I am a sucker for those hard cover, classic-bound books that are published by Barnes & Noble. I have several, and last autumn I purchased another – Dracula and Other Horror Classics by Bram Stoker. For the first time, this sucker (me!) finally read about the most noteworthy “sucker” of all (bloodsucker that is!) – Dracula, the most famous of all vampires. I enjoyed the novel considerably, especially the first four chapters. I relished them in the same way a vampire relishes blood! For it is in these chapters that the reader is lured into the vampiric crypt of Dracula’s Castle. I went down into this crypt ever so willingly! But first things first. Vicariously, I began my trip to this malevolent fortress. Through the wooded Carpathian Mountains I rode with Protagonist Jonathan Harker via horse and carriage. I took in the chilling surroundings; the high mountains, the dark trails, and the glowing lights. I listened to the howling of the wolves. Finally, there it was – The Castle of Dracula, off in the distance, challenging the heavens with its height. Soon I would be inside its domain! I couldn’t wait. I went inside and the excursion was only beginning!
This piece you are reading is not a review of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Instead, the focus will be on Dracula’s Castle as it exists in both fact and fiction. I will examine the characterisics of this castle along with the themes that arise from its stories. In the end we will be left with a setting that is saturated with delicious gothic gloom!
(So then, why not just write a review of the novel, or even the Dracula movie, and in that review, describe this “gloom”?)
Good question. The answer is: I am not sure if Dracula’s Castle qualifies as a haunted house. (All the reviews are of haunted house stories, afterall.) There are no ghosts in this tale. Likewise, there is nothing supernatural about this castle aside from the creatures that dwell within. Remove these creatures and the castle is just another fortress of stone and relics. For the most part, the history of the Castle (in the fictional story) is hidden from us. We can only guess at any ghastly misfortunes that might have played out inside this domain over its many years of existence. If the “spirits” or “disembodied emotions of past dramas” still cling to the castle, they do so only vaguely at best; there are no details that describe such “spirits,” certainly not enough for one to say that the castle is haunted by them.
And yet, Dracula’s Castle cries out for special recognition. It stands among its peers (i.e. other famous haunted houses and castles) proudly, and in some cases towers over them. Its influence on the haunted house genre is great. Likewise, it has made a huge impact on popular culture. There are many haunted attractions worldwide that have borrowed its title.
(Here for instance. https://www.queensland.com/en-us/attraction/draculas-haunted-house
It has spawned many movies, television stories and novels , not to mention video games. Castles in Eastern Europe are in competition as to which one can rightfully claim to be the “real” Castle of Dracula. They are open to tours and on some occasions, they welcome overnight guests.
Now that I have established the literary and cultural relevance of Dracula’s castle, let’s begin our examination of its finest, most ghoulish elements. We’ll start where the preceding paragraph ends – with the real Dracula and his castle (or castles.) The vampiric count of Stoker’s novel is based on Vlad Tepes, a fifteenth century voivode (or ruler) of Wallachia, an historical region in what is now Romania. He was also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula, The second son of Vlad Dracul (or Draculesti). However, his most famous and notorious alias is Vlad the Impaler. According to wikipedia:
“Vlad the Impaler is said to have killed from 40,000 to 100,000 European citizens, (political rivals, criminals, anyone he thought to me “useless to humanity”) , mainly by impaling…… Impaled up to 100,000 Turks.”
According to Sparknotes.com, Stoker discovered Vlad while studying Romanian history. He chose to name his villain after him, and even suggested (in the novel) that Count Dracula is a descendant of Vlad.
Vlad’s reigns of terror occurred in the late Middle Ages, but even these “late” medieval rulers had their castles. Vlad resided in Poenari Castle in the region of Wallachia. draculascastle.com claims this to be the “real” Castle Dracula, since it was the domain of the real historical ruler. However, Stoker did not have this castle in mind when he wrote his novel. Sources contend that it was Bran Castle , also in Romania, that captured his attention and inspired his vision for the fictional castle.
From the Washington Post:
“Images of Bran Castle supposedly reached Bram Stoker, the 19th-century Irish author of “Dracula,” who drew inspiration for his famous work from travelogues and sketches by British diplomats and adventurers in what was then Wallachia (modern-day Romania).”
Today, Bran-Castle is a tourist attraction. Recently, arranged by AirBnB , Bran-Castle opened its doors to guests for an overnight getaway. This was not an average bed and breakfast affair. Guests were treated to a carriage ride, dinner, and nice snug sleeping arrangements – inside coffins!
