The Last Stake In 'Dracula' (Part 1)

Christopher Fowler
I've written on this subject often because it lies at the junction of several of my interests, but decided this could be the last word on the subject. Every time I see that Disney are spinning off another peripheral character into a film franchise my heart sinks. Walt Disney himself was far more imaginative. He searched Europe (sadly not the Middle and Far East) for new stories to tell, and was planning to animate 'Chanticleer'. 'Tale of Tales' adapted three fairy tales the West does not tell; 'The Enchanted Doe', 'The Flea' and 'The Flayed Old Lady' by the Italian director Giambattista Basile. The stories are sumptuous, unexpected and delightfully grisly but are also mysterious; motives are murky and outcomes are unsure. Above all, there's a disconnect from reality in favour of a dreamlike logic. For anyone raised on European tales in their pure form this kind of dream-state is entirely appropriate. Which is why I look at Hammer's 'Dracula' films and wonder how censors could not have seen them as fairy tales - but fairy tales in the fullest sense, not the ideals that emerged via Disney in the 1980s, which was just candy-coloured wish fulfilment coupled to the attainment of wealth via the Protestant work ethic. Boiling down the richness of the world's fantastical literature to a teenage girl's desire to have it all seems a peculiarly blinkered approach. Classic fairy tales - as Angela Carter and Marina Warner knew - take you to secondary worlds of enchantment which are rich in symbols and imagery. When a drop of blood falls on a white gown we instinctively understand its symbolism - but so the British film censors at the time, who scissored out out the blood-drop. 'Dracula' fits a recurring fairy tale template in all sorts of ways; a stranger from beyond, an interruption of the peaceful status quo, chaos, the requirement of a victim and a hero, a basic understanding of good and evil, the restoration of normality and even the odd evil queen, in 'Brides of Dracula'. But how did 'Dracula' achieve its modern status?

Eternal Life

Bram Stoker supposedly had the idea for ‘Dracula’ after seeing a Victoria family enjoying a picnic inside a crypt in Highgate Cemetery. And so the most exotic fantasy was born of a very English obsession, the taking of high tea with relatives, albeit ones that were dead.

Stoker’s novel has somewhat paradoxically become one of the most influential books of the last century, considering it was written as a melodrama, and a rather stilted one at that.On publication went head-to-head with another sensational read, Richard Marsh’s ‘The Beetle’.

‘The Beetle’ was a bizarre hybrid novel of supernatural/romantic mystery published in 1897, the same year as ‘Dracula’, and it apparently eclipsed the undead count’s sales at first. It's hysterical in tone, although I found it extremely atmospheric, and concerns the worshipper of a secret Egyptian cult who possesses mesmeric shapeshifting powers, and his feverish pursuit of a British politician. Filled with swirling smoke, hypnotic commands and weird chemicals, it is told from four separate viewpoints and is really quite unique in the annals of Victorian literature.

But ‘Dracula’ had an added something – a kind of built-in longevity, as if it had always been there. Readers tend to forget that the story is told in epistolary form as a series of letters, diary entries and ships’ log entries, whose narrators are the novel’s protagonists, and that it’s occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings relating to events not directly witnessed.

The events portrayed in the novel take place chronologically, largely in Transylvania, Romania, and Whitby, Yorkshire, during the 1890s. All of the action occurs within the same year between the 3rd of May and the 6th of November. A short note is located at the end of the final chapter written 7 years after the events outlined in the novel. A piece from the original final chapter was removed in which Dracula’s castle falls apart as he dies, hiding the fact that vampires were ever there.

In 2016 I set out to duplicate Jonathan Harker’s trip, travelling into Transylvania and the Carpathian mountains, up to the castle and back to Whitby. I have form with the original novel, having once published ‘Dracula’s Library’, a missing chapter in which we see Jonathan Harker at work on part of the job he was hired to do for the Count – cataloguing his books for sale.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania. He depicted Dracula’s castle based on a description of Bran Castle that was available to him at the time of writing. My journey took me from Cluj-Napoca in Romania to Sighisoara, Brasov, Sibiu and into Dracula country.

Sadly, Michael Ripper is dead. Ripper was usually cast as a Transylvanian inn-keeper, and bizarrely chose a West Country accent to deliver his lines, crying ‘You’m bain’t be goin’ up to Carstle Draaakler tonoight!’ Perhaps this was the point. Hammer films were set in England and were about the English, but nobody could see it at the time.

I had planned to follow the path of Bram Stoker’s novel (as much as it specifies places ie. not at all) but I was let down at the British end. After Easter I attended the Scarborough Literary Festival and had thought I could hop a train to Whitby, except that the line was closed and would, I was told, take longer than the entire journey from London that night, so I managed all the hard parts, but was defeated by Yorkshire.

