The Real Dracula – Not quite a Vampire… –

Romanian folklore

That as it may be, they may not have been the only inspiration for Stoker, for there was plenty of other material to be found, which connected Romania to the myth of the vampire.

Romanian folklore is infused with the cult of the dead. Rituals and superstitions were, at one time, endemic in the region once known as Wallachia. Transylvania lay just on the edge of it, to the north. The belief in vampires, or strigois, as they were known, was common. These pagan beliefs go back a long way. The history of Wallachia includes the history of the Goths, and the Getae who once lived on the shores of the Black Sea. There are many legends and tales that emerge from these shores, notably connections with the wolf men of the Goths, and the ‘twice-born’ of the Getae. The myth of resurrection crops up too in the folklore, in the form of a demi-god called Zalmoxis.

Zalmoxis, Herodotus writes, was a man who became a god. Thought dead, he emerged again as living, spreading awe among his people. Such tales of resurrection are really quite widespread, although they do not always endure. Perhaps some cultures are more disposed than others to take them on board. The Persians gave report of resurrected beings in their art. To the Indians they were ghouls, returning after death to feed on the living. Only when the Christian Church emerged was the vampire myth taken by the throat. The Church used it as a warning, and made the vampire a symbol of evil. But was it one, really?

A Legacy of Hope and Fear

While he was holidaying on the Yorkshire coast of Britain sometime before 1897, Stoker discovered Whitby Abbey and the churchyard with its ruins and its bats. He is said to have visited Whitby’s library, where he fell upon some books about Wallachia and Transylvania. Perhaps it was these books that inspired him to create his infamous fictional character, Count Dracula, from a real historical figure. But whatever the inspiration, Stoker opened a door on a history that had almost been forgotten. Now he would immortalize it in such a way that it would cause a public sensation. The book became a bestseller, with its daring claim of the existence of vampires.

Some fans of history believe that Bram Stoker has a good deal to answer for in having breathed life into the vampire through his novel, ‘Dracula’. By setting his novel in Romania and using the name of Dracula, the genesis of the vampire appeared to come from a real historical figure, but of course Stoker was not really responsible for the myth of the vampire. Vampires are much older than Stoker’s book; they have been around for centuries in one form or another. Even so, although many cultures relate stories of vampire-type figures, it is in Romania that the historical vampire has made its deepest mark.

The association of the Dracula name with the vampire character has become so entrenched in Romania that ‘Dracula’ tours of Vlad the Impaler’s haunts are on offer for tourists and lovers of horror fiction. However, and paradoxically, Vlad Dracula is nevertheless perceived as a national hero in his home country. Which then, is the real Dracula, the hero or the villain, the good guy or the bad?

In the end, it is hard to say exactly why the belief in strigois and the myth of the vampire was so persistent, and why it continues to exist even today. One explanation is that the myth of resurrection gives people hope. The need to believe in life after death, regardless of the form it takes, is strong. And when this need is combined with the fear of the unknown, the myth gains a power that is almost intuitive. The sinful associations that Stoker attributes to his vampire, Count Dracula, are partly typical of the time in which he lived, and partly typical of the way the vampire myth evolved, under the influence of the Christian Church. But the folklore of the Black Sea region, where the vampire myth is most prevalent, does not necessarily paint the vampire as a villain or a figure of sinfulness, but rather as a victim, an unredeemable soul condemned to a second life of despair. The strigoi thus becomes a symbol of our deepest, darkest fears. When Stoker wrote his novel, perhaps what he was really doing was tapping into a well of anxiety almost as eternal as the vampire itself.

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