Dacre Stoker on the Enduring Appeal of Dracula
As the great-grand nephew of legendary horror writer Bram Stoker, Dacre Stoker knows a thing or two both about his ancestor's writing processes and the black magic formula for writing utterly terrifying fiction. His latest novel Dracul combines both, being a fictionalised account of a chilling event that Bram Stoker witnessed whilst working on the iconic Dracula. In this exclusive essay, Dacre takes a look at the incredible popularity of the Transylvanian Count throughout popular culture.
During a planning meeting for the 2012 service held at St. Anne’s Church, in Dublin, in honor of the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death (1912), Reverend David Gillespie asked me to provide a first edition of Dracula, to accompany the Bible in the procession and to be placed on the altar during the service. My son, Parker, a student of religion and English literature, was with me at the meeting and asked with a smile if we were risking, if not God’s wrath, then at least some questionable optics. Without missing a beat, Reverend Gillespie simply said that Dracula, like the Bible, is a book about good versus evil—and good wins out in the end. What a lovely view of a book that even after 122 years continues to horrify, continues to be read and analyzed, and continues to inspire writers to create their own horrifying stories.
Dracula’s theme—good versus evil—is universally familiar and eternally popular. The central character, Count Dracula, is a complex and multifaceted fiend; his supernatural powers, strength, sexuality, charm, and immortality contribute to his lasting allure.
In considering the continuing appeal of Dracula, I am once again struck by the effect of the epistolary style Bram employed. He added contemporary newspaper articles to his narrative, which was otherwise told in letters, journals, telegrams, and phonograph transcriptions. So, rather than the story being relayed by detached narration, the reader has the opportunity to “become” each character, to learn how each thinks, and watch the plot unfold through each mind’s eye, from each perspective. The reader becomes deeply involved in the problem-solving process of the plot.
Of course, the novel can be enjoyed simply at face value as a very suspenseful vampire story, but to many readers, part of Dracula’s lasting appeal is its depth and complexity—and the reflections of Bram Stoker’s own multi-faceted life and interests in those murky depths.
Bram’s Lost Journal (2012) and his other scant autobiographical work—portions of Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906)—reveal that my great granduncle was a very observant and sensitive man. From an early age, he was attuned to the details of everything around him. Perhaps foreshadowing Dracula’s epistolary method, Bram processed and recorded his own thoughts and feelings in the diaries and journals he kept, and the letters he wrote. Dracula framed many real-world concerns, and even today still provides a glimpse into the technological and cultural changes occurring in late Victorian society.
Dracula was set in a relatively realistic framework, and to great effect. The novel’s action relies on a (mostly) accurate calendar of real dates and events in 1893, against a backdrop of several well-known locations in England. To add mystery, Bram also described in great detail the foreign world of Transylvania, a distant, haunting place he and few Londoners had ever seen. His reader is transported with descriptions Bram found in guidebooks about the area, and from conversations with his brother, my great grandfather George Stoker, who served as a medical officer in conflicts in the adjacent Balkan region between 1876-1877.
Significant to Dracula’s initial and enduring appeal are centuries-old myths of the vampire, which Bram presented as fact. While religion is the official gatekeeper for the afterlife, myth and folklore have always provided options to explain the otherwise unexplainable, and tales of the un-dead have abided as long as the dead themselves.
In the 1700’s, and well into the late 1800’s, various contagious diseases ravaged Europe and New England. Germ theory (and the importance of simple hygiene and cleanliness) was not yet understood, and vampires sometimes accounted for the inexplicable spread of death via contagion—spirits of the dead coming back from their graves and taking life from the living. Rituals were necessary to ward off these menacing spirits, versions of which were included in Dracula.
For these reasons and others, John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1816), J. Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1845), J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), and Dracula (1897) were all very popular in their day. Subsequent fictional vampires have been built off these earlier prototypes, their characteristics evolving over the years to add interest and believability, and to reflect the changing times. Sexuality is another key element to the vampire myth’s evolving but enduring appeal. Like subsequent audiences, the Victorians had their fair share of repressions, which Bram either consciously or unconsciously represented in his novel.
As literary critic James Twitchell once said, “The (Dracula) myth is loaded with sexual excitement; yet there is no mention of sexuality.” To appeal to 20th century theater audiences, for example, the appearance of Count Dracula was altered to represent a suave, debonair member of the aristocracy. In the movie versions that followed Universal Picture’s purchase of the dramatic rights, censors strictly limited the violence and the blood, but allowed plenty of heaving chests and ample cleavage.
With the success of the stage adaptation of Dracula in the 1920’s, the count entered mainstream entertainment, and the novel received a substantial boost in sales, initially in the U.K. and U.S., which led to its translation and publication in numerous languages, and its further proliferation in various media. Universal Pictures and Hammer Films alone created sixteen Dracula-inspired films between 1931-1974, each of them building off the success of previous films. In 2011, the authors of Dracula in Visual Media 1921-2010 found more than 700 citations of domestic and international Dracula films, television programs, documentaries, adult features, animated works, and video games, as well as nearly a thousand comic books and stage adaptations.
Since Dracula was published in 1897, it has never been out of print. It has been translated in over 30 languages and is still taught in high schools and universities all over the world. Over the years, on my lecture circuit, countless people have told me how they’ve read and re-read Dracula time and again, and each time they get something different out of it. It simply keeps readers coming back for more.