Thursday, 16 June 2016

Out of his Tree : The Blood of Dracula

Today is the 200th anniversary of the dark and stormy night which saw the creation of two monstrous creations.

In the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816 a small group of friends wiled away the stormy night by telling ghost stories to scare each other. Among those friends were the polyamorous Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Mary came up with the story of Frankenstein, and Byron came up with a vampire story.

It is Byron’s vampire story which I celebrate today. The vampire of European folklore is different to our modern image. The medieval vampire was more like the modern image of the flesh-eating zombie (real zombies have no need to eat, and don’t carry a contagious “zombie virus”). We owe our modern image of a vampire to that story Lord Byron told on that stormy night. In fact, we owe the sexual interpretation to vampire stories to the very real personality of Lord Byron himself. Traditional vampires had no sexual motives whatsoever. Even portrayals of contemporary vampires owe more to our Romantic image of Lord Byron.

Bram Stoker developed the legend by creating a suave, aristocratic vampire called Dracula. He “borrowed” the name from a real blood-thirsty (though not vampiric) noble called Vlad Dracula, the ruler of the province of Wallachia in Romania.

Believe it or not there are descendants of the Dracula family alive today, and they still use the name Dracula. One of these is a gay writer and actor called David Drake who researched his ancestry in search of proof of a link to Vlad Dracula. He then turned his search into a hit one-man show, with him taking on the roles of many colourful characters he met along the journey. He even got to play “Countess Dracula” herself.

David Drake had always wondered about his name. He was born David Drakula (his family have always used a “k”), and when his parents divorced when he was 7 his mother chose the informal surname Drake for her son (“Thank God I’m no longer a Drakula!” she once remarked). The Drakula family, not surprisingly, often brushed off any enquiry into their vampire connection. David, though, was intrigued, and in the late 1990s began to so some serious research into his family tree to discover if he really did have the blood of Dracula in his veins.

David knew a little about his immediate ancestry and nothing before the life of his great-grandfather, an immigrant from eastern Europe in 1907. The real Vlad Dracula lived over 500 years before that, so to close the gap David contacted many of the world’s leading authorities on Dracula to see if they could provide any clues to what happened in between.

Vlad was an important local ruler whose own bloodline had been traced back six generations to the ruler of Wallachia who may even have been a Tatar chieftain descended from Genghis Khan. The name Dracula means “son of the dragon”. Vlad’s father was invested as a Knight of the Order of the Dragon by his own cousin the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund.

Vlad’s family has been extensively researched though there are still some tantalising gaps in the junior lines.

Vlad’s own descendants can be traced down to the late 1600s and were spread around a wide area of south east Europe. David Drake has managed to trace his ancestry to the Drakulas of Serbia in 1611. One of those tantalising gaps in the records in the positive link between his ancestor and Vlad Dracula’s dynasty. Although there are several known illegitimate lines there could be others that have not been discovered. There are many known descendants of Vlad’s extended family, including the Duke of Cambridge (though his great-great-grandmother Queen Mary, a member of the previous royal Cambridges, who’s mother was a descendant of Vlad Dracula’s brother).

After several years of research and contact with Dracula scholars David decided to attend his first World Dracula Congress (yes, it does exist) in Transylvania in 2000. Among all the academics and experts David met was Countess Dracula herself! The actress Ingrid Pitt is most famous for portraying the blood-drinking Countess Elisabeth Bathori in the Hammer film “Countess Dracula”. They joined a tour of the sites associated with Vlad Dracula in Romania.

At the 2001 World Dracula Congress David Drake gave a speech about his search for his Dracula bloodline. It got a mixed response. One of the leading Dracula authorities believes there IS a link through the Hungarian branch of the family. Afterwards David decided to turn the whole search into a one-man show called “Son of Dracula”. It premiered in Baltimore, Maryland, in May 2002. After much editing and rewriting he performed it again in New York, San Francisco and Anchorage.

Perhaps David will never find that elusive missing link that will finally prove his bloodline to the real Vlad Dracula.

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