Was Dracula Inspired by Cholera?

Sometimes a cholera victim is just a cholera victim…
Wellcome Collection (Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

Note – I requested Marion McGarry’s paper, ‘Dracula = Cholera: how Sligo’s 1832 cholera epidemic influenced the novel by Bram Stoker’ via researchgate.net, but so far have not received a reply. I’m conscious that the below is therefore a response to articles in the media about her research and that I may therefore be missing something – the press are notoriously poor at handling historical research. That said, I’ve been interviewed for an Atlas Obscura article myself, and it was the most professional press interaction I’ve ever had, so I’d be surprised if her findings have been misrepresented. And if she does respond, I will gladly modify my views accordingly. Anyway, disclaimer over…

I recently read this story claiming that Bram Stoker was inspired by the history of cholera in Ireland. This is not the first time that a connection has been drawn between Stoker’s background and his literary works. Notably, Martin Willis’ ‘”The Invisible Giant,” “Dracula,” and Disease’ (available with a free limited account) detail the influence of his mother’s writing on the cholera outbreak on Stoker’s children’s story ‘The Invisible Giant,’ and tries to connect this to ‘Dracula.’ However, Willis’ thesis is very much an ‘intertextual’ reading of the book that, like the current claims, lacks hard evidence and ignores the much simpler explanation for the disease motifs of ‘Dracula’ that a) it’s about a vampire, and b) Stoker lifted his knowledge of vampire lore straight from a handful of sources. Sure, there is a clear Victorian, British/Irish pseudoscientific/Catholic Christian ‘gloss’ in his interpretation of the basic vampire lore (Van Helsing, transfusions, depictions of sickness), and perhaps the Irish cholera epidemic was part of his inspiration to write the book, by way of his previous work, but the actual disease-parallel content of ‘Dracula’ is about vampires, not cholera. You can read Dracula as a piece of art as being about cholera, but there’s just no evidence that’s it’s actually about it. Even the depictions of Dracula’s pale, ailing victims (and the blood on the mouths of his converts) brings to mind tuberculosis more than it does cholera (another popular speculative ‘reading’ of the book). I suggest reading Willis’ article for the actual disease parallels present in ‘Dracula’. At best, there is a connection with cholera through several degrees of separation – ‘Dracula’ is about vampirism as a Victorian idea of disease, one Victorian disease with a personal connection to Stoker was cholera. That’s it. That’s the evidence. It’s like saying that a particular band is influenced by another, because we can hear similar chord progressions in their music – but the band itself never stated any link in interviews, memoirs etc. It’s speculative.

There are some very specific claims in the AO article, most of which I think are way off: I will take them one by one:

‘Bram as an adult asked his mother to write down her memories of the epidemic for him, and he supplemented this using his own historic research of Sligo’s epidemic…’ This is quite true, but this was around 1875, twenty years before he wrote ‘Dracula.’ It’s possible that he was beginning to think along the lines of ‘The Invisible Giant’ (published 1881), but despite the implication here that he got information from his mother in preparation for ‘Dracula,’ there is no evidence that Charlotte Stoker’s letter has anything to do with that novel. She did write

‘Charlotte says cholera enters port towns having traveled by ship, and can travel overland as a mist—just like Dracula, who infects people with his unknown contagion.’

Yes, and William Peter Blatty probably saw a doctor’s bag once when he was young. Should we be lauding this as the inspiration for The Exorcist? Seriously, this is incredibly weak. It’s not as though ‘Dracula’ could have hopped on a 737 or hitchhiked across Europe. Travel by boat was the only practical way to get the Count to the shores of England; even if Stoker had chosen rail travel, as used later in the novel, there is still the matter of the English Channel, and as Stoker was clearly taken with Whitby as an arrival location, he had to get him across the North Sea. Likewise, oddly enough, ships were the only effective means for infectious disease to spread prior to the advent of motor vehicles, air travel and even (in 1832) railways. This is the one of the more transparent cases of a straightforward coincidence in an historical claim that I have ever come across. An RTE article from 2018 gives a variant of this claim that arguably makes it stronger; that Dracula’s arrival and the first death of the 1832 Sligo epidemic were both preceded by unusual storms. This is true, but could simply be a coincidence. Murder at sea, a storm and a shipwreck is rather more dramatic than the Count strolling casually off the Demeter in broad daylight. If this choice was inspired by Charlotte Stoker’s mention of a storm in a letter that she sent her son twenty years before, any influence is likely to be subconscious or non-existent. Her 1873 article on the epidemic ‘Experience of the Cholera in Ireland 1832’ fails to mention a storm – if it appears in her c.1875 letter (which I can’t find), that might be a start. The wording of the two is also entirely unalike. Charlotte apparently wrote of .’..thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere,’ whereas the closest description in ‘Dracula’ is ‘…the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder…’. Had Bram mentioned a close atmosphere, we might be able to see a connection here. As it is, it’s another coincidence.