Watch the promotional video:
Take a virtual tour of the castle here:
Pictures outside and inside the castle. Pictures are from dailymail.co.uk :
So far, I have presented an historical context for Dracula’s Castle and have offered pictures, along with links to videos and websites. Let us hang on to this knowledge and retain these images in our minds as we reexamine the castle through a prism of Gothic horror. By the light of his vivid imagination, let’s unlock the palace doors and tour “Stoker’s castle.” Let’s navigate through a darkness that’s irresistible to fans of horror fiction.
Bram Stoker did not invent the gothic haunted castle. He followed in the footsteps of many of the greats. (Like Horace Walpole, for instance, author of 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which is said to be the first Gothic novel). But he was a great asset to his genre. As sparksnotes points out, his work “spawned countless imitators, and scores of horror films owe a debt to the simple but powerful repetition of Stoker’s “doors, doors, doors everywhere.”
When reading the “doors, doors, doors everywhere” phase in full context, the effect is incredible.
“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!”
Stoker effectively instills a scene that is both picturesque and horrific. He lends to us a feeling for what it might be like to be locked inside such a towering structure; to be above such a beautiful yet isolating landscape.
Some time ago, I wrote an article called Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. In the article, I explain how the external environment of haunted houses is significant to the stories within this genre. It gives the reader a sense of place, sets the mood, and can even reveal key plot points. Stoker is quite generous when it comes to describing such an environment. From the cultural accounts within this foreign region to detailed descriptions of the darkened landscape, Stoker transports his readers into a chilling world, all while preluding to a terror that will unfold at the Castle.
We first learn of Count Dracula and his gloomy castle from the journal of Jonathan Harker. He is a lawyer from London and he makes his way to Transylvania in order to do buisness with The Count. While London in a triving urban center, Transylvania is a region insulated from modernization; it is a land of superstitious mountain people. On the road toward the castle, he hears the warnings of these people as they cry out in their language, “Satan! Hell! Witches! Vampries! Werewolves!” He heeds not their warnings and goes deep into the wooded Carpathian Mountains. His coach driver seems uncanny and mysterious.
As they make their assent, they travel through tunnels of trees. The wind is wild and tree branches are “smashing together.” Harker is quite unnerved. He hears the howling of wolves. There are mysterious blue flames here and there among the trees.
Finally they arrive in the courtyard of the castle. Harker has some telling notes in his journal:
“In the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”
“I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone.”
“A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the door swung back”
The Count greets Harker politely. He is carrying and antique lamp from the days of yore. Its flickering flame casts scary shadows on the wall. The Count carries Harker’s bags, and they travel up a flight of winding stairs; a trope for many haunted house stories yet to come. In these stories, characters are climbing to unknown heights all while tension is escalating. The same thing is occurring here.
They travel through many stone passages. The echoes of their feet fill the halls. Adding to this sound are the songs of the wolves that creep in from the outside.
Soon they arrive in a set of rooms that are, perhaps, almost comfortable for Harker. There is a warm fireplace, a table with food and Brandy. There is a library with books on all subjects; history, geography, politics, political economy, law, botany. The curtains and upholstery are centuries old.
In short, The Count makes Harker feel welcome. He is a well-read man of great knowledge. The two have interesting conversations. But soon a sense of unease will take Harker over. Fright is not far around the corner. The Count’s startling eccentricities are beginning to show. He is absent during the daytime, never to be found. One evening, he has some rather bizarre things to say about the castle.
“Let me advise you, my dear friend – nay, let me warn you with all seriousness that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.”
Here are some of the vague references to the history of the castle that I had alluded to earlier in the essay; to the “spirits” of dramas past. But these aren’t ghosts that the count is warning Harker about. There are others living with the Count in the castle; other vampires.
In the daytime, Harker wanders the corridors and finds many locked doors. The main doors to get outside are locked as well. He is trapped in this dreadful castle. Once a man who was comforted by The Count’s hospitality, Harker is now fretful, afraid of his own shadow.
Sparknotes sums up this transition very well:
The tone of Harker’s journal changes with amazing rapidity as his stay in Castle Dracula progresses. In the course of a single chapter, Harker feels stripped of the robes of honored houseguest and considers himself bound like a prisoner. Here, Stoker demonstrates his mastery of the conventions of the Gothic novel: evoking the ruined castle, the beautiful but overpowering landscape, and the mounting sense of dread.
