We all know the rules of the vampire, right? Garlic, bats, stakes, coffins, mirrors. All these attributes and more are so familiar, almost anyone could rattle them off. And why not? Like zombies, vampires have enjoyed a bloody reign over horror for so long, they have practically carved out their own genre.
Sure, the brain starved walking dead have gained a recent dominance over their classier counterparts. But it wasn’t long ago that Twilight ruled the bookstores and box office — for better or for worse. And let’s not forget True Blood, Interview with a Vampire, Salem’s Lot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the other iconic additions to the modern vampire myth.
But the current conception of the vampire wasn’t always set in stone. In fact, we have a single work to thank for the majority of the vampire myth as we know it today. The 1897 novel Dracula is where the modern vampire was truly established. And the author behind the horror classic, Bram Stoker, was born 170 years ago today.
Bram Stoker was an Irish theater manager working in London when he wrote Dracula. Stoker had made a habit out of writing novels on the side to earn some extra cash. The author became inspired to turn the European folk myths of vampires into his next story. Stoker spent seven years pouring over vampire folklore to research his book. Most of his sources were the legends and superstitions regarding vampires that were passed down throughout Eastern Europe for centuries.
The tricky thing was, a consistent set of rules for vampires couldn’t be pinned down from these folk sources alone. Besides the fact that a vampire was an undead revenant who fed on blood, everything else could vary widely.
So Stoker took all these folk elements, borrowed some ideas from gothic literature, added a dash of his own creativity, and set down the rules of the modern vampire. Some of these rules remain unaltered, some have transformed over time, and some have been forgotten. But they demonstrate how Dracula defined the modern vampire.
1. “I Never Drink…Wine”
The classic line, uttered by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film version of Dracula, is iconic because we all know what the vampire does drink. And of course the villain of Stoker’s novel consumes blood. He couldn’t be vampire if he didn’t do that!
What’s interesting is that, unlike most modern vampires, Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t need to consume blood to be immortal. He is undying simply by virtue of being a vampire. He does need blood to gain strength, and the more he consumes, the younger he appears. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, Jonathan Harker encounters a blood starved Dracula who looks old and decrepit. By the time the villian’s feasting on the blood of Londoners, he looks quite young and attractive.
So what else about this rule has stuck around in most modern vampire iterations? Dracula never eats food or drinks anything but the red stuff.
2. Mirror, Mirror
We all know the classic vampire tell. Hold up a mirror to the potential bloodsucker. No reflection? It’s a vampire!
This rule was set down clearly in Dracula, and it’s been a staple of the myth since. One aspect of this rule from the novel that has stuck around less consistently? A vampire will cast no shadow. Some films, like Vampyr (1932) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) prefer shadows that move independently of the vampire. Most forgo shadows and just keep reflections in play.
Either way, we can thank Dracula for confirming the importance of mirrors in the vampire myth.
3. Gone Batty
In pop culture, if a vampire isn’t a suave gentleman (or a sparkly teen heartthrob), they’re a bat. A squeaking bat emerging from a discarded cape is an iconic horror trope for a reason. The fact that vampires could transform themselves into a bat was one of the rules established in Dracula.
But the titular Count wasn’t limited to bats, in fact, he also transformed himself into a wolf, and according to Dr. Van Helsing, he could become dust if he’s in the moonlight, or travel as a mist for a limited distance. He could even become tiny to slip through cracks! Most of these rules have fallen by the wayside. But the Counts’ tendency to turn into a winged, nocturnal bat remains a fixture of the modern vampire.
4. Invitation Only
Another famous rule of the vampire that was set down in Dracula? A vampire cannot enter a place unless they are first invited in. However, once they are invited, they can enter as they please. This is one of the few rules established by Stoker that has remained unaltered in almost every vampire story since.
5. Vampire Repellent
Another standby rule that was established unaltered in Dracula is the classic combo of vampire repellent; crucifixes and garlic. These two remedies of vampiric folklore were firmly set down by Stoker. Because of this, they’ve outlasted salt, rice, mustard seeds, and numerous other traditional vampire repellents to be the two we remember today.
However, it’s interesting that rather than causing a vampire to screech and retreat, as is often seen in films, crucifixes and garlic simply cause a vampire to “take his place far off and silent with respect.” Essentially, he just stands in the corner awkwardly while the dreaded items are around.
6. Slay Away
What’s the most essential vampire rule? How to slay one of course! We all know a vampire slayer would be nowhere without their trusty stakes. And a stake to the heart is the most prominent method of vampire killing employed in Dracula. But it’s not the only possible method laid out by by Van Helsing, the vampire slayer of Stoker’s creation.
Decapitation or a “sacred bullet” can also do the trick. What exactly is a “sacred bullet”? It’s not the silver bullet of werewolf lore, though it certainly shares the folkloric origin. Instead, it’s a bullet that has been blessed, usually with holy water.
Some of these methods of vampire disposal are still featured in vampire lore to this day. But it’s the stake that has remained the most common method to defeat a vampiric threat. Its use in several memorable scenes in Dracula no doubt have contributed to its staying power.
What’s the major vampire killer that doesn’t come from Stoker’s novel? Sunlight! Believe it or not, Dracula’s count could survive the UV exposure that has destroyed many a vampire since. He even appears strolling around in broad daylight in the novel! Daylight does reduce his powers, but it’s not deadly to his kind. The killing power of daylight was established by Nosferatu (1922) and has remained a standby of vampire lore ever since.
It’s worth noting that none of these rules were outright invented by Bram Stoker. Instead, he combed through centuries of vampiric folklore and settled on what to preserve in his tale of the undead.
Other characteristics of the vampire featured in Dracula that have endured include the contagious nature of vampirism — those killed by a vampire will become one. This was sometimes, but not always the case in pre-existing folklore.
The characterization of a vampire as a suave gentlemen wasn’t invented by Stoker. It can be traced to earlier works like The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori. But Stoker’s specific version of the vampire, based on Sir Henry Irving, Shakespearean actor and friend of the author, is what has endured. And it’s a serious departure from vampires of folklore; bloated, nightmarish fiends that certainly couldn’t pass undetected in high society.
There are some rules established in Dracula that haven’t stood the test of time. But the ones that have paint a complete picture of the vampire myth as we know it today. And without Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, an entire subgenre of horror would look very different. To anyone who’s ever watched a vampire movie or enjoyed a guilty-pleasure undead romance novel, we have Bram Stoker to thank.