FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT MY INTEREST IN DRACULA
These questions and answers are a composite of several interviews I have conducted with various media, including newspapers, television and radio about my interest in and work on Dracula. Most of the topics covered briefly here are discussed much more thoroughly in my books, notably Reflections on Dracula and Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. Details about these books can be found elsewhere on this web site.
Anyone using material from
this page or anywhere else on this web site is requested to credit the
Q. When and how did your interest in Dracula originate?
A. While I used to watch an
occasional Dracula movie many years ago (including Lugosi and Lee), I
was not a great fan. My serious interest in this subject is relatively
new. I had been working on the British Romantic poets (Byron and
Shelley) and became drawn to Frankenstein. Then I
decided to explore the lesser known writer of that group, Byron's
physician John Polidori who wrote the first piece of vampire fiction in
English Literature ("The Vampyre"). I traced this down through the 19th
century culminating in Dracula - and I was
hooked! I have been doing serious study of the Dracula phenomenon for
several years, during which time I have lectured on it at many
venues both in North America and Europe, including the World
Dracula Congress (Romania), the National Library of Ireland (Dublin) and
the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (Ft
Lauderdale FL). I have now published several books on the
subject. Even though I am now retired (living in Toronto), I give
frequent guest lectures.
Q. Do you have other interests in horror besides Dracula and vampires?
A. First I should explain just
what my interest in Dracula and vampires actually is. I am a scholar
whose interest in Dracula is academic. First and foremost there is the
novel itself, one of the most influential books ever written. As a
professor of literature, I am interested in how it came about, its
author, and its aftermath as an influence on literature and popular
culture. Another area in which I have done considerable research is the
historical Dracula - Vlad Tepes - whose name Bram Stoker borrowed for
his vampire Count. I am especially interested in the Romanian
connection: how Romanians view the two Draculas and the contrast
between Western and Romanian perceptions. While my focus is primarily
on Dracula, this naturally expands to the vampire figure in general,
including the vampire of folklore, vampires in literature, and vampires
in popular culture. As for other horror topics, I am quite fascinated
by the Frankenstein story, especially as originally presented in Mary
Shelley's novel. And I like to read the novels of Stephen King.
Q. At the time of publication, what was the public response to Dracula? In terms of literary quality, how does it rate as a Gothic novel?
A. The book did attract some
attention, but only as a "thriller". No reviews of the time draw
attention to the sexual subtext. It seems to have sold reasonably well,
but Stoker never made a great deal of money from it. The novel didn't
really capture the popular imagination until after the movies started
to come out (especially the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi). The book
did not receive much scholarly attention until the 1970s. The debate
about the "literary canon" has resulted in an increased interest among
academics in novels (such as gothic novels) that were previously
marginalized as "inferior". In the past 10 years or so, there has been
a significant output of books and articles on Dracula,
many of which offer readings of the novel ranging from psychoanalytical
to post-colonialist. Dracula has never been out
of print since it was first published in 1897. Dozens of editions have
appeared, both in English and in several foreign languages. The novel
has created a literary archetype as well as a popular icon.
Q. Given that the Count is really not in the book very much, how is it that the character has become so enduring a part of literature, plays and films, not to mention popular culture that stretches from breakfast cereals to pornography?
A. There are many reasons, most of
which are connected with the vampire figure itself. Vampires represent
many things to different people: immortality, forbidden desires,
rebellion, power, eroticism, etc. Unlike other "monsters", vampires
attract as well as repel; and they are in many ways so much like us.
Add that to the general fascination with the darker side of our
natures, with the supernatural, and with the nature of evil, and you
have the fascination with Count Dracula. One major reason that Dracula
has survived is his adaptability. He is, after all, a shape-shifter.
Writers, artists, film-makers and others have done creative new things
with the vampire in general and Dracula in particular. Every generation
creates its own Count Dracula, reflecting the fears, anxieties and
fantasies of its own time. I am especially intrigued about how the
Dracula story has been adapted for young children. For example, there
is a series of books written for primary-aged children with titles such
as "Little Dracula Goes to School", "Little Dracula at the Seashore"
and "Little Dracula's First Bite"! And of course we have the Count on
Q. What impact did Bram Stoker have on the horror genre with the creation of Dracula? And how well did he understand that impact?
A. To answer the second part first, Stoker had no idea of the impact his novel would make. To begin with, it was only fairly popular in his own day (and with non-intellectual readers), and was seen by reviewers as just a story of horror and the supernatural. What brought Dracula to the foreground was the movie industry. Stoker did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of that popularity. Dracula is indeed the touchstone of vampire literature and has become the yardstick by which every vampire story is measured. Part of this is because it came at the "right" time. There had been other vampire stories before Stoker's (starting with John Polidori's "The Vampyre" in 1819 and throughout the 19th century) and Stoker drew the various threads together. Another factor is the time at which it was written - late Victorian England, end-of-century anxiety, latent sexuality, etc. One of the reasons the novel has received so much attention from late 20th century literary critics is that it opens a window on to the world of late Victorian England. This is no doubt something we can note in retrospect rather than something Stoker himself would have been aware of.
As for the impact, it is difficult to measure it. The novel is the most enduring of all classic Gothic fiction (with Frankenstein probably ranking second). The fact that it has never gone out of print, has been brought out in endless editions, has been translated into dozens of foreign languages (including Romanian), has been the subject of revisionist writings, prequels and sequels, of movies, drama, ballets, musicals, children's books, etc. attests to its endurance. Stoker would be amazed to know that he created a modern myth and that just about every single person in the Western world knows something about "Dracula". How many other fictional characters can make such a claim?
