“God preserve my sanity”

“3 MAY. Bistriz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning…”

So begins, innocuously, one of the most famous horror stories in history – Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

The cover of the first edition, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545797

Stories about vampires had been around for a long time, but Stoker’s foray into the horror genre seemed to enrapture the Victorian psyche, perhaps tapping into the repressions of the era’s morality.

Victorians enjoyed a revival of gothic literature, and were also fascinated by mysticism. Spiritualism, brought  over from America around 1852 by an American medium, Mrs. Hayden,  who conducted séances in London for the fashionable, gave hope to people who’d likely lost a loved one by the age of 35, the average life expectancy at the time.

By the time Stoker wrote his story, the Potato Famine had resulted in over a million deaths, the 1848 cholera epidemic had killed 52,000, and the British had been fighting in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Small wonder that death was prevalent on Victorian minds.

Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in the middle of the Potato Famine, and apparently retained memories of the  mass deaths. He was himself bedridden throughout his early childhood from an unknown illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he wrote that during that time, “I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

He became interested in the theatre while a student at Trinity College in Dublin, became a theatre critic and eventually managed the Lyceum Theatre in London for his friend Henry Irving. He travelled widely as a result, although he never actually visited the wilds of Transylvania, which he would delineate in atmospheric detail in his sensational novel.

“Beyond…rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered…”

Stoker also began to write his own stories, and novels. He had met Ármin Vámbéry, a Slovak-Jewish writer and traveller who shared legends from the Carpathian mountains, inspiring Stoker to research in more detail, especially the folklore around vampires.

The concept of a creature who transcended death would have appealed to Victorians as much as Spiritualism. Stoker wasn’t the first Brit to write about vampires – John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician who was at the rented house in Switzerland when Byron challenged the group to write a ghost story (inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the other great horror story in history), came up with The Vampyre.

The Vampyre by John Polidori, Public Domain, British Library

Dracula wasn’t greatly successful when published in 1897, although reviewers and fellow authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft – liked it, and the book never made much revenue for Stoker. It wasn’t until Hollywood introduced vampires into popular culture, beginning in 1922 with the silent classic Nosferatu, that the public began to lap up the idea of blood-drinking immortals, and our fascination with the concept continues to this day.

Goth fans have been congregating in Whitby, England – a featured location in Stoker’s story – for 25 years for the well-known Whitby Goth Weekend in late October, and vampire enthusiasts can spend Halloween at parties in Transylvania, but now you can go to the source in Dublin. The city has embraced one of its most famous legacies with Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience, which, as a dedicated Halloween enthusiast, I hauled my hubby to straight off when we were in Ireland a couple of weeks ago!

My mother was actually born in Transylvania, in and around Cluj-Napoca, so you might say that I come by my interest in vampires naturally. Some day I’d love to do that Halloween-party thing on Halloween, but the opportunity to visit an attraction tied to Bram Stoker in Dublin was too good to pass up.

You can book tickets online, and you should: the attraction is only available on a limited selection of dates, and seating is limited. As it happened, it was running the day that we arrived in Dublin – it was meant to be.

Attendees meet at a specified point, a fitness club in the Clontarf area, across the street from where Bram Stoker was born, and are then walked over to the ‘castle’. The show is an entertaining fusion of actors getting you into the spirit of things while leading you through recreated eerie medieval stone passageways, and a stage performance that’s essentially an illusionist show which interacts with the audience. I won’t spoil the story for you, in case you’re able to attend in person, but it was all very well done, and a really fun evening during Halloween season. There are numerous items of actual memorabilia from Stoker’s life, and if you purchase VIP tickets you get some swag as well; please note that there is no shop on the premises to just buy the swag separately.

Hallway of historical info and artifacts, Castle Dracula experience
Scene from the stage show, Castle Dracula experience
Yours truly, in Dracula’s throne

If you’ve never read the original Dracula book, I highly recommend it – it’s very well written and very atmospheric. You can buy it in stores or read it on Project Gutenberg.

Also watch the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi – it would have been sensationally creepy at the time.

Movie posters, Castle Dracula Experience

Dracula has gone on to inspire countless vampire novels and movies, endless kids’ Halloween costumes, and some great music. It is a worthy inclusion in your Halloween entertainment.

“But my very feelings turned to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings…”

Getting your vintage creeps on

It’s Halloween season — my favourite time of year, and clearly for many, many other people as well, judging by the spooky-theme TV ads that are already making their appearance.

There’s something about the fall weather, with frosty mornings and sweater temperatures, leaves drifting to the ground, and the earthy smell of Nature getting ready to hibernate, that signals the approach of the day when the Celts thought that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest.

I have several annual fall rituals for this time: prowling Home Sense and Pier One for things to add to my rather large collection of Halloween decor, watching the new season of the Food Network’s Halloween Baking Challenge and watching the contestants have inordinate amounts of fun making stylish but warped baked goods, and checking out TCM’s lineup of vintage horror and sci-fi movies.

In the days before CGI, movie producers had to get really creative with special effects — sometimes brilliant for their limited resources (Forbidden Planet), sometimes incredibly cheesy (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Whatever the end result was, they are always entertaining, whether you’re laughing yourself silly over things like not-so-terrifying Mole People…

poster for The Mole People, 1956, By [1], https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3327404

or getting genuinely creeped out, as with the amazingly effective 1931 Dracula.

By Universal Studios – https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/DRACULA-1931-Bela-Lugosi-Edward-Van-Sloan-10×8-LOBBY-CARD/122917865865?hash=item1c9e79c989:g:x9wAAOSwogpaXksB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67003766

While they may not seem remarkable by today’s standards, imagine what audiences at the time must have felt seeing these stories play out on a large screen in a darkened movie theatre, with effects they’d never seen before.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8913138

One of my personal favourites, a movie that scared me so much when I first saw it as a teenager that it took me years to watch it again, is a relatively obscure little piece called Curse of the Demon, also known as Night of the Demon, about a curse that gets passed to its unknowing victims through a seemingly innocent piece of paper. That’s all I’ll say about it. If you’ve never seen it, turn out the lights, light a couple of candles and watch it on TCM on October 10th.

Sci-fi movies allowed both movie makers and all of us to let our imaginations run wild about what life might be like on other planets, and what might happen if alien life came to us. Our ongoing fascination with UFOs was just featured in a great article in the Scientific American blog.

Forbidden Planet took a marvelous look at the remnants of an ancient civilization as far advanced above ours as its home planet was from ours, mixed in with a horror theme borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=871061

When construction workers in 1950s London uncover a mysterious artifact, Professor Quatermass and a couple of fellow researchers unearth the startling truth behind hauntings in the abandoned surrounding neighbourhood, where people decades before believed they saw the Devil. Things get increasingly more unnerving as the researchers and excavators try to figure out what’s going on, until they become in danger of losing their very minds. Five Million Years to Earth (called Quatermass and the Pit in England), is unfortunately not showing on TCM this season, but do keep an eye out for it some other time.

If you’ve never checked out some of the many creative vintage scary movies made in the earlier days of Hollywood, I think you’ll be in for a treat this Halloween. They were made with style and imagination.