Dracula Stands Above All Other Vampires and Horror Icons

There have been many literary and big screen vampires, yet Dracula still reigns supreme in pop culture and among horror movies as the most popular of the undead. Why is that?

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Photo: Universal Pictures

“To die, to truly be dead, that must be glorious,” Bela Lugosi’s eternal vampire once enthused on the silver screen. But true legendary antiheroes never attain the sweet reward of oblivion.

Before Universal Pictures’ classic 1931 film, Dracula was most famous in English speaking countries as the repellent vampire created by author Bram Stoker in a minor publishing novelty from 1897. Gruesome but not significant. Now, of course, he casts the largest shadow in horror, and it grows with every swing of his cape.

Historical Roots of Dracula’s Name

Stoker only took the name of “Dracula” from Vlad Dracul III, the original caped crusader. But the book’s titular inspiration got that name when The Holy Roman Empire named him to the chivalric Order of the Dragon. Dracula means Son of the Dragon. As the protector of Wallachia and Transylvania, he was a far more bloodthirsty ruler than the infamous Queen Mary I, Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary; she burned 280 religious dissenters at the stake during her reign. Those are rookie numbers to Dracula.

If it weren’t for the vampire thing, Vlad III would have may have gained the renown of a Genghis Khan in the history books. Long before the beached-and-bleached eternal teen vampires of The Lost Boys shared Maggot Cantonese with a new brooding fiend, a young Dracula invited all the noblemen and warlords who opposed him to a formal Easter dinner. After the meal, the barely 25-year-old dictator stabbed each and every one of them, possibly personally, and left them impaled to die slowly for all to see. “Vlad the Impaler” had a very advanced sense of horror presentation.

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Dracula is a badass. He’s the only bloodsucker Blade (Wesley Snipes) would even think of sucking up to, and the only vampire Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) couldn’t bring herself to slay. He would make a perfect superhero even without the cape because of his superpowers, but he is out for himself and justice is out of his league. 

Dracula is the bad boy. The rebel. Even in a tux, he’s a guy you could never bring home to your mother because she may very well have known him in a prior life. So many of his onscreen relationships begin that way, and they usually end with broken hearts, severed heads, and too many stakes to claim. That wouldn’t be a problem for the most educational of vampires, Count de Count, the numerical ruler of Sesame Street.

How Dracula Overshadowed the Vampires That Came Before

Stoker did not invent the vampire, and his 1897 book isn’t the greatest horror novel ever written, but the character is the greatest of horror fiction. Varney the Vampire: Or, The Feast of Blood (1847), written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, is a better read, and Stoker incorporated its religious overtones, stake-as-weapon device, and the undead’s cold, dead touch. But in the end, the mysterious character is just a cool vampire with an unfortunate name, and who throws himself into Mount Vesuvius at the shame of it. Dracula erupts from the page, overshadowing Stoker’s original text. Dracula defines vampires. He is horror.

In a perfect world, Countess Mircalla Karnstein, aka Carmilla, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, would be the prevailing icon of literary vampires, inspiring motion pictures into a very different trajectory from the vicious alpha male dominated bloodfests vampire entertainment has long favored. Played by Ingrid Pitt in the 1970 Hammer horror classic, The Vampire Lovers, and Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard in the less illustrious Lust for a Vampire (1971), Carmilla is one of the greatest female vampires on film. Delicious and deadly, otherworldly yet smolderingly earthy, she is a world away from another vampire Pitt inhabited for the studio.

That film was called Countess Dracula, but the vampire is Elizabeth Báthory, the Hungarian royal alleged to have bathed in the blood of her servants in a bid for eternal youth. While some historians believe this was political gossip, the propaganda became myth, and the bloody legend continues to flow. As sanguine as she may have kept herself, however, Countess Báthory was no match for Taste the Blood of Dracula, or any of the other Hammer films starring Christopher Lee as the furious fellow with the sharpest fangs. 

Dracula Conquers Hollywood

Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of a stage play adapted from Stoker’s novel made an astounding impact on horror, as did the originating Broadway lead actor. Lugosi’s halting Hungarian accent, elegantly flapping cape, and distressingly hypnotic stare burned the image forever onto celluloid as one of motion pictures’ most iconic images. When you look at best-of horror collages on all-day matinee placards, we see the images of the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, and Leatherface, but unless the Invisible Man is standing in front of him, Dracula is always front and center.

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Beyond the mere countries of his historic namesake, Dracula conquered film, television, literature, the internet, and will probably book the first flight off the planet when the apocalypse comes. It’s a wonder there isn’t a “Dracula vs. the Martians” B-movie, he did after all, draw against, if not from, Billy the Kid. Could Dracula beat King Kong? If he were to turn into a bat and bide his time, of course. Dracula’s got all the time in the world. He was reborn that way.

Anne Rice’s wondrous Lestat de Lioncourt, played by Sam Reid in AMC’s Interview with the Vampire and Tom Cruise in the 1994 film, who embraced his Dark Gift, is the only other contender to the throne. The usurping vampire icon lived his afterlife unapologetically as a Brat Prince among cattle, and savors his inexhaustible tastes. “God kills, and so shall we, indiscriminately,” Lestat enthuses. “He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like Him as ourselves, dark angels not confined to the stinking limits of hell but wandering His earth and all its kingdoms.”

