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Thursday, 28 January 2016

1931: THE DRACULA/FRANKENSTEIN NEXUS

Universal Studios released their first historic DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN films in the same year of 1931, and while both the vampire and Frankenstein’s monster are linked in our minds as part of that same horror creature universe, if we look at the background behind both stories we find the two linked again intriguingly in real-life and connecting via that year in another fashion. To do this, let’s briefly examine the history of the novels, aspects of vampire lore and the point where the two novels’ influences actually intertwined…

BRAM STOKER
Decades before Bram Stoker gave us the novel Dracula in 1897, Victorian audiences were already accustomed to vampires in fiction and on stage. Between 1845 -1847 there was the luridly cheap and serialised (‘penny-dreadful’) published novel of Varney the Vampire which introduced readers to many of the established rules of vampire lore before its protagonist Sir Francis Varney spectacularly commits suicide by throwing himself into the bubbling Mount Vesuvius. In 1871-72, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu brought out Carmilla, the tale of a young woman preyed upon by the titular female vampire descended from Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein. The story was produced as a stage play and influenced the young Stoker greatly, who at that time was a theatre critic back home in Dublin. The erotic sensuality of the play captured his imagination (and modern horror fans will recognise the Countess in Hammer Films’ explicitly sexual THE VAMPIRE LOVERS). Similarly the expert vampire hunter Baron Vordenburg would inspire his famous Dr Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula - and take his first name from Stoker’s own father.

Bram Stoker wrote almost all of his novels during his twenty seven years as business manager of the celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving whom he idolised. While he based some of the physical impressiveness of Count Dracula on his illustrious employer, there was a far more controversial historical figure whose notorious blood-lust became partly the basis for the most famous vampire of all…

PRINCE VLAD, THE INSPIRATION FOR COUNT DRACULA

Transylvania is a province of Rumania on a high plateau encircled by the Carpathian mountains. Within this secluded area lies the heartland of Prince Vlad III (1431–1476/77), also known under a myriad of names: Vlad, Prince of Wallachia as well as Voivode or ‘war-lord’ of Wallachia. Horror buffs know him by the nickname of ‘Vlad the Impaler’ (‘Vlad Tepes’ in Rumanian) after his sadistic penchant for impaling his victims upon stakes. His family name of Vlad Dracul seals the real-life connection between him and Bram Stoker’s fictional King of Vampires, ‘Dracul’ being the Rumanian for ‘devil’. It was while researching Dracula at Whitby that Stoker came across the legendry surrounding Prince Vlad, and though he already had his plot for the novel, what he discovered gave colour and depth to the noble Count’s grisly past. 
Though Prince Vlad was obviously not a vampire himself, his reputation for rampant blood-lust and unrestrained cruelty when alive was such that Stoker felt him an ideal human candidate to continue a reign of terror into undead afterlife.

Vlad is not simply regarded as a homicidal maniac ruler. Historically, Rumanians see him as a heroic defender of their Christian values against Turkish invaders of the past and that one day he will return to save them again. A Rumanian poem says: “Dracula, where are you now that we need you?” To them, his methods, utterly barbaric to western civilised perspectives, were borne of necessity, evidence of a strong hero of his people who operated an uncompromising system of justice that kept order highly effectively based on fear. (A recent parallel might be the ‘Was it respect or fear?’ opposing view of the Kray twins’ reign in the east end of London). It’s hard to find a defence though for a tyrant whose solution to widespread poverty was reputedly to invite all the region’s poor to a giant banquet, lock them in the hall, and then burn it down with all the impoverished citizens trapped inside. If anything, it’s an uncomfortable echo of the later Nazi genocide of those considered socially draining and the terror of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

 Another example that illustrates the cunning of this Solomon of sadism was the story of a Hungarian merchant who complained to Prince Vlad that whilst staying in the province 160 gold ducats were stolen from his room. The Prince confidently assured him that he should go to bed and that the next day the money would be returned. Sure enough, the following morning his ducats were restored to him – with an extra one in the bag. The merchant returned to Vlad and told him of the anomaly. The Prince coolly informed him that this had been a deliberate part of his order for restitution of the theft, and that if the merchant had not owned up to the bonus coin he too would have been impaled.
The effortless reach of Vlad’s intimidation was shown at a favoured woodland spot by a stream, popular with thirsty travellers. The Prince had a beautiful golden chalice placed on a nearby rock from which all could drink. For the whole of his reign, no-one dared think twice about replacing that cup after use.

Prince Vlad wasn’t the only real-life inspiration for the ghoulish vampiric figures of horror. Anyone who’s seen Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (1970) will recall her character based on the real Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), an abominable monster who had almost 600 children murdered in whose blood she bathed believing it would keep her eternally youthful. Eventually she was dealt the rough justice of being bricked up in her castle for twelve years till she died.

THE LORE OF THE LAND

Composed of many nationalities’ cultures - Rumanian, Hungarian, Slav, German and Székely, Transylvania is steeped in a rich superstitious lore making up the vampire myths and methods passed on to us via horror films. In his excellent documentary IN SEARCH OF DRACULA (1975) narrated by Sir Christopher Lee, Calvin Floyd’s research from the region adds some extra mythology to the ones every fan knows. Whilst we are familiar with the vampire casting no reflection, being hugely strong, able to assume the shapes of dogs, wolves, black cats and bats, and able to render themselves invisible or into a fine mist, allegedly they also congregate on St. Andrew’s Eve in graveyards to plot their goals and human targets for the year like an undead corporate convention. In addition, in defence against them we have the understood properties of garlic, running water, the cross and the communion wafer – but did you also know about the cunning use of wild rose thorns? It is said by Rumanians that if these thorns are scattered on the road leading into a village, the approaching vampire will be forced to pick up every single one, thus hopefully detaining them long enough to be fried by the rays of the morning sun. Painting an extra set of eyes in white upon the head of a black dog also has the power to ward off the undead.

