Dracula and the Pop Culture Vampire
Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is arguably the single most significant work to influence the perception of vampires in modern popular culture. Though he was hardly the first to write a novel featuring the legendary monster, with both ‘Carmilla’ and ‘The Vampire’ preceding his work, and certainly influencing it, it is Stoker’s novel which gained global success and forever changed the way in which we view vampires.
Immortal blood-drinkers, invisible to mirrors, eternally young and beautiful, and repelled by daylight, crosses and garlic – these are just some of the many attributes of the modern vampire with authors and directors adding and removing any number of features in their own stories. Stephanie Meyer originated the sparkling vampire, while Darren Shan (Darren O'Shaughnessy) introduced the vampaneze – vampire’s purple skinned, red haired cousin – but how many of these found their home in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’?
‘Dracula’ largely follows the solicitor Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, as their lives are turned upside down by the titular Count Dracula. Originally sent to assist Dracula with his move to England, Jonathan is subsequently imprisoned by the Count and subject to his twisted games. Shortly afterwards, Mina has her first brush with the Count when her close friend Lucy is victimised, murdered, and turned by the wicked vampire. Together with Lucy’s three love interests, Jonathan and Mina work to permanently put an end to the Count, with efforts spearheaded by Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutch doctor with a surprising knowledge of the esoteric. Their efforts to stop the Count only become more desperate when he learns of their plans and brutally attacks Mina, biting her, force-feeding her his blood, and beginning the process of turning her into his kind – a process that could only be stopped by his death.
So where did Dracula come from? The image of the fanged, bloodsucking vampire may not even have existed before Bram Stokers’ novel. While there were certainly vampire legends, and stories of similar undead creatures, they were wide and varied, not homogenised into a singular popular myth. While Stoker certainly took inspiration from European – and in particular Romanian – mythology for creating his famous Count, there are also many elements (now common in the vampire mythos) that he is thought to have originated.
Several of these element are actually among the most common features of the modern-day vampire. Vampire’s long dangerous fangs are largely attributed to Stoker’s novel, and it is known that Stoker invented the idea that vampires cannot be seen in mirrors. This may have been inspired by folklore in which vampires, having no souls, cast no shadows. It has also been speculated that vampires are unable to be seen in mirrors because mirrors were historically backed with silver, which being a ‘pure’ metal, has traditionally been seen as have protective or even supernatural properties. In Stoker’s notes for the novel however, it is revealed that he also intended for Dracula to not appear in photographs, and for it to be impossible to paint his likeness without the image becoming distorted. Therefore, it is not that the connection is with the mirror itself, but in the inability to capture the image of the vampire.
Vampires were also not always blood drinkers. Though they drained their victims, this could be through other essential bodily fluids or even simply their essence, and a fatigued or drained victim was just as much a sign of vampiric activity as the now common bitemark. Being undead, vampires were thought to spread illness, and periods of terrible plagues were thought to be caused by the undead creature.
Stoker is also responsible for common depictions on how a vampire is made – by being bitten, or consuming the blood of, a vampire. It is this method that Dracula uses to turn poor Lucy into a member of his own kind, and to turn Mina into his thrall.
Though Mina does not fully become a vampire, she does begin to take on certain vampiric traits, and it is revealed that upon her death she will fully turn into a vampire. Though this has become a popular and common method of creating new vampires in fiction, prior to the novel there were a large number of ways that one could return as the undead. People who committed suicide, people born with a full set of teeth, victims of sorcery and being buried face-up are all ways which might cause a person to return after death.
Stoker also managed to incorporate the myths of other legendary creatures into his depiction of Dracula, features that are now regularly associated with the mythical vampire. Dracula has the ability to commune with wolves, and to transform into a wolf, a dog, and a large bat, features thought to have been inspired by legends of lycanthropes, rather than vampires.
Of course, vampires don’t only have terrifying teeth, a dangerous bite and a penchant for battery. They are also said to have a vast number of weaknesses, many of which Dracula shares.
