The notorious vampire Dracula has stood as a horror icon for decades, but the character’s origin, and inspiration, as well as the life of his creator Bram Stoker, are generally unknown to the trick-or-treaters and party-goers who don the caped, black-clad visage each Halloween. In fact, Dracula and Halloween are not historically linked at all, and what is even less commonly recognized are the Irish influences that had a significant impact on the mind of Stoker and his writing.
What then, are the details surrounding the origins of this sinister character and the classic novel that bears his name? Read on to learn a little more about the true origin of Gothic literature’s most recognizable and horrifying specter.
Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was Irish, very Irish
Abraham “Bram” Stoker was born on November 8, 1847, in Clontarf, a coastal suburb on the north side of Dublin, Ireland. His father, Abraham (1799-1876), was born in Dublin and worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. His mother, Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley (1818-1901) was raised in County Sligo before settling down with Abraham and having seven children (Bram was the third oldest). Both parents were members of the Church of Ireland Parish of Clontarf and baptized each of their children there (Christian iconography and themes of otherworldly salvation would become integral to the central story line of Dracula). Charlotte, a descendant of the Blake tribe of Galway, and the O’Donnells of Donegal, filled young Stoker’s head with tales of their family’s history, as well as traditional Celtic folktales. His father likewise shared his passion for the arts, and especially the theatre, with Stoker. Together, Stoker’s parents set him down a course of literary greatness, whether that was their aim or not.
Stoker was a sickly child, which likely played a role in the development of his imagination
Stoker spent the first seven years of his life bedridden with an unknown illness. This was one of the reasons his he had so much time to hear stories from his mother and sister. Later in life, Stoker described himself as a “naturally thoughtful” youth who took advantage of the “leisure of [his] long illness,” giving him the opportunity to develop a vivid imagination. Stoker lived precariously on a fine line between life and death at all times, which might have helped draw him towards the darker side of storytelling.
In an interview with Stoker’s greath-nephew Dacre Stoker, it is shared that Stoker was likely blood-let as a boy, no doubt causing some measure of trauma on his psyche. Historically, blood-letting was a common form of medical treatment. It was practiced around the world up through the 19th century for everything from nosebleeds to aiding in childbirth. This forceful theft of blood likely left a scar on Stoker that eventually found its way into his literary imagination.
Another Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu, wrote his own vampire story decades before Dracula
Twenty-six years before Dracula was published, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu published a novella titled Carmillia. In it, the titular character stalks, seduces, and generally terrorizes a teenage girl and others in her circle of friends and family. The story shares many parallels to Dracula: haunted castles and forests, seductive female-vampires, unholy sexuality, ex-vampire hunters, and stakes through the heart. The story is also told as part of a casebook of an occult detective, sharing the epistolary nature of Dracula.
Contemporary tales of the undead were on the rise in popularity during Stoker’s life. John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1818) is largely credited as the archetype aristocratic vampire, and was written at the famous dinner party in Switzerland that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Arguably the true pioneer of gothic literary conventions, Le Fanu laid the groundwork for Victorian-era ghost stories which caught the attention of Stoker, who at the time was a theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail (they also both studied at Trinity College Dublin), which was co-owned by Le Fanu. Le Fanu died over twenty years before Dracula was published, so it is hard to say if he would have taken issue with the similarities of Stoker’s work, but it is clear that both authors were inspired by other elements of Celtic folklore.
Undead myths are prevalent throughout Irish folklore
Among the many creatures populating Ireland’s mythology, there are a few that demonstrate life-stealing, vampiric tendencies. These creatures were undoubtedly introduced to Le Fanu and Stoker at a young age through popular fairy tales and children’s stories of the time. Some monsters from this ghoulish pantheon include the Abhartach, a dwarf-like “magician, and a dreadful tyrant,” an undead revenant who rises from his grave to drink the blood of his subjects. He can only be killed with a sword carved from the wood of a yew tree, and will remain dead only when buried upside down. Other Celtic apparitions include the Leanan sídhe or Dearg-due, a vampiric fairy that seeks the love of mortal men. The men who accept her offer are slowly drained of their life essence over time, and those who refuse are made her slaves.
Although popular consensus has stood behind the idea that the historical figure Vlad the Impaler served as an inspiration for the character Dracula, it is now believed Stoker actually knew very little about the man and might have come across the name Dracula (from “Order of the Dragon”) while reading Romanian history. Alternatively, he might have taken inspiration from the legendary fortress D’un Dreach-Fhoula (pronounced droc’ola), which guarded the ghostly pass of the Magillycuddy Reeks in Kerry.
Stoker enjoyed studying the myths of different cultures across Europe, and he borrowed numerous pieces of arcane legend from his studies of various cultures.
