It’s exactly 125 years since the publication of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula. Here our Writer at Large, a horror novelist who’s a scholar of all things spooky, charts the roots of the evil Count and explains how the Dracula myth has shaped culture

DRACULA would never have been written were it not for the most decadent and

sexually-charged holiday in literary history.

The novel turns 125 years old this month, but its roots lie in the torrid love affairs and drug-fuelled nights of fantasy which took place at the famed Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva in 1816 – long before Dracula’s author Bram Stoker was even born.

The Swiss mansion was rented by Lord Byron – known throughout Europe as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – as he fled scandal in England amid rumours of an incestuous affair with his half-sister.

He took up residency at the villa with his friend Percy Shelley, a fellow poet, Shelley’s wife-to-be Mary and her step-sister Claire, and Byron’s personal physician Dr John Polidori, dubbed Polly Dolly by the others.

This was the infamous Year Without a Summer – also known as “Eighteen Hundred and Freeze to Death” – when wild weather caused by a volcanic eruption in Indonesia meant temperatures in Europe plunged, crops failed, and food riots broke out.

In an atmosphere of foggy nights and dark stormy days, the group decided to pass the time inventing scary stories.

There was plenty of laudanum – a mix of pure alcohol and opium – on hand to fuel imaginations. Young Mary, of course, then just 19, created Frankenstein.

Her husband Percy was too scared by the goings-on to come up with a tale, Byron was too lazy, and Claire was sleeping with both Byron and Shelley, so she was preoccupied. Polly-Dolly, however, wrote The Vampyre, a work which would directly influence Stoker’s Dracula, published in May 1897.

Until Polidori, vampires were shambling brutes, peasants risen from their graves in Eastern European folk tales.

But Polidori was holidaying with one of the most sexually predatory aristocrats of the age – and that affected his imagination. Byron was infamous for seducing women, breaking their hearts, destroying their reputations and abandoning them.

The vampire villain in Polidori’s novel, Lord Ruthven, bears striking similarities to Byron – a dangerous aristocrat who literally sucks the lifeblood out of his female victims. Lord Ruthven is Scottish, incidentally, and the real title (Lord Ruthven of Freeland) still exists to this day. When The Vampyre was later staged in England, Lord Ruthven appeared in Highland regalia.

The motif of “the Byronic hero” would go on to inspire a host of other brooding characters from Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, all the way to modern creations like Edward Cullen in the teen vampire saga Twilight, and even the bondage-lite mummy-porn fantasy figure Christian Grey from Fifty Shades Of Grey.

Stoker also drew on early Gothic fiction (as did Bronte in Wuthering Heights), picking up influences from novels like The Castle Of Otranto, which gave him the aesthetics of the vampire story with its creaking staircases and cobwebs. But that is just the fictional roots of Dracula.

There are some very strange “real life” events, too, which go into the ingredients of the undead Count.

Real-life vampires

EARLY in Stoker’s novel, the hero Jonathan Harker, en route to meet Dracula at his Transylvanian castle, hears locals talking of “stregocia”. It’s a reference to Romanian folklore surrounding “strigoi”. Sometimes the word means witch, at other times it refers to spirits risen from the grave, or winged creatures which suck human blood.

The vampire myth goes back into humanity’s deepest past – nearly all ancient cultures the world over have legends of blood-sucking monsters. However, as the mass media began to form in the early 1700s, vampire legends found their way from the backwaters of Eastern Europe to the front pages of Enlightenment newspapers.

Reports of vampire outbreaks in parts of what is now Serbia and Romania were read in the heart of the Habsburg monarchy in Vienna - which would go on to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Local officials began reporting that peasants were rising from their graves, haunting their loved ones, and drinking their blood. When victims died, they too turned into vampires. As a result, terrified peasants were digging up the dead and driving stakes through their hearts.

Aside from superstition and mass hysteria, there is still no firm explanation for what really lay behind these stories. Contemporary reports claim that when graves were opened, the corpses had long teeth and nails, and their hair had grown.

Today, we know that’s down to flesh and gums retracting post-mortem and creating the impression of hair and nail growth, and long teeth. However, there are also claims that corpses were found to have moved in their coffins or had blood in their mouths.

There is some speculation that with little medical science in such remote areas in the 1720s, significant numbers of people may have been buried alive. Some also wonder if local peasant populations hadn’t succumbed to ergot poisoning – when grain supplies become infected with a fungus that brings on LSD-like hallucinations.