True Blood’s Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) was the son of a Viking king named Ulfrik Northman in life. He lost his father’s crown to werewolves. Ha! Dracula keeps those as pets! He thinks they make beautiful music at night. Before his undeath, Lestat was known as a “wolfkiller.” Dracula would have had him for lunch, a very late lunch. The Transylvanian Count may have been the most bloodthirsty creature in a terrifying tradition, but he was forever fashionable.

Dracula lived for centuries. He has evil appetites and great strength, can command the animals and influence the weather. He can be erudite or savage, animalistic or amiable, a nobleman and a simple carriage driver. He can be the bat that leads that wagon or the wolf who is never quite at bay. He can appear in a window, and disappear in the mist. He comes unexpectedly, and always leaves you wanting more.

Gothic Romance Is No Comedy

As a lover, Dracula leaves much to be desired, but he is desired strongly, and for the most contradictory of reasons. He is sadistic and cruel, romantic and irresistible, and will never have garlic breath. He certainly won’t keep you up at night discussing Bible passages. Dracula’s idea of Midnight Mass might not be what you expect, so he probably wouldn’t be the best date to bring to a wedding. He says the sweetest things, and with the most poetic phrasings (“I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” Gary Oldman’s Dracula intones rapturously), but is possessive as hell.

Unlike Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows, played by Jonathan Frid, Dracula’s romantic entanglements paled in comparison to the props, wardrobe, candles, wires and doorknobs he tangled with. He was a vampire for the ages, one of the most influential, both as a horror icon who came into living rooms on a daily basis, and as one of the few reluctant vampires. 

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Barnabus loved, and greatly, but never wisely. His great love Josette, married his brother. His true soulless mate, Angelique, traveled through time, from when she was Miranda DuVal, a 17th Century Witch in the West Indies of Martinique, to make a supreme romantic sacrifice, an episode too late. But the master of Collingswood could never top the count from Transylvania. He was far too New English for that, as he was for the wanton open advances of the witch who cursed him with eternal bloodlust.

The Sexual Nature of Dracula and the Humiliation of Good

One of the main reasons Dracula rises to the top of any diabolical occasion is sex. Both Legosi and Frank Langella tranformed into Broadway sex symbols with the wave of a cape. And Gary Oldman’s romantic usurper has horrifying charms. The count exudes a dangerous sexual aura. Dracula was written to challenge the erotically suppressive Victorian era. Stoker’s work needed a character who would arouse sexual curiosity in the reader, without losing the repulsive animosity for the monster within. 

Vampires are ugly things in folklore, ghouls with hardly any table manners. John Polidori’s “The Vampire,” published in 1819, was the first to break away from casting vampires as repellent monsters. The story’s Lord Ruthven introduced the attractive vampire, and he’s a real lady killer. Dead on the inside, he is the first seductive and cultured vampire.

The novel Dracula associates sexuality with evil and sadistic pain, but Vlad Tepes’ adherence to the faith was far more draconian than even the most Victorian of Victorians. The dictator sentenced an unfaithful wife to have her sexual organs cut out, and women who lost their virginity before marriage sometimes had nipples cut from their breasts or hots irons shoved through their sexual organs until they emerged from the mouth. Even the most coldly historic descriptions could pass for a camera closeup script direction note in a Lucio Fulci film.

The basic Dracula story in any adaptation is a war between good and evil, and the battlefield is almost always a woman. Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra are two-dimensional because they represent the two overriding stereotypes of fiction, virgin and whore. Dracula conquers both, and throws a bagged infant to his other “weird sister” brides.

Dracula personifies evil. He not only conquers good but humiliates its servants, each one attached to a bewitched betrothed, with pissing-match bravura. “Your girls that you all love are mine already,” Dracula taunts his hunters in the novel, “and through them you and others shall yet be mine.” Professor Van Helsing’s solution is equally vile in its oppression. He’d rather see Lucy’s head cut off than look upon a wanton woman, and the scientifically minded vampire hunter would rather kill a rare and possibly endangered species in Dracula than learn from it.

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Dracula lauds his power over his enemies in the book as much as the historic tyrant demeaned his annoyances in real life. Besides arrogantly dipping bread into vanquished soldiers on the battlefield, Vlad III ordered hats be nailed to the heads of priests who didn’t tip them in respect to their emperor in his courtyard. Stoker may have only included a few historic details in his book, but by the time Francis Ford Coppola took on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Vlad Tepes reasserted his horrific tyrannical legacy. He was an imposing figure who imposed his legend into mythology. He is bigger than page, stage, screen and history itself.

Dracula, as a character, has even overtaken the actors who play him. Regardless of his versatile acting abilities, Count Dracula defined Christopher Lee’s career, and Bela Lugosi was buried in his cape. He is a towering character and the climb is intoxicating. Dracula is deadly, dangerous and desirable. He is a nightmare and a dream. He takes what he wants, we love him for it, and he loves us back, to death. He’s got an equally lovable sidekick who eats flies, prefers spiders, and has his heart set on rats. Dracula may not appreciate fine wine, but his fashion sense is to die for, and any meal may be a last, or last forever.