The Dracula interview with magic expert Jim Steinmeyer

Max Schreck played Dracula in FW Murnau's silent movie, Nosferatu. In many ways, this 1922 classic was a more faithful version of Bram Stoker's novel than vampire movies today.

Max Schreck played Dracula in FW Murnau’s silent movie, Nosferatu. In many ways, this 1922 classic was a more faithful version of Bram Stoker’s novel than vampire movies today.

PITY BRAM STOKER. He was one of the lucky authors who managed to create a character more mysterious and more interesting than he was. …

Late in his career, he wrote a thick novel called Dracula, which garnered surprised reactions from his business acquaintances and mild praise from the critics. Stoker may have suspected that it was his best book. He had no way of calculating that it would become a phenomenon. …

To those who have never read the novel, who feel that they must know Bram Stoker’s remarkable creation because they’ve seen the movie or heard most of the details—the wolves, the bats, the stake through the heart—Dracula is full of surprises. … For over a century since its publication in 1897, Dracula has tempted audiences with the hint of something more, something darker, something concealed. …

A simple explanation is that Stoker’s novel is so interesting because it was compiled at a fascinating time in his life, when he was surrounded by amazing people. It calls for very little speculation to see Stoker’s inspirations, from the people and events that surrounded him in Victorian London, and the colorful characters who befriended him in America. I believe that the most important elements of Dracula were inspired by four people: poet Walt Whitman’s bold carnality; author Oscar Wilde’s corrupting immorality; actor Henry Irving’s haunted characters; and murderer Jack the Ripper’s mysterious horrors.

The real surprise is that Stoker knew these men—maybe even the mysterious Jack! They played important roles in his professional life. They weighed heavily on his personal life. For decades, scholars and critics have speculated whether these personalities had elbowed their way into the world’s greatest vampire novel. It would have been remarkable if they hadn’t.

HOOKED YET? These opening lines come from magic expert and biographer Jim Steinmeyer’s newest book, Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood in which he invites us on a wild ride through the life of theater manager and writer Abraham “Bram” Stoker. Steinmeyer focuses, in particular, on his acquaintances, including Whitman, Wilde and the actor Henry Irving, who at the time was so famous that we might compare his popularity with that of Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino today. On top of that world-class crew, Steinmeyer argues that Stoker may very well have dined with the real Jack the Ripper.

You may be wondering: Who is Jim Steinmeyer? Where have I heard that name? The answer: Steinmeyer is more famous for magic and his books about magicians. He received a great deal of media attention for his 2011 book, The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards. That’s another fascinating book that Read The Spirit recommended earlier. Why was this magazine so interested in that book? Answer: The life of Erik Weisz—aka Harry Houdini—is deeply entwined with American immigration and diversity, with the Jewish search for freedom and independence and with the birth of American movies and comic books. We also can highly recommend Steinmeyer’s 2004 book, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear.

Doing early holiday shopping? Psst! Here’s a tip. If your shopping list includes a fan of history, magic and the colorful realms of fantasy, that person may love a big, lavish, full-color book by Taschen—which Steinmeyer co-wrote—called simply: Magic. 1400s-1950s. This is truly a coffee table book that you’ll want to leaf through on a table. The book itself weighs in at 12 pounds! Better yet, order your loved one both of Steinmeyer’s recent books: Magic and Dracula. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I prepared for my interview with Steinmeyer by reading both books in parallel. The coffee-table book helps to summon the vivid, exotic world in which Stoker lived and worked.

Wondering about the connection between vampires and religious life? Well, check out Jane Wells’ new column, headlined: Invite a Vampire to Church This Weekend.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
ON BRAM STOKER AND DRACULA
WITH JIM STEINMEYER

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID CRUMM: Jim, this exotic world of theatrical production—especially the huge spectaculars that Stoker often produced with Henry Irving—is really your own world, right? In addition to all of your writing and historical research, you’re a designer of magic for famous performers and for Broadway-class shows.

JIM: That’s right. I am a writer and historian. But principally I’ve worked in the world of magic, developing projects for magicians and I’ve done special effects for stage productions, including Disney shows. I worked on Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins for the stage. I’ve worked with Doug Henning, including both a television special and a Broadway show with Doug. I’ve worked with David Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy.

I’ve always been interested in the historical aspects of magic and I’ve used that knowledge in developing new projects for the stage. A lot of magicians aren’t interested in the past or think that this history is only an academic exercise. But, I have a much better understanding of what we can do today in magic, because I know what’s been done before and I have so much respect for all the people who have developed these things in the past. So, in addition to working in the field of stage magic, years ago I started writing and giving lectures about the history of magicians.

