There are various noticeable connotations which come to people’s minds after hearing the word Gothic. Some associate the term with today’s pulp literature for youngsters, whereas others often think of old, black and white movies about all those ridiculously looking monsters who constantly attack poor and frightened damsels-in-distress.
Taking into account such perceptions, it is not surprising that the meaning of Gothic, carried and sustained through the centuries by countless works of literature, has decayed recently due to the degrading influence of popular culture. However, there is one significant phenomenon or, more appropriately, a single figure, that can be held accountable for the conventionalisation of Gothicism in both literature and culture. This figure is no one but Count Dracula himself.
The aim of this article is to demonstrate how the famous figure of a vampire created by Bram Stoker in 1897 became, in fact, the main cause of changes within the Gothic conventions and what impact these transformations have had on the present culture.
In order to conduct this analysis, we shall endeavour to focus on the origins of Dracula (1897) and its titular anti-hero by presenting several influences which led Bram Stoker to create his story.
Next, the character of the Count shall be juxtaposed with the imaginings of vampires in local folklore beliefs as well as with his Gothic predecessors such as John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), James Malcolm Rymer’s ‘Varney The Vampire’ (1845-1847), and Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1871-1872) so as to indicate the sources of the character in the classic Gothic canon.
Finally, the article will characterise Dracula’s influence on modern popular culture on the basis of several trends concerning adapting the vampire figure for the silver screen.
First of all, let us focus our attention on the literary work itself. It is commonly known that the book was published in 1897 and almost immediately gained widespread acclaim among the reading public. In addition to that, Dracula is cited by many literary scholars as one of the central works responsible for the re-emergence of the Gothic genre at the end of the nineteenth-century (Botting 1996, 88).
The plot of the story must surely be known to anyone interested in the subject of Gothicism, however, in order to maintain the logical structure of this article, a brief synopsis is presented hereunder.
The book tells the story of Jonathan Harker, who arrives at the castle of Count Dracula. The Count called for him because he is keen on buying an estate in England. However, Jonathan grows suspicious of Dracula’s true intentions, and he eventually becomes imprisoned in the castle. Dracula travels to England on his own and, soon after that, begins his devilish plan of consuming the blood of young and innocent victims of the distant country. He attacks one of Harker’s acquaintances, Lucy Westenra, and her friends, unable to help her, call for Dr Van Helsing.
In spite of numerous blood transfusions, Lucy dies, but afterwards, she returns as a vampire. Dr Van Helsing’s team, consisting of Jonathan, his wife Mina Harker, Dr John Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey P. Morris, quickly realise that Dracula has to be destroyed, but then the Count manages to attack Harker’s beloved wife. Being desperately pursued back to Transylvania, the vicious vampire is ultimately annihilated. (Stoker 2008)
Bram Stoker spent seven years of his life doing research on Eastern European folklore, before setting out to draft his novel. Although he never visited Romania himself, it is claimed that he was inspired by an essay from 1885 entitled ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ by Emily de Laszowska Gerard (Snodgrass 2005, 345).
Additionally, he closely studied the contents of William Wilkinson’s ‘Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, along with ‘The Historie and Superstitions of Romantic Romania’.
Needless to say, Stoker’s original idea for the character’s name was not initially Dracula. Its protagonist was to be called simply Count Wampyr, whereas the novel’s title was meant to be ‘The Un-Dead’. Nevertheless, the names were changed at the last moment when the novelist stumbled upon an account in Wilkinson’s work about the Romanian Impaler known as Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia.
The name itself, Dracula, was a family name which was inherited by each descendant of the royal lineage. Vlad’s father, allegedly adopted it in order to be accepted as a member into the Chivalric Order of the Dragon in the fifteenth-century, thus the name Dracul means dragon or son of the devil.
In fact, it is still argued by historians whether the figure of the ruthless and merciless ruler of Wallachia was indeed an inspiration for Stoker, due to the overwhelming number of differences between him and the fictional character (Vlad had a rather sadistic approach to his enemies, whereas Dracula was more of a freedom fighter in the novel); yet, without a doubt, the name itself served as a driving influence for the drafting of the villain due its negative associations (Shepard 2014).
However, apart from the tales of Vlad Tepes, there was also a significant factor of folklore beliefs which proved essential for the process of creating the Count, along with all of his attributes and magical powers.