Although so far we’ve examined two influential characters from the nobility, traditionally vampires fed and recruited from the peasantry. It is believed that upon becoming one of the undead, the first thing a peasant will do is to wipe out their immediate family and then everyone in the village. One method was for him to climb the church bell-tower and then call out the names of every survivor. Upon hearing their name, that person would instantly die. Alternatively, the blood-sucker might ring out a death-knell, killing all who hear its peals.

As for seeking out a vampire’s grave to destroy them, Transylvanians believe that a virgin boy or girl must be seated naked upon a virgin horse of one solid colour ‘who has never stumbled’ and then ride them slowly around every plot in a cemetery until it will stop at the undead’s nightly bolt-hole. Once found, the creature may be staked through the heart or the navel with a stake made from the wood of a wild rose bush, ash or asp tree – even a red-hot iron bar - in the daytime before sunset, making sure the stake penetrates not just the body but also the ground underneath to prevent the monster rising again. It is said that upon being killed in this way, the vampire’s face will assume an expression of peace as the original human host is finally freed from their undead torment. The head must then be decapitated and either placed between the body’s legs, burnt or buried at a cross-roads (the same place incidentally where the Devil could allegedly be summoned if invoked by name three times as in FAUST).

In researching Eastern European superstitions and locations for Dracula, Bram Stoker never travelled to Transylvania yet his detailed descriptions, obtained from guide-books and maps at the British Museum, were quite accurate. He wasn’t aware, for example, that there actually was a Castle Dracula in real life (Castelul Bran) perched a thousand feet above the Argeș River near Wallachia - though his fictional version was eerily close to the mark.

FRANKENSTEIN

So how does this link us to the other seminal nineteenth-century horror novel turned cinematic hot property - Frankenstein? Well, we must travel back to 1816 and the beautiful Lake Geneva in Switzerland where the celebrated poet Lord Byron holidayed at the Villa Diodati with his physicist friend Dr John Polidori. That summer, they invited the equally illustrious Percy Bysshe Shelley and his 18 year-old fiancé Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin to stay.

After an evening of tantalising each other with ghost stories, Byron suggested they have a contest to see who could invent the best one. Over the next days, Mary was riddled with anxiety as she could not conjure up a suitable story (the standard of her ‘competitors’ couldn’t have helped) – until one night the foursome had a thought-provoking discussion about the reanimation of life. Mary argued that such a supernatural phenomenon was possible, citing Luigi Galvani’s recent work animating dissected limbs via electrical current stimulation (‘Galvanism’). Her passion for the subject carried over into extremely vivid nightmares that night, frightening yet ultimately hugely profitable as they formed the basis for a future novel:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion”.

In her dream state she had experienced the first images of the hyper-driven scientist Victor Frankenstein and his electrically-reanimated composite corpse that would eventually become 
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. With Percy’s help, she took what was intended as a short story and expanded it into the first of her numerous novels. The extent of his involvement in Frankenstein has been argued over since the original manuscript was published anonymously in 1818 (with a preface she acknowledged he wrote). Subsequent versions were released in 1823 and then finally in 1831, a hundred years before the connected date with which we began.

It’s amusing that considering the two obvious masters of literature in the group, the only ones to actually finish their stories (and achieve their own literary renown from them) were the remaining two, Mary and John Polidori. In fact his work, The Vampire, published in 1816 predated all other vampire novels; the character of Lord Ruthven was based on Byron and is the first literary vampire Count in a genealogy leading to Stoker’s Count Dracula, thus already giving a minor connection between Shelley and Stoker’s creations.

In fleshing out her novel, unlike Stoker, Mary Shelley drew on the history and locations of places she and her husband had actually visited in 1814, such as Geneva and Mont Blanc, memorably described by the creature in the book’s climax. The most crucial influence of all though was in the creation of Victor Frankenstein himself. The family name and elements of his motivation was possibly influenced by that of a known Baron Georg von Frankenstein, whose Burg (Castle) Frankenstein was a short distance from Gernsheim, not far down the River Rhine upon which the Shelleys travelled. (The name Frankenstein literally means ‘Stone of the Franks’, the Franks being a Germanic tribe). Baron Georg was allegedly a devotee of alchemy two centuries earlier than Shelley’s time but there’s no statute of limitations on when a good idea can inspire a writer. Secretive attempts to transform base metal into gold are almost a warm-up for the ultimate experimentation of reanimating human life.


Though the Frankensteins were seen as a cursed family ever since one of their ancient ancestors died defeating a dragon in battle, they were to become, in a sense, blessed by their lucrative, tentative association with Mary Shelley’s work. Where their name connects just as tangentially with Dracula however is by a bizarre coincidence - located in a church in Transylvania’s city of Sibiu. It was here that the only known legitimate son of Prince Vlad Dracula was murdered and possibly buried – the same church grounds in which can be found the grave of…Baron Frank von Frankenstein. 

The date of discovery of this eerie link? 1931.

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