DAVID: For example, the last time we included your name in Read The Spirit, we were recommending your earlier book, The Last Greatest Magician in the World.

JIM: I’m glad you’re mentioning that book. American magician Howard Thurston is pretty much forgotten, although he was considered Houdini’s rival in his day. Thurston had a truly amazing career.

DAVID: Let’s step back to the era when Bram Stoker was manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre and was the collaborator on productions with the famous actor Henry Irving. We know from your book that Irving loved spectacular, haunting roles and Stoker was responsible for huge casts of extras and special effects. How different was that theatrical world in the late 1800s and the theatrical world in which you work today?

JIM: First, it’s completely different in terms of the technology. The way Stoker had to meet the challenges of creating effects on stage was more of a sledgehammer approach than what we are able to do today. Back then, they would put seemingly endless numbers of people and untold hours of work into creating special effects. One way they impressed crowds was to hire hundreds of extras in full costume to appear on stage with the actors. Of course, that was an era when Stoker could hire whole armies of people to do this work and pay them next to nothing. This was the era before unions. But, in terms of special effects, some of the techniques they developed are still in use today—like trap doors.

THE VAMPIRE TRAP AND THE ORIGINS OF DRACULA

DAVID: Tell us more about that example, which you describe in the book. You explain that vampire productions became so popular that theaters built these mechanical devices known as Vampire Traps.

JIM: These were very fast-operating trap doors in which someone would appear, to the audience, as having been swallowed up in the earth. They would accomplish this either by diving head-first through the Vampire Trap or disappearing down into it. Unlike other trap doors in a stage, these were covered with rubber flaps, or with loops of fabric; sometimes they used whale bone or spring wire. The opening wasn’t visible to the audience, but an actor could pass through it very quickly with the opening barely wide enough for the person’s body to pass through it. And the flaps would close around them, so the hole wasn’t visible.

In the book, I explain that by the time Stoker published his Dracula in 1897 after years of working on it—audiences were familiar with various vampire stories. The idea of a vampire was popularly associated with the theater.

DAVID: They were crowd-pleasers. You say in the book that theater managers knew that a sure-fire way to increase revenue was to toss in a creepy vampire production. So, it’s quite natural that a smart theater manager like Stoker would want to create the ultimate vampire tale. These were money makers.

JIM: That’s right. And the Vampire Trap was originated for the 1851 production of The Vampire by the Irish actor and writer Dion Boucicault.

DAVID: You vividly describe his production with vampires, at one point, surprising the crowd by coming to life from what appear to be paintings, on stage. Boucicault himself played a vampire with a thick Irish brogue. And, as you point out, Stoker knew him.

JIM: Stoker was Irish and grew up in Dublin. He was a man of the theater and, yes, he met Boucicault. By the time he was working on his novel, Stoker would have known that vampire projects were successful moneymakers. He would have known about the other vampire stories and productions. He certainly knew about Carmilla, a tale that featured a female vampire and was published in 1872 by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu. Before that, there was John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre, which had been another early sensation using this idea of vampires.

DAVID:  And, here we’re connecting with Frankenstein. Polidori was Shelley’s physician and friend.

JIM: Polidori’s story came out of the same meeting in 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva where there was the famous gathering of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Polidori and others. Frankenstein also came out of that summer together.

Stoker was such a practical man of the theater that he knew what kind of writing made money. In fact, his other novels were churned out very quickly, designed to sell. When his original notes were found from his work on Dracula, historians realized that he had taken seven years to compose that book. This was not the way he usually worked. He wanted to be sure that every detail in that novel was just right. It’s his best book, of course.

DAVID: So, he certainly didn’t invent the vampire. But a lot of these earlier vampires weren’t much like what we all seem to know about vampires today. Bram Stoker essentially wrote The Book about vampires.

JIM: In Dracula, Stoker standardized the vampire for us. Before Dracula, the rules we all think we know about vampires today, were easily changing in various stories and stage productions. The whole business about killing a vampire with a stake through the heart? And all the details about how you avoid and kill a vampire? All of that comes from Stoker’s book. He gave us the “official rules” for vampires. He tells us that vampires are created from other vampires—that it’s a growing pestilence. A vampire infects others by taking their blood. His expert, in the novel, is this doctor, Van Helsing, who knows all about vampires. It’s Stoker through Van Helsing who tells us things like: You’re under a spell while the vