The Rosenbach Museum and Library hosts the Dracula Festival — a celebration of the original horror story, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
He hails from Transylvania, he wants to suck blood and he’s one of literature’s most memorable monsters. If you didn’t guess ‘Dracula,’ well, you probably deserve to have your blood sucked.
“There is a sense of ‘before Dracula’ and ‘after Dracula,’” said Kathy Haas, assistant curator at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, and curator of the “Dracula and Friends” exhibit, which is now in its seventh year.
“All modern vampire stories–Anne Rice’s ‘Vampire Chronicles,’ the ‘Twilight Series’–have in some way been influenced by Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’” Haas said. “They may not go around reeking like corpses, but that’s cool and trendy because it’s against our traditional idea of the vampire.”
Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897 after nearly 10 years of planning and research. Although he did not invent the vampire legend, few question his impact on what it has become today. The novel was released with mixed reviews, some finding it to be too frightening, others finding its epistolary format to be too disorganized for a cohesive plot. Still, something has made this story endure for more than a century.
Film has a lot to do with it. There have been dozens of film adaptations of Stoker’s novel, beginning in 1922 with the classic German silent film “Nosferatu,” and continuing today with films such as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and “Van Helsing.” However, the most iconic image of Dracula–the dark widow’s peak, stiff collar, and long black cape–is from the 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi.
So how did a quiet, unknown museum manager manage to create this horrific empire?
The Rosenbach owns the 124-page collection of Stoker’s notes on the novel. Every year the exhibit has a different theme, largely for the sake of document conservation, as light has a damaging effect on the fragile handwritten papers. This year the museum will feature some of Stoker’s more sinister research.
“The idea was to take a look at the supernatural research Stoker did, and pair it with other related documents, of which Stoker may or may not have had knowledge,” Haas said.
The museum recently acquired the original copy of John Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” which is widely considered to be the first vampire story to be printed.
Also on display is the 1872 novel “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the ghastly and shocking story, for the time, of a lesbian vampire. There is also a newspaper article detailing the “proper” way to kill a vampire, and a medical report that describes the strange and inexplicable deathlike state.
The cover of “The Vampyre” gives Lord Byron authorship. Polidori was Byron’s close friend and physician. Legend has it that Byron dared fellow pre-Raphaelite writers Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Polidori to write a horror story. Polidori went home and wrote “The Vampyre,” and Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein.”
Even a quick look through the exhibit makes it clear that Stoker drew from many different sources in the creation of his villain.
“[Stoker] didn’t take any of it as gospel,” Haas said. “He picked and chose elements he wanted to incorporate, and made up some of his own. He was more interested in creating a good story than in staying true to vampire lore.”
One of the most popular theories about the origin of the Dracula legend is that Stoker based the character on the bloodthirsty Hungarian warlord Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
While it is true that Stoker’s working title for “Dracula” was “Count Wampyre,” and that there is evidence he settled on the final name only after he read a book which mentioned Vlad, “An Account of the Principalities at Wallachia and Moldavia” by William Wilkerson, there is little evidence that he chose the name based on the character of the namesake himself.
Stoker copied several passages from the book, but he placed a great deal of emphasis on a footnote written into his notes, twice: “Dracula, in the Wallachian language, means Devil.”
“He seemed to be attracted to the name, and didn’t know much about it historically,” Haas said.
It is actually more likely that Stoker based many of Dracula’s character traits on the then famous actor Henry Irving, to whom Stoker was an assistant at the Lyceum Theater in London, where Stoker was also the business manager. This is of course disregarding Dracula’s blood-sucking, shape-shifting, devil-incarnate characteristics. Ironically, Irving never agreed to play the part of Dracula on stage.
Besides the papery gems in the gallery exhibit, the Rosenbach will also be featuring a one man Dracula show, adapted and performed by Josh Hitchens, as part of the Dracula Festival. The show will be held Thursday, Oct. 27 from 6 p.m.–7:15 p.m.
Annabelle Buck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.