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The Many Faces of Dracula


And now to that most terrifying of characters the vampire.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dracula")

Mr. BELA LUGOSI (Actor): (As Count Dracula) I am Dracula.

SEABROOK: This is Bela Lugosi who played Count Dracula. The vampire has been sewn through American culture from sugar cereal…

(Soundbite of TV ad, "Count Chocula Commercial")

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to breakfast, with my chocolatey good cereal Count Chocula.

SEABROOK: To wry teenyboppers.

(Soundbite of a TV show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer")

Mr. ANTHONY STEWART HEAD (Actor): (As Rupert Giles) The slayer hunts vampires. Buffy is a slayer. Don't tell anyone. Well, I think that's all the vampire information you need.

Mr. NICHOLAS BRENDON (Actor): (As Xander Harris) Except for one thing: how do you kill them?

Ms. SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (Actor): (As Buffy Summers) You don't. I do.

SEABROOK: Eric Nuzum is the author of "The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula." And he joins me here in the studio.

Hi, Eric.


SEABROOK: You wrote a book about vampires, and you yourself went on a journey for this book. Describe your journey.

NUZUM: Well, I think the reason I chose vampires was because it's such a powerful metaphor. Vampires are like a vessel, and people can put anything that kind of titillates them or terrifies them into it and that creature that feeds on that fear for its power, and that's really what makes a vampire. And every society and culture has had some variation on a vampire. There are Egyptian vampires and Japanese vampires, and there are ancient Greek vampires. And they all have that same thing in common.

One of the things that made me think of writing this book was several years ago, President Bush was talking about energy vampires, which are…

SEABROOK: Energy vampires.

NUZUM: Yes, which are cell phone chargers or computer or like work-thingy (unintelligible) that you…

SEABROOK: Wall warts.

NUZUM: Yes. That drew power whether or not they're charging a battery or actually making a device work. And I thought - what an odd use of that phrase. And with - on that same day I saw - I was eating Count Chocula cereal and it was like July, and I was looking through some Rolling Stone magazine and there was an ad that - for Vodka that eases vampires. And I was, like, wow, it's only 10 minutes. I've seen three different references to vampires. There has to be something here.

SEABROOK: I see vampires everywhere.

NUZUM: That's right.

SEABROOK: So you're saying it's a really deep part of our popular culture at the very least. And there has been many iterations of the vampire movie, starting with one you wrote about during the Depression.

NUZUM: You know the interesting is if you look at any time when we've had vampire movies - the '30s, '40s, the '70s - you look at what attributes they gave their vampires in the situations of those vampires were in, and is really a window into the darkest side of that time. You can look at a movie, a terrible movie like "Blacula," which had…

SEABROOK: Is this like a blaxploitation…

NUZUM: Yeah, yeah.

SEABROOK: …movie…

NUZUM: Vampires.

SEABROOK: …about vampires? Okay.

NUZUM: Where an African aristocrat is captured by European men and imprisoned for 200 years in a coffin and then has sprung to life in South Central Los Angeles. And he goes looking for his soul mate at that time. If that's not a very easy analogy to what life was like in black America in the early '70s, I don't know what is.

If you look at a 1931 version of "Dracula" or any other version of "Dracula," there's been many, many adaptations of the movie - it's been 43 sequels and remakes since that first Bela Lugosi movie.

Each one, what makes them different is the time that they're in and what's scary, and what's sexy, and what frightens people. And they put those attributes on to Dracula.

In the 110 years since Dracula came out, he's been a woman, he's been Jesus, he's been a rat, he has manifested in so many different ways because the people who create these movies, even when they're bad movies, that's what they think is scary.

SEABROOK: There was a real Dracula - Count Dracula, yes?

NUZUM: There was a real Dracula and he wasn't a count.

SEABROOK: He wasn't a count. Okay.

NUZUM: It was Vlad Dracula or Vlad Tepes. He is sometimes called Vlade the Impaler. You know, the interesting thing is that many people have tried to kind of port vampire attributes on to Vlad Dracula. They say he drank blood or that he was a vampire himself or became one after he died, and none of that is true.

His actual deeds as ruler of Wallachia in Transylvania in the 15th century were far worse than anything a vampire has ever done. He impaled a measurable percentage of the residents of his country. Depending on the numbers you believe, it could be as high as 4 or 6 percent of the people. And he would go in to a town, and if he had a problem with somebody, like he thought a spy was in the town, he would order the entire town to be impaled. He…

SEABROOK: What's that mean? To be like run through with a pole?

NUZUM: Yeah, run through with a pole in a way you will not die. The point of impaling is actually was considered an art form to see if you could impale someone without damaging any of the internal organs, and Vlade was obsessed with this practice and did it and try to perfect it by doing it different ways.

SEABROOK: Oh my God.

NUZUM: He is best known as a historical figure, actually, for keeping the Turks out of Romania - what is now Romania. And he did so when he was outnumbered probably 10 or 20-to-1 but he did these crazy things so that he could be the craziest guy in the room. So the Turks were scared of him, and they wouldn't take him on.

SEABROOK: Sounds like a pretty awful guy.

NUZUM: He was a pretty, pretty intense guy.

SEABROOK: Eric Nuzum is the author of "The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula."

Thank you very much.

NUZUM: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Eric Nuzum also works here at NPR developing new shows.

We leave you now with these parting words from Brahm Stoker's "Dracula."

(Reading) There are such beings as vampires. Some of us have evidence that they exist.

If that doesn't prickle your skin and raise those little neck hairs, I don't know what will.

Now go out there and carve those pumpkins and remember come back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.