Draculas Homep

A Dracula Smorgasbord


Elizabeth Miller

[The following was presented as an after-dinner speech for members of the President's Council on Opening Night of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's world premiere of "Dracula" on 21 October, 1997.]

First published in 1897, the novel Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker has never been out of print. It has been reissued in over 300 editions, including dozens in foreign languages. The figure of Count Dracula has dominated twentieth-century culture, from movies to cereal boxes, from Sesame Street to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The novel has inspired prequels, sequels and numerous adaptations, including a "Little Dracula" series for preschoolers with such intriguing titles as "Little Dracula Goes to School", "Little Dracula at the Seashore" and "Little Dracula's First Bite".That a single novel, given only scant attention at the time of publication should have had such an impact is nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, I cannot think of another fictional work that has had such a pervasive influence on a whole culture as has this one.

How did this come about? To begin with, Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire. Vampires appear in the folklore and legends of many cultures dating back to ancient times. Interest in the English-speaking world can be traced back to 1732, when the word "vampyre" first appeared in our language. The occasion was a rash of vampire sightings reported and documented in several parts of central and eastern Europe and eventually reported in the British press. These were so widespread that in some countries government officials became directly involved, as did the academic community including the biblical scholar Dom Augustin Calmet and such leading figures of the Enlightenment as Diderot and Voltaire.

The attention given to vampirism coincided (and maybe contributed to) a rising interest in gothic literature, first in Germany and later (during the last decades of the eighteenth century) in England. It was inevitable that the vampire, a revenant from the realm of folklore, would be adopted by gothic writers. The first in English literature to do so were poets, notably Robert Southey and Lord Byron. But the most important contribution came from an unlikely source, Lord Byron's personal physician, John Polidori. He was to write the first piece of vampire fiction in the English language. The world has not been the same since!

Polidori's story can be traced to a famous literary gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. He and his employer, Lord Byron, were residing at the Villa Diodati where they were visited by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (who would soon become Mary Shelley) and Mary's step-sister. One evening, after a collective reading of ghost stories, Byron suggested that each member of the party write a story of their own. Two tales that changed the face of Gothic fiction were inspired by this challenge. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, while Byron wrote a fragment which lay unfinished and discarded until picked up and reworked by Polidori and issued in 1819 as "The Vampyre". This story was an immediate and phenomenal success, due in no small part to the fact that most people believed it had been written by his employer; even Goethe considered it Byron's best work. It triggered a rash of vampire plays on the stages of London and Paris, and even inspired a German opera, "Der Vampir".

Interest in vampire literature continued through the nineteenth century with the appearance of several short stories and novels. But it was Dracula, written near the end of the century, that became the yardstick by which all future vampires (in literature and film) would be measured. Stoker combined several of the elements of early vampire fiction with the results of research into vampire folklore - and added a few of his own. As a result of his novel, the conventions were firmly in place, and are now, thanks to the proliferation of Dracula movies, known by virtually everyone: the vampire is of an old, aristocratic (and usually foreign) family; the vampire is tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black; the vampire possesses sharp fangs which leave two bite marks on the victim; the vampire is a creature of unusual physical strength; the vampire has a strong seductive power over women; the victim's response to the vampire is ambivalent, revealing both attraction and repulsion; the vampire has the ability to shapeshift into animal form (especially wolves and bats), to enter as mist, to glide through a crack; he casts no shadow and has no reflection in a mirror; he cannot enter a home unless he is invited in; he is repelled by garlic and by holy objects, he must sleep in his native soil, and he can be destroyed if a wooden stake is driven through his heart.

What about the name "Dracula? Where did that come from? As most of you may know, there was a historical Dracula, a 15th century Romanian prince better known to historians as Vlad the Impaler. He also used the nickname "Dracula", a reference to the fact that he was the son of Vlad Dracul who had been initiated into the Order of the Dragon ("dracul" was Romanian for "the dragon"). Contrary to popular opinion, Bram Stoker knew very little about the real Dracula, certainly not enough to have been inspired to base Count Dracula on him. All we know for certain is that he found the name "Dracula" in an obscure history book he borrowed from the public library in the English seaside resort of Whitby where he was spending a summer vacation in 1890. He was already working on a vampire novel, and had even selected a name for his Count -- Wampyr. Then he saw the name "Dracula" with a footnote that suggested it came from a Romanian word for "devil". As this fit into Stoker's conception of his vampire as the epitome of evil, he appropriated the name, and Dracula became a vampire.

