Dracula needs no introduction, but we’ll give him one anyway: Bram Stoker’s vampire, a Transylvanian count who turns into a bat, sleeps in coffins, and drinks the blood of the living, is the quintessential horror villain. And in true undead style, he holds up well—he’s as creepy today as he was when Stoker invented him in 1897. Here’s what you need to know about the character and the novel.
1. Dracula may have been inspired by a nightmare.
As was apparently common among Victorian Gothic fiction, Dracula supposedly came from a nightmare ... one possibly caused by bad seafood. According to biographer Harry Ludlam, Stoker said he was compelled to pen the tale after dreaming of “a vampire king rising from the tomb”—following a “helping of dressed crab at supper.” While the fare might not have actually had anything to do with what he dreamt that night, Stoker’s private working notes show him revisiting the frightening vision. In March 1890, he wrote, “young man goes out—sees girls. One tries to kiss him not on the lips but throat. Old Count interferes—rage and fury diabolical. ‘This man belongs to me. I want him.’” Whether this is the actual nightmare or the beginning of Jonathan Harker’s story is unclear, but Stoker returned to the dream repeatedly while writing the book.
2. Vampires share a history with Frankenstein.
In 1816, on a gloomy day in Lake Geneva, Lord Byron proposed a ghost story contest that led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. It also led (in a convulted way) to the birth of The Vampyre by John Polidori, which gave us the modern vampire. Polidori was Byron’s personal physician and he may have based his aristocratic bloodsucker on his patient. In any case, The Vampyre influenced Varney the Vampire, a popular penny dreadful from the 1840s, as well as Carmilla, a novella about a lesbian vampire from the 1870s, and, of course, Stoker.
3. Bram Stoker started writing Dracula right after Jack the Ripper made headlines.
Stoker began Dracula in 1890, two years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London. The lurid atmosphere these crimes produced made their way into Stoker’s novel, which was confirmed in the 1901 preface to the Icelandic edition of Dracula. Stoker’s reference links the two frightening figures in such a way that raises more questions than provides answers, but no doubt confirms the terrifying real-life influence on his fictional world.
4. Dracula might be based on Bram Stoker’s horrible boss.
Stoker’s boss of almost 30 years was Henry Irving, a renowned Shakespearean actor and owner of the Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, press agent, and secretary. Like the Hollywood assistant of today, his job started early and ended late, with a lot of ego boosting in between. Some critics have suggested that the charismatic Irving was the basis for Dracula. In a review of A Biography of the Author of Dracula by Barbara Belford in the Chicago Tribune, Penelope Mesic wrote:
“Here, Belford suggests, was the aristocratic, tall, flamboyant, mesmerizing figure with the smoldering eyes and elegant long hands whose egotism and allure were transplanted by Stoker into the sexually ambiguous figure who could drain the life out of those around him and yet exert a fascination that made the soul-destroying experience pleasurable.”
Whether or not it was inspired by him, Irving didn’t like Dracula. After seeing a performance of the story, Stoker asked Irving what he thought. Irving would only reply, “Dreadful!”
5. Vlad the Impaler might have been an influence, too.
Some believe that Stoker modeled Dracula in part on a Wallachian (now part of Romania) voivode (in this context usually taken to mean “prince”) named Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, who was known for skewering his enemies. Scholars disagree about how much Stoker knew about Vlad, with some insisting that there’s no proof he modeled Dracula on the vengeful prince. What we do know from Stoker’s working notes is that he read a book titled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia by William Wilkinson. The book mentions a couple of leaders named “Dracula,” including Vlad the Impaler (though not specifically by that name), and how one of them attacked Turkish troops. Inspired, Stoker changed the vampire’s name from Count Wampyr to Dracula, copying from a footnote: “DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL” (emphasis Stoker’s).
6. Stoker never visited Transylvania.
Although Stoker set his book in Transylvania, he never visited the country. Instead, he researched the setting as best he could and imagined the rest. Most of his Victorian readers didn’t know the difference, especially since he added details from travel books, including train timetables, hotel names, and a chicken dish called paprika hendl.
Stoker did visit the seaside village of Whitby, however, and it provided plenty of inspiration for his tale.
7. Dracula’s castle was based on one in Scotland.
Many critics believe that Stoker used Slains Castle in Scotland as the model for Dracula’s home. Stoker spent many summers in nearby Cruden Bay and was familiar with the surrounding sites, including these castle ruins on a hill. He was even staying in the area when he wrote his description of “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the sky.”
8. Lucy’s death scene was based on a real exhumation.
In Dracula, vampire Lucy is killed by her suitor when he opens her coffin and stakes her in the heart. Stoker may have borrowed this from the experience of his neighbor, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who, incidentally, was the nephew of John Polidori). When Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, Rossetti put a journal of love poems in her coffin, winding it romantically in her red hair. Then, in 1869, he changed his mind and the coffin was raised in the middle of the night so he could retrieve the book. The grisly exhumation (some of Siddal’s hair came away in Rossetti’s hands) may have been on Stoker’s mind when he wrote Lucy’s final end.
9. Dracula was almost called The Un-dead.
The working title of the novel was The Dead Un-dead, which was later shortened to The Un-dead. Then, right before it was published, Stoker changed the title once more to Dracula. What’s in a name? Well, it’s tough to say. Upon release, Dracula got good reviews, but the sales were nothing spectacular, and by the end of his life, Stoker was so poor that he had to ask for a compassionate grant from the Royal Literary Fund. The Gothic tale didn’t become the legend it is today until stage and screen adaptations began popping up during the 20th century.
10. Stoker’s copyright almost destroyed Nosferatu.
While Dracula wasn’t an instant hit, Stoker held onto the theatrical copyright. After his death in 1922, a German film company made the now classic Nosferatu, for which they changed the names of the characters, but still didn’t get permission to use the story. Stoker’s widow sued and a German court ordered that every copy of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, one survived. Eventually, it made its way to the United States and developed a cult following. Today, it’s thought of as one of the definitive pieces of horror cinema.
The movies are what really made Dracula a star. He has appeared in more films than any other horror character (more than 250 and counting), and that number doesn’t even include comedies and cartoons.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.