Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Legend of Dracula

Worldwide there are many names for mythical creatures that live forever by drinking the blood of human victims. We know them as nosferatu, the un-dead and - the most common term in America - Vampire.

Vampires appear in the folklore of cultures all over the world, and some of these vampire stories can be traced back thousands of years. People in Germany, China, Egypt, Romania, Greece and Russia all tell stories about these mysterious creatures that drink blood of innocent victims. Hollywood glamorized the image of the vampire, making him the epitome of the American dream - debonair, hypnotically seductive, and immortal. Vampires were always ugly vile creatures that no mortal would choose to become. In most cases he is no more than an animated corpse that must feed on blood. In some cases such as the Irish Dearg-Due, the vampire is a beautiful female. In China they are red eyed monsters with green or pink hair. The Grecian Lamia has the upper body of a women and the lower body of a winged serpent, and the Penanggalang of Malaysia is a head with trailing stomach and entrails.

The vampires we are familiar with today are mostly based on the deeply rooted eastern European legends that in turn had spread from the Far East along the silk route, through India to the Mediterranean, thence to the Balkans and, of course, Romania and Transylvania. As Christianity spread, belief in vampires also spread. The Catholic Church supported the idea that vampires existed as agents of the devil, officially recognizing their existence in 1215. They also claimed that the church was the only authority strong enough to eliminate a vampire. Meanwhile the Orthodox Church decreed that a bi-product of excommunication was becoming more prone to vampirism. Belief was also fueled by the spread of plagues that wiped out entire communities. Faced with victims that gradually wasted away, with no medical knowledge and thus unable to explain the situation, the common man conceived the rational explanation of vampirism as the cause of the suffering.

Slavic countries believed that the causes of vampirism included being born with a hair lip, teeth or tail; being conceived on certain days; irregular death; excommunication; improper burial rites; etc. Evidence of vampires at work included death in domestic animals or relatives, exhumed bodies being in a lifelike state with new growth of fingernails or hair, or blood on the mouth of a corpse. Romanian vampires are a variation on the Slavic and are called Strigoi based on the Roman term Strix that came to mean demon or witch. Added to the list of possible causes of vampirism were being the seventh son of a seventh son, being born between Christmas and Epiphany, or being the child of a woman who did not eat enough salt. A mass mania concerning vampirism spread through eastern Europe in the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries. Graves would be opened, - three years after the death of a child, five years for a young person and seven for an adult - to check for vampirism. Beginning in the Balkans the plague spread westwards into Germany, Italy, France, England and Spain. Philosophers in the West began to seriously study the phenomenon in the 1830s including leading figures such as Diderot and Voltaire. A leading Biblical scholar of the day, Dom Augustin Calmet, wrote a famous treatise (1746) on vampirism in which he questioned the veracity of the tales. Despite his writings, the superstitions of the day prevailed.

Most sources agree that a vampire need not feed nightly or even kill his victim. Some victims linger for days before succumbing to death while others die instantly. Killing always remains an option even if not necessary. European folklore has victims wasting away over a period of weeks. Although human blood is preferable, some vampires will seemingly accept any animal blood. Dracula only drinks the blood of humans.

According To Legend, Vampires:

* Are of an old aristocratic, foreign family.
* Are tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black.
* Possess sharp fangs that leave two marks on the neck.
* Are of unusual physical strength.
* Have a seductive power over women.
* Do not have a reflection when they look into mirrors.
* Cast no shadow.
* Are afraid of crosses and religious symbols.
* Are repelled by garlic.
* Are always hungry but can go for long periods between feedings.
* Must sleep in unhallowed earth or the soil of their birthplace.
* Cannot die due to the passing of time.
* Must consume human blood and will become younger and more vital as a result.
* Will disintegrate if they come into contact with daylight or water.
* Can control the weather.
* Can be killed by a wooden stake driven through their heart or cremation.
* Can transform themselves into bats and wolves.
* Can enter as a mist or through a crack but can not enter a home unless invited.

Dracula in Literature

The word 'vampyre' first appeared in the English language in 1732 with the translation from German accounts of the "vampire staking" of Arnold Paole in Serbia. Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer, claimed to have been attacked by a vampire years earlier. He died while working in the fields, but after his death many others began to die suspiciously. It was believed that Paole had returned to prey on his neighbors. Government officials examined the cases and the bodies. Reports and books were published. Paole's body was exhumed and declared that of a vampire After a stake was driven through his heart, the body was cremated and returned to its grave. Controversy raged in Europe for a generation, rural people were digging up bodies everywhere. So widespread was the concern that governments became officially involved. Eventually Austrian Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He declared that vampires did not exist, and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and the desecration of bodies. This was the end of the vampire mania.

In the light of all the publicity the region generated, it is not surprising that Bram Stoker chose Transylvania - over his original choice Austria - as the setting for his most famous of vampire stories, Dracula. In translation Transylvania means "the land beyond the fores." This was also the title of a travel book by Emily de Laszkowska Gerard that Stoker researched for the folklore of the subject.

