When Bram Stoker wrote his novel ‘Dracula’ in 1897, he probably never imagined the impact his work would have on popular culture. If the book had not been written, the vampire myth would, in all likelihood, never have grown as big as it is today. But was there anything in it in the first place – or was it all just the product of a rich imagination?
Lucille Turner, author of ‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ explains all.
It is easy to forget that Count Dracula was in fact a real man. He lived in Wallachia, present-day Romania, in the fifteenth century, and his name was Vlad Dracula.
The name Dracula means, ‘son of Dracul’, and it was attributed to Vlad as one of at least three children born to Vlad Dracul the father. His mother is said to have died giving birth to him in 1431. His childhood was spent with his two brothers first in Sighisoara then in Targoviste from where his father ruled as Prince. So, was the family really a band of blood sucking fiends? It is true that reports exist that Vlad Dracula (the son) became a tyrant once he took the throne of Wallachia, and that he not only tortured his enemies by impalement, but also drank their blood. However, such accounts should be considered carefully before they are believed. The Dracul family had enemies, plenty of them. Saxon merchants from the north of the country may have taken pleasure in slurring the reputation of a man whose political opinions did not always coincide with their own. Such things are done all the time, and are still being done. Nevertheless Vlad Dracula probably did, at one point in his life, allow his darker side to get the better of him, and he was certainly no saint. He was also said to have been afflicted by a number of mysterious illnesses, which later came to be associated with the vampire persona. He may have been prone to seizures for instance, and could even have had a skin condition that made him allergic to daylight.
The turning point in his life certainly came when he was taken hostage by the Ottoman Turks in return for his father’s fealty. Already the Dracul family was caught between a rock and a hard place politically. The Holy Roman Empire in the north was exerting pressure on them through the Hungarians, who feared that the Ottoman armies were engulfing too many Balkan countries and fast becoming a threat to the rest of Europe. And to the south, the Ottoman Turks were likewise tightening the screws. Vlad Dracula’s father must have found himself in an impossibly tight corner, and the fact is that in the end it cost him not only the lives of his sons, but his own life too. His eldest son, Mircea, was murdered, and he never saw his other two boys again, since they were only released upon his death. Perhaps the Dracul family might be better remembered as martyrs than as vampires?
That as it may be, they may not have been the only inspiration for Stoker, for there was plenty of other material to be found, which connected Romania to the myth of the vampire.
Romanian folklore is infused with the cult of the dead. Rituals and superstitions were, at one time, endemic in the region once known as Wallachia. Transylvania lay just on the edge of it, to the north. The belief in vampires, or strigois, as they were known, was common. These pagan beliefs go back a long way. The history of Wallachia includes the history of the Goths, and the Getae who once lived on the shores of the Black Sea. There are many legends and tales that emerge from these shores, notably connections with the wolf men of the Goths, and the ‘twice-born’ of the Getae. The myth of resurrection crops up too in the folklore, in the form of a demi-god called Zalmoxis.
Zalmoxis, Herodotus writes, was a man who became a god. Thought dead, he emerged again as living, spreading awe among his people. Such tales of resurrection are really quite widespread, although they do not always endure. Perhaps some cultures are more disposed than others to take them on board. The Persians gave report of resurrected beings in their art. To the Indians they were ghouls, returning after death to feed on the living. Only when the Christian Church emerged was the vampire myth taken by the throat. The Church used it as a warning, and made the vampire a symbol of evil. But was it one, really?
A Legacy of Hope and Fear
While he was holidaying on the Yorkshire coast of Britain sometime before 1897, Stoker discovered Whitby Abbey and the churchyard with its ruins and its bats. He is said to have visited Whitby’s library, where he fell upon some books about Wallachia and Transylvania. Perhaps it was these books that inspired him to create his infamous fictional character, Count Dracula, from a real historical figure. But whatever the inspiration, Stoker opened a door on a history that had almost been forgotten. Now he would immortalize it in such a way that it would cause a public sensation. The book became a bestseller, with its daring claim of the existence of vampires.
Some fans of history believe that Bram Stoker has a good deal to answer for in having breathed life into the vampire through his novel, ‘Dracula’. By setting his novel in Romania and using the name of Dracula, the genesis of the vampire appeared to come from a real historical figure, but of course Stoker was not really responsible for the myth of the vampire. Vampires are much older than Stoker’s book; they have been around for centuries in one form or another. Even so, although many cultures relate stories of vampire-type figures, it is in Romania that the historical vampire has made its deepest mark.
The association of the Dracula name with the vampire character has become so entrenched in Romania that ‘Dracula’ tours of Vlad the Impaler’s haunts are on offer for tourists and lovers of horror fiction. However, and paradoxically, Vlad Dracula is nevertheless perceived as a national hero in his home country. Which then, is the real Dracula, the hero or the villain, the good guy or the bad?
In the end, it is hard to say exactly why the belief in strigois and the myth of the vampire was so persistent, and why it continues to exist even today. One explanation is that the myth of resurrection gives people hope. The need to believe in life after death, regardless of the form it takes, is strong. And when this need is combined with the fear of the unknown, the myth gains a power that is almost intuitive. The sinful associations that Stoker attributes to his vampire, Count Dracula, are partly typical of the time in which he lived, and partly typical of the way the vampire myth evolved, under the influence of the Christian Church. But the folklore of the Black Sea region, where the vampire myth is most prevalent, does not necessarily paint the vampire as a villain or a figure of sinfulness, but rather as a victim, an unredeemable soul condemned to a second life of despair. The strigoi thus becomes a symbol of our deepest, darkest fears. When Stoker wrote his novel, perhaps what he was really doing was tapping into a well of anxiety almost as eternal as the vampire itself.
1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.
When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?
‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ weaves a web of intrigue in a world that will divide forever. As Eastern Europe struggles against the tide of a Muslim advance it cannot counter, Western Christendom needs only one prize to overthrow its enemies – the ancient scrolls of the library of Constantinople.