Dracula is an epistolary novel
By the time Stoker began writing Dracula, he was already a prolific writer. In addition to publishing a variety of short stories, he had published five fiction novels, authored dozens of reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, and wrote profusely in his effort to promote the work of his idol Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre (sometimes penning up to 50 letters per day). This ability to write voluminously served him well, and helped him perfect the epistolary approach he took with Dracula.
The entire story is presented as a collection of journal entries, newspaper articles, telegrams, ship logs, and letters. Not only does this technique add a dramatic layer of realism to an otherwise completely fantastic tale, it also helps keep the reader engrossed in varying viewpoints of different characters over a long period of time. Through a collection of events which may feel random at first, gradually begin to connect themselves like a puzzle, painting a sinister picture that readers cannot tear themselves away from.
Ireland’s Great Hunger could have helped shape the themes and tone of Dracula
The grim reality of the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 was still fresh in the minds of the Irish at the time of Stoker’s writing. Stoker himself was born right in the middle of it and images of disease, starvation, and human frailty were prevalent all throughout his young life. It is possible young Stoker visited the family’s tomb in St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, where mummified remains could be visited in the dark crypts. The Clontarf graveyard, not far from where Stoker was born, was a common burial place for suicide victims, who according to Irish superstition at the time, could rise from their graves if not buried on hallowed ground. Stoker would have also known of the tales of people buried alive during the fever epidemic of 1832, told to him by his mother, who herself witnessed numerous atrocities and horrors committed during the climax of the outbreak.
Inhabitants of Ireland would have been extremely superstitious in the 19th century. Disfiguration, sickness, and death could have been caused by not just the lack of food, but supernatural curses as well. Similarly, Dracula stalks and kills victims throughout the novel, leaving his ghastly mark on anyone unfortunate to cross his path. Perhaps the character was a take on Irish superstition, or perhaps he served as an analogy for the suffering the people of Ireland historically had to endure. Either way, the horrors of famine and disease played a major role in the development of Stoker’s macabre imagination.
Stoker traveled the world, but never Eastern Europe where Dracula is set
Although Dracula was not an immediate success financially, the book helped prove himself among the time’s literary elite. Thanks in part to the book’s positive reception among reviewers, Stoker skyrocketed to a level of notoriety rivaling Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Brontë. Although he had traveled extensively already to promote Irving’s work, as the author of Dracula, he had the opportunity to meet some of the cultural and political giants of his time. He visited the United States twice, each time fulfilling an invitation to the White House where he met William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. During his U.S. travels, he also met one of his literary idols, Walt Whitman.
It is not known why Stoker never bothered to travel to Transylvania, the central region of Romania where much of Dracula takes place. The book has since transformed the region into a literary mecca for Stoker’s fans. Tourists can even visit Sighisoara, the town where Vlad the Impaler, was supposedly born and raised and who still enjoys popularity as a major source of Stoker’s inspiration.
Dracula was one of the few horror stories Stoker ever wrote
Stoker authored thirteen fiction novels, four non-fiction books, three short-story collections, and around two-dozen uncollected short stories, as well as numerous reviews and news articles. Although a prolific author, little of his work can be placed in the horror genre.
Although he began his writing career as a critic for the Dublin Evening Mail (a post he filled anonymously, unpaid, for five years), it wasn’t until he became the manger of the Lyceum Theatre in London that he began to increase the volume of his writing. Stoker dutifully served in his role as manager for nearly three decades, in part for his adoration of the theater’s owner Henry Irving, and also for the love of the arts his father instilled in him at a young age. Because Irving paid Stoker almost nothing in return for his services, Stoker was forced to write as a way to provide for his wife and child, as well as pay off his father’s debts.
During the late 1800s, vampiric melodramas were becoming more popular, and no doubt Stoker noticed they were the longest running performances at the time. Additionally, the Victorian-era fascination with the occult was in full swing, and sensing an opportunity, Stoker set aside his other literary interests and began researching vampiric folklore.
Stoker likely didn’t anticipate the level of popularity and notoriety Dracula would gain. Nor could he fathom the impact it would have on pop-culture over the next century, while at the same lose its identity as an Irish story written by an Irish author.
Today, the Bram Stoker Festival is among the largest festivals in Dublin
The multi-day extravaganza celebrates the legacy of Stoker and has become one of the mainstay Halloween events in the country. Founded in 2012 for the centenary of Stoker’s death, the festival runs over Ireland’s October bank holiday weekend (this year from October 26-29) in locations throughout the city.
The festival celebrates everything gothic and Victorian, with events ranging from day-time tours of Dublin’s famed Glasnevin Cemetery, to late-night discos and dinners for costumed mates. Free activities are mixed with ticketed events, and advance reservations are highly recommended. Visit bramstokerfestival.com for more information.