It is thought that Stoker chose the name Dracula upon finding it in an obscure history book. Previously the Count had been called Count Wampyr. Many historians link the name to a real life Romanian prince who was well known for being strict and cruel. The prince was Vlad III Dracula. Depending upon translation or perspective Vlad is synonymous with Dragon or Devil- the "a" was added to the end of the family name (Dracul) to indicate 'son of.' He was also known as Vlad Tepes (pronounced Tepesh) - Vlad the Impaler - named for his penchant for executing his enemies by impaling them on large wooden stakes. It is also reputed that he favored mass executions, enjoyed a banquet that was set up amid the dying and enjoyed torturing his victims. Although notorious for his sadism, he was respected by his subjects as he waged fierce wars against the Turks, tolerated no crime and erected several monasteries. Despite his authoritarian power he was overthrown twice, ruling only for three brief periods. He died violently in 1476, aged 45, and his body was buried on the monastic island of Snagov. His head, however, is said to have been taken to Constantinople as proof to the sultan of his death. Contrary to popular belief his castle does not exist in Transylvania. Although born in that area (now northern Romania) in 1431, he ruled the area of Wallachia (now Southern Romania).

Despite his atrocities the real life Dracula was not a vampire. In fact he is remembered as something of a national hero in Romania and was honored by the communist regime with a postage stamp. However, Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathroy certainly enjoyed blood and the cruelty attached to its attainment. By her own writing she claims to have had 650 victims, mostly peasant servants. She reportedly would bite large pieces of their flesh, torture them further, and bathe in their blood.

Author Bram Stoker combined the legend about vampires with the historical figure Prince Vlad Dracul to create his novel, Dracula, first published in 1887. Although Stoker's is the standout original popularization of the theme, it is believed that the first vampire fiction in English was published by Lord Byron's personal physician, John Polidori, in 1819. It came as a result of the literary gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. Lord Byron, Mary Goodwin (soon to be Shelley) and Percy Shelley were amongst others were encouraged to write a ghost story. Mary Shelly began her famous Frankenstein while Byron began and discarded a story that Polidori discovered, reworked, finished and published as The Vampire. It was an immediate success as many believed it to have been completely the work of the now deceased Byron. The story centers on a wealthy young man named Aubrey who tours Europe with a mysterious nobleman, Ruthven. Ruthven turns out to be a very unpleasant sort and is murdered in a mountain pass in Europe. Upon his return to England, Aubrey is shocked to fin Ruthven alive and engaged to his sister. Due to an oath he has sworn, Aubrey is unable to warn his sister of Ruthven, who eventually kills her on their wedding night and disappears.

There followed a great interest in vampire literature, and many short stories were published. In 1836 Theophile Gauthier (known to ballet fans as the librettist of Giselle) wrote La Morte Amoreuse, translated into English under various titles including Clarimonde. In this story a priest becomes obsessed with a beautiful vampire. In 1840 Varney the Vampire appeared, written by Thomas Preskett Prest or James Malcom Rymer. Although a very poor piece of literature it proved to be as popular as today's soap operas.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the landmark story Carmilla in 1872. The story follows a young woman named Laura who lives in an isolated castle in Austria. One day a beautiful stranger named Carmilla turns up at the castle and is invited to stay. She and Laura become close friends. As time passes Laura becomes weaker, but Carmilla still shows great affection for her. In the end, the truth emerges that a nearby grave has been opened. It is proven that Carmilla and the missing dead body are one and the same. The vampire is destroyed in the traditional fashion.

Stoker combined many elements of these earlier short stories with much research into the folklore surrounding vampires while adding inventions of his own. He was able to successfully combine folklore and authentic history to give the sense of a tale long known and naturally remembered. The myth of today was established.

Stoker wrote his book while acting manager of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London, owned and operated by celebrated Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving. His connection with the theater at this time accounts, no doubt, for the theatricality of the tale. Published in May 1897, it became popular after his death and has never been out of print. In America, where it was first published in 1899, it continues to be a best seller.
The Metamorphosis Of Dracula

The figure of Count Dracula is an icon of twentieth century culture showing up in many movies and books, cereal boxes, children's television, musicals and ballet. How do you picture him when you hear his name? You may be surprised to learn that Stoker described him as being a tall old man, clean shaven except for a long white Victorian mustache, a profuse head of curly hair and massive eyebrows. He wore only black.

In 1922 the German silent film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphonie of Horror) was produced. Probably the most powerful film adaptation of the story, it was, however, an unsanctioned adaptation. Florence Stoker took legal action, and eventually the film's distributors were told to destroy all copies of the film. Luckily for us, some copies escaped this end.

While they filmed the Bela Lugosi Dracula by day, the same film set was used at night to film a Spanish language version of the story with an entirely different cast.

Although Stoker staged a reading of his Dracula to protect its theatrical copyright, the play was not staged until after his death, as rewritten by Hamilton Deane in 1924. Deane reduced the four hour Stoker original (which Irving had described as "dreadful") to a much more manageable length and revised some characters. These included merging Mina and Lucy into one character, making Seward Lucy's father (as they hadn't enough young men in the company), and making Van Helsing the second lead (as Deane was too old to play Dracula). He also began some traditions of Dracula's image. He dressed Dracula in a tuxedo for practical purposes, i.e. allowing the leading actor to wear his costume to functions after the show, and in a high collared cape to allow for stage effects. Following a successful run in London in 1927 the play transferred to Broadway. When it opened in New York, Deane's work was rewritten by American playwright John L. Balderston who made many changes to increase the dramatic pace. The title role was played by then unknown Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who went on to star in the 1931 film that familiarized the world with the image we have of Dracula today.

Since Stoker there have been other authors to explore the vampire as subject for their writings. These include Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Raymond Ruderhoff's The Dracula Archives, Fred Saberhagen's The Dracula Tapes, Stephen King's Salem's Lot and of course Ann Rice with her Interview With The Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Tale of the Body Thief, etc

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