Commenting on his role in the 2007 Danny Boyle-directed horror flick 28 Weeks Later, the actor Robert Carlyle speculated on why scary stories and films were so popular:
It can only be a primal thing…There’s nothing like getting into a cinema with 500 people and getting scared together. It must go back to your childhood, because I noticed that with my own kids: they love getting scared, they love you jumping on them and frightening them, they love all that, so I think we carry that with us through adulthood, and that’s our way of expressing that release – getting into that darkened room and have scary monsters to frighten you.
Horror stories have, of course, been a cultural staple for centuries in most societies around the world, but from the mid-18th Century onwards a new genre of novel appeared that utterly transformed the way in which audiences and readers would be scared out of their wits: the gothic novel. Beginning with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and continuing with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the genre proved to be hugely popular and influential. Then, in 1897, a novel appeared that transformed gothic fiction even further.
Incredible though it may seem now, in his day Bram Stoker was not known principally as a novelist. The Dublin-born author and critic was known in London society simply as the managing director of the Lyceum Theatre, in which he and the charismatic actor Henry Irving, whom he befriended after writing him a number of glowing reviews, proved to be a hit-making double act popular with the audiences. When he was not engaged in theatre business or neglecting his family, Stoker wrote novels, reviews, and poetry, and in 1890 started work on the story that would make him internationally famous.
Published on 26 May 1897, the novel, entitled Dracula; or, the Undead, relates the story of London solicitor Jonathan Harker, who travels to Transylvania to arrange the purchase of a house in England for an enigmatic aristocrat by the name of Count Dracula. Soon after his arrival in Dracula’s castle, Harker learns that he is a captive not a guest, and after his lucky escape a number of mysterious and troubling events affect friends back in England (both in London and Whitby on the Yorkshire coast), as Dracula is revealed to be a vampire, feeding on the blood of healthy humans in order to keep himself young.
To begin with the novel was more of a critical than commercial success, receiving near-unconditional praise among reviewers. It would take some time for it to be a commercial classic, too, but over the last 120 years the Dracula myth has grown and grown in popularity, having inspired over 200 feature films and countless theatre adaptations. It has also proved to be a lucrative money-spinner for the tourism industry both in Transylvania and in Whitby.
Stoker did his research meticulously while planning the novel, studying vampire tales among the considerable mine that is Central European folklore. He is thought to have modelled the character of Dracula himself on a real historical figure: King Vlad IV of Wallachia, better known by his more gruesome moniker Vlad the Impaler (indeed, one aspect of the Dracula myth – the stake through the heart – is reckoned to be inspired by Vlad’s manner of torturing his enemies by having wooden poles driven through them – hence the nickname). Dracula’s overbearing and melodramatic manner might, however, just as easily have emanated from Stoker’s own friend and business partner – the ever-overbearing and melodramatic actor Henry Irving. It must have come as a huge dismaying shock to Stoker, therefore, that Irving himself didn’t think much to his friend’s story, and point-blank refused to have anything to do with any Lyceum theatre adaptation of it…