(Part Two follows)


Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 27/08/2022 - 14:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Lending itself to a nice mash-up here, is the often overlooked (or ignored ?) Disney contribution to the 'Dracula' canon with a rather successful (financially) 1965 animated feature version (tagline: 'All-Cartoon Nightmare') -- its first formal entry in the horror genre --- and a graphic novel with Mickey and the gang. What always intrigues me is the staying power of a popular fictional character like ‘Dracula.’ And that it can continue to spawn popular culture offspring in just about every medium and via almost every type of creative endeavour — more than a century after being introduced as a novel.

Along with something like 200 related films, there are close to 40 (in counting) stage adaptations and musicals — one even performed on a Bouncy Castle at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — and assorted operas and ballets.

Then, of course, there is the academic cottage industry that has grown up specifically around the themes of sexuality and seduction — and especially as related to the corruption of English womanhood. Other thematic tangents explored include: Stoker's repressed homosexuality and his intimate relationship with Oscar Wilde (including the impact of Wilde's trial in 1895), Victorian fears about racial pollution or ‘reverse colonization’ and anxieties about disease. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely, as with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ for example, that every critical and interpretive stone has been unturned. And like ‘Alice,’ ‘Dracula’ is the character than just keeps giving.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 27/08/2022 - 14:50

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I can find no record of a 1965 Dracula animated feature. There was a TV Mickey Mouse show later but that's all.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 27/08/2022 - 16:49

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@admin On second thought... You're probably right. It was either one of the 'lost' Disney films, something that got cancelled, direct-to-video or an elaborate hoax. In the event --- I apologize to all and sundry. The Mickey Mouse 'Dracula' graphic novel however, does exist. In case you were wondering.

Jan (not verified) Sat, 27/08/2022 - 20:05

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That's weird Mr. F. I've seen both Dracula's castle - only on a day trip on a cheap Eastern European ski holiday some (ok many) years ago and have been up to Whitby again on a day trip from Manchester.

If I remember rightly there's quite a few claimants to being Castle Drac. Only the one Whitby though. Jet centre of Britain.

Whitby Abbey IS a scary old place the ruins are sort of like skeletal ribs even on what I remember as being a nice sort of a day it was atmospheric. Goodness knows what it's like on a winter's night.

To be fair most average folk know Dracula through the "Hammer" films than anything else and part of the appeal must surely be down to Christopher Lee.

Lee was remarkably well suited to the role being very tall, extremely attractive and scary at the same time. When he was the villain (was it Scaramanga?) In a James Bond film he got far more fan mail than Roger Moore. He also worked into his 80s didn't he ? He was in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and despite a big row with the director Peter Jackson re the editing of his role Lee appeared in the later Hobbit films.

Like Basil Rathbone in "Sherlock Holmes" Lee has provided a physical template for other actors to be later cast in the role.

Do you reckon in the UK C.Lee being cast in the role has been significant in the public's fascination with the Count? That and, as Chris says the peculiarly "Englishness" Hammer brought to the films the way Transylvania became somehow just West of Taunton ...

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 27/08/2022 - 21:47

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Why does 'atmospheric' equal eerie? Surely the word just means "has a noticeable atmosphere" but that could be 'of heavenly peace' or 'of extreme tension".
1897 is the last century but one. We're more than twenty years into this one and we still think of the Victorians as "so last century".
We traveled from London to Edinburgh by train and could have got off at Whitby. I didn't know about the vampire connection at the time. I enjoy epistolary novels so I guess I should get to reading that one.
Funny that this topic should come up at the same time that Fright Fest is happening in Leicester Square. I got into a discussion on Mr. Probert's site about the nature of horror and somehow remembered someone saying that Hot Water was horror. I have just finished reading it and asked about that. Chris, your copy editor was on the site and assured my firmly that it was nothing of the sort. I agree, but I kept waiting for it to turn into a mass horror. I wondered if that waiting is part of the horror novel. It's suspense while you wait and the suspense turns into something else, either relief as nothing happens or horror as the blood and gore spills out across the floor. I don't have to see the blood in order to feel the horror.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 27/08/2022 - 22:18

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@admin Although you didn't make it to Whitby, I' m sure you'll be pleased to learn (if you don't already know) that 1,369 others did this past May to mark the 125th anniversary of the publication of the still animate novel. Dressed as Dracula (or Dracula-like) in black shoes, black trousers or skirt, black cape, shirt, waistcoat and pointy fangs --- the large coven or house of vampires set a new Guinness record for the most-people-with-too-much-time-on-their-hands-dressed-as-vampires to assemble in one place --- appropriately enough Whitby Abbey, the Count's spiritual home. And the record held, when no one was disqualified for wearing the wrong shoes, a problem with past record attempts. One assumes there was an official Guinness shoe inspector on the premises.

