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Unearthing Dracula

From the character in Bram Stoker's novel, to the various film portrayals, to the historical figure who was the inspiration for it all... Who is Dracula?

Vlad Tepes, portrait

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia in the 15th century, is a national hero in Romania for defending Christianity from the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.

The Problem With Vampires

When WFIU approached Jeff Holdeman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at Indiana University, to contribute to an hour-long radio program about vampires, he said we should be prepared to create a ten-part series instead.

“I spend 15 weeks rushing very quickly through the material in my course and still have more things to say, more things to do, more information to impart,” says Holdeman, speaking about an undergraduate course he teaches called The Vampire in European and American Culture.

We took the expert’s advice and narrowed the topic of the program to the one vampire who has had single-name recognition since the late 19th century (and even earlier in some circles): Dracula.

The Three Faces Of Dracula

When speaking about Dracula, Holdeman says it’s important to understand which version of the character is being referenced.

The first version is the very real historical figure of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (now Romania), also called Vlad Țepeș (Vlad the Impaler). He ruled in the 15th century during the invasion of the Ottoman Turks, and he is viewed as a national hero for defending orthodox Christianity.

His nickname stemmed from “a certain fondness for impaling people on very long pikes,” says Holdeman. “That’s a nice visual way of telling people to stay away and if not, this is what we’re going to do to you.”

Vlad had his father to thank for passing down the name of Dracula. Vlad II was a member of the Order of the Dragon, which earned him the title Drac. As his son, Vlad the III was then referred to as Dragwlya, the diminutive of Drac.

A New Image, Thanks To Bram Stoker

Fast forward 400 years to the second incarnation of Dracula: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula.”

A theater critic and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, he dedicated himself to researching folklore of vampires in Eastern Europe for several years. Initially he named the character in his novel Count Wampyr, “but then as soon as he saw Dracula, I think linguistically he knew he had a winner,” says Holdeman.

The success of Stoker’s novel forever changed the image of Vlad Țepeș, much to the dismay of the Romanian people. Not only was their national hero taken away from them, he was turned into a creature from their own folklore.

“Some people have said what Bram Stoker did to the figure of Dracula would be like turning George Washington into a vampire,” adds Holdeman.

  • Unearthing Dracula Logo

    Image 1 of 1

    Photo: Michael Hoerger

    Jeff Holdeman say there are three Draculas: the character in Bram Stoker's novel, the versions of Dracula represented in many films and the very real historical figure of Vlad the Impaler.

Ready For My Close-Up

The third Dracula is the character seen in movies throughout the 20th century.

“All these movies are supposed to be based directly on the novel,” says Holdeman, but their depictions of Dracula could not be more different.

The first movie featuring Dracula was released in 1922. Since it was an unauthorized adaptation of the novel, it was called “Nosferatu,” with Max Schrek playing the rat-like villain.

In 1931, Bela Lugosi created the most iconic image of Dracula with his cape, tuxedo, widow’s peak and foreign accent in the film directed by Tod Browning. “Just to say ‘I vant’ is enough to make people know that ‘suck your blood’ is going to come immediately after that,” says Holdeman.

Christopher Lee played Dracula several times throughout his career, the first of which came in 1958’s “Horror of Dracula.” In the 1970 film “Count Dracula,” his character begins as an old man and becomes younger as he feeds on blood, the first movie to depict this aspect of the novel.

Frank Langella took a turn as Dracula in 1979 but did not sport the traditional fangs and wolf-like eyes.

Then in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola directed Gary Oldman in the main role in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Oldman sported a top hat, long flowering hair and round-rimmed sunglasses for the role.

Dracula, Dracula Everywhere

When not scaring PG-13 audiences in movie theaters, Dracula is teaching children numbers on Sesame Street (The Count) and feeding them sugary cereals (Count Chocula). Lego created a toy reminiscent of the Bela Lugosi Dracula, and if you keep an eye out for them, Dracula makes appearances on everything from greeting cards to candies.

He has infiltrated the fabric of our culture.

Unlike other monsters, Holdeman says Dracula and his vampire friends have staying power when it comes to their place in our culture.

“It touches on too many themes that are at the very core of human existence,” he says. “So, for as much as you might like zombies or mummies, the vampire definitely has the metaphoric advantage.”

  • Lego Dracula

    Image 1 of 3

    This Lego Dracula is styled after the Bela Lugosi character, with the cape, tuxedo and widow's peak.

  • The Count From Sesame Street

    Image 2 of 3

    The Count from Sesame Street teaches children their numbers. Coincidentally, folkloric vampires in some regions are obsessive counters. "How Sesame Street producers picked up on that little itty-bitty fact is just sheer genius," says Holdeman.

  • Count Chocula cereal

    Image 3 of 3

    Count Chocula is one of many breakfast cereals featuring monsters, including Frankenberry, Boo Berry, Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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