One well-documented case from 1725 features Petar Blagojevic, a Serbian peasant who rose from the dead and killed nine people. Such panics were aided and abetted by ill-educated local priests. There are wild claims that people walking through cemeteries could hear corpses munching on their grave shrouds.

Given the widespread superstition that vampires find undoing knots irresistible, peasants took to burying their dead with ropes filled with hundreds of knots to delay corpses rising from their graves.

Along with cutting off the heads of suspected vampires and stuffing their mouths with garlic, peasants also burned corpses and, of course, drove stakes through their hearts to hold them in their graves.

If you think the vampire myth died out in the backwaters of Europe as the 20th century dawned, think again. The best book ever written about the vampire myth, In Search Of Dracula by the Romanian historian Professor Radu Florescu, recounts how in 1969, in the village of Capatâneni, members of one family begin to sicken and die following the death of an elderly relative. The corpse was dug up, and found to show no signs of decomposition. In fact, the eyes were wide open and the face red and twisted. The corpse was burned.

Even in the 21st century, the fear of vampires remains strong. In 2004, in the Romanian village Marotinu de Sus, one family was so terrified that their relative was a vampire that they dug up his body, tore out the heart and burned the corpse. One latter-day vampire hunter even mixed the ashes in water and drank it believing this would break the undead curse. All were later arrested and imprisoned.

Vlad the Impaler

STOKER was well aware of these Eastern European vampire legends when he wrote Dracula. He borrowed books on such folklore from Whitby Library as research while on holiday. Among the works Stoker read was An Account Of Principalities Of Wallachia And Moldavia. Wallachia is now a Romanian province, near Transylvania, resting amid the towering Carpathian Mountains.

Wallachia’s most infamous ruler – or famous if you’re Romanian where he is regarded as a national hero – is Vlad Tepes, born around 1430 and otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula (which translates as Vlad Son of the Dragon), from the House of Draculesti. Vlad was a tyrant and psychopath who makes Ivan the Terrible seem cuddly. He murdered peasants and nobles (known as boyars) alike, and his favoured method of execution was impalement: driving a stake through the body so victims took days to die.

There are woodcut prints of Vlad enjoying a meal amid a forest of impaled bodies. He boiled people alive, dismembered prisoners, impaled mothers with their babies, nailed the hats of visiting diplomats to their heads, and invited the poor to a feast then locked the doors and burned them alive. Vlad was also a hero of the European defence against the Ottoman empire, as “Voivode”, or warlord of Wallachia.

To terrorise invading Ottoman armies, he impaled 20,000 Turkish prisoners so the Sultan’s soldiers would flee his lands in fear. His crimes were so notorious that German pamphleteers recorded stories of Vlad’s atrocities and circulated them across Europe.

Today, it is believed there may be some exaggeration by German propagandists about Vlad’s cruelty, as many victims were Saxons living under his rule, but there’s no doubting his Caligula-levels of barbarity.

In a clear nod to this history, when Dracula is first introduced in Stoker’s novel, he says: “When the flags of the Wallach went down beneath the Crescent, who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground?”

The Scottish connection

SO, when Stoker sat down to write Dracula he had an encyclopedia’s worth of material to draw on from literature, folklore and history. Stoker invested years researching the book, and even hid a reference to himself in the work – the fearless vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing and Stoker share the same first name: Abraham.

Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, he used his holidays in Scotland as a template for the wild landscapes and creepy castles in the book. Stoker wrote parts of Dracula while staying near Slains Castle at Cruden Bay – a site that inspired both Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey where the count stays when he arrives in Britain. Little wonder some canny Scots tourist companies want to cash in on the legend with a Dracula Trail, just as Whitby has made millions from the book. The Yorkshire seaside town famously features in the novel when Dracula arrives there amid storms and shipwrecks, beginning his campaign of terror and murder.

Sex and death

THE novel itself is remarkable. It has never been accurately captured on film, except perhaps in the 1977 BBC dramatisation starring Louis Jourdan as the Count. Most versions truncate the book brutally so viewers miss out on so much that readers enjoy.

It is important to remember that although the book is 125 years old, it was thoroughly modern in 1897. It is filled with state-of-the-art gadgets like voice recorders and blood transfusions. The first edition came in a striking yellow cover – a way of signalling to readers that this work was dangerous and decadent. Just a few years earlier, “The Yellow Book”, influenced by Oscar Wilde, became notorious for its salacious artistic and literary content.

Dracula drips with sex: a nobleman invades the bedrooms of young virgins, sticks his fangs in their necks, makes them drink his own blood – mixing their bodily fluids together – and claims them for his wives.

