Prince of Darkness: How Count Dracula Conquered the World
“Throughout history, he has filled the hearts of men with terror and the hearts of woman with desire…” – Dracula, 1979
There are few corners of this world that have not heard of Count Dracula. His name looms large and monolithic; today a byword for evil and all fictional vampires. His legacy is titanic and ever-evolving and one is put in mind of the Count himself from the original novel as he remains as powerful a force today as he was centuries before legions of his acolytes were born. Over 120 years after Bram Stoker’s novel was published, Dracula continues to fascinate and thrill and terrorize. No amount of stakes and sunlight and vials of consecrated water shall destroy him. Count Dracula is forever.
Like so many creations whose cultural footprint is now omnipresent, it is easy to forget the man behind the legend. Bedridden in his youth, stories were the ultimate panacea for young Bram Stoker’s troubles. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Stoker should foster literary interests as he aged, ultimately finding employment as the theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail; a position that introduced him to the likes of Sheridan le Fanu, writer of Gothic tales, and Sir Henry Irving, surely the most famous actor to tread the boards of the Victorian stage.
Much ink has been spilled endeavoring to parse out the origins and real-life inspiration for Count Dracula, and though the Count shares his name with the Voivode of Wallachia commonly referred to as Vlad the Impaler, Irving is the far more likely candidate. Stoker was devoted to Irving, whose portrayals of classical villains became stuff of legend, and Dracula, as impersonated by the thespian, would have stood alongside his Mephistopheles and Macbeth. Though Stoker found much to admire in his boss, his vampire novel (which he spent years researching and writing) served as an outlet for his own sublimated frustrations. Historian Louis S. Warren says of Irving: “[He]…was a self-absorbed and profoundly manipulative man. He enjoyed cultivating rivalries between his followers, and to remain in his circle required constant, careful courting of his notoriously fickle affections.” In Count Dracula, Bram Stoker isolated the dark mirror image of both Irving and himself.
To put it mildly, it is not a flattering portrait. Today, one is liable to forget just how ferocious the literary Dracula is. He is an animalistic, heartless representation of pure evil; a loquacious and braggadocios predator with a penchant for feeding kidnapped babies to his vampire brides. He is the mustache-twirling villain of a melodrama bought (back) to life. Though he has the ability to transform himself into a bat, wolf, or swirling wall of vapor, Dracula may have more in common with a lizard as he crawls head first down the sheer stone walls of his castle, his pale skin icy cold to the touch. Count Dracula is the manifestation of the Victorian Era’s greatest fears: an amalgamation of xenophobia, race, sexual liberation, and disease.
Yet, in combining these ingredients into a heady brew, Stoker forges a fascinating touchstone of the times and, in reading Dracula, we may better understand the age in which it was written; when religious expression was met with raised eyebrows and incredulousness, and the age of mechanization and technology would subsume Victorian culture. Though Stoker’s style and the epistolary nature of the narrative featuring letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings to forward the action renders the novel’s field-of-view staggeringly myopic, the book remains a fascinating study and a cornerstone of the Gothic horror genre. One simply cannot discuss such literary figures as diverse as Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, or even Dr. Fu Manchu without mentioning Count Dracula.
So, how was it that this creature of the night embodying a host of Victorian prejudices and anxieties should take over the entire world? Count Dracula was about to go to the theatre.
One of the great ironies in the history of Dracula is that for how anxious Bram Stoker was to
see his novel put on the stage, he did not live long enough to see it done. Stoker died in 1912 and 12 years later, theatrical impresario Hamilton Deane launched the most successful stage version of the novel. Deane’s play – complete with thunder and lightning effects, bats swinging onto stage on the end of a fishing line, a nurse standing in the lobby to administer smelling salts to audience members with weak hearts – was more a sideshow attraction to 1920s audiences, but it was still financially successful. In adapting the novel to fit the confines of the proscenium arch, Deane jettisoned most of the plot points and characters from the Stoker original. Dracula was now redone as a drawing room melodrama, its action confined to a handful of locations and, by extension, retrofitting the role of the vampire count into a figure of regality and manners complete with evening wear and opera cape. As historian David J. Skal points out: “To work in the conventions of a drawing room mystery melodrama…[Dracula] needed to be a character one would plausibly ask into one’s drawing room in the first place – not a man-beast whose idea of a social call was smashing through a bedroom window, unannounced in the form of a slavering wolf.” Despite the childish theatrics, Dracula was still a success on the West End which meant that an American run was inevitable. The play, rewritten and adapted by writer and journalist John L. Balderston, opened in 1927 and Count Dracula took a bite out of Broadway. The actor to play the pivotal role – one which would define the rest of his career – was Bela Lugosi.
