A Frightening Look At Dracula Over The Years

As ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ hits theaters, we’re taking a look at all of the adaptations of Dracula over the years.

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The Last Voyage of the Demeter is officially premiering in theaters. The newest Dracula adaptation is bringing Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel back into the spotlight, and not for the first time. Over the years there have been several adaptations and parodies of the revolutionary gothic horror story. Let’s dive in and explore how the original novel has carried through time.

The Origins of Dracula

The Vampyre by John Polidori

Contrary to what many believe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first vampire story. That title is largely credited to the physician, Dr. John Polidori, who wrote the short story The Vampyre while on a trip to Lake Geneva. In what was undoubtedly the most productive vacation in all of gothic horror history, Polidori wrote The Vampyre, alongside Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein, as part of a competition between four friends to see who could write the best ghost story. Published in 1819, the short story helped to establish the folklore of vampires as seductive and mysterious. Polidori’s depiction of vampires luring willing victims in before killing them is an element still attributed to vampires today.

The Vampyre by John Polidori book cover featuring a man and woman kissing

Aubrey, the protagonist, joins the mysterious Lord Ruthven on a trip around Europe. However, he leaves him shortly after when Lord Ruthven seduces the daughter of a mutual acquaintance. Aubrey travels to Greece where he falls in love with a woman named Ianthe, who tells him the legends of the vampire. Ianthe is killed soon after, though, and she’s found with her throat split open. Aubrey doesn’t make the connection that her death occurred shortly after the arrival of Lord Ruthven. Soon, Aubrey rejoins him on his travels. The two are attacked by bandits and Lord Ruthven is killed. Strangely, when Aubrey returns to London, Lord Ruthven arrives shortly after. He begins to seduce Aubrey’s sister and the two are engaged. Aubrey writes a letter to his sister explaining everything that’s happened. Unfortunately, Aubrey dies and Lord Ruthven kills his sister after their wedding before escaping into the night.

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Another literary influence of Dracula was J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla. Some experts on feminist literary theory even argue that Dracula was written, in part, as a response to Carmilla. The more traditional relationships and gender roles present in Dracula are thought to be a counter to the more progressive themes in Carmilla. Also establishing vampires as mysterious and seductive creatures, Carmilla, like Dracula, is written in the first person. Additionally, the symptoms in both works are similar, as are the descriptions of Carmilla and Lucy in Dracula (namely, that they both sleepwalk). Carmilla and Dracula also both pretend to be descended from nobles of the same name before being revealed to be the nobles themselves.

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu book cover featuring a red snake wrapped around a hand against a black background

The story is about Laura, an 18-year-old girl who lives with her father. When a carriage crashes outside of their home, the woman inside leaves her 18-year-old daughter, Carmilla, in their care for 3 months until she returns. The two girls become fast friends and Carmilla frequently makes romantic advances toward Laura, who both reciprocates and is repulsed by them. She is captivated by the mysterious Carmilla, who sleeps well into the afternoon, sleepwalks, and refuses to reveal anything about her past or family. Soon, Laura begins to have dreams of a large cat entering her room and biting her on her breast. A female figure then leaves her room without opening the door. When she wakes up, she finds the puncture wounds from her dream and her health begins to decline. As her father tries desperately to help her, Carmilla is eventually revealed to be a vampire with an extensive history of preying on young women.

Vlad Dracula

In addition to earlier works of vampire fiction, Dracula was also the product of Bram Stoker’s own research into vampires at the time. This likely included the alleged acts of vampirism by the former prince of Wallachia, Vlad III, or Vlad Dracula. Dracula, which translates to “son of Dracul” as well as “son of the dragon” also translates in modern Romanian to mean “son of the devil”, and it’s certainly a name the former prince lived up to. Having established a reputation as a brutal ruler known for impaling his enemies on dull wooden stakes, he rightfully earned the moniker “Vlad the Impaler”.

