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Ok, obviously Dracula wasn’t a vampire because vampires aren’t actually real. But as I was doing some reading for my review about Dracula Untold (2014, dir. Gary Shore), I got to thinking about the historical linkage between Dracula and vampires, and thought it was worth a post.

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The basic reason that Dracula wasn’t a vampire is the same reason that Grover Cleveland wasn’t a vampire. Nobody at the time thought he was a vampire, and there isn’t any evidence that folk lore connected either man with vampirism even long after their deaths. Romanians have generally remembered Vlad Dracula in a positive light, as a national hero, and many of them consider the modern linkage between him and vampirism as something of an insult to their heritage, sort of like if the great American president Abraham Lincoln were called a vampire hunter. Indeed, some Romanians actually consider the ‘vampirization’ of Dracula as a Hungarian conspiracy to blacken his name (after all, Bela Lugosi was Hungarian…)

In Eastern Europe in the 16th and 17th century, a belief in revenants emerged, mostly as an explanation for outbreaks of disease. A revenant is a person who has died, been buried, and has then supposedly come back from the grave to kill or sicken the living. The graves of those suspected of being revenants were sometimes dug up to look for signs of revenantism, such as a lack of decay, blood on the lips, or perceived growth of hair or fingernails. If a corpse was suspected of being a revenant, it was ‘killed’ by having a stake driven through its heart. The exact mechanism by which revenants killed their victims varied; some drank blood, some caused sickness, and one is reported to have strangled his victims. Various Slavic languages term these revenants vampir or variations on that; the etymology of the term is unclear, but it came into English through German as vampire.

Starting in the early 18th centuries, stories about Hungarian vampires began to circulate, most famously tales about Arnold Paole and Peter Blagojevich, one a bandit, the other a peasant, both posthumously suspected of vampirism, both of whose cases eventually reached the attention of Austrian officials. By the 1750s, as the Enlightenment became established in Western culture, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was embarrassed about the association between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and superstition, so she forbid taking actions against supposed vampire corpses. All of this had the effect of establishing an image in the western mind of Hungarians and other Balkan-region peoples as being ignorant, backward, superstitious, and terrified of vampires.

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Then, in the 1890s Irish author and theatrical agent Bram Stoker got interested in vampires, perhaps as the result of a meeting with a Hungarian author. Stoker’s fans and scholars have long assumed that Stoker modeled his Count Dracula on Vlad Dracula, but Elizabeth Miller, one of the most important authorities on the literary Dracula, argues that the evidence for this is extremely weak. As she reconstructs events, Stoker checked a book on Wallachian history out of his library and there ran across the name Dracula, with a footnote that the name means “Son of the Devil” (a linguistically accurate translation, but that’s not what it meant when applied to Vlad III). Thanks to Sheridan Le Fanu’s short work Carmilla Stoker had already been working on a story about a vampire, tentatively titled “Count Wampyr”, but he decided to change the villain’s name to Count Dracula (a title that Vlad Dracula never held, since he was a voivode, or duke). As Miller points out, Stoker’s Dracula is Transylvanian, not Wallachian (Wallachia being further south than Transylvania), and his given name is never stated. Instead of being a noble, Stoker’s Dracula is a boyar, a member of a slightly lower social class that the historical Dracula struggled against. Nor is Stoker’s Dracula a fan of impaling people; in fact Van Helsing says that in life Dracula was “a most wonderful man”. Stoker does, however, make reference to Count Dracula fighting the Turks and once calls him a voivode, so Miller’s theory is not a slam-dunk.

Transylvania and Wallachia

Transylvania and Wallachia

In other words, Bram Stoker was the first person to draw any connection between Vlad Dracula and vampires, and the connection, assuming that Miller is correct, goes no deeper than Stoker borrowing Vlad III’s patronymic for his main character. It’s really only been in the past century or so that people have sought to forge a connection between the historical Vlad Dracula and Count Dracula, thanks to Stoker’s novel. The first major film to explore the idea of Count Dracula being the historical Vlad Tepes was, so far as I know, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (of course, having said that, now I’ll get comments telling me that there was some earlier movie that did it first. But note that I said ‘first major film’). As mediocre as it is, Dracula Untold is actually plowing a reasonably fresh field in this respect.

So Vlad Dracula was no more a vampire than Grover Cleveland was. At least, I don’t know of any historical evidence that Cleveland was a vampire…

Want to Know More?

Dracula (Norton Critical Editions) [Paperback] [1996] 1st Ed. Bram Stoker, Nina Auerbach, David J. Skalis a must-read classic, and this edition has good notes and commentary.

Elizabeth Miller has written extensively on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Her Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (Desert Island Dracula Library Book 2)challenges a lot of the received notions about Stroker and his literary creation.

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