Beneath the surface, though, Stoker’s novel is much more than just a vehicle for sex and violence. It is brilliantly written and constructed, and contains themes just as disturbing as the surface horror story.

Victorian society was obsessed with sickness and race, frequently mixing the two together in a bid to stigmatise migrants, who were often persecuted Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms in Russia, as disease-carriers.

Tuberculosis was everywhere in the late-Victorian era. Scientists had recently discovered that the bacteria was carried in blood. A cult of beauty grew up around images of young women dying of TB, their faces flushed from the illness. Syphilis terrified people, and brought sex and death together in one fatal illness in the public imagination.

Anarchists from Central and Eastern Europe were also seen as bringing chaos and violence to British society. Joseph Conrad set his anarchist novel The Secret Agent in 1886 - it was published in 1907, just a few years before the infamous Siege of Sidney Street, when Latvian revolutionaries took on Scotland Yard under the command of Winston Churchill in one of Britain’s first modern terrorist incidents.

All this was part of the intellectual and social backdrop to the novel. Stoker also took up the theme of the growing emancipation of women. Women are sexually predatory in the book - the “Brides of Dracula” metaphorically “rape” Jonathan Harker and feminise him. Lucy Westenra – Dracula’s first victim in Britain – is already a liberated young woman who becomes instantly sexualised after her transformation. Mina Murray, the novel’s heroine, is a middle-class woman with a job – all but unheard of at the time.

Stage and screen

SO the novel was a heady brew which played directly into the psyche of Victorian Britain and most of the Western world.

Unsurprisingly, given Bram Stoker was a significant figure in the world of theatre, Dracula quickly became a success on stage, with the first adaption written by Stoker himself.

The breakout star of the 1927 Broadway version was a Hungarian matinee idol called Bela Lugosi, who would go on to play the definitive version of the Count on screen in Universal’s 1931 international hit Dracula.

This film – together with the studio’s Frankenstein the same year, followed by The Mummy in 1932 and The Wolf Man in 1941 – created the horror movie genre. Lugosi’s Dracula became legendary for making audiences run screaming from cinemas. Other earlier movie adaptions didn’t fare so well.

The first real screen outing for Dracula came in 1922 with FW Murnau’s silent German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. Despite changing the name of the count to Orlok (played by Max Schreck which translates as Max Terror), it is clearly inspired by Dracula.

Unfortunately for Murnau, Stoker’s widow, Florence, jealously guarded her husband’s legacy. Murnau hadn’t asked permission to make the adaption and the production company found itself in court. Florence won the case and Nosferatu’s prints were handed over for destruction.

Luckily for cineastes, negatives survived and this crazy, creepy movie can still be enjoyed today.

The number of Dracula adaptions is now quite literally unquantifiable. There have been operas and musicals, cartoons, radio plays, ballets, even pornographic movies like Dracula Sucks. Lugosi aside, Christopher Lee made the part his own in the Hammer Studio’s productions and helped revive British cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

Without Dracula, there would be no Munsters, no Addams Family. Dracula even seeped into The Muppets with The Count. Goth music – especially in terms of fashion – owes pretty much everything to Bram Stoker.

Dracula has influenced modern Western culture in a way that perhaps no other fictional invention has ever done.

Undying legacy

THE story is a timeless sum of all our fears around sex, death and “the other”. The Count himself embodies every notion of dark glamour – his essence is violence and lust.

He’s charismatic, and although an older and unattractive creature in the book itself, nearly all subsequent iterations of the undead monster have made him devilishly attractive, so he appeals to both men and women.

Dracula was a product of the Victorian imagination – when the past, present and future fused together in one of the most creative eras of human history. Like other literary inventions of the time – think of Sherlock Holmes – the Count will most probably live on for as long as human beings love storytelling. It truly is an undying legacy.

Like Holmes, Dracula also represents something which is now gone in cultural terms: the melding of Irish and Scottish culture into an overarching “British culture”.

Holmes, by Edinburgh’s Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dracula, by Dublin’s Bram Stoker, would be seen today as Scottish and Irish creations, not British.

At the height of Victoria’s reign both cultural identities, however, were subsumed in Empire.

It remains noteworthy that among the two most lasting inventions of the Victorian imagination, there is a monster created by an Irishman and a maverick detective created by a Scotsman.

Both characters are troubling outsiders, both founders of genres (horror and the detective story), and both eminently malleable and capable of constant reinvention – or in the Count’s case, reanimation – in a way which reflects not the Victorian age, but the here and now, whether that’s the 1930s, 1950s or the 2020s.