Christopher Fowler Sun, 28/08/2022 - 07:56

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I couldn't leave the Disney 'Dracula' alone. As you know, I don't like mere Googling for information so I put in some calls.There's no archival record of the film and the so-called opening shot is from a Czech short so it's a hoax, and not a particularly elaborate one. The big mistake of the hoaxer was suggested that a film with no extant footage was a smash hit.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 10:26

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Stu: in the Mickey Mouse ‘Dracula’ graphic novel who was the bad guy? I've always thought Mickey Mouse much the nastier of the two.

Jan: in Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula is played by the portly Bela Lugosi, which gives a very different image of him. "Transylvania became somehow just West of Taunton" because Devon - and Cornwall especially - aren't "properly" English and have strong supernatural associations. The Hound of the Baskervilles turns out not to be supernatural, but set in Kent we'd never think of it as a possibility.

Helen Martin: suspense - waiting - what doesn't happen, what isn't there - is the most important aspect of the horror novel:
Now hollow fires burn out to black
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, naught’s to dread,
Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There’s nothing but the night.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 12:34

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Suspense, that feeling that something is going to happen, and when it does it is going to be unpleasant.

"Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows,
A frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread."

[Though at the time of writing Sammy was doing that much laudanum, he must have 'rattled' like a second-hand Mini.]

Joan (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 13:06

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Bela Lugosi will always be the Dracula for me. He was playing closer to the original in the book, as the sophisticated Count when he chose to converse. Also his natural accent helped even though the lines are dreadfully corny now. He played the Count on Broadway and toured the country in 1929. Being a relatively unknown Hungarian actor in Hollywood he certainly wasn’t the first choice for the film version, but quickly made it his own.
The C. Lee version was popular with my Generation but he never really spoke much but sure growled a lot! It was a teenage version of the story with lots of sex and gore.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 13:42

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@admin What's more about the Disney 'Dracula' hoax, the hoaxer has constructed an elaborate online 'Fandom" Wiki (still up) with reasonable information (for someone who wants to believe it, that is). Why anyone would put in the time and effort to do something like this is beyond me. But then again, 'Welcome to Internetia where anything can happen (and usually does).' Anyway, Dracula does show up in Disney and Disney-owned Marvel properties, just not in an eponymous animated feature.

@Roger Roger ---You forced me to actually find out that no --- Mickey plays 'Jonathan Ratker' to Minnie's 'Minnina' and ''Dr. Goofy Van Helsing.'

Anna-Maria Covich (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 13:48

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I imagine Dracula as being the original "found footage" text. If he was writing it these days it would be vlogging and instagram posts instead of diaries, letters, and meeting notes.
Weirdly, I just read that short story last week. What a an amusing coincidence.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 16:36

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Here's something to keep in mind when the next pandemic rolls around (we're done with the last one, I'm told). A study published last year (based on data from 2020), found that watching horror or prepper (zombie, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic and alien-invasion) films was associated with lower psychological distress and positive resilience when it came to dealing with the pandemic. People who engaged more frequently with frightening fictional phenomena (no, surprisingly, Richard Osman's books didn't qualify) such as horror, prepper film fans and the morbidly curious, displayed more robust psychological resilience and preparedness when it came to the pandemic. So keep that mask and hand sanitiser handy and 'Nosferatu' and 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' at the ready.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 17:03

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No doubt Dr. Goofy Van Helsing lived down to his name and recommended catnip instead of garlic.
Films look realer than reality to us. A friend - a paramedic - who wangled a temporary job as a special adviser on a film said that all his very realistic advice on the way people should die and corpses look was rejected because it wasn't convincing. Compared with the cinematic version reality is unconvincing. Covid-19 - with an immediate death rate of just over one per cent - is tame compared with the way things we see in 28 Days After or Twelve Monkeys.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 19:18

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Interestingly, we have also known for some time, that it is often the auditory effects of a horror film which can have the more significant impact rather than the purely visual --- especially where the 'horror' element comes in the unease or anxiety producing anticipation that you, Helen and snowy describe. This would include the diegetic or 'natural sounds' of creaking branches, shutters banging in the wind, screeching of a bird of prey et al and of course, well-crafted soundtrack music/cues. Both, in expert hands, are often used effectively in the classic 'jump scare' --- a loud sound of some kind after a prolonged period of silence --- leading to the startle reflex in the viewer.

Famous examples of the latter, of course, are the stabbing and screeching sound of Bernard Herrmann’s violins during the shower scene in 'Psycho' and John Williams’s double bass that precedes the appearance of the shark in 'Jaws.' Now, however, with sound editing/mixing apparently a 'disfavoured' filmmaking craft with directors and the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences --- the 'Achievement in Sound' Oscar was presented before the televised ceremony this year as you may remember --- IMHO cinema (other than the superhero CGI spectaculars) has become the worse for it.