Q. Prior to the 1970s, I believe, most vampire stories and novels were simply retellings of Stoker's work. In the last 30 years, there has been a proliferation of vampire fiction. Why do you think this is?
A. True. I think writers began to
see the immense possibilities. The social revolution of the 60s opened
up new possibilities. The blurring of traditional boundaries between
good and evil lent a new ambivalence to the vampire who starts to show
up as a misunderstood and even romantic figure. While Rice is often
credited as the one who changed the direction, equally significant are
Fred Saberhagen (whose The Dracula Tape retold
Stoker's novel from Dracula's point of view) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
whose vampire is heroic rather than villainous. In recent years,
vampires have even "invaded" the romance genre. Some writrers have
opted to staywith the Stokerian vampire concept, however. Stephen
King's Salem's Lot is a case in point.
Q. How familiar was Stoker with Vlad Tepes when he wrote Dracula? What other influences affected his work?
A. Here is what we know for sure. During the summer of 1890 while vacationing in Whitby, Stoker came across a book in the Public Library entitled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) by William Wilkinson. In it there is a short section about a "voivode Dracula" who fought against the Turks in the 15th century. Stoker copied much of this section into his notes (now held at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia), including a footnote Wilkinson made to the effect that "Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil". That, in my opinion, is why he selected the name. He had already selected a name for his vampire (Count Wampyr) but at some point after the Whitby visit, he changed it to Count Dracula.
There is nothing in Wilkinson about Vlad's atrocities as "the Impaler" (in fact, the name Vlad and the sobriquet "Impaler" are never used). And there is no evidence that Stoker obtained additional material on the historical Dracula from any other source. There is plenty of speculation, but that is all it is. Thus, to say that Stoker was influenced by accounts of Vlad in creating his character is misleading.
Some claim that the inspiration for Count Dracula was Elizabeth Bathory. But the evidence just isn't there. One book that we know he consulted (he was kind enough to list his sources in his Notes) was The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould; that book does contain a short section on Countess Bathory. But the notes Stoker took do not include any from this section, and her name appears nowhere in his drafts or notes. Again, there are theories, but that is all that they are.
There are other theories about influences, one of the chief being that Stoker based Count Dracula on his employer, Henry Irving. According to this view, Stoker was indirectly expressing his resentment at being dominated by Irving in the workplace. But again, the available evidence contradicts this. Everything Stoker wrote about Irving (and there is plenty) is laudatory.
The influences that we know of
(because of textual evidence or references in his own notes) include
earlier vampire fiction, most notably Le Fanu's "Carmilla". We also
have that list of books and articles which he consulted during his
research for information on Transylvania in particular.
Q. Do you believe in the existence of supernatural creatures (ghosts, witches, vampires, werewolves)?
A. My answer is no, I do not believe in supernatural creatures. I am not saying categorically that they do not exist; what I am saying is that I do not believe that they exist. I say this in the absence of any personal experience or encounter, and the failure of anyone else to convince me otherwise. As for vampires, I do not believe that they exist as supernatural beings. However, if one defines a vampire as a person with a craving for blood (without the supernatural powers), then of course they do exist. But I am sure there are many people out there who would like to be vampires in the supernatural sense, or who even believe that they are! When I use the word "vampire" in my own work, I am referring to the traditional definition, the bloodsucker who is endowed with immortality and supernatural powers.
Q: Why is the vampire myth so universal? Why are vampires so popular today?
A.: The fact that almost every
culture has a version of the vampire myth suggests that the archetype
addresses some deeply rooted fears and/or yearnings. There are many
factors operating here: the attraction to the dark side of our natures;
the fascination with what is forbidden; the desire for eternal youth
and immortality; the centrality of blood in a religious sense. Add to
these the sexual seductiveness and power that have come to be a part of
the vampire image and you have a potent combination! I think this
latter factor explains much of the popularity of the vampire today, as
well as the desire of many young people in particular to live this
alternative lifestyle. Being a "vampire" (or a Goth, for that matter)
is for today's youth what being a "hippie" was for the youth of the
60s. The vampire figure has survived in literature and popular culture
for another reason. It is a versatile archetype, and can be shaped and
re-shaped to fit any individual artist's own vision. So while we still
encounter fictional vampires who are spawns of Satan (as Stoker
presented Dracula), we also have vampires who are more ambivalent or
even basically good. Vampires have invaded every walk of life: they are
detectives, policemen, doctors, professors, etc. If Bram Stoker could
come back today, he would be absolutely amazed!
Q. How are you treated by your peers?
A. My colleagues at university
generally respect what I am doing, because they know that my interest
is scholarly. Now, I must confess that I do have a bit of fun with the
stuff as well. It is very rare to be able to find a field of research
that can also be so enjoyable. I love it! And my colleagues seem to
appreciate that. I do, however, I get strange looks from others who ask
me what my area of expertise is. When I say "Dracula", the response is
frequently laughter. Once I was interviewed on TV and the host said,
"She looks like she could be anyone's mother, but in fact she's a
Dracula scholar". That says it all! [For more on this, see the article
"Count Dracula and Me" elsewhere on this site.]
Q. What is Transylvania like?
A. Transylvania is part of the country of Romania. It is known to us in the West primarily because of its connection with Dracula and vampires, a connection due to Bram Stoker's novel. It puzzles people in Transylvania because to them Dracula is the historical figure Vlad Tepes (who was not a vampire); the Western concepts of Dracula and vampires are foreign to them. But Dracula fans are drawn to Transylvania to see the sites mentioned in Stoker's novel, especially Bistritz and the Borgo Pass. If anyone is interested in details about my trips to Transylvania, I suggest you browse through my Travel & Events page which has plenty of stuff about it.
COPYRIGHT©2006 Dr. Elizabeth Miller