In A Nutshell
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Oh, the old vampire trend. So very 2000s.
Er—so very 1890s?
In 1897, Bram Stoker took central European folk tales and turned them into one of the most famous horror books of all time. But the CW isn't going to be speccing a script about this guy anytime soon—at least, not Dracula as Stoker wrote him. Stoker's Dracula isn't young and sparkly-hot; he's creepy, old, and has a penchant for turning into bats and clouds of mist.
Creepy, old, and occasionally downright boring (just stop with the train schedules, Mina)—yes. But just like some vampire stories we could name coughVampireDiariescough, Dracula is a lot more interesting to talk about than it is to read. Just like today, vampires in 1897 stood in for a lot of contemporary fears and anxieties. Except while the vampire craze of the 2000s can be read as representing fears of corruption and conspiracy theories, ye olde turn-of-the-century bloodsuckers represented the increasing globalization of London, the risks of sexual activity, or even the increasing presence of technology.
That's right: technology. Just like that creaky rom-com You've Got Mail hinges on the wacky new technology of email, Dracula hinges on telegraphs, typewriters, and phonographs—only with much more gruesome results.
Here's the quick version: Count Dracula leaves his native Transylvania (modern-day Romania, in southeastern Europe) to immigrate to England—presumably to feed on the "teeming millions" in the huge capital city of London. "Invasion literature," or literature that had to do with monsters invading the British Empire (which, at that point, still covered a lot of the world beyond the British Isles), was ridiculously popular at the time. Authors like Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all wrote sensational adventure stories about fantastic creatures or threatening monsters from around the world. Stoker didn't think of himself as a great artist; he was primarily a businessman. He managed the famous Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker only wrote novels to pay the bills (hah! the idea of writing novels to pay the bills is insane). Honestly, he'd probably be astonished at the lasting impact Dracula has had. He wrote it in a piecemeal, haphazard way—a little here, a little there.
At the time it came out in 1897, it was popular and well-received, but hardly a blockbuster hit. It wasn't until later in the 20th century, when film versions of the novel started to appear, that the novel's popularity really skyrocketed and its impact on popular culture became crystal-clear. Basically every bloodsucker in literature—from Twilight's Edward Cullen to True Blood's Eric Northman to Anne Rice's Lestat & Co. to Sesame Street's The Count—owes their life (or undeath) to Bram Stoker and his xenophobic tale of one Romanian count seducing proper English ladeez.
In other words, Dracula is the super-hideous great-great-grandpappy of Bella Swan.
Why Should I Care?
You don't have to think vampires are dreamy to think Dracula is important. In fact, you don't even have to like Dracula to think Dracula is important: It just is.
This is a novel that took a pretty obscure folk tale creep and skyrocketed him into fame and everlasting pop-cultural stardom. It's a novel that used a mythological creature to tap into the fears of a generation... and was so successful that the same exact mythological creature has been doing the same exact thing ever since. Except he's gotten, by and large, way foxier.
For comparison—oh, wait. There is no comparison to be made, because so few creatures have risen from unknown European campfire story to sexy, sparkly, teen-god status in a little over a hundred years. Imagine if, by 2083 (108 years after Jaws came out), great white sharks were portrayed as super-hawt. Or hey—what if 1926 (108 years after Frankenstein was published) saw an influx of drool-worthy zombie babes?
Does that sound farfetched? It was a mere 108 years between the publication of Dracula and the publication of Twilight. And Edward Cullen was hardly the first vampire babe out there—lookin' at you Lestat and Angel.
And we're not even mentioning all the super-important vampire uglies out there.
Pretty much every vampire book or movie in the 20th century owes something to Stoker's novel, from Nosferatu, a silent German film made in 1922, to Blade (1998) to the Anne Rice Interview with the Vampire series. Even Edward Cullen finds himself needing to re-educate his human girlfriend Bella so that she doesn't believe all of the vampire stereotypes that originated in Stoker's novel.
In terms of popular culture, Dracula is everywhere, once you start looking. The "Count" on Sesame Street, for example, is modeled on Stoker's vampire. And do you like sugary cereals? Count Chocula is a shout-out to Dracula, too.
If monster books just aren't your thing or its pop cultural importance doesn't do it for you (check your pulse though—are you sure you're not undead?) there's still plenty more to Dracula. Stoker had lots to say about some of the most important political questions of his day. Many critics like to read Stoker's Dracula as being about the British fear that the people they had colonized and oppressed for so long would come to Britain to take revenge. Or you can read Dracula for what it says about the role of women—the most dangerous women in the novel are also the sexiest.
In short, Dracula is a cultural touchstone—and it's got something in it to appeal to almost everybody.