15th century portrait of Vlad Dracula in a hat and cloak

The alleged acts of vampirism involved Vlad Dracula dining beneath his enemies while they were impaled on stakes. Their blood would drip onto his plate, where he would then dip his bread into it. Despite how popular these rumors were, however, there’s no actual proof that this ever occurred. Still, stories of the former Voivode’s ruthlessness and brutality likely inspired more than just Dracula’s name. Like the real-life Dracula, the OG vampire was on a vicious quest for power, and he didn’t care who he had to hurt to get it. His daring plot to take over England isn’t unlike the real Vlad Dracula’s fight for power against the Ottoman Empire as ruler of Wallachia.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Bram Stoker’s original novel is an epistolary-style, slow-burn story that documents Dracula’s attempt to take over England. The story introduces the character Abraham Van Helsing, who, along with an eclectic group of men and women, chases Dracula to his castle in Transylvania and kills him. The constantly shifting perspectives that each reveal a little more of the story make Dracula a genuinely suspenseful novel. It’s a story that works best as a book, though not many people have actually read it. It’s an excellent novel that establishes a lot of vampire lore that wasn’t carried over to the subsequent vampire genre.

Dracula by Bram Stoker book cover featuring a castle against a red moon

Dracula establishes a lot of what we commonly associate with vampires, including immortality, his ability to transform into a bat, a degree of super-strength, that vampires have no reflection, and they’re repelled by garlic and religious iconography. But the novel is also responsible for establishing a lot of the more esoteric characteristics, like the fact that Dracula can control the weather, ride moonbeams, transform into a wolf, can only transform at dawn, noon, or dusk, cannot cross running water, and a wild rose left on his coffin traps him there. The novel drew together folklore, legend, vampire fiction, and the conventions of the Gothic genre. Although it wasn’t the first work to depict vampires, it has become a centerpiece of vampire fiction.

Film Adaptations

Dracula is a character that’s been portrayed and parodied extensively over the years. Rather than a complete, comprehensive list of every time Dracula appears in the media, this article will focus on true adaptations of the novel and how they each contribute to vampire lore.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is a silent film and “unofficial” adaptation of Dracula. The story is about the vampire Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck, who enlists the help of real estate agent Thomas Hutter to move from Transylvania to a home next to Hutter and his wife, Ellen. The film plays to the image of vampires as monstrous and mysterious, and largely maintains the eerie ambiance present in Bram Stoker’s novel. Additionally, the film incorporates the dark castle setting that was prominent in Gothic literature.

Nosferatu movie poster in black and white featuring the silhouette of Nosferatu climbing a staircase

While the film was an unauthorized, unofficial adaptation, it is included in this list for its heavy and unmistakable association with Dracula and the Stoker family. 10 years after his death, Bram Stoker’s wife and literary executor, Florence Balcombe, sued the producers of Nosferatu for the unauthorized adaptation. She won the case in 1925, and the court ordered all negatives and prints of the film be turned over to her and destroyed. Despite this, a few surviving prints have been released. The first showing in the United States occurred in Detroit and New York City in 1929.

Dracula (1931)

The 1931 film adaptation stars Bela Lugosi as the titular Count Dracula and Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing. The movie largely follows the original storyline with only minor changes. One is the fact that Renfield, Dr. Seward’s patient in the original story, is actually the one who travels to Dracula’s castle to oversee a real estate transaction, rather than Jonathan Harker as it is in the book.

Dracula (1931) film poster featuring a painting of Bela Lugosi's head above the film title against a blue background

The film deviated from the original novel’s description of Dracula as a pale, hairy, mustachioed old man with long pointed teeth. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the vampire instead plays into the image of vampires as suave, charming, and seductive. This version of Dracula also has the ability to transform into a bat and a wolf and can hypnotize his victims, contributing to the lore of vampires as alluring. Dracula is repelled by wolfsbane and, as in many adaptations, does not have a reflection. This is another characteristic that’s remained consistent in depictions of vampires.

