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The Origins of Dracula and the Modern Vampire; Part 3

Updated on February 10, 2015
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In 1820, Ruthwen also appeared on stage for the first time. On June 13, 1820, the first performance of Le Vampire, a play based on Polidori’s The Vampyre, took place at the Porte- Saint Martin Theater. The play was a huge success, inspiring a series of immitations and parodies. Ruthwen again appears as the lead vampire in an 1851 production of Le Vampire. Though the title is the same as the 1820 version, the plot and playwrites were new.[1] Ruthwen’s dominance among literary vampires in the West lasted throughout the nineteenth century, until the character was almost forgotten with the rise of Stoker’s Count Dracula.

Another early literary work concerning vampires, On the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions, was published in 1851 by Herbert Mayo. Like Stoker’s Dracula, Mayo’s book was compiled in the form of letters. According to Clive Leatherdale, Stoker did in fact read Mayo’s work.[2] Not only did Stoker use Mayo’s method of compiling his book in letter form, he also may have been influenced by the name of one of Mayo’s characters. In Mayo’s work, the lead female character is named Nina, Stoker’s lead woman is named Mina, though not the same, similar enough to suggest that Stoker used Mayo’s work for more than its form.[3]

There are at least two other fictional pieces of English literature concerning vampires published prior to Bram Stoker’s novel which helped to conduct the vampire legend through fiction in the nineteenth- century. They are Rymer and Prest’s Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.[4] Le Fanu’s short novel, published in 1872, lifted the vampire motif to new heights of literary creativity. The work’s impact on Le Fanu’s Irish compatriot, Bram Stoker, was such that Stoker has been said to have come near to plagiarism.[5]

Stoker’s research notes show that he initially intended to locate his novel in Styria, the home of Carmilla.[6] But he soon changed his mind and shifted the location of his masterpiece to Transylvania, and built the novel’s central character around a fifteenth- century Wallachian Prince renowned for his ferocity in his campaigns against the Turks, Vlad III Dracula.[7] In doing so, Stoker changed the evolutionary course of the fictional vampire in literature, on stage, in film, and in nearly every form of media available from 1897 until the present.

Though Stoker’s vampire has been the most influential fictional vampire in history, Count Dracula’s image did not fully capture the public’s perception immediately. This process was gradual. Initially, Dracula’s image was confined to the printed page. It was through stage and film that the Count cemented his immortality in the imagination of audiences. This is not surprising as Stoker, though most famous for his 1897 novel Dracula, devoted most of his life to theater.[8]

While researching aspects of his novel in the summer of 1890, Bram Stoker was introduced to Vlad III Dracula in the public library at Whitby. It was here that he came across William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, published in 1820. Wilkinson’s account confuses matters concerning the two Dracula’s, Vlad III and his father Vlad II, more commonly known as Vlad Dracul.[9] Wilkinson also misinterpreted the meaning of the name Dracula, claiming that “in the Wallachian language [Dracula] means Devil.”[10] Though this is inaccurate, this mistake may have caused Stoker change the name of his character, and ultimately vampire history. Not only did Stoker use Dracula’s name, he also used a slightly altered history of Vlad III Dracula in his novel, forever changing the historic interpretation of the Wallachian Voyvode (prince).

Stoker’s original name for his vampire was Count Wampyre. Several times in his early notes Stoker was using the name Wampyre, or simply Count followed by an empty space he would underline, revealing his apprehension to use this name for his monster. He later scratched out the name Wampyre, replacing it with Dracula, but left the original name clearly legible to later readers.[11] The origins of the word wampyre or vampire, like so many of Stoker’s inspirations come from Eastern Europe.

According to some researchers, the term’s origin is clouded in mystery, often credited to Hungary or Transylvania. There are four different schools of thought on the topic which advocate, respectively, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, and Hungarian roots for the term. The most commonly accepted theory is that the term is Slavic in origin.[12]

The first appearance of the term vampire occurs as a proper name in an East Slavic manuscript from 1047 A. D. in which a Novgorodian prince is listed as Upir’ Lichyj meaning ‘Wicked Vampire.’ In a thirteenth- century Serbian manuscript, the vampire concept, in macrocosmic terms, first appears. The manuscript describes a creature known as a vuklodlak (vampire/ werewolf) that devours the sun and moon, while chasing the clouds. Among the contemporary Balkan Slavs the terms vampire and vukodlak (literally: wolf pelt) are synonymous.[13] The word vampire entered the English language in 1734. This was the result of multiple works being written on the subject in German, brought on by the “vampire epidemic” that was sweeping Eastern Europe at the time.[14]

Dracula’s name and history was possibly the most important influence from Eastern Europe used by Stoker. His decision to scrap “Wampyre” in favor of Dracula was monumental to the attractiveness of the character, and the later influence he would have on his audiences. As devilish as the character that bears the name is, Dracula does not mean devil. The name comes from Vlad Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul who was invested in the Order of the Dragon founded in 1408 by Sigismund of Luxembourg, Emperor of Austria and Hungary.[15] The order was founded as a crusading order to defend the western church against heretics and unbelievers and to halt the Turkish onslaught that was advancing into Europe.[16] The ending –a in Dracula is the Slavonic genitive suffix meaning “the son of”; corresponding to the French de and the German von.[17] Therefore, Dracula means “the son of the Dragon.” Since Wilkinson’s account did not mention this, Stoker was likely unaware of the true origin of the name. What he may have been aware of, however, are the similarities of the vampire and the devil in Romanian folklore; where the devil is said to be “allied to dragons and vampires.”[18] This knowledge would have likely convinced Stoker that his vampire must bear the name Dracula.

