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Dracula in Britain

Just over a century ago, the novel Dracula was published, written by the Irish author Bram Stoker. It created a widespread interest in vampirism and depicted Eastern Europe as a rather macabre country. But was Stoker inspired by Eastern Europe, or instead legends and sites of the British Isles?

Philip Coppens


On June 24, 1897, Midsummer’s day, the London publisher Arthur Constable published Dracula, by Irish-born author Bram Stoker. At the time, he was a relatively well-known author, with four previous novels published. However, as his writing did not provide an adequate source of income, he continued to work as the manager of the Lyceum Theatre, in the heart of London, where he co-operated with the famous actor Henry Irving, who also owned the theatre.
In 1897, few would realise that Dracula would become an all-time classic in the history of literature and would set a…. vampire-like tooth imprint on the horror genre. Dracula was a thriller that featured vampires, creatures that feast on human blood. In an era where the story is best known through a number of films, the novel was actually written as a series of letters, sent between the various characters. The sum of these letters was the story of count Dracul, living in Transylvania, who desired to buy several properties in and around London, for which he employed the services of a London based business agency, who decide to send an employee, Jonathan Harker, to Transylvania. Harker soon realises that the count is not his average client and notices his rather “eccentric” nature.
While he is away, his fiancée Mina is staying with her rich friend Lucy Westenra, in the English coastal town of Whitby. It is in that harbour that the count’s ship arrives and a series of bizarre events are set into motion. Lucy becomes ill and suffers from a remarkable amount of blood loss. It allows for the protagonists to realise that the count is actually a vampire, using human blood to attain – if not sustain – his immortality. Fortunately, Harker and his friends are able to defeat the count, thanks to the assistance of Dutch professor van Helsing. Alas, to save Lucy from an eternal “undead”, a stake is driven through her heart and her head is chopped off.

Though Transylvania has proudly opened all sites of its “vampire trail” to tourism, Stoker actually never visited the area and the sites that formed the inspiration for Transylvania were actually all located in his native Ireland and his adopted England. The only important item that came from Romania and that was used in his book was the story of count Dracul itself, which was based on Vlad Tepes – Vlad III The Impaler. Born in 1431, he founded the city of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, which was part of his empire. He was a cruel man and there are legends that he forced mothers to eat their own children. In a fight against the Turks, it is claimed that he killed 20,000 of his enemies, displaying them on pointed, oiled wooden posts.
Vlad III – like his father – was a member of the Order of the Dragon, founded by Sigismund of Luxembourg. Like so many chivalric orders, its purpose was to uphold Christianity and defend the empire against the Ottoman Turks. As such, his father had taken the name “Vlad II Dracul” and wore the emblem of the order. As ruler of Wallachia, his coinage also bore the dragon symbol.
The name Dracula means “Son of Dracul” and it is no doubt while reading Romanian history – the story of Vlad III – that Stoker came upon the name. In fact, once he came upon this name, he decided not to use the name Count Wampyr for his dark lord, no doubt deeming it to be a too obvious reference to vampires, which at the time were already a popular topic, made famous by the likes of Lord Byron in 1819 (“The Vampyre”) and others before and after him.

Though the work therefore seems to have an Eastern European appeal, others have considered it is nevertheless typically Irish. In fact, in writing Dracula, Stoker may have drawn on stories about the sídhe — some of which feature blood-drinking women.
In 1882, Stoker wrote “Under the Sunset”, which has several references to Irish folklore themes, including the title itself, referring to “Tir na nÓg’, the Otherworld. Furthermore, the very name, Dracula, is not only the title of Vlad II, it is also similar to the Irish droch-fhola (pronounced drok’ola), meaning “bad blood”. Their legend was also linked with a castle, Dún Dreach-Fhola, the “castle of blood visage”, which was high up a lonely pass among the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. It is clear that this very similar to the setting of the Count’s lair. However, the actual inspiration for Dracula’s castle itself came from Scotland. Stoker was staying in a hotel in Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, when he heard of nearby Slains Castle, which became transformed in the “castle of the dead”.
Both the setting and themes are therefore inspired more by Irish folklore. Another example is given by Dr. Leatherdale, who has stated that Dracula’s killing on November 6 is “one specific instance of Irish lore discernible in Dracula”, as it was the custom in Ireland for blood to be shed either on St Martin’s Eve on November 11, or earlier, to propitiate the saint.

