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Mysteries & Secrets - Dracula

"My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings." Thus the young British solicitor's assistant, Jonathan Harker, glimpsed his noble host one moonlit night in Transylvania, a wild, rocky region in the Carpathian Mountains of modern day Romania.
Carpathian Mountains in Romania
Previously, Count Dracula, a tall, pallid man always garbed in black, had been behaving very peculiarly indeed. When wolves were heard howling in the valley 1,000 feet below his ancient family castle, his eyes gleamed and he exclaimed, "Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!" When Harker cut himself shaving, the older man made a grab for his throat, his eyes blazing "with a sort of demoniac fury," but he drew back when he touched the chain of a cross around his startled guest's throat. Immediately before this episode, Harker realized that Dracula, though standing in the room, had not been reflected in the shaving mirror.

At the Englishman's last stopover, villagers had crowded around, muttering such imprecations as "ordog" (Satan) and "pokol" (hell) and rapidly making the sign of the cross. Now, he found himself imprisoned in "a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky." His host, apparently the sole inhabitant of the gloomy fortress, appears only at night. The terrified Harker wonders if he will ever again see his homeland.

Bram Stoker's Phenomenon

Harker, of course, is the young hero in one of the most remarkaby popular novels of all time, Bram Stoker's Dracula. It was an immediate success when first published in London in 1897 and has remained in print ever since. Several films, stage adaptations, comic books, and even a ballet have brought the story of the loathsome blood sucking Vampire count to a worldwide audience in the millions. In the novel Dracula travels to England to spread his Vampire cult, but he is eventually foiled when Harker escapes from the castle and joins forces with Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutch expert on Vampirism. Helsing alone seems to know that the monster cannot endure sunlight, garlic, or the symbol of the Christian cross. He also has learned that the "undead," as Vampires are called, can be killed only with a stake driven through the heart.

The Enduring Legend

Stoker's vampire novel draws on the rich and widespread history of belief in the fearsome creatures, who are mentioned as far back as the literatures of ancient Egypt and Greece. Since the dying become weak from loss of blood, simple people must have assumed that drinking blood would restore strength, or even that the blood of the living could bring the dead back to life.

But the novel Dracula borrows most heavily from the deeply held folk beliefs of rural Romania. According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the dominant religion there, people who die under a curse or a ban of excommunication will become walking dead, or "moroi," until they are granted absolution by the church. Local superstition adds the creatures known as "strigoi," demon birds that fly only at night, ravenous for human flesh and blood. Traditionally, Vampires' were seen as the cause of plagues in the area.

Romanian legends suggest that certain people, such as illegitimate or unbaptized children, witches, and the seventh son of a seventh son are doomed to become Vampires. The Vampire has the power to change into animal shapes, most often that of the wolf or the bat. In some villages anyone who refuses to eat garlic falls under suspicion of Vampirism. In fact, protection from night assaults by the drinkers of blood is best assured by rubbing garlic on all windows and doors.

Stoker learned about such legends from intense research in London's British Museum and in conversations with the Hungarian scholar Arminius Vambery. He was also influenced by the unsolved murders of the notorious Jack the Ripper and by his friendship with the explorer and man of letters Richard Burton, whose translations included 2 Hindu tales about Vampires.

Hidden Sensuality

Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night In the sexually repressed age of Queen Victoria, according to many literary critics, erotic feelings were often disguised. Stoker may have unconsciously sublimated strong sexual themes in his novel, blending the violent and bloody attacks of the vampires with a passionate yearning for sensual experience in mysterious night time settings. Harker, for example, is surely responding romantically when he is approached in his sleep by a trio of Dracula's young followers: "All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips..."