Though he was neither vampire nor Devil, Vlad III Dracula was known in the West by another, perhaps even more sinister name, Vlad the Impaler. This was in recognition of his favorite form of torture and execution, impalement. Vlad may have learned of the Turkish practice of impalement from his time spent as a hostage of the sultan in his youth, sent by his father as a peace offering to allay the sultan’s fear of attack from Wallachia, a province that regularly switched its allegiance between the Hungarian crown and the Ottomans.[19] Vlad used this method of execution on his enemies, those boyars who opposed him, and even his own peasants. Through this ghastly method of intimidation and psychological warfare, he cemented his absolute rule over Wallachia.[20]

Early on in Stoker’s Dracula, the title character tells his borrowed history to his houseguest from London, Jonathan Harker:

. . . Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that they were wolves themselves had come . . . Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race; that we were proud; that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back? . . . And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkey- land; ay, and more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard, for, as the Turks say, ‘water sleeps, and enemy is sleepless’ . . . When was redeemed that great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the Crescent? Who was it but one of my own race who was Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother . . . sold his people to the Turks and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkey- land; who; when he was beaten back, came again, and again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph![21]

Though vague, this history was not far removed from Vlad III Dracula’s actual story. However, it fails to mention Vlad’s habit of mass impalement. Much later in the novel, Professor Van Helsing, upon realizing who the vampire in his and his company’s midst actually was, relates his version of the Count’s borrowed history:

I have asked my friend Arminius, of Buda- Pesth University, to make his record; and, from all the means that are, he tell me of what he has been. He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey- land. If it be so, then was he no common man; for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the ‘land beyond the forest.’[22]

Stoker focused most of Dracula’s borrowed history around his battles with the Turks, and for good reason. Vlad III Dracula’s actual life was defined by his dealings with the Ottoman Empire, from his captivity at the age of twelve, until his death at the hands of the Ottomans in 1476.

After the death of his father in 1447, Vlad was released by the sultan, only to be conscripted into the Turkish army. With the help of the man who killed his father, Janos Hunyadi, Vlad took back the Wallachian capital of Tirgoviste in July of 1456 and regained the throne of Wallachia. His motives for allying himself with his father’s killer were simple; power and revenge. As is related in Stoker’s novel, Vlad was responsible for the guarding of the Transylvanian border against Turkish attacks.[23]

Amidst turbulent political circumstances between the Ottoman Empire, Hungary, and Wallachia’s political infrastructure, Vlad wished to carry on his father’s crusading tradition. But he needed to strengthen his power at home first. To achieve this, he employed mercenaries called armas, whose duty it was to impale anyone who opposed his authority, including his own nobles, the boyar. Vlad arranged a banquet with his nobles, 500 of them. After the meal, he asked each of them in turn how many princes they remembered in their lives that had ruled over Wallachia. When none of them answered to his liking, which would have been to answer that he was the only prince of Wallachia, he had them all impaled. Another folktale of Vlad’s cruelty toward the boyar tells of him inviting them to an Easter banquet at his capital, where he had them marched to his castle and worked them “until their cloths were torn and they were naked.”[24] He did these things to avenge the death of his brother, who had been buried alive by these nobles.

Though Vlad had total control of Wallachia, he was still expected to pay tribute to the sultan. Upon the death of one of his allies in 1460, who was captured by the Turks and sawed in half after refusing to divulge information about Vlad’s dealings with the Hungarians, Dracula decided to stop paying the sultan’s tribute and fight for independence. And fight he did. In late 1461, Vlad III Dracula laid his plans for breaking free from the Turkish yoke. Disguised as a Turkish soldier, Vlad tricked a Turkish garrison along the Danube into letting him through the gates of the city Giurgiu, which he burned to the ground. The unfortunate Turks, who were taken prisoner in this attack, were impaled on long stakes with rounded ends to prolong the agony of dying.[25] The result of this action was all out war between Vlad’s largely peasant army, and the large, highly trained forces of Sultan Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453. [26]

After a successful surprise night attack pulled off by Vlad’s small army in 1462, he was forced to retreat to Tirgoviste in the face of the sultans superior forces. In his wake, Vlad employed a scorched earth policy in his own lands, burning villages and destroying water supplies, so as to leave nothing behind for Mehmed’s forces to sustain their strength. Undeterred, the sultan gave chase to Vlad’s capital. He expected Vlad to make his final stand at Tirgoviste, but when the Turkish army arrived, they saw smoke rising from the city and unmanned cannons standing dormant on the city walls.[27]