Vampires had been present in European fables and legends since the Middle Ages, and they served to explain various phenomena related to the taboo topics of death and the afterlife, but it was in the eighteenth-century that the fear of vampires reached its peak.
In the 1720s, in East Prussia, there were reported two cases of people who had risen from the grave and started murdering people.
The frenzy due to these alleged incidents grew so high that even the authorities became involved in the crusade of hunting down and staking the living dead. According to the superstitions, vampires were described as mythological beings; most possibly demons which had a habit of possessing innocent people’s corpses.
In this way, many pre-industrial societies struggled to unravel the process of death and the subsequent bodily decomposition. Many legends were simply the result of a very poor, medical knowledge. In most cases, the un-dead were buried alive due to illnesses such as bubonic plague, porphyria and, above all, rabies.
The latter was characterised by the disturbance of sleep patterns, fear of light, aggression, hypersexuality, and a strong urge to bite others. In addition to this, the supposed victims of spiritual possession were not pale in appearance, but purple or black, often with a left eye open and having no fangs or anything that would resemble them. (Łotyszowa 2002, 210).
Moreover, apart from such cultural perceptions of Dracula’s possible predecessors, researcher Andrew Smith also points to the fact that there are many features of symbolism apparent in the Gothic convention itself.
Firstly, literature of the Gothic illustrates humanity’s fears of ancient superstitions which people passed on orally from generation to generation. Horror monsters, such as vampires, ghosts, zombies, and werewolves, are modelled on old superstitions and tales that were present in the archaic cultures of antiquity. The creatures personify these superstitions and hence cast doubt on the reliability of human reason.
Secondly, in biological terms, people tend to believe that they dominate the environmental food chain. Gothic horror beasts are the negation of such assumptions. In the stories, they try to devour people, both physically and psychologically. For that reason, they can be viewed as an opposition against human overconfidence with regard to the people’s supremacy over animals.
Next, monsters can embody our anxiety of inexplicable phenomena. For instance, vampires may be perceived as representing the danger of succumbing to sexual desires, whereas werewolves can denote the infinite depths of human rage, and ghosts can mean the absence of heaven. (Smith 2007, 6)
Furthermore, the symbolism of the monsters can in general illustrate the all-present viciousness of the world. That is to say, the everyday activities during which we developed with time an awareness of the possible awaiting dangers.
The example of that may be an ordinary walk in the forest. In such a case, the tales about monsters lurking in a secluded area were meant to scare children from wandering around the woods on their own, because otherwise, they could be attacked by dangerous strangers.
Additionally, the monsters might also epitomise house burglars or mass murderers, who go from place to place and prey upon people’s unawareness of the threat. Moreover, there is also a factor of our inner feelings. An individual may struggle with repressing the noxious urges like lust, anger, greed, envy, or revenge. The creatures show the fall of a human being when he/she gives in to those impulses. (Snodgrass 2005, 330-331)
The prominent instances of such folklore and symbolic visualisations can be exemplified in the Germanic and Romanian beliefs about the following two monster progenitors:
- Nachzehrer, native of the Northern Germany regions, whose name can be translated as “devourer of energy”; however, he is not considered an ordinary blood consumer. Rather, Nachzehrer tends to eat dead bodies whole in order to maintain health. In addition, an ordinary person cannot become Nachzehrer due to getting bitten or scratched. Most commonly, an individual could change into Nachzehrer after dying from plague or by committing suicide. (Snodgrass 330)
- Strigoi, a demonic creature from Romania that is a tormented soul coming back from the afterlife. He or she can assume animal forms or even become invisible. Frequently, such a demonic entity derives from a long lineage of other blood-sucking beings. To date, allegedly, greatly feared by the local frontiersmen. (ibidem 345)
Therefore, it seems obvious that Count Dracula was not only a mere reproduction of an ancient ruler, but also an embodiment of traditional myths. Similarly to the above mentioned examples, Dracula is capable of turning into a bat, a dog, or mist, has exceptional strength and can control inanimate phenomena (the weather) and animate creatures (wolves and humans). Nonetheless, Dracula’s remarkable powers become useless in daylight. Therefore, he has to wait through that time in a coffin.
Additionally, such traditional and religious symbols as garlic or the crucifix pose a threat to him and the only way he can be destroyed is to pierce his chest with a wooden stake.