Vlad the Impaler, the historical inspiration for Dracula.
The vampire is one of popular culture’s most enduring creatures. As a figure romantic, scary, and humorous – sometimes all three at once – it has remained popular across time and cultures, recently in works as diverse as Twilight, Buffy, True Blood and countless adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.
To explore the historical and cultural roots of the legend, and other aspects of the occult, two Buena Vista University professors have organized a January 2012 academic trip — entitled “Searching for Dracula” — to England and Transylvania.
“People are attracted to the idea of vampires because they're mysterious, forbidden, and sexy,” says Dr. Wind Goodfriend, associate professor of psychology, who previously has written on popular culture in an essay for the book The Psychology of ‘Dexter.’ “Our trip will offer an academic and historical backbone to understanding the myths and why they are appealing.”
“By looking at the roots of the pop culture vampire, what we have to offer is a sort of grounding experience,” says Dr. Laura Bernhardt, associate professor of philosophy. “Stoker's book is the granddaddy of them all and Stephanie Meyer's vampires – sparkly though they may be – are still Dracula's children, just as we are still grappling with the moral baggage of the Victorians.”
The trip will be preceded in the fall semester by a single credit preparation course that will involve reading Stoker’s novel, academic articles, and other materials on the history of Transylvania (now the central state of Romania) and Vlad III (also known as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler), the Wallachian ruler on whose name and reputation for cruelty Stoker drew while writing his story.
The group’s activities in and around London will include visits to:
- Highgate Cemetery, vampire sighting location and final resting place of Karl Marx and author Douglas Adams (The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
- “Dracula’s House,” as named in Stoker’s novel
- The locations of Jack the Ripper’s murders via a guided walking tour
In Romania, the group will visit:
- The cities of Bucharest, Tirgoviste, Sibiu, Medias, Sighisoara, Brasov, and Snagov
- Locations from the life of Vlad III, including Poienari Fortress, The Princely Court, the Church of St Maragareth (in the tower of which Vlad was reportedly imprisoned), Bran Castle, and his burial site at Snagov Monastery
- Other sites of cultural importance, including Cozia monastery, Manole’s Church, Peles Castle, and the National History Museum at Bucharest.
- Vampire-related attractions, including theme dinners
“I think the best travel experiences explore a story,” says Bernhardt. “I hope that students will also be able to connect their experiences into a narrative that teaches them something interesting about the places they visit and themselves. My goal when I travel is to be immersed and invisible. I just want to be there, walking this place, hearing these sounds, seeing these things.”
The professors are also interested in approaching the vampire from their respective disciplines.
“Vampire legends became part of pop culture in the Victorian era, when people were not supposed to display emotion publicly,” says Goodfriend of the psychology of the vampire. “People were – and are – drawn to the idea of vampires because it was a cathartic release of all these suppressed emotions. Vampires are also appealing psychologically because people enjoy being afraid. Several psychological studies have supported the idea that when we're afraid, other emotions become stronger as well. This is a great tip for a first date: go to a horror movie or an amusement park!”
“We are an anxious people,” says Bernhardt. “We fear death. We fear and long for contact with others at the same time. We want power, and we are terrified of it. We are consumers who fear consumption. The figure of the vampire lets us explore these deeply conflicted feelings and many, many others. The contrast between the Victorian horror of, say, LeFanu's Carmilla and the contemporary American Mormon-flavored moralizing of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight is all the sharper when drawn along the line of their greatest similarity: sexual anxiety - the central anxiety of most vampire narratives in Western culture, as far as I know.”
Bernhardt herself is a great fan of vampire stories. “Steven Brust's Agyar is one that sticks with me,” she says. “Barbara Hambly's James Asher novels are pleasant reading, and the vampire character of Ysidro is pretty darn cool. I dig Vampire Hunter D in both its novel and anime forms. I'm interested in the idea of the bloody Countess Elizabeth Bathory, but I have yet to read a good fictional take on her. When I was younger, I watched The Lost Boys over and over and over again. Don't judge me! I also owned the soundtrack. On cassette.”
While this is BVU’s first vampire-themed trip, it’s not the University’s first interim course on the topic. In January 2010, BVU offered an on-campus class titled "The Undead: Vampire as Metaphor in Romantic Literature," as well as one called "Reading, Viewing, and Discussing Horror."