On May 18, 1897 Bram Stoker’s first and most famous novel, “Dracula” was published. Folklore about vampires and the undead had circulated for centuries but modern vampire stories may have originated with some of the literary giants of the early 19th century. While vacationing with friends on Lake Geneva in 1816 Lord Byron proposed a ghost story contest. His challenge on that gloomy morning drove Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein”. Also taking on the challenge, Byron’s personal physician John Polidori wrote “The Vampyre” using Lord Byron as the inspiration for his nefarious creation. Polidori’s book spawned a slew of popular books about vampires. The blood-sucking creatures were generally portrayed as repulsive corpse-like beasts until Stoker introduced the elegant Count Dracula.

A native of Ireland, Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker moved to London in 1878 and became the manager of the Lyceum Theatre.  Stoker never set foot in Transylvania however he researched the country through travel journals, a book on Transylvanian superstitions, and sources such as train timetables. Dracula’s castle was modeled after a decaying Scottish castle located near a vacation cottage rented by Stoker’s family when he was a child.

A cottage industry has sprung up among scholars (Hello Boston College) claiming Stoker’s Dracula was based on Prince Vlad III of Wallachia better known as “Vlad the Impaler”. It’s estimated that the brutal despot killed more than 100,000 people after inflicting horrible tortures on the victims. While researching Romanian history, Stoker took note of the exploits of Prince Vlad II, father of the notorious Impaler. The father was also known as “Dracul”, which means the dragon. Stoker named his vampire Dracula or “Son of the Dragon” but that is probably where the Impaler’s influence on Stoker’s vampire ends. Many experts agree that Stoker based his character on his boss, Henry Irving, owner of the Lyceum Theater and the first actor ever to be awarded a knighthood. The dramatic sweeping gestures and gentlemanly demeanor of Dracula closely resembled the mannerisms of the renowned Shakespearian actor.

Stoker’s vampire has the strength of 20 men and possesses supernatural powers that include powerful hypnosis, shape-shifting and the ability to command nocturnal animals. He can climb upside down on vertical surfaces and pass through tiny cracks. Of course, nobody is perfect including Dracula who loses his shape-shifting powers during the day, cannot enter a place uninvited, and is repulsed by garlic and crucifixes.

Despite receiving critical acclaim “Dracula” didn’t achieve popularity until after Stoker’s 1912 death. The author died in poverty however his widow was able to profit from the stage and film productions. A Broadway adaptation of “Dracula” began a three-year run in 1927 and in 1931, Tod Browning’s classic screen adaptation starring Bela Lugosi made Dracula a household name. Lugosi was a Hungarian born Shakespearean actor who was thrice wounded during World War I. He emigrated to the US in 1920 and found work as a character actor before gaining fame as Dracula on Broadway. Despite rave reviews for his stage portrayal, Lugosi wasn’t chosen for the film role. When first choice Lon Chaney developed throat cancer, Conrad Veidt (Hello Major Strasser) was offered the role. Veidt declined due to his dislike of the United States. The studio turned to Lugosi who was so desperate for the role that he agreed to a ridiculously low contract of $500 per week.

Typecast as a vampire, Lugosi played Dracula-like characters for many years but only played Count Dracula in one other film – “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein”.  While Lugosi spent a life mired in drug addiction and debt, the character he made famous has been featured in over 200 films, second only to Sherlock Homes. Dracula’s influence runs from breakfast cereals and a Sesame Street character to Stephen King’s tribute to Stoker – ‘Salem’s Lot”.

More than 1,000 novels have been written featuring Dracula. And note to my rare- book- collecting friend, Paul Lane – if you are interested in buying the original manuscript of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece contact the estate of Paul Allen, late co-founder of Microsoft, although I’m guessing they’re not selling.

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