Today, it is Dracula’s birthday (sort of). ‘Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ was published on this day in 1897. As I was born in Whitby and lived for a time in the house that the author visited on his holidays, I feel I can’t let the occasion slip by without mention. I probably don’t need to tell you his story. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, he is the most frequently portrayed character on film. But I thought I could tell you a bit about the history of European vampires and of the Count himself.
I’m afraid it isn’t going to be pretty. Some of the stories, supernatural elements aside, describe people who were not so much ‘undead’ as clearly just not dead. At least at the point when they were put in the ground. In centuries past it was not always so clear whether a person was actually dead or not, especially if there was a plague or something and you were trying to bury a lot of people, quite quickly.
Tales of supernatural beings that feed on the flesh or blood of the living are present in almost every culture. In Europe, it can be traced from the Ancient Greeks, who told stories of a bronze-footed demon who seduced men before feasting on their blood, through to the the Romans, with tales of nocturnal bird-like creatures who feasted on human flesh and drank their blood. None of these early, blood-drinking fiends were human. But there are a couple of English accounts, dating from the twelfth century which describe men who had risen from the grave to terrorise their family and neighbours. One comes from William of Newburgh, from whom we also have the earliest account of the Green Children of Woolpit, whose story you will find here.
William doesn’t give a name to his walking dead, but they certainly seem very difficult to lay to rest. The approved method appears to have been: burn their bodies and scatter their ashes to the wind. He recounts four stories about beings who return after death, get into bed with their wives, riot among the animals, poison the air with their foetid corpses and generally run about the countryside with packs of dogs. His description of the revenants is not one we would recognise from the vampire stories we are used to. They were not pale and thin. Their bodies, when exhumed, were found to be bloated and red, as though filled with the blood of their victims and their shrouds were torn to pieces.
It is, however, a description that was familiar to the people of Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which is where vampires really started to get seriously out of hand. In 1656 a man named Jure Grando, who lived in Istria which is now in Croatia, died and was buried. But it seems he returned to terrorise his village and bother his widow for a further four years. This horror was brought to an end after some brave villagers opened his grave and sawed off his head. This is the first historical record of an actual person being described as a vampire. Digging up bodies to have a look at them and make sure they were really dead must have become quite widespread because, by 1679, a man called Philippe Rohr wrote an essay on the subject of dead bodies who were found to have chewed through their shrouds.
From 1725, we have the story of Petar Blagojevich, a Serbian peasant who was believed to have returned from the dead and killed nine of his fellow villagers. His body had been exhumed, declared a vampire and then staked through the heart and burned. Around the same time, there is the case of Arnold Paole, who claimed he had been plagued by a vampire, but cured himself by eating soil from its grave and smearing himself with its blood. He died and then returned to kill four people. His body was exhumed and staked, as were the bodies of his victims. In 1731, there was another outbreak of vampirism in which seventeen people died. It began with a woman named Milica, who had eaten two sheep that had been killed by vampires. When the bodies of the dead were dug out of their graves for examination they were found to be plump with a ruddy complexion. Classic signs of the vampire. Their heads were removed and their bodies burned.
Also in 1725, a man named Michael Ranft wrote another essay on the subject of ‘ Masticatione Mortuorum’ – ‘The Chewing Dead’. He also described corpses who had been found to have eaten the linings of their coffins, even their own limbs. An unimaginable horror. He did, sensibly, suggest that it might be the practice of constantly digging up and handling the dead that was actually causing the all the unexplained deaths and he thought people should probably stop doing it. It didn’t really help. Vampire mania raged on, with the dead being burned, beheaded, pinned to the ground with stakes, to stop them getting up and having bricks forced into their mouths, to stop them chewing. In 1755, Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He concluded that it was all superstitious nonsense and, in 1768, she passed a law forbidding the desecration of graves.
The dead may have escaped further indignities, but their stories had been translated into other languages and they soon spread across Europe. The tales caught the imaginations of those who were so inclined, and it wasn’t long before they began to turn up in romantic poetry, where they began to take on the erotic overtones we recognise today. The earliest seems to be Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’ from 1748. The first Vampire appeared in English fiction in Robert Southey’s 1797 poem ‘Thalaba the Destroyer’. On the night that Mary Shelly came up with her story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati, in 1816, Lord Byron produced his ‘Fragment of a Novel’ about a mysterious aristocrat called Darvell. Darvell dies and his body turns black and decomposes within minutes. Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, later expanded on the story and published it as ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819.
In the mid 1840s a story called ‘Varney the Vampire’ was published in a series of cheap pamphlets known as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. It’s a bit of a confusing story, but it does introduce several familiar tropes: The fangs, the two puncture wounds left on the victim, hypnotic powers and superhuman strength.
When ‘Bram Stoker wrote his novel, he was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, and probably based the appearance and mannerisms of his Count Dracula on his boss, the actor-manager Henry Irving. This was probably not a slur on his character but more likely a hope that Irving would play the leading part in a stage version of the story. Stoker spent seven years researching European folklore for his book and he spent some of that time in Whitby. Dracula’s dramatic arrival to our shores on a wrecked ship piloted by a dead man was, almost certainly, based on a real shipwreck in the town. The name of the ship and its place of origin are practically identical to the one in the novel. If Stoker did not witness the wreck himself he would certainly have heard of it and seen a photograph of the beached schooner taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. He may also have heard stories from the locals about how the ship was full of coffins whose occupants continued to wash up on the shore for weeks afterwards.
Also, it is believed that Stoker came up with the name ‘Dracula’ for his character whilst doing some research in Whitby Library. ‘Bram had, at first, intended to name his character ‘Count Wampyr’. But after reading a book with the catchy title of ‘Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them.’ he came across the name Dracula and liked it. Vlad II, King of Wallachia, took the name ‘Vlad Dracul’ because he was invested in the Order of the Dragon who were all about fighting off the Turks. The name ‘Dracula’ derives from that. There’s nothing particularly sinister about it. However, his son Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler, does not have a good reputation.
I’ve often been asked by passing visitors to Whitby where they might find Dracula’s grave and I’m not entirely sure what they mean. If Dracula, the fictional character, has a grave anywhere, it is in Romania. Fictional characters can’t really die though. Just open the book and there they are again. But they can be born and I like to think that if Dracula was born anywhere, he was born in Whitby.