S. Lee Manning
: It’s Halloween in two weeks, and in honor of the holiday, I’ve decided to talk about my lifelong
connection with vampires – and how it has affected my writing.
It all started when I was thirteen years old – which probably has some psychological significance. At thirteen, I officially became a teenager. I celebrated my bat mitzvah, becoming a full congregate in my conservative Jewish congregation. I was a voracious reader, as I had been since early childhood. Sometime in the fall of my thirteenth year, I took Bram Stoker’s Dracula out of the library. I read straight through until about nine o’clock at night, to the point in the book where a sweet young woman, Lucy, dies from Dracula’s draining her blood and then rises as a vampire.
I was up all night, terrified. I remember lying rigid in my bed, too scared to close my eyes. Every breath of wind, every brush of a branch across the window became in my imagination a vampire trying to get inside my house and inside my room.
Now, I wasn’t a total idiot, even though I was thirteen. Intellectually, I knew that vampires didn’t exist, that they were creatures of myth and fiction. But my imagination has always been my strength – and my weakness. Lying in the dark at night, what I knew intellectually had no effect whatsoever on my terror.
In the morning, exhausted and still traumatized, I made a plea to buy a crucifix to ward off vampires.
Jewish parents can be pretty indulgent, but this was pushing it. My father instead bought me a mezuzah, a pendant containing parchment and the Shema
– recited by Jews for over two thousand years. I was a little concerned that vampires might not recognize Judaism or sacred Jewish prayers, but I wore it and eventually calmed down. (I still wear it, but now in memory of my father and not as a charm against vampires.)
Years passed before I could bring myself to return to Bram Stoker’s novel – when I found the book to be a decent read and tried to analyze what had so frightened my younger self.
What was it about vampires, more than any other monster or ghost story, that had so affected me? I embarked on research into the origins of Dracula – because that’s what I do.
Vampire folklore has a long history, originating in the human fear of the dead. Many ancient cultures had myths of blood sucking creatures, most of which were demons or spirits rather than reanimated corpses. The vampire myths of the returned and malevolent dead became more prevalent in Eastern Europe sometime around the beginning of the eighteenth century.
There are a lot of theories as to why the folklore took hold. In the seventeenth century Balkan area, the origin of disease was not understood. It was thought that people and animals fell ill not from a natural process but from supernatural acts.
When an epidemic took hold in an area, terrified villagers would dig up the body of a recently deceased person and find what they thought was evidence of vampirism. The process of decay of a corpse was misunderstood – and the natural bloating and changes that occur after death were mistaken as evidence that the recently dead were feeding on blood.
How one became a vampire differed from region to region. In some tales, the vampire is an immoral person or a witch. Babies born with teeth would become vampires. Those who had committed suicide or been excommunicated could become vampires. In some folktales, a cat or dog jumping over a corpse could create a vampire.
Writers eventually picked up on those myths. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, a short story, The Vampyre, described an aristocratic vampire preying on young women. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu wrote Carmilla, a lesbian vampire story. Interestingly, Le Fanu gave Bram Stoker his first newspaper job.
Bram Stoker’s novel, published in 1892, drew upon those prior works and an amalgam of Eastern European myths. Stoker’s novel also incorporated Victorian views of sexuality in the depiction of the evil emanating from the vampire. A bite from Dracula turns an innocent into a vampire. Women
drained by a vampire lose their purity and become “lustful.” There is the hint of forbidden homosexuality when the male Dracula preys on men.
Then there are the historical underpinnings of Dracula. Oddly, though, while people believe Stoker based his character on the historical figure of Vlad III of Wallachia, that is not entirely clear according to Stoker’s notes, discovered in a museum in 1972.
Vlad III of Wallachia, called “Dracula,” was an anti-Turkish hero in his homeland. His father, Vlad II, had been a member of the knightly order of the dragon -“dracul.” Vald II was called “Dracul” ;
thus his son, Vlad III ,became Dracula, or son of the dragon. His penchant for execution by impalement, led to his also becoming known as Vlad the Impaler.
The vampire in Stoker’s book shares the name Dracula with Vlad III. He also shares a history of fighting the Turks. Stoker’s notes, however, show little other evidence that he modeled Dracula on Vlad III. He chose the name Dracula after finding a textual reference that Dracula meant “devil” in Wallachia – and was used for people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. In fact, Stoker’s notes indicate that he first intended his vampire to come from Austria. Nevertheless, the vampire Dracula and the historical figure of Vlad III have been merged in popular imagination so much that movies and books often intermingle the two.
Despite my younger self’s fascination with vampires, I have never written in the genre.
I rarely read supernatural novels at this point in my life. I will confess to having watched Buffy
and True Blood
, but I don’t like horror films nor have I watched the multitude of Dracula movies out there.
However, my early fascination with Dracula may have influenced choices I made while writing my espionage thriller, Trojan Horse.
Romania’s recent history – the overthrow of the dictator Ceausescu, the current economic strains on the country, and the presence of an American base – made it an attractive setting for an espionage thriller. Then there’s my villain. The figure of Vlad III, as a historical figure reviled in the west but loved in Romania, intrigued me. I wanted to create a villain who did horrific things but thought he was a hero. My villain became the descendant of Vlad III. No vampires, although I did indulge in one or two Dracula jokes.
There was also something deeply satisfying in incorporating into a thriller some elements of a story that had so affected me as child.
So why did Dracula have such a powerful effect on me as a thirteen year old? I’m still not completely sure. It’s difficult to put myself back into my mindset at that age. However, from what I remember, what scared me most was the idea that anyone could become a vampire: my mother, my father, me. One moment, a person would be alive, normal. The next moment, a vampire. Just as death can strike anyone at any time without notice. And maybe that’s it. At an age between childhood and adulthood when I was just becoming aware of mortality, I read a book that somehow crystalized my fear of the randomness of death.
How about you? What terrified you as a child?