Joan (not verified) Sun, 28/08/2022 - 21:21

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Stu, most of us just remember that Slap unfortunately!

Jan (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 05:46

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That's true Roger in many ways the West country particularly Cornwall is, or perhaps was, viewed in many ways as being "other" from much of England maybe even Britain. It was of course the home of the Celtic Britons somewhere that the Romans and Anglo Saxons never fully came to grips with. Even though Cornwall, West Wales and the Forest of Dean were what the Romans came and conquered FOR. It was all very well growing grapes in the South of what become England but those guys came for the mineral wealth of the West and the charcoal the great forest could release.
In a way what the invaders really came for they struggled hardest to conquer. At the same time a good number of the indigenous peoples of the island legged it into the west which remained the home of an older culture and beliefs. In a similar way to parts of rural Ireland.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 05:53

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Snows I love that bit of "The Ancient Mariner" but old Sam C's drugs habit really comes out to play in the poem when he's describing the colours of everything particular the sunsets + the skies it's a super Technicolour meets CGI trip that boat is on for sure.

Joel (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 18:20

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the most impactful films to me were "nosferatu" and "shadow of the vampire". i grew up seeing dracula as sexy/suave/and deadly. it wasn't until i saw a clip of nosferatu, with his bald head, long fingers and emaciated countenance, at 7 years old, that i became absolutely terrified of him. to this day, that version is still unsettling.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 18:56

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English Heritage has had to erect a sign at the entrance to Whitby Abbey which asks visitors not to ask the staff for directions to Dracula's grave - because "he's not buried here". Apparently the custodians and guides get a lot of grief and abuse from folk who've travelled a long way to pay homage and simply won't believe them.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 22:30

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Why is it that we have so much trouble separating fact from fiction. There are sites irretrievably linked to fiction but we can keep the separate if we try. In Prince Edward Island you can visit the house where L.M. Montgomery grew up and later set her first book Anne of Green Gables. "Anne", of course is fictional but because they are so closely linked people expect to be able to find everything from that book and I admit to asking the doctor when my son had croup whether paragoric was actually a medicine of use. Being a man, he'd never read Anne and hadn't known about the stuff Anne had used. There are whole chunks of it we can recite but when it comes right down to it we do know what is fiction &amp; what is not. It sounds as if the Whitby visitors don't. How come?

Joan (not verified) Mon, 29/08/2022 - 22:58

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Too true Helen, there is a cemetery in Halifax that has a large number of Titanic graves. It became a hot spot with fans looking for Jack Dawson’s resting place, there was a Joseph Dawson aboard the ship who perished and his grave merely has J. Dawson on the stone, and sorrowing fans left flowers there.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 01:18

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Walt Disney's first foray into horror, not counting the queen's shadow transformation in Snow White, which was band in the UK, or the the boys shadow transformation in Pinocchio, was of course Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the Ichabod section being a telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman.


Paul C (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 10:05

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The Night on Bare Mountain sequence in the original Fantasia might qualify as a Disney horror. Bela Lugosi was apparently hired as a model for the face of Mephistopheles. Wonderful sequence - well worth watching.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 13:06

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Disney, of course, has tried it's hand at horror or the supernatural in live action films like 'Return to Oz 'and 'The Watcher in the Woods,' but its attempt at full-length animated horror --- 'The Black Cauldron' --- was one of its biggest flops. The issue hovering over all its fright film endeavours was reconciling the Disney family- (and particularly child-) friendly brand image with the material. The results could be scary, but not too scary, mind. And it wasn't usually the animation itself which was often spectacular as might be expected, but the underlying story and that eternal Hollywood hobgoblin, 'creative differences.' Tim Burton( 'Beetlejuice,' 'Corpse Bride,' 'Edward Scissorhands' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' among many others) was said to be so put off by the goings-on with 'The Black Cauldron,' to which he made an early contribution, that he fled traditional animation altogether to work exclusively with live action and stop motion animation.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 18:16

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Given the material the Black Cauldron should have been terrifying but I only remember some odd bits and never saw the whole thing. Disney should have spun off a different company that wouldn't have the family friendly rep attached and then they could have done things properly.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 17:18

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Oh, and all of Fantasia is worth seeing over and over. I should have tried that with my primaries - first just the music and then the animation. Think of the dancing hippos with those frilly little tutus and the foxes lurking behind the pillars. I saw it in the theatre and just loved it forever. It was "Night on Bald Mountain" and I have been there just after May 1st. It's foggy up there 300 days of the year apparently &amp; was when we were there.