What Is the Story of Dracula?
Moviegoers crowded New York City’s Roxy Theatre on February 12, 1931. The entertainment that day included a musical play and film clips of recent news. But the audience in the Roxy was eager to see the feature film—a story many of them already knew. It was the tale of Count Dracula, who left his homeland of Transylvania and sailed to England. Why did he take this journey? He wanted blood—human blood! Dracula was a vampire.
The actor Bela Lugosi played the count in the film. Though he was hundreds of years old, Dracula never seemed to age. And on-screen, Lugosi’s hair was dark and slicked back. He wore a tuxedo and a cape, and as a guest entered his castle, he said with an accent, “I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.” Wolves howled in the distance as Dracula’s ghoulish story began.
In the 1931 film Dracula
, audiences heard the vampire speak on-screen for the first time. They saw him turn into a bat in his search of victims. And they watched the vampire slayer Professor Van Helsing drive a wooden stake into him.
By the time the film version of Dracula
was released, the story of this ageless vampire was already known around the world. Vampire tales had been told for centuries, scaring children and adults alike. Imagine humans who are dead but don’t stay that way. Instead, some mysterious, evil force lets them live forever, as long as they drink blood. And as long as they can avoid the living people who want to kill them once and for all.
Those tales of vampires influenced an Irish writer named Bram Stoker. He created what would become the most famous idea of a vampire ever—Dracula. Stoker’s book about the Transylvanian count was published in 1897 and was soon translated into other languages.
Van Helsing’s stake killed Dracula. But only in the movie. For fans of his story, Dracula will never die. People like scary books and films too much. And they seem to love vampires! Since the 1931 movie, Stoker’s story has been retold many times and inspired new vampire tales. But Dracula is the vampire most people know best. Today, he’s still one of fiction’s most fascinating, and terrifying, characters. CHAPTER 1: Early Years of a Horror Writer
While other children in Artane, Ireland, ran and played outside, Abraham Stoker could only watch. Until the age of seven, the boy could not walk. He never left his bed. Doctors found no medical reason for his mysterious condition.
Bram, as he was later known, was born on November 8, 1847, in Clontarf, not far from Ireland’s capital of Dublin. He lived in nearby Artane with his parents, Abraham Stoker Sr. and Charlotte, and his four brothers and two sisters. Mr. Stoker worked for the Irish government, while Bram’s mother raised the children. She was a strong influence on young Bram.
Though Bram could not walk during his early years, he read the books his mother brought him. And he listened to her tell Irish folktales filled with fairies and other magical characters. But not all her stories were make-believe. And some of them were truly horrible.
When Mrs. Stoker was a teenager in Sligo, Ireland, a deadly disease called cholera spread throughout the region. More than half the people in the area died from this severe stomach infection. Mrs. Stoker told her children what she had seen and heard during those dark times. When a traveler to town suddenly showed signs of the disease, the people pushed him into a pit while he was still alive and covered him with dirt! Sometimes, people were even placed in their coffins or thrown onto piles of dead bodies while they were still alive.
Bram never said what he thought of these stories. But as an adult, he asked his mother to write them down. The idea that people might be buried before they were dead fueled the imagination of the man who went on to write Dracula
When Bram was seven years old, the strange condition that had kept him from walking suddenly improved. He began to go to school and play sports. He also went to see plays with his father, and he developed a great love of the theater. Bram especially liked holiday plays called pantos. Many of these plays were based on fairy tales or stories from popular books.
After graduating in 1870 from Trinity College in Dublin, Bram Stoker worked for a time in the government, like his father. He also began his writing career. His first published articles were reviews of local plays. Then, in 1872, he published a short story titled “The Crystal Cup.” The strange story is about an artist who is locked up in a castle and forced to work for a greedy king.
Bram continued to write about magical people and events. In 1881, he wrote a book of fairy tales called Under the Sunset
. The characters included angels and evil spirits. By then, Bram had a new full-time job in London. He managed the business of a well-known actor named Henry Irving. And in his spare time, he still wrote books.
CHAPTER 2: Vampires Everywhere!
Bram Stoker probably had heard of earlier vampire tales when he was a young boy. The idea that some people die but can still walk the earth has been part of myths and folktales for centuries. These people are often called the undead.
The undead include creatures such as zombies, ghosts, mummies, and vampires. An evil spirt of some kind keeps them from dying completely and drives them to harm the living. What sets vampires apart from other undead is their need for blood from a living person.
Blood-sucking undead creatures of early folktales included the jiangshi
of China. They walked with stiff arms and usually had greenish skin. In parts of what are now the African nations of Ghana and Togo, some people told tales of the Adze, a spirit that could take the form of an insect and then bite its victims, which were often young children.
Starting about five hundred years ago in parts of Europe, people talked about vampires. They believed there were many ways to become one. Some thought that people who drowned might never really die, that they could instead remain “undead.” Others believed that if a cat, dog, or living person walked over a new grave, the person buried there might become a vampire.
In some European legends, vampires were said to be thin, with scabs covering their bodies. Their skin was deathly pale—until they drank the blood they needed so badly. Since vampires were not truly dead, their hair and nails continued to grow. The tales also said that vampires were incredibly strong and could change into the shape of other animals, such as wolves. A vampire was strongest at night, and some stories said sunlight would actually kill one. In some countries, though, people believed vampires could go out during the day, but they lost their superhuman powers in daylight.
People also talked about how to keep vampires away. The strong smell of garlic was thought to work, and people were told to spread it around windows and doors. A cross, or even just the sign of a cross, was also said to turn away vampires. Vampire tales also discussed how to make these undead creatures really dead, once and for all. The methods included cutting off the vampire’s head or driving a sharp wooden stake through its heart. A shot through the heart with a silver bullet blessed by a priest could also do the job.
Starting in the 1800s, some writers in England began including vampires in their poetry. But the first full-length story about one in English is thought to be The Vampyre
, by John Polidori. It was published in a magazine in 1819. The vampire’s name is Lord Ruthven, and Polidori wrote he had “dead grey” eyes and pale skin.
Several decades passed before another popular vampire story was written in English. Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood
by James Malcolm Rymer was published in London in 1847. The novel had first appeared as more than two hundred chapters that were published separately as booklets. These short tales were known as penny dreadfuls because they cost just a penny and often told tales of bloody horror.
In this story, Varney travels from central Europe to England and begins seeking out young victims. He climbs into their rooms at night while they sleep. Varney has fangs that leave two bite marks on his victims’ necks. And he can climb down stone walls.
Many animals have been associated with vampires, but the most famous is the bat. A few hundred years before Bram Stoker was even born, Spanish explorers had seen bats in Mexico and South and Central America that they believed drank the blood of other animals. The Spaniards knew the tales about human vampires, and they called the bats they saw vampire bats. Bram had read about vampire bats. He may have also heard older tales that linked vampires and bats, and became the first writer to tell a story about a vampire who turns into one.
As for vampire bats—they don’t actually suck their victims’ blood. Instead, they cut an animal’s skin with their teeth, then lick up the blood as it oozes out. But they can’t go too long without it, just like the vampire characters in folktales.
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