What was they did see, however, was a mile long ditch around the city filled with a gruesome spectacle of thousands of impaled Turkish prisoners rotting away on stakes. The sultan found himself in “a veritable forest of the impaled.”[28] The sultan said that he could not conquer the country of a man who was capable of such acts. That night, the Turks dug a deep trench around their camp in anticipation of Vlad’s return. When he did not arrive the following day, the sultan was content to leave Wallachia, seeing for himself the terror he had struck in other men’s hearts when he impaled innocent victims following the fall of Constantinople.[29]

Vlad was eventually captured by Turkish forces later that same year and imprisoned for thirteen years.[30] He was released in 1474, and again took the throne of Wallachia in 1476, though only briefly. He fell in battle with the Turks in 1477. His head was sent to Constantinople as a trophy for the sultan.[31] Vlad was feared by his enemies and his allies alike. Gory stories of his atrocious reign spread from Germany to Russia during his lifetime.

Stoker’s representation of Count Dracula as a defender of Transylvania from the Turks and his affinity for violence was an extremely important aspect to the depth of his villainous character. The addition of his devilish traits were actually not too exaggerated, as he was seen by many of his contemporaries as horrendous villain. In the West, stories of his atrocities were common, even in the fifteenth- century. His beheading after his death in 1477 was also in line with the death of Stoker’s Dracula.[32] But there was much more behind Stoker’s vampire than an altered history of Vlad III Dracula. For the past century, researchers have attempted to trace all the possible sources used by Stoker to create his masterpiece. One such researcher postulated in 1980, that Count Dracula was part Vlad III Dracula, part Elizabeth Bathory, and part werewolf.[33]

Stoker’s use of Vlad Dracula’s name and history was instrumental to the construction of his novel and vampire. However, both researchers and critics have often found it strange that after stumbling upon the history of Voyvode (prince) Dracula, Stoker then transported him from Wallachia to Transylvania, which was under the control of the Hungarian crown in Stoker’s time and in Vlad’s, and changed his title from prince to count. Vlad III Dracula was neither a count nor a Hungarian nobleman. Bram Stoker makes his character both.[34] The question is, why?

Perhaps it is more accurate to argue that the construction of the “human” side of Stoker’s Count Dracula was an amalgam of two people; Vlad III Dracula and Elizabeth Bathory. Bathory was both a Hungarian noblewoman and a Countess. By combining the diabolism of Vlad Dracula with the bloody, lustful perversions of Bathory, Stoker may have found the perfect combination of historical maniacs to form the foundation of his legendary villain, Count Dracula.


[1] Ibid., 111.

[2] Leatherdale, The Origins of Dracula, 57.

[3] Herbert Mayo, “Vampyrism,” in The Origins of Dracula: The Background to Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece, ed. Clive Leatherdale (Essex, UK: Desert Island Books, 1995), 61.

[4] Blinderman, “Vampurella,” 412.

[5] Leatherdale, Origins of Dracula, 86.

[6] Eighteen- Bisang and Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, 14- 15. Stoker’s handwritten notes, presented here in facsimile, show that he began to write “Ge” (most likely Germany) but quickly scratched it out and replaced it with “Styria.”

[7] Leatherdale, 86.

[8] Perkowski, The Darkling, 12.

[9] Leatherdale, 86- 7.

[10] William Wilkinson, “An Account of Wallachia, Moldavia . . . and Dracula,” in The Origins of Dracula: The Background to Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece, ed. Clive Leatherdale (Essex, UK: Desert Island Books, 1995), 96.

[11] Eighteen- Bisang and Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, 27, 33.

[12] Katharina M. Wilson, “The History of the Word ‘Vampire’,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46 no. 4 (Oct.- Dec. 1985): 577.

[13] Jan Perkowski, The Darkling, 18.

[14] Paul Barber, “The Real Vampire,” 74- 5.

[15] Harry Senn, Were- Wolf and Vampire in Romania (New York: Eastern European Monographs, 1982), 45.

[16] Kurt W. Treplow, Vlad III Dracula, 8.

[17] G. Nandris, “A Philological Analysis of ‘Dracula’ and Rumanian Place- Names and Masculine Personal Names in –a/ -ae,” The Slavonic and East European Review 37 no. 89 (June 1959): 372- 73.

[18] Agnes Murgoci and Helen B. Murgoci, “The Devil in Roumanian Folklore,” Folklore 40 no. 2 (June 1929): 134.

[19] Will Romano, “Vlad Dracula’s War on the Turks,” Military History, October, 2003, 59.

[20] Leatherdale, 87.

[21] Bram Stoker, Dracula (New York: The Modern Library, 1897), 32- 3.

[22] Ibid., 264.

[23] Will Romano, “Vlad Dracula’s War on the Turks,” 60.

[24] Ibid., 61.

[25] Ibid., 61- 3

[26] Lord Kindross, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 95- 110.

[27] Romano, 64.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Kurt W. Treplow, Vlad III Dracula, 157.

[31] Raymond T. Mcnally and Radu Florescu, In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), 102- 3

[32] Bram Stoker, Dracula, 416.

[33] Charles S. Blinderman, “Vampurella,” 411.

[34] Leatherdale, 142.

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