From Harker’s own words:
“I am beginning to feel this nocturnal existence tell on me. It is destroying my nerve. I start at my own shadow, and am full of all sorts of horrible imaginings. God knows that there is ground for any terrible fear in this accursed place!”
Harker thinks he has found relief when he stumbles upon a somewhat enchanting room. He discovers it via a secret passage that leads to a staircase that takes him to a lower floor. Hidden passages – another staple of gothic and haunted house lore. If the story is suspensful, the reader anxiously awaits to discover where it leads and what it reveals. Stoker writes with suspense, very effectively so.
The room he finds relaxes him. It smacks of a woman’s touch. There he falls into a trance-like sleep. He awakens to the sight of three young and very pale women that seem to materialize right out of the moonlight. They descend on him, and Harker experiences this attack as if he were in a dream. He thinks he sees The Count behind them commanding them to retreat. The next thing he remembers is waking in his own guest bed back in the wing he had left.
Harker wanders again and discovers a stone passageway that leads to a circular stairway. Down, down down he goes – to the crypts!
From Harker’s journal:
“At the bottom there was a dark, tunnel-like passage, through which came a deathly, sickly odor, the odor of old earth newly turned…….as I pulled open a heavy door which stood ajar, I found myself in an old, ruined chapel, which had evidentally been used as a graveyard.”
There he finds fifty gray boxes – coffins! In one coffin lays the count, immobile, eyes wide open.
What becomes of Jonathan Harker? Does he escape the castle? Read the novel and find out. Read as Jonathan looks out the window and watches The Count descend the outer walls of the castle as if he were some kind of reptile. Read as Jonathan, from the same window, sees the pale women out in the forest below hunting for blood.
Only the first part of the novel is centers around Dracula’s Castle. But it is by far my favorite section of the story. How can a Haunted House guy like me not relish such chapters?
How about the Movie?
There are crypts below the castle. Smoke rises from the earthen ground. Rodents hide behind coffins, of which there are several. A rat crawls inside one and hides amongst the bones. Three ladies creep out of three of the coffins. They walk slowly toward their master – Count Dracula.
This scene occurs early on in the 1931 Dracula film, before the protagonist enters the castle. Grisly foreshadowing at its finest! The scene lets the viewers know that Count Dracula’s (played be Bela Legosi) visitor, Redfield, is about to walk into a snare.
The movie and the book differ on many points. I prefer the book. In both platforms, my favorite chapters/scenes center on Dracula’s Castle. So let us now examine the Castle through the eyes of the camera.
It is a foggy coach ride toward the castle. Eventually, Renfield arrives at the castle and stands before its giant door. It opens on its own accord with an unnerving creak.
The room he enters is humongous. It is old, dark and gray. The ceiling is propped with pillars. There are stone chards on the floor. And there are spider webs. They freely blanket every platform in sight. There are bats fluttering about outside of the windows.
Renfield notices a wide, L-shaped staircase. He watches as Dracula descends the staircase. He is holding a large candle. It is the only light in this dismal place. He welcomes Renfield and instructs his guest to follow him – back up the stairs. Wolves are howling in the background and Dracula comments “what beautiful music they make!”
There is a wall of cobwebs crossing the stairway. Whereas Dracula is able to pass through without destroying it, Renfield must slash it apart with his cane. A huge spider runs for cover.
Dracula leads Renfield to a dining room. There is a candelabra, a knight’s armor and a fireplace. In the background, a door is opening and closing with a moaning creak. Dracula excuses himself and makes for the door. It opens on its own accord.
Renfield is alone now. What is to become of him? See the movie and find out.
Dracula’s Castle – an icon of horror, one of the most frightful fortresses of lore. Although, due to some minor technicalities, this castle might be cheated out of the title “Haunted,” it is nevertheless one of the most terrifying castles of literature and cinema. Borrowing from the most brutal tales of times past, Stoker created Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire. Since every great villain needs a lair, he gave him a castle which he took from the pages of history. He reassembled it inside his novel and filled it with bats, coffins, and other creepy things.
Both in fact and fiction, the “Castle of Dracula” is legendary. It has earned its respect. So I came to the conclusion that I needed to pay homage to it somewhere inside this blog.
The scope of its influence extends outside the pages of literature and beyond the frames of film. A mere review of the book or movie would not suffice. Therefore I gave it its own theme; its own article. I hope I have done it justice.