While it is the bulb of the plant that has become most iconic as a weapon against the dreaded vampire, it was actually the white flower of the plant that actually appeared in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as a way to ward off the count. The flower was hung in the windows and worn as a wreath to protect those that Dracula preyed on – in particular Lucy. The flowers are able to keep Dracula physically at bay, but do not seem to offer much protection against his insidious mental manipulation. While she is wearing the flowers, Dracula is able to control Lucy into destroying the letter she wrote depicting the vampire’s attack on her and her mother.
Garlic has a long history as a benevolent plant. It has been hung in doors to ward off the evil eye, keep away witches and even protect the occupants from plague. Despite its long use as protection from evil, it was Bram Stoker who popularised it as a weapon against the undead.
Another key weakness of the vampire that Dracula shares – though not one that Stoker invented – is a vampire’s weakness to holy symbols. They are said to be unable to enter holy ground (though this line is slightly blurry as they are also said to frequent graveyards, which are often consecrated) they may be destroyed by holy water and, most famously, they are repelled by crucifixes.
The crucifix plays a key role in the ‘Dracula’ novel. Jonathan is gifted one by the local townspeople to protect him in Dracula’s castle and wearing it certainly offers Jonathan some protection from the Count’s attacks. Van Helsing places a crucifix on poor Lucy’s lips when she in interred in an attempt to prevent her from rising as a vampire, he also wields his own crucifix often to keep the Count at bay.
Interestingly, the crucifix is not the only holy object that he uses, though the second did not gain a foothold in popular culture. As well as defending himself with his crucifix, Van Heling also uses communion wafer, of ‘the Host’ as a far more versatile defence against Dracula. Though the communion wafer is, like the crucifix, held in front of Van Helsing to keep Dracula away, it is also crumbled and used to block the cracks in the doorway of Lucy’s tomb, so that she cannot escape. It is also placed in a circle around Mina and himself, preventing the half-turned Mina from leaving, and Dracula’s undead wives from entering.
Two other protective methods employed within the novel that have not gained a foothold in popular legend, are mountain ash and roses. Along with garlic, Jonathan is initially gifted mountain ash, a tree with a long association with folklore and once worn to protect from evil. Roses also feature in the novel with Van Helsing intending to place a branch of wild rose in Dracula’s coffin to prevent him returning to it. Unlike garlic, nether plant gained as much of a foothold in vampire mythology, although mountain ash does have its own rich mythology as a force for protection.
Other classic vampiric weaknesses are also present. Dracula does need to be invited in before he can enter a dwelling – a trait first written down in the 17th Century by a Greek theologian – but he can compel the victim to do so using his mind control. He is able to cross running water, though not easily, as he is transported by boat several times throughout the story. He is also affected by sunlight, though it neither burns him nor transforms him to dust. Dracula instead seems perfectly fine to move about during the daylight, though his powers are reduced, and it is clearly his preference to spend the daylight hours tucked away in his coffin.
The most important element of the majority of vampire legends is how to kill the vampire, and ‘Dracula’ is no exception. Only by killing the vampire, will the victim – Mina – be freed from its thrall.
There are many ways thought to permanently take care of a vampire threat. Bodies of suspected vampires have been found with bricks inserted into their mouths, and their teeth removed. Bodies have also been found with stakes of wood or metal driven through them, sickles positioned over the corpse, or their coffins nailed shut. Even more methods of killing a vampire are mentioned in the novel.
When it is initially discovered that Lucy has been turned, Van Helsing intends to cut her head off, take out her heart and fill her mouth with garlic. It is also mentioned that a sacred bullet fired into the coffin would work. Dracula himself is killed by being simultaneously decapitated with a machete and stabbed in the heart with a knife. Decapitation is a traditional method of killing a vampire, as is being stabbed through the chest, though a stake is more popular than a knife. Dracula crumbles to dust, never to be seen again, and the vampire hunters return home victorious.
Vampires are one of the most popular mythical creatures that appear in film, television and books today and while many elements are drawn from myth, there are just as many directly drawn from either Bram Stoker’s novel, or adaptions inspired by his work. Dracula has had such a significant impact on the vampires of pop culture that many things considered essential vampiric features are in fact Stoker’s own invention.