Academic Stories

New course examines potential medieval inspirations for Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

Undergraduates enter the world of superstition and the supernatural in “Dracula: History & Legend”

The vampires in Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Lyon’s class looked a little grim as he talked about the multitude of ways to kill a vampire—especially because the folklore surrounding vampires is incredibly inconsistent.

On Halloween, Lyon invited students in his course “Dracula: History & Legend” to dress as the legendary character. The new course takes undergraduates on a deep dive into the possible historical inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1897 story of a vampire from Transylvania, often thought to be inspired by Vlad the Impaler, the formidable 15th century governor of parts of present-day Romania.

“It’s Dracula and Vlad the Impaler,” said André Altherr, a second-year in the course. “It’s a course that you don’t anticipate appearing many times. You want to seize your chance and take it.”

Designed to introduce students to historical methods and reasoning through a topic of broad interest, the course begins with an in-depth study of Vlad III Dracula and his motivations as he tried to govern the region of Wallachia on the Hungarian-Ottoman/Christian-Muslim frontier. Later, students enter the world of superstition and the supernatural, reading early folklore before reading Dracula and watching film adaptations. For the final projects, students create a documentary showcasing their thoughts on the “real” Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

The course is a History Gateway, an introductory history course aimed at first- through third-year students who may not be familiar with the topic. The course is also cross-listed in fundamentals, a unique UChicago major in which students engage with life’s biggest questions across disciplines.

A medieval historian, Lyon is interested in the ways in which the Western European perspective gets projected onto Eastern Europe.

“For a long time I’ve thought of how to do a course that in some way gets to these issues and that’s where Dracula comes in,” said Lyon. “Having read Bram Stoker’s Dracula a couple of times, I recognized as a historian that so much of the background to that text is about how different Eastern Europe is from Western Europe. It really is this sort of civilizational narrative about a wicked person from the past who brings centuries of Eastern European backwardness when he comes to London.”

According to Lyon, the course is unusual because it uses a novel not only as a literary text, but as a historical source. “The hope is that when we read Bram Stoker’s Dracula together, it’s still a great novel and horror story. But I also want them to read between the lines and realize that there is so much more that Bram Stoker is bringing to the table in terms of European attitudes about Romania, civilization and whether or not this Dracula guy belongs to European civilization,” said Lyon, who is also chair of the medieval studies undergraduate program.

Up until a few years ago, there were few accessible English texts about Vlad the Impaler and little Eastern European scholarship of this time period more broadly. Recent scholarly interest in medieval Eastern Europe gave students access to newly translated letters written by Vlad the Impaler himself. Students were given a first-hand look at his motivations, developing a more nuanced understanding of a figure who is often seen as simply bloodthirsty.

Since starting the class, second-year Marcus Jaramillo has changed his thinking about the historical person who inspired Dracula.

“I thought Vlad was going to be this kind of genius—the way that he was able to murder so many people—and I asked myself ‘How did he not upset the masses sooner?’ But then I realized, he really didn’t have too many plans. The media represents him as elegant, but the history is saying that he is brutal and savage, and kind of scared and paranoid,” Jaramillo said.

The class is also based upon Lyon’s travels around Eastern and Western Europe. He occasionally teaches abroad in the Vienna European Civilization core, covering the early modern section of European history. Lyon also has lived in Vienna and Germany and conducts research in areas including the Balkans, Hungary and Romania.

“In the United States, there are not that many medieval historians who study Germany and especially not central Europe,” Lyon said. “I take seriously that there aren’t that many people who think about the history of central Europe before the 1500s. So I’m always thinking about ways in which I can impart that knowledge.”