Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film adaptation of Dracula.
Some characters seem to grow more real than their creators, and perhaps no villain better exemplifies this than Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Growing up as both an aspiring writer and an inveterate lover of all things gory, I loved knowing that it was possible to create a character who would enjoy the same kind of fame. Even better was the legend, first put forth by the author’s son, that Bram Stoker’s Dracula, had been inspired by a nightmare Stoker experienced after eating too much crab. This, I thought, was very good news. I too wanted to write a story like this one, which had scared people—including me—for centuries. And, as it happened, I was extremely partial to crab.
Dracula was first published in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but Stoker had been at work on the novel since 1890. During this time he had witnessed the anxieties of an empire convinced of its own obsolescence—a belief all too visible in publications of the time. “Late-Victorian fiction in particular,” Stephen D. Arata wrote in his influential 1990 article “The Occidental Tourist,” “is saturated with the sense that the entire nation—as a race of people, as a political and imperial force, as a social and cultural power—was in irretrievable decline.” Arata situates Dracula within the robust Victorian subgenre of what he terms the “reverse colonization” novel. In these wildly successful narratives, other examples of which include H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, disaster lies, Arata argues, in the fact that “a terrifying reversal has occurred: the colonizer finds himself in the position of the colonized, the exploiter becomes exploited, the victimizer victimized. Such fears are linked to a perceived decline—racial, moral, spiritual—which makes the nation vulnerable to attack from more vigorous, ‘primitive’ peoples.”
In the fall of 1888, Britons would be hard-pressed to identify a specter more primitive or more deadly than Jack the Ripper. He was a criminal who did not just murder his victims but carved them to pieces—his fondness for dissection was so infamous that, for a time, any man spotted with a black doctor’s bag might arouse his neighbors’ suspicions. True crime was already a hardy genre in Victorian England, but if Jack the Ripper was nothing new, he still cut a new figure within its pages: a man who appeared to be motivated not by money or revenge or enmity, but by bloodlust.
Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated five women in the fall of 1888, and, as Barbara Belford wrote, “[brought] evil into the drawing rooms of Mayfair and Kensington.” Yet citizens could still take comfort in the belief, widely disseminated in contemporary newspapers, that the work was done by a foreigner, the killer was likely not English—and perhaps not even human. “It is so impossible to account…for these revolting acts of blood,” an author wrote in the East London Advertiser at the time of the murders, “that the mind turns as it were instinctively to some theory of occult force, and the myths of the Dark Ages rise before the imagination. Ghouls, vampires, bloodsuckers, and all the ghastly array of fables which have been accumulated throughout the course of centuries take form, and seize hold of the excited fancy.”
It seems remarkable not that Stoker conceived of Dracula during this terrifying time, but that he could have held off finishing it for so long. The seafood nightmare Stoker cited as Dracula’s creative genesis occurred in 1895, and it was around this time that Stoker began working on the book in earnest, but Stoker seemed to have his first inkling of the book in 1890, when he holidayed in the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby. There he began taking notes that would eventually become the basis for the section of Dracula in which the Count leaves his crumbling castle in the Carpathian Mountains, near modern-day Romania, and steals into England onboard the Demeter to begin his reign of terror.
In 1890, Stoker seemed inspired the Whitby’s legends, its Gothic atmosphere, and the “noble ruin” of Whitby Abbey. Yet one also wonders whether, only two years after the very real reign of terror attributed to Jack the Ripper, Stoker also found himself uniquely inspired by the question that obsessed his countrymen: how could a foreign presence pierce the boundaries of their great empire, and take the first steps of a journey that would lead all the way to London? In Whitby, Stoker seemed to find his answer.
Perhaps even more meaningful than the timeline of Stoker’s own creative process, however, is the reason for Dracula’s staggering popularity among his contemporaries. For a people riddled with anxiety not just about their nation’s decline but about its next position on the wheel of fortune, it must have been all too easy for readers to believe that some form of reversal—particularly a colonization at the hands of their colonized subjects—must be in the offing. If the sun never set on the British Empire at its zenith, then how quickly would darkness descend if the Empire sunk to its nadir?
Living in a society that so prided itself on its ability to infiltrate and dominate other nations and peoples, one would have also been all too aware of how permeable a country’s borders could be, and how porous its civilization could become. From the first, Stoker portrays the Count as not just as a foreigner from the dark forests of Romania, but as uniquely terrifying for his foreignness. His face, as Jonathan Harker writes after their first meeting, is “aquiline,” and his mouth “fixed and rather cruel-looking,” though hidden by a “heavy moustache.” In fact, more than anything, the Count is remarkable to Jonathan not for his now-legendary pallor, but for his “ruddiness,” his “vitality,” and his “profusion” of hair. His eyebrows are “very massive, almost meeting in the middle,” and his “coarse,” “broad” hands have not just “squat fingers,” but “hair in the centre of the palm.” The villain who has since become an icon of sybaritic urbanity and civilized bloodshed is, when we first encounter him, far more reminiscent of the colonized peasantry so central to Victorian anxiety than of the aristocratic ideal he would eventually emulate. Similarly, Jonathan’s journey to the hinterlands of Eastern Europe allowed Victorian readers to regard the Count as a potential member of what was then called “the Semitic race”—and so to find his eventual move to England all the more troubling.