What about Transylvania? This region has for many in the West become synonymous with Dracula and vampires, much to the puzzlement of people who live there. Stoker was originally going to have his vampire come from Austria. But during his research he came across an article entitled "Transylvanian Superstitions" (which included references to beliefs in vampires in that part of eastern Europe) and was sufficiently intrigued to change the locale to Transylvania (Latin for "the land beyond the forest").

Dracula was published late in May 1897. When he wrote this novel, Bram Stoker was employed as acting manager for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London, owned and operated by the famous 19th century Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving. There is little doubt that his continuous exposure to the world of the theatre found its way into the novel, which lends itself so well to stage adaptation. In fact, Stoker himself put off a dramatic reading of Dracula at the Lyceum, just days before the book was published.

But Stoker did not live long enough to see the tremendous success of his novel. Though the first film adaptation was the German "Nosferatu" (1922), it was Universal Studio's 1931 production that ensured Dracula his immortality. Based on a Broadway stage production, the film starred Bela Lugosi, whose voice and physical appearance (though very unlike that of the Count in the novel) shaped the image for the 20th century. This movie has been followed by countless (excuse the pun) adaptations which continue into the present decade. Some very prominent actors have played in Dracula movies: Christopher Lee, Louis Jourdan, Jack Palance, Sir Laurence Olivier, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins and, of course, Mel Brooks. I might add that movies based on Dracula tend to wander considerably from the original text, to the point sometimes where the story is unrecognizable. Perhaps the most faithful adaptation was the BBC-TV production of 1978 starring Louis Jourdan as the Count.

Last year -- 1997 -- was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dracula. The centenary was marked in a number of interesting ways: several international scholarly conferences and symposia; graveyard walks in Whitby; Halloween parties in Transylvania; the publication of several new books (including my own Reflections on Dracula); and the issuing of several series of postage stamps (even one in Canada). On the arts front, 1997 saw the premiere of a Dracula musical as well as two major ballet productions: the Northern Ballet in Great Britain (directed by Christopher Gable and choreographed by Michael Pink) and the Houston Ballet (with choreography by Ben Stevenson). [The latter came back to the stage in Houston last month, and I was fortunate to have been able to see a performance.] And tonight we have the world premiere of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's version. I also notice that the repertoire for next summer's Stratford Festival in Ontario includes a "Dracula". That this has occurred is indeed a testament to the endurance of what is one of the major archetypes and myths of our century.

Why the popularity? What is it about the vampire in general and about Count Dracula in particular that continues to fascinate? There is no simple answer, as the appeal goes across the whole spectrum of human interest. For some it is the seductive element, for others it is the connection with the dark side of our natures. The vampire epitomizes for many the breaking of taboos, the challenge of authority, the fine line between power and passion, the search for immortality and eternal youth. While Stoker's Dracula was the embodiment of evil, late 20th century vampires have shapeshifted into more ambivalent creatures, a clear reflection of the blurring of boundaries between good and evil in our increasingly secularized world.

As for my own interest, it is primarily scholarly (though I must admit to a curiosity about all aspects of the topic). Dracula is about much more than a vampire from Transylvania who comes to England for nourishment. If that were the extent of it, it would never have survived to the present day. A major reason why the novel is now taken seriously by literary scholars such as myself is that it provides a window through which we can view the late Victorian age, the "fin-de-siecle" with its many fears and anxieties. Count Dracula poses many threats to Victorian social, moral and political values: he changes virtuous women into beasts with ravenous sexual appetites; he is a foreigner who invades England and threatens English book and superiority; he is the embodiment of evil that can only be destroyed by reasserting the beliefs of traditional Christianity in an increasingly skeptical and secular age; he represents the fear of regression, a reversal of evolution, a return to our more primal animal state. Maybe part of the reason for its appeal today is that we are also living in an age of fear and anxiety, approaching not only the end of a century but the end of a millennium.