But this erotic appeal, along with the undeniable thrill of the ancient superstitions about the bloodsucking "undead" wandering abroad in the night, is augmented in Stoker's novel by yet another fantastic element, the incredible but true story of a revered Romanian national hero. In fact, Dracula himself boasts to Harker about his warlike, patriotic ancestor, who fought valiantly against the enemy Turks: the tyrant known to history as Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad Tepes

A Savage Patriot

The original Dracula was Vlad Tepes born in November or December of 1431, in the fortress of Sighisoara, Romania. In 1436-1437 he became prince of Wallachia, a mountainous territory adjacent to Transylvania and took up residence at the palace of Tirgoviste, the princely capital. Portrayed in surviving paintings and woodcuts as heavily moustached with a sharp beak of a nose and huge staring eyes, he was christened Vlad but nicknamed Dracula because of the family symbol, the "dracul," or dragon. Coincidentally, the word also means "devil" in the Romanian language.

As a youth, Dracula was held hostage by the Turks, from whom he learned about an excruciating method of execution, impalement. In this barbaric punishment, a wooden stake or an iron pike is driven through the body and then set into the ground, leaving the victim to die in agony.

In 1448 Vlad, probably only 18 at the time, was set upon the Wallachian throne by the Turks, but after two months he ran away to a Christian monastery. After the great Christian capital of Constantinople fell to the Turks, Vlad returned to his hereditary throne in 1456 and began a four year reign of uniquely inventive terror. On one occasion, for no discernible reason, he raided a friendly town and killed and tortured 10,000 of his subjects, many by impalement. He thus earned a new nickname, Tepes, or "the Impaler." In his most infamous massacre, which occurred on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1460, 30,000 were impaled in one town in Transylvania.

Was Dracula simply a sadist or did his cruel depredations have a political purpose? The answer is probably a little of both. When emissaries from the Turkish court dared to keep their turbans on in his presence, he ordered the headgear nailed to their skulls, certainly a bold gesture of independence. Barbaric or not, he achieved fame throughout Christian Europe when he recaptured fortresses along the Danube River and led his army nearly to the Black Sea.

15th Century Wood cut showing Vlad dining. On the other hand, once his forces were turned back, his own people forged letters that suggested he might defect to the Turks, and Dracula was summarily imprisoned for 12 years by King Mathias of Hungary. Perhaps the Wallachians had been sickened by their prince's amazing variety of punishments, which included skinning and boiling alive, burning, and mutilation.

During his incarceration Dracula, who could be insidiously charming, made friends with his guards, and they helpfully supplied him with mice and other small animals that he could impale in his cell for pleasure. Released in 1474, Dracula claimed the throne of Wallachia for the third time two years later, but he was killed only two months afterward, at the age of 45, in yet another battle against the Turks. His head was cut off, preserved in honey, and sent as a trophy to the sultan; his body lies in an unmarked grave.

The Vampire Who Will Not Die

Why did Stoker associate Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, with Vampirism? Generations of Romanian children have been threatened with the folk warning, "Be good, or Dracula will get you." Conversely, there is a traditional belief that the heroic leader of his people will return somehow whenever the nation is gravely threatened. Perhaps the persistence of the legend of the impaler was irresistible to an author who wanted to use the vibrant folklore and eerily beautiful wilderness of eastern Romania for his novel.

Certainly, Stoker's fictional Count Dracula refuses to die. Motion pictures, toys, games, and even food products bearing the Dracula image continue to do well in the marketplace. Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who became the most famous portrayer of Dracula on the screen, earned a fortune in the role, but he squandered almost all of it as he fought an addiction to morphine. When he died in 1956 at the age of 73, he was buried, at his request, in the red-satin-lined black cape he used in his vampire role.

In the mid 1980's, medical accounts of an extremely rare disease, porphyria, stirred up interest in a possible basis for the legends about Vampires, and press accounts made much of the "Dracula disease." In fact, only the form of porphyria known as CEP produces the "Vampire-like" characteristics: pointed teeth, excessive hair, extreme sensitivity to light, and the need for blood. Only 60 cases have been reported.

Nonetheless, the excited journalistic accounts of the medical research on porphyria proved once again that public fascination with the fictional Dracula remains as deep and wondering as young Harker's question in the novel: "What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?"

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