).

According to Barsanti, "The notes show that Stoker imagined … the vampire count, even before he learned about Dracula. … It's sort of an irony that prior to Stoker, Vlad Dracula was a prince of Wallachia. And ever since then, now everyone thinks he's a vampire," Barsanti said.

Vampire Movies and More

Seven decades after Stoker's character laid out basic rules for vampire stories -- garlic and crosses keep the creatures at bay and they can be killed only with a stake to their heart -- director Roman Polanski was spoofing them in the 1967 film "The Fearless Vampire Killers."

Dracula became trivialized by these cartoonish vampire characters in movies, comic books, even in the cereal character Count Chocula, Miller said.

Anne Rice's novel, "Interview With The Vampire," stripped the comic book quality from vampires.

"Just when you think that the vampire cannot come back from the grave one more time, someone comes along with a movie or a novel and reinvents the whole thing. … Her vampires are sensuous sexual renegades. They're brooding and introspective," Skal said.

It's not just the enticing idea of eternal life that gives vampires their enduring appeal, it's their seductive qualities, says professor and author Katherine Ramsland. "You could get a zombie to live forever but who wants to be a zombie? Nobody. Who wants to be Frankenstein's monster? Nobody. You want to be vampires because vampires get all the girls or all the guys," she said.

But Kostova's new book peels away the pop culture characterizations of vampires and Dracula and places the legend in a historical context.

"The vampire legend is part of an answer to the question what would happen to us if we were allowed to live forever? And the answer, the consensus seems to be that it wouldn't be very good for us, that somehow we would have to give up part of our humanity to do that, that we would become monsters," Kostova said.

"The word vampire itself seems to have cropped up in Slavic countries as a term for a blood sucking corpse. This whole idea of blood, the mystical, magical, almost religious symbolic power of blood I think is a very strong part of it," said Miller.

Vampire legend and the symbolic weight of blood run together through recorded history. In virtually all religions blood has some significance -- none more obvious than the symbolic drinking of blood at Christian communion, and its promise of a spiritual afterlife.

Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 movie brought the vampire legend full circle. Called "Bram Stoker's Dracula," the film united the themes of death, sex and blood.

And Kostova in her novel attempts to weave these threads together into a new 21st-century version of the legend. Scholars are at the center of her story, and that adds yet another big theme to the vampire legend -- the quest for knowledge.

In Kostova's book, Dracula has become a scholar -- leaving clues about his real identity in libraries -- tempting researchers to put it all together.

The Threat of a Mysterious Foreign Menace

When Stoker's Dracula arrived in 1897, Londoners were already scared. Earlier in the decade Jack the Ripper had killed numerous prostitutes and left their dismembered bodies on the streets. There were fears of tuberculosis and concern about a growing number of Eastern European immigrants.

"Stoker chose perhaps the most mysterious spot in all of Europe for his readership to think about a creature who could come out of this complete otherness and yet make it to England," said Kostova.

Barsanti agrees that this "otherness" is integral to Stoker's character.

"That is a really important part of the atmosphere of Dracula and this sense of a threat, a violent threat not just from without but from within … a kind of fear about different kinds of nationalities and cultures immigrating into Western Europe, and into London specifically," he said.

It may be that Stoker was playing on public fears that Eastern Europeans carried the scourge of disease.

"I think there's a lot to that. It's significant that Dracula doesn't come from Paris," Barsanti said. Rather Stoker placed his Dracula in Transylvania, a place in far Eastern Europe that Londoners would be intimidated by.

An Emblem of Undying Evil

In "The Historian," Dracula has evolved yet again. He is now an emblem of past horrors.

To be sure, Vlad has his defenders and historians point out that many rulers acted with extreme brutality toward their enemies. "I don't think you'll find too many benevolent tyrants in the 15th century. The kings of England were known for atrocities. Then you have people like Ivan the Terrible of course who were even worse than Vlad," said Miller.

Kostova says she sees the Dracula legend as a metaphor for all the undead evils in history. Whether or not you believe in vampires, there is evil at the core of the story.

Kostova, like authors before her, finds Dracula to be a figure so rich with meaning and metaphor she said he's likely to come back yet again. "Probably in the 22nd century we'll see a new Dracula, a Dracula we can't even imagine or recognize today."