Another great irony in the history of Dracula is that before he played the demonic Count, Bela Lugosi was renowned in his native Hungary as a romantic leading man; one of his best-known performances being that of Jesus in a 1916 passion play. Yet, this leading man charisma was what made Lugosi so successful when cast as Dracula. His melodious voice, thickly accented, famously gave new pronunciation to the simplest of words (the truth of the matter was that Lugosi did not speak English at the time of his casting and learned the part phonetically), and, coupled with his intense eyes, cast a hypnotic spell over his audience. Only one year after international star and “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino died at the age of 31, Lugosi’s sexy Dracula quite literally brought him back from the dead, perhaps perversely answering the whispered desires of Valentino's fans who responded with reported mass hysteria at news of his death which resulted in suicides of his despondent admirers and 100,000 people descending upon the streets of Manhattan in hopes of attending his funeral.
The success of Dracula on Broadway made a Hollywood version a certainty. It was Universal Studios who secured the rights to both the novel and the stage play and set about filming the first sound supernatural horror film in America. Viewing the Dracula film today can be an underwhelming experience; director Tod Browning’s hesitancy to embrace sound technology results in a slow, staid, and unusually silent film with little action and an overall staginess in presentation. The highpoint of the film is its atmospheric opening chronicling solicitor Renfield’s journey to Castle Dracula and, though his theatrics may appear dated and hokey to the modern eye, one cannot deny the magnetism Lugosi displays on screen. Even when not in a scene, Lugosi is felt in the periphery; a trait which would become a necessity for all good Draculas on screen. When released on Valentine’s Day 1931, Dracula would become a major box office success. Universal, at first hesitant to dip their toes into the world of Gothic horror, would go on to adapt Frankenstein and then a host of other horror titles; their spinning globe logo becoming synonymous with horror. Without Dracula, horror – and more specifically unambiguously supernatural horror – might not become a viable commercial avenue for the major Hollywood studios for the next three decades. To some degree or another, the stone-cold horror classics like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and so many others might never have come to be.
The third great irony in the history of Dracula is that for all that Tod Browning’s film gave the world, it also proved to be the albatross around Bela Lugosi’s neck for the rest of his life. Though he endeavored to shed the shadow of Count Dracula – and by extension horror films – Lugosi was simply incapable of doing it. His refusal to play the role of the Monster in Universal’s Frankenstein did not endear him to studio bosses and, within a year the actor was filing for bankruptcy. Lugosi vowed never to turn down work again which lead Lugosi straight to the Poverty Row studios where executives took advantage of him for his name value and cast him in a series of increasingly demeaning roles. Count Dracula made and broke Bela Lugosi. He died in 1956, buried in his Dracula cape. In his lifetime, he had already seen the role of Dracula pass to Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine though each subsequent performer owed something to his transcendent persona. Two years after Lugosi’s passing, Count Dracula would be resurrected again, this time as portrayed by Christopher Lee whose turn in Hammer Films’ franchise would redefine the character and change horror cinema as we know it. But that is the story for another time…
I met Count Dracula when I was six years old. At that time, the Lugosi film was already over 70-
years old, but its cultural relevance was not diminished in any way. There had been many other Draculas during the intervening years: Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman remain unparalleled for some of the best portrayals of the vampire as they consciously rejected the Lugosi template, but none of them have surpassed him for cultural supremacy. Ask anyone what a vampire looks like and they’ll describe Lugosi; ask them to tell you what a vampire sounds like and they’ll do a Lugosi impression without even knowing it. I attended a screening of the Lugosi film at the local library with little knowledge of what an impact the film would have on me. Even after all that time, Dracula still had the power to hypnotize me. I would reenact bits of the movie on the playground with my friends at recess; for Halloween I dressed as a vampire at least twice; and in high school I played vampire hunter Van Helsing in the Fall Play wielding a cardboard crucifix. It’s fitting, therefore, that in my senior year of college majoring in Theatre Performance, I got to play the Count himself in a wonderful adaptation by Liz Lochhead. It was an honor and a privilege to play the character, joining the ranks of the countless actors to take on the role, and swoosh my cape around the stage night after night.
For better or for worse, Count Dracula has become a part of who I am.
The Count has come a long way since he was created by Bram Stoker as the representation of Victorian evil and it is unlikely that he shall ever go away. As long as the public’s thirst for Dracula is as unquenchable as his own, then he shall never disappear from the ruins of Castle Dracula listening to the children of the night and the sweet, sad music they make.