So Dracula is largely inspired by Irish mythology, but set in Eastern Europe, no doubt to give it a more mystical, otherworldly feel – most of his readers were familiar with the hills of Scotland and Ireland and might not have been able to imagine a bloodthirsty count roaming this countryside. For this change of scenery, we have to thank Bram’s brother George, who spent time in the Balkans in the 1870s and returned home with stories about those countries, which in the eyes of many experts, like Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne, was the main reason why the story was eventually set in Transylvania, rather than another relatively unknown – and hence mysterious – country.
Stoker was nevertheless genuinely inspired by some Eastern European folklore, as he read Emily de Laszowska Gerard’s “Transylvanian Superstitions”, where she details that there are two types of vampires (living and dead), and explains how to kill these creatures: “In very obstinate cases, it is further recommended to cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave.” It is clear that this was precisely the material Stoker needed for his book.

Stoker thus wrote “Dracula, or The Undead”, using elements of his own life and worked them in the story. Whitby, where Dracula arrives in England, was the coastal town where Stoker spent his holidays. The story of the boat was taken from newspaper reports, such as that of August 11, 1890, which read that a Russian Schooner from the Black Sea had run ashore in Whitby. It is clear that Stoker rewrote these genuine newspaper reports in his novel.
After slaying a victim in the town, the count then moves south to London; it was the voyage Stoker himself made upon his return from his holidays. Stoker also moved in the mundane circles of London and he used this in the novel too. For example: psychiatrist Seward, a friend of Lucy, used morphine, as what seems to be nothing more than a recreational drug – a sign of London customs at the end of the 19th century.
Highgate Cemetery is believed by many to form the backdrop for the climax of the novel. In the novel, friends of Westenra decide to stop her suffering as an undead. Her only crime was to fall in love with count Dracul, for which she paid with her life, and to spend eternity as a vampire. Her friends thus convene in a pub, Jack Straw’s Castle. The pub still exists. From there, the friends decide to go to Lucy’s grave, to give her eternal rest. Though believed to be in nearby Highgate Cemetery, it has been shown that the voyage from Hampstead to Highgate does not correspond with the descriptions given in the book. Lucy’s “real” tomb was likely placed in Hendon, in the opposite direction. In Hendon cemetery, there is indeed a strange mausoleum, which perfectly fits the descriptions of Stoker’s novel. In reality, it is the tomb of Philip Rundall, a prominent member of Hendon’s community, who died in 1827. Furthermore, the cemetery was also one of the favourite places of one of Stoker’s best friends, so it is likely that he wanted to use this in his novel.

