Acclaimed biographer Jim Steinmeyer discusses his new book Who Was Dracula? and explains how Bram Stoker’s classic horror story is also a parable about sexual repression.
Zola: You write mainly of four men who could be the basis for Dracula: Bram’s Victorian theater boss, the actor Henry Irving; his disgraced friend, Oscar Wilde; his hero, poet Walt Whitman; and Vlad Tepes, the actual “Dracula.” Who do you think emerges as the fullest template for the Count?
Jim Steinmeyer: That’s tough to say, as I think that a number of Stoker’s friends and business associates had roles in this book. Perhaps the best template for the Count is Stoker himself. As I wrote about it, there are definitely elements of the author in the character of Dracula, and he has also been the nexus for these powerful personalities.
Zola: You write quite bluntly—several times—that, “Dracula is about sex.” But you also write that the critics and readers never mentioned its sexuality when it came out. How could everyone—including the author—have simply missed that?
JS: Well, I think that’s part of the genius of Dracula. It’s a surrogate for sex. And I don’t think it’s surprising that Stoker, a proper Victorian, was able to overlook it and the Victorian critics were able to overlook it. That’s what makes it appealing, generation after generation.
Zola: We think we’re not so sexually repressed as the Victorians, yet the vampire is more popular than ever today. How do you account for that?
JS: The vampire story has been allowed to morph and change to suit each new generation. I don’t think it will ever go out of fashion, because it is a flexible myth that can be repackaged in so many different ways. Each generation will find its own vampires.
Zola: Did Bram Stoker write anything else that you would suggest to a fan? Or was Dracula his one-off?
JS: Stoker wrote quite a bit, but Dracula is his most successful novel. To fans of the book, I’d recommend Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, a collection of short stories published after Stoker’s death, which includes a story that may have been removed from the original novel, or may have been an early inspiration for the novel.
Zola: There were a lot of vampire novels before Dracula. Why did it become so much more important than any of them?
JS: Stoker definitely processed his story from earlier inspirations. But in standardizing the superstitions, the rules of the vampire, and by mixing his story with modern society, he brought surprise and urgency to it. That’s what’s fascinating about Dracula: it’s about an old world vampire trying to make it in the big city! Dracula’s aspirations to be modern are what, ultimately, ruin him. The novel was successful, but it was only when Dracula began to work its way onto the stage—again, when it became modern—that it found a new generation of readers.
Zola: You discuss the teen vampire series Twilight, but you don’t mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not a fan?
JS: No, I’ve watched Buffy and enjoyed Buffy. I simply couldn’t track all of the variations of the story, and I didn’t really attempt to do it in this book. I made the point that the vampire story has always been flexible enough that we could recreate it in our own form, and the idea that both vampires and vampire hunters equate to teenagers is sort of perfect for a modern interpretation.
Zola: You discuss many Dracula films in your book. What is your favorite vampire movie?
JS: Well, if you’ve already seen Bela Lugosi, it’s worth finding Nosferatu, the very first Dracula movie, which was produced in Germany as a silent film. It was the center of a lot of controversy, as the plot was stolen from Dracula and not credited, and Mrs. Stoker worked very hard to prevent it from being seen. It is probably the weirdest, most haunting version of the story. And there’s something perfect about it being a flickering silent film.
Zola: How has the vampire evolved in the century since Dracula was published?
JS: Dracula changed and morphed with every new step within media. I think that’s what Stoker really provided: an epic story that can be reinvented again and again. Part of this was programmed into his novel, by carefully defining the rules of the vampire and then leaving elements of the story to our imagination, so that they could be imagined in different forms. I think the reason the story is so captivating is that Stoker involved so many fascinating personalities and controversies. And the story can be twisted and changed. Stoker succeeded in creating a timeless myth.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.