After Stoker’s Count Dracula—and, perhaps to an even greater extent, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of him—cemented the character’s nationality in audiences’ minds, it became more difficult for the public to remember that Dracula itself was, more than anything, about the Count’s attempts to penetrate English society. Surely, this would have seemed no mean feat to Stoker’s readers, or, for that matter, to the Anglo-Irish Stoker, given the fact that his Count briefly managed a feat that eluded Stoker for his entire life.
After his emigration on the doomed Demeter, Dracula terrorizes the novel’s narrators not just by his predation of their women, but by his mastery of English accent and mannerisms, and his accrual of English property. Yet he has made this desire for complete absorption into English life clear from the beginning: in one of the book’s most telling and oddly poignant moments, Jonathan Harker enters Dracula’s study and finds him “lying on the sofa, reading, of all things in the world, and English Bradshaw’s Guide”—a railway timetable.
Dracula’s obsession with mastering even the most inconsequential habits of English life, and his almost solicitous insistence on his own incompetence as a counterfeit Englishman, tinges his villainy with something both more complicated and more commonplace than horror: Dracula is a supernatural potboiler, but it is also an immigrant’s story. In Dracula’s desire to master his adopted tongue, we can find evidence of his sinister dissembly, but we can also, if we wish to, envision a rather more endearing figure, and a deeply human one. Stoker’s Count is a man casting off the caul of an inhospitable homeland, seeking acceptance in a new country by following its demands, and becoming—as the saying would later go—more English than the English.
“I thank you, my friend, for your all too flattering estimate,” Dracula tells Jonathan Harker when the other man praises his fluency, “but yet I fear I am but a little way on the road I would travel. True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them… Did I move and speak in your London, none there are who would not know me for a stranger.” For Dracula, this is unacceptable. And, as any immigrant to or colonized subject of the British Empire would not doubt agree, to be “[known]…for a stranger” means being not just eternally other, but eternally suspect.
Certainly, this was the case for London’s Jewish population during Jack the Ripper’s period of activity. Beyond the police’s well-publicized interest in a Jewish suspect nicknamed “Leather Apron”—which ignited enough anti-Semitic sentiment to bring the public to the brink of a riot—citizens were already ready to cast their suspicions on London’s Jews. The preceding decade had seen an unprecedented influx of Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing the surge in pogroms and other violence that had sprung up in the wake of Tsar Alexander II’s death. Many found a home in Whitechapel, the neighborhood where Jack the Ripper would stalk his prey, and which, even before the fall of 1888, would be synonymous with many of the anxieties Londoners felt about immigration, crowding, poverty, and prostitution. Though some authors marshaled descriptions of supernatural fiends in their attempts to describe the kind of person “Saucy Jack” might be, others hazarded more prosaic guesses. In the words of another East London Observer author, “No Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime…it must have been done by a Jew.”
For the readers who first embraced Bram Stoker’s now-ubiquitous character, both Dracula’s villainy and the saga it empowered must have seemed a profoundly effective antidote to the incomplete narrative Jack the Ripper left in his wake. Stoker never left any doubt as to Dracula’s lack of humanity: only a monster could do what he did, and only by combating a monster could Stoker’s protagonists destroy a foreign nemesis without any of the guilt or anxiety that real British colonialism might inspire in its dominant classes.
Dracula even had something to offer those who feared Jack the Ripper but did not feel much sympathy for his victims: both Mina Murray’s demands that the men “cut off [her] head” if she becomes infected by Dracula, and Dr. Seward’s earlier bloody destruction of the “false Lucy” with the “mercy-bearing stake,” suggest that an impure woman is better off dead, if the death can return her to “sweetness and purity.” To those for whom the prostitutes Jack the Ripper gleefully eviscerated seemed nearly as reprehensible as their killer, this message must have been a profoundly cathartic one.
Yet, more than anything, it seems Dracula provided a comforting story for those troubled by the decline of the British Empire, the urbanization of London, the increase in immigration to England, and the subsequent blurring of English identity. Count Dracula may be sinister for his impersonation of humanity, but it is his attempt to infiltrate English society that renders him truly unforgivable.
Over the years, professionals and amateurs alike have cast everyone from Lewis Carroll to Prince Albert Victor in the role of Jack the Ripper, with the most recent theory implicating a Polish-Jewish immigrant named Aaron Kosminski. If we have finally found the culprit—and the self-described “armchair detective” who claims to have cracked the case, using DNA evidence, is “definitely, categorically and absolutely” sure of Kosminski’s guilt—then perhaps this story, and its attendant legends, must finally come to an end. Yet the specter of unearthly evil and menace it has inspired for well over a century is one we will persist in conjuring for as long as we fear the unknown.