How did Dracula become the world’s most famous vampire? More than 100 years after his creator was laid to rest, Dracula lives on as the most famous vampire in history. But this Transylvanian noble, neither the first fictional vampire nor the most popular of his time, may have remained buried in obscurity if not for a twist of fate. Dracula’s first appearance was in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name. But that was far from the beginning of vampire myths. Blood-sucking monsters had already been part of folklore for at least 800 years. It was Slavic folklore that gave us the word vampire, or “upir” in Old Russian.
The term’s first known written mention comes from the 11th century. Vampire lore in the region predated Christianity’s arrival and persisted despite the church’s efforts to eliminate pagan beliefs. Stories of vampires originated from misinterpretations of diseases, such as rabies, and pellagra, and decomposition. In the case of the latter, gasses swelling the body and blood oozing from the mouth could make a corpse look like it had recently been alive and feeding.
Vampires were describe as bloated with overgrown teeth and nails. This gave rise to many rituals intended to prevent the dead from rising, such as burying bodies with garlic or poppyseeds, as well as having them staked, burned, or mutilated. Vampire lore remained a local phenomenon until the 18th century when Serbia was caught in the struggle between two great powers, the Habsburg Monarchy and Ottoman Empire.
Austrian soldiers and government officials observed and documented the strange local burial rituals, and their reports became widely publicized. The resulting vampire hysteria got so out of hand that in 1755, the Austrian Empress was forced to dispatch her personal physician. He investigated and put an end to the rumors by publishing a thorough, scientific refutation. The panic subsided, but the vampire had already taken root in Western Europe’s imagination, spawning works like “The Vampyre” in 1819, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” in 1872.
This book would greatly influence a young Irish drama critic named Bram Stoker. Stoker, who was born in Dublin in 1847, was famously bedridden with an unknown illness until the age of seven. During that time, his mother told him folktales and true tales of horror, including her experiences during an outbreak of cholera in 1832. There, she described victims buried alive in mass graves.
Later in his life, Stoker went on to write fantasy, romance, adventure stories, and, in 1897, “Dracula.” Although the book’s main villain and namesake is thought to be based on the historical figure of Vlad III Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, the association is mostly just that they share a name. Other elements and characters were inspired directly and indirectly by various works in the Victorian Era, such as “The Mysterious Stranger.” The novel, upon release, was only a moderate success in its day, nor was it even Stoker’s most well-known work, mentioned only briefly in a 1912 obituary.
But a critical copyright battle would completely change Dracula’s fate, and catapult the character into literary renown. In 1922, a German studio adapted the novel into the now classic silent film “Nosferatu” without paying royalties. Despite changes in character names and minor plot points, the parallels were obvious, and the studio was sued into bankruptcy.
To prevent more plagiarism attempts, Stoker’s widow decided to establish copyright over the stage version of “Dracula” by approving a production by family-friend Hamilton Deane. Although Deane’s adaptation made drastic cuts to the story, it became a classic, thanks largely to Bela Lugosi’s performance on Broadway. Lugosi would go on to star in the 1931 film version by Universal, lending the character many of his signature characteristics. And since then, Dracula has risen again in countless adaptations, finding eternal life far beyond the humble pages of his birth.