The fact that I am a Dracula scholar has elicited a variety of responses, not all of which have been flattering. Part of the problem is that the whole Dracula myth has been so trivialized by popular culture and the media that few people can take the topic seriously. When I mention my field of study, I invariably am met with a grin, a raised eyebrow or two, a puzzled look, or a bad joke (do I need my garlic?) Others are surprised that I look so normal (I am not sure what I am supposed to look like), while a few go so far as to express concern for the state of my immortal soul. "Are you one of those satanists?" asked a waitress at a Toronto restaurant during a casual conversation. "You mean you are going to Transylvania!" declared a bank teller, adding furtively, "Aren't you afraid?" A student once told me that his mother was concerned that he was taking a course in which that "devil's book" was being taught (though his grandmother wanted to borrow it once he was finished with it).. A local newspaper carried a letter (unsigned) from a citizen concerned that students were being guided by a "disciple of Count Dracula" while a taxi-cab driver informed a colleague that "there is a vampire teaching in the English department."

Some of my most intriguing encounters have come from media interviews. Few reporters can get through an introduction or an interview without seeking refuge in stereotypes. Punsters strive desperately for new plays on words. "She sinks her teeth into her work"; "Miller is a living blood bank for Dracula enthusiasts"; her "literary veins drip with Dracula anecdotes"; and "Batty Fan Up for the Count". One of the anchor-persons on "Midday" (CBC Newsworld) commented that she would never have picked me out of a lineup as a "vampire expert." And the best one of all -- the anchor-person on our local CBC television newscast introduced me with the following comment: "She looks as if she could be somebody's mother, but in fact she's a Dracula expert." Actually, I have no problem with such comments; in fact, it has become clear to me that one cannot be taken seriously in this field unless one is able to acknowledge its humorous side. Occasionally, I turn down a request for an interview: the local radio station that wanted to interview me about how many real vampires live in Newfoundland; the supermarket tabloid "The Sun" and NBC's "Dateline", both of which were on the trail of something more sensational than I was in a position to provide.

The public lecture circuit has also provided a few unusual experiences. I always try to give advance notice of what I will cover to discourage people who are looking for sensationalism. At times, these "warnings" are included in the advertisements that precede the event. For example, an announcement about an illustrated lecture on "Dracula: Fact or Fiction?" for the Disston Heights Neighborhood Association in St. Petersburg (Florida) contained the assurance that "This is not a scary nor gory presentation." This lecture, by the way, was given in a church hall, with slides of Dracula projected on a wall next to a large cross. When I gave the show at a local Arts Centre, I prefaced my presentation with a comment that I would not be focusing on real vampires, at which point several members of the audience got up and left.

I am also the recipient of some very strange mail. In addition to the usual requests for information (including several every month from students who are desperately trying to find someone to write their assignments for them), I get some that raise even my eyebrows. "I have never written to a vampire before," began one e-mail I recently received, "I am not sure what a person should say to a vampire." Even though my Dracula homepage focuses on the scholarly side, I do get requests to provide information on how one can become a vampire.

But being a Dracula scholar has its advantages. I have traveled extensively, for research and for lectures. I have met some of the most interesting people, ranging from aging Eastern European historians to young members of the Manhattan goth subculture. In addition to having recently published two books on Dracula (the novel), I have given papers in the most unusual of places: at a Dracula fan convention in Los Angeles, at the Castle Dracula Hotel in Transylvania (in the Borgo Pass), at the Romanian Embassy in Washington, at the University of Transylvania and, of course, at a dinner preceding the world premiere of a "Dracula" ballet.

What scholar could ask for anything more?

And, yes, in case you are wondering, I am somebody's mother!

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COPYRIGHT©2005 Dr. Elizabeth Miller