Dracula, Carfax Abbey, and Mental Illness: Where Truth and Fiction Intersect

Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?

All writers are asked that question at one time or another. In fact, it may be a writers’ most commonly received query.

Irish author Bram Stoker may not have originally intended to write a horror novel about a vampire named Count Dracula. Although Stoker was working on a novel that featured a Count Wampyr, it was to be set in Austria. But while visiting the Yorkshire coast in 1890, he found a new character name and plenty of inspiration for the classic tale.

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Returning to England from Scotland and on the suggestion of a friend, Stoker broke his journey in a town called Whitby, and it was there that he encountered Whitby Abbey, the 11th century Benedictine monastery many think formed the inspiration for Carfax Abbey (the property purchased by Dracula in the novel and the place where he keeps his coffin filled with sacred earth). The parish church of St. Mary’s is nearby Whitby Abbey, where Stoker visited the church yard and recorded many names from the headstones—one of which he used in Dracula (Swales) as the vampire’s first Whitby victim. But the actual location of Carfax Abbey was meant to be in Purfleet, in the county of Essex, which is nowhere near Yorkshire. So it may have been that while Whitby inspired the abbey, Purfleet served geographical practicality.

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While walking the quay in Yorkshire, Stoker came across the public library, where he read a book by William Wilkinson about what is now modern-day Romania. In this book, Stoker learned of Vlad Tepes, a prince from the 15th century, the son of Vlad Dracul (meaning devil), and well known for impaling his enemies on the battlefield. According to records left by Saxons, Tepes may have impaled between 40,000 and 100,000 people. Whether he actually drank their blood is open to speculation. To be fair, vampire literature was already a big deal in Victorian England. Gothic settings and scary stories were very much en vogue, but Stoker’s novel galvanized the obsession. Often, Victorian sexual repression is blamed (or lauded) for the modern-day, romantic vampire. The stealing of a young woman’s blood in the night became a euphemism for the theft of her virginity. An idea both horrifying and titillating to a 19th-century audience.

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Finally, there is plenty of “madness” in Dracula. Jonathan Harker suffers a nervous breakdown after narrowly escaping the vampire’s clutches. Lucy Westenra appears to go mad in the final stages of her transformation to vampire. Mina succumbs to a certain break in reality once she’s tasted of the vampire’s blood. But it’s Renfield, of course, who comprises the clearest example of mental illness. Jack Seward deems him “lunatic.”

No one would ever want to be locked up in what passed for psychiatric “treatment” centers prior to the 19th century. Full of suffering masses of humanity whose illnesses probably ran the gamut of depression to schizophrenia to complete misdiagnoses, asylums were mere holding cells for those unfortunate enough to be sent there. But by the 1800s, a newer, more humane philosophy was creeping into what were then called “lunatic asylums.” Jack Seward, the doctor that studies Renfield in Dracula, may have been a product of that movement. Seward truly wants to understand the nature of mental illness and those who suffer from it. He is depicted as a character with a heart. As one of the three men in love with Lucy, he is loathe to admit she has been seduced by a vampire, which ultimately brings about her ultimate destruction.

Although it’s easy to speculate on Stoker’s inspirational forces, his imagination must receive the majority of the credit for the novel that has inspired a legacy of horror readers and writers. For many of us, Stoker himself is an inspiration for our stories about seductive blood-suckers who terrorize and tantalize.

**In celebration of its coming release on audiobook, for the next two weeks, Wildfell is on sale for $1.99!

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