Trends in popular culture come and go. Most of them last a few months, a year on the outside. The really pervasive ones can last a decade, and even come to define that decade. Dracula is one cultural icon that breaks all the rules—and is currently enjoying its biggest moment in the spotlight ever.
First introduced to Victorian society by author by Bram Stoker in 1897, Dracula had a quiet start. At that time, the vampires of legend were considered monstrous creatures. Bram’s Count Dracula, a 15th century Romanian nobleman who could walk amongst the masses unseen, was perhaps ahead of his time.
Maybe it was the horrors of World War I or the influenza pandemic at this time, but the reality of death–whether on the battlefield or in your own home–made horror feel close, and familiar, no longer relegated to ancient superstition and distant far away lands.
Bram’s novel had become a bestseller by the mid 1920′s, and Hamilton Dean’s stage play of the novel was playing to sold out crowds all over the U.K In 1927, Dracula came to America. Bela Lugosi assumed the role of the count on Broadway and nothing would ever be the same again.
Bela Lugosi’s iconic stage characterization of Count Dracula was about much more than the evil that lurks amongst us. By making Dracula a more nuanced character, full of contradictions, Lugosi held up a mirror to his audience and showed their own conflicted beings. His portrayal was as at once frightening and eye-opening. Lugosi took America by storm—and his starring role in the later film mesmerized the world.
Since then, more and more have come to read Bram Stoker’s horror classic. Dracula has become an important part of the literary canon, and the character of the vampire has taken on countless forms in film, television, books, and other art forms.
There have been many schools of thought on why Dracula and vampires hold such sway on the masses. In my opinion, the root is that Dracula represents freedom. Dracula is not bound by the rule of law or man’s self-imposed morality. He has the strength of ten men. His powers over the human mind allow him his pick of women. These are all powerful fantasies to many an adolescent boy. For women, Dracula represents the ultimate alpha-male. Wealth, power, will and strength define him. He exists on a higher plane than human men, appealing to the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality.
Dracula’s immortality also plays into the very common fear of aging that all humans share. He does not age, isn’t susceptible to illness. Man’s greatest fear is death. For Dracula, death is meaningless.
These qualities make Dracula timeless. He speaks to some of our deepest animal traits. Within each of us are the capacity for violence, vengeance, vigilantism, theft, and a yearning for the rules of the jungle. What makes us civilized as humans is our capacity to control these base instincts. Yet, perhaps we all wish at times to unleash them, whether we want to admit it or not. Dracula can. Dracula represents the evil of which all men are capable.