Dracula (1958)

Christopher Lee took over the role of Count Dracula for the 1958 film adaptation. Peter Cushing starred as Abraham Van Helsing. The film is more loosely adapted from the novel than the 1931 version. For instance, Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle not as a solicitor, as in the novel, but as a librarian. There, instead of meeting three vampire women, he meets a young woman claiming to be held prisoner and begs for his help. Once in his room, it is revealed Jonathan Harker is a vampire hunter and has come to kill Dracula.

Dracula 1958 movie poster featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula carrying a woman in front of a castle

This was the first in a series of Hammer horror films in which Lee starred as Dracula. Despite the changes from the original novel, the film received high critical acclaim. In this depiction of Dracula, he is repelled by garlic, as in the novel, but cannot go out into the sun. Despite this not being canon in the original novel, it’s a characteristic still popular in modern vampire depictions. Dracula is also able to be overtaken by a single man, implying he doesn’t have a degree of super-strength often associated with vampires.

Count Dracula (1970)

The 1970 adaptation re-introduced Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. Unlike his previous Dracula movies, this was not a Hammer horror film but was produced by Harry Alan Towers. His portrayal in this version sticks more to the novel’s descriptions of the vampire, with Lee dawning a long white mustache, sideburns, and sharp fangs. It’s regarded as the most faithful adaptation of the novel and is the first to feature Dracula as an old man who gets younger as he feeds on fresh blood.

Count Dracula (1970) movie poster featuring Christopher Lee with fangs and red eyes reaching for the neck of a woman

In this adaptation, as with many others, Dracula has no reflection. He is also unable to go out into the sunlight, which traps him in his coffin allowing the protagonists to set it on fire and kill him at the end of the film. In the novel, Dracula is killed when his head is cut off and he is stabbed through the heart. While being staked through the heart is the more traditional method of killing vampires, later depictions began to include burning and beheading as alternative means.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)

The 1974 adaptation cast Jack Palance as Count Dracula and Nigel Davenport as Abraham Van Helsing. While this adaptation tried to stay more true to the novel than others on this list, it is also one of the most over-the-top. Palance was certainly not most people’s first choice to play the vampire. With that said, although his performance is a bit much, it’s still memorable and entertaining.

Bram Stoker's Dracula 1974 film poster featuring an image of Jack Palance as Dracula reaching for the viewer

The appearance of Palance’s Dracula followed along the lines of Lugosi and Lee’s earlier portrayals. While the character was obviously older, the film still attempted to capture the handsome, charming image of vampires that was popular at the time. Unlike the novel, in this adaptation, Dracula had a wife, of whom the character Lucy Westenra is the spitting image. When he sees a picture of Lucy, he believes it to be his late wife reincarnated. While this adaptation was one of the first to introduce such a backstory for Dracula, it will not be the last.

Count Dracula (1977)

Louis Jourdan stars as Count Dracula in the 1977 film adaptation, and Frank Finlay as Abraham Van Helsing. The adaptation stays largely true to the story, with one minor change being that Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker are sisters rather than close friends. Dracula, in this film, exhibits a degree of super-strength and, as with many others, has no reflection. His physical appearance still follows previous depictions of the vampire as handsome, seductive, and mysterious, though he does have hairy palms. While this is a description true to the novel, it has not been incorporated in previous adaptations.

Count Dracula 1977 film poster featuring Louis Jourdan as Dracula holding a woman

In this adaptation, Dracula retains his ability to transform into a wolf. In his wolf form, Lucy’s mother dies from shock, a point of the story frequently left out of other adaptations. Additionally, when the group kills the vampire Lucy, after they cut off her head they fill her mouth with garlic. This is true to the novel and is done to prevent the vampire from coming back. This has since been carried on throughout the vampire genre, though it is not as common as other characteristics.

Dracula (1979)

Frank Langella took on the role of Count Dracula in the 1979 version alongside Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing. Arguably, Langella would be better suited for a stage production of the novel, rather than film. His portrayal of Dracula is more romanticized than others on this list, and the film at times feels like a Harlequin Romance. The film certainly deviated from the novel’s portrayal of Dracula as monstrous and evil and plays hard into the lore of vampires as seductive.