As mentioned, the legend of the vampire predated Stoker, even though his novel would become the billboard for the phenomenon. At the time when Stoker wrote his book, the phenomenon was once again in vogue, as several newspapers reported about “vampire-like creatures” seen in Britain. They were mostly seen in and around churchyards and cemeteries. It was a type of story that had been running on and off and Stoker himself knew some of these tales: his mother had told him such stories as a child and they had remained with him for the rest of his life. Stoker popularised the notion, and thus created a new craze.
In London, Dracula tourism remains mostly focused on Highgate Cemetery. The cemetery is a labyrinth of graves, largely in the Victorian style. Vampire-mania struck here most prominently in the early 1970s, with stories of a roaming vampire. The story starts on December 21, 1969 – the Winter Solstice – when David Farrant spent the night in the cemetery. He reported that three days later, while passing the cemetery, he saw “a grey figure”, which he felt was supernatural. In the local newspaper, he asked whether other people had seen similar things, and soon, several sightings were reported to the newspaper. Amongst the respondents was one Seán Manchester, who stated that he had seen what he believed to be a “King Vampire of the Dead”, a “medieval nobleman who had practised black magic in medieval Wallachia, had been brought to England in a coffin in the early eighteenth century, by followers who bought a house for him in the West End.” Sounds familiar? Manchester added that this vampire was buried on the site that later became Highgate Cemetery and added that modern Satanists had roused him. The local newspaper headlined this as “Does a Vampyr walk in Highgate?”
In echoes of the latter cattle mutilations that made headline news in the United States, Farrant next claimed that he had seen dead foxes in the cemetery, “and the odd thing was there was no outward sign of how they died”. Later, he argued that other dead foxes were found with throat wounds and drained of blood.
The result of all of this publicity was that Manchester organised a vampire hunt on Friday, March 13, 1970 – of all days. The hunt became both a media and public spectacle. It marked the beginning of several months in which both Manchester and Farrant were often spotted in or near the cemetery, both assuming the role of Van Helsing, trying to kill the vampire that they believed haunted the cemetery. Years later, Manchester would claim that he indeed discovered the corpse of a vampire, in the cellar of an empty house near the cemetery. He staked it and burned it. Still, the vampire is in the detail, and it is much more likely that both Farrant and Manchester invented a sighting, to give “the masses” some bloody entertainment.

Dracula not only inspired a rage, it also inspired a new obsession: some people wanted to become a vampire. It resulted in people hoping to feed solely on human blood – or if difficult to obtain, any type of animal blood. More often, it resulted in trying to roleplay the various rituals that the count practiced in the novel. As a result, some people know believe that they are only able to survive on human blood – the sole contents of their diet. Despite this bizarre belief, they tend to live an otherwise normal life and do not go about sacrificing humans.

Highgate Cemetery (left) has always been the preferred location for the setting of Dracula,
but it seems that Hendon Cemetery (right) is a more likely and fitting location.

Dracula is a remarkable work, though Stoker himself seems to have been a very ordinary individual. Still, some have claimed that he was a member of a secret society, the Order of the Golden Dawn and – like Skull & Bones – various tall tales (all of them unsubstantiated) have been told about this organisation. Still, the group is claimed to have been a hotbed of strange sexual activity and rituals, which might explain some of the rather luscious scenes of what transpires inside the Count’s castle. There is, however, no solid evidence that proves that Stoker was a member of this organisation. But it is largely irrelevant whether he was or wasn’t; he was a member of London society and may have heard about these and/or other organisations’ bizarre rites – if not sexual exploits. And for a novelist, often hearsay sets the imagination racing more than any hard fact or personal experience.

Dracula was not the only Stoker book that would inspire a rage, though it is Stoker’s signature novel. His truly innovative trend might have gone more unnoticed, yet lies at the origin of the obsession with mummies, and especially those of the ilk of The Mummy. Just like Count Dracul has an eternal life while feeding on blood, The Mummy has an eternal life – and condemnation – through various magical rites – a theme that may have received some inspiration from such orders as the Golden Dawn too.
The novel which created this interest was “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” and it would create not only the Egyptian mummy horror stories, but to some extent also lay at the basis of the “mummy’s curse” stories, which circulated across Europe at the time of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, in the early 1920s.
In this instance, it was the Wilde family, who, between 1870 and 1876, acted as substitute parents for Stoker. Noting the couple had extensive interest in Irish folklore – Sir William publishing such books as “Irish Popular Superstition” and other titles on the subject – it is clear that once again Irish mythology had an important influence over the mind of Stoker. But Sir William, specifically had an interest in Egyptian archaeology, and it is no doubt that which contributed to “The Jewel of the Seven Stars”.

When Stoker’s Dracula was a hundred years old in 1997, many remembered this momentous novel. But when The Jewel of the Seven Stars reached its centenary in 2003, no-one noticed… Equally, Transylvania remains the focus of the Dracula obsession, but in truth, the “horror” was seen much closer to home. Hence, no doubt, why some people remain afraid of the dark and avoid walking too close to cemeteries. You never know, do you?

This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 3.6 (1997) and was adapted for publication in Paranoia Magazine, issue 51 (Fall 2009).