‘Dracula’ was ‘…inspired by the idea of someone being buried before they were fully dead.’ This is not a new connection – journalist Barbara Belford implied this as an influence upon Stoker back in 1996 in her ‘Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula,’ painting a colourful picture of Stoker’s mother telling him stories of the Sligo cholera outbreak and its grisly consequences. Richard Walker directly quotes Charlotte Stoker’s account of a woman presumed dead yet still alive in his 2007 book chapter ‘The blood is the life: Bram Stoker’s infected capital’ (p. 256). He calls the idea that the ‘…supposed dead could still be animate’ ‘…intrinsic to this discussion’ and of course is quite correct about that – the state of living death features in both the history of disease and that of folkloric vampirism, and vampires were often scapegoats for disease outbreaks. Neither Belford nor Walker suggested any causal link between Stoker’s knowledge of cholera in Ireland and the text of ‘Dracula’ however. Wallis’ article contains several readings of the novel, but none feature this aspect – he simply uses the coincidence as an introductory framing device before devoting the rest of the article to parallels with drug addiction. ‘Vampirologists’ McNally and Florescu went further in their popular (as in, not academic) history ‘In Search of Dracula’ (1994, p. 137):

‘[Charlotte] told young Bram not only Irish fairy tales but also some true horror stories. An Irish woman from Sligo, she had witnessed the cholera epidemic there in 1832; later Bram recalled her accounts of it, suggesting that the vampire pestilence in his novel owed much to the frightful stories told by his mother.’

Although the media reports don’t actually make clear what aspects of ‘Dracula’ McGarry thinks the cholera stories ‘inspired,’ given that the concept of the animate or living dead is ancient and universal, the only thing that she and McNally/Florescu can possibly mean is that Stoker was influenced to write a horror novel with similar themes. This is plausible enough, but again, we still have nothing written from Stoker, his family, friends, or his contemporaries, to evidence even this modest claim. Once Stoker (for whatever reason) chose vampirism as the theme of his novel, he was bound to include the idea of the living dead along with it. Nor is the Sligo cholera connection evident in Stoker’s take on vampirism – he lifted his understanding of vampire beliefs directly from Gerard’s book and a few other reports, and although many aspects are a product of Stoker’s late Victorian influences, this isn’t one of them. The slavic figure of the vampire had been well-known in western Europe since the early 18th century, and various authors had already tapped it for subject matter (Stoker was certainly influenced by Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ for example). In any case, if this is, as Atlas Obscura states, the ‘strongest link’ that McGarry has found, then I’m afraid she is not onto a winner with her hypothesis. Oh, and the article seems to imply that Stoker coined the term ‘undead.’ He did not.

Not only are these claims dubious, but there’s no other evidence of a direct connection. Stoker’s annotated notes for ‘Dracula’ don’t contain a single word about cholera, and the only reference that he makes to disease is a research note from Emily Gerard’s ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ (1888), which was Stoker’s main source for all of his vampire folklore;

‘Finger pointing to rainbow seized with gnawing disease’

This is a paraphrase of a line from Gerard;

‘The finger which ventures to point at a rainbow will be straightway seized by a gnawing disease…’

Absolutely nothing to do with cholera, and not one of the superstitions borrowed by Stoker for his book. ‘Dracula’ itself does not draw any comparison with cholera, nor even consumption, although Van Helsing does call Lucy’s vampirism ‘the disease’ at one point. The irony here is that there’s no need to make these reaches to connect ‘Dracula’ to the town or county of Sligo, when the author has such strong genuine connections to the area in particular and the country of Ireland in general.

5 thoughts on “Was Dracula Inspired by Cholera?

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