Dracula 1979 film poster featuring Frank Langella as Dracula looking from behind a woman

The film also deviates from the story in that it begins with Dracula arriving on the shores of Whitby on board the Demeter, where he is rescued by Mina and Lucy, rather than with Jonathan meeting him at his castle, as in the novel. Additionally, the character of Dr. Seward is Lucy’s father in this adaptation, rather than her suiter. Mina, who is the first to die rather than Lucy, is the daughter of Van Helsing. Lucy in this adaptation freely offers herself as Dracula’s bride, and, unlike in the novel, actually survives to the end of the film. Van Helsing, however, does not. Despite the obvious deviations from the novel, the film was well-received and many enjoyed Langella’s more graceful, suave portrayal.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The cast of the 1992 film adaptation of Dracula included Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Anthony Hopkins as Abraham Van Helsing, and Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider as Jonathan and Mina Harker. This film played into the character’s apparent connection to Vlad the Impaler. Dracula’s backstory in this rendition was that the vampire was the Voivode of Wallachia himself, who drinks blood from a stone cross in a chapel and turns into a vampire after the suicide of his beloved wife. From that point forward the film follows the novel more closely, deviating when Dracula believes Mina, Jonathan’s fiancée, is the reincarnation of his late wife.

Bram Stoker's Dracula 1992 movie poster featuring Gary Oldman as Dracula holding Winona Ryder as Mina Harker

This film was the first to introduce the idea of Dracula having two different forms. One suave, handsome, and mysterious, the other monstrous and grotesque. This maintained the novel’s original description of Dracula while still incorporating the lore of Vampires being seductive. While it’s been argued that portraying Dracula as the real-life Vlad the Impaler humanizes the character and strips him of his monster-criminal status, the film was largely well-received and incorporated elements of the novel repeatedly left out of previous adaptations.

Dracula (2020)

This Netflix series adaptation is easily the one that took the most creative liberties. The series cast includes Claes Bang as Count Dracula and Dolly Wells as Dr. Zoe Van Helsing. It details everything from Dracula’s origins in Eastern Europe to his battles with Abraham Van Helsing’s descendants and beyond. It balances humor and modern sensibilities with the Dracula legacy. Even so, the series was definitely not what fans of the original novel were hoping for.

Dracula television series poster featuring Claes Bang holding a wine glass in a toast

The more modern, almost comedic take of the series deviates largely from what fans enjoy about the novel. With that being said, Claes Bang’s portrayal of the vampire is one of the series’ best aspects. Fans of Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi’s portrayals will enjoy Claes Bang, who brings the best of both worlds. The series as a whole was also met with largely positive reviews, with many enjoying the more humorous, contemporary take.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023)

The newest adaptation of Dracula features an unrecognizable Javier Botet as Dracula. The film is an adaptation of a single chapter of the original novel, in which Dracula boards the ship Demeter heading from Carpathia to England. When the ship runs aground in Whitby, the crew is missing. The only person on board is the captain, dead and tied to the helm with a final log entry in his pocket documenting the crew’s disappearance.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter 2023 movie poster featuring the front of a ship with Dracula looking out at the ocean

Unlike the previous film adaptations, The Last Voyage of the Demeter embraces the horror of Dracula. Rather than portraying the vampire as seductive and handsome, Dracula is a monster. The character is given large, bat-like wings, sickly blue skin, pointed ears, and sharp fangs. While this image deviates from the one created in the novel, it aligns more with what people imagine mythological vampire creatures to be, resembling a demon more than an actual person. Rather than luring in his victims, this Dracula is portrayed as a predator hiding in the shadows. Needless to say, this is an adaptation horror fans have been looking forward to.

There have been a lot of adaptations of Dracula over the years. Each incorporates different elements of the novel and contributes to the lore we know about vampires today. Most people think of Dracula when they hear the word vampire and for good reason. The novel laid the foundation for how we picture and depict vampires today. Now that we’ve explored a few adaptations, tell us what you think!

What was your favorite depiction of Dracula? For more on The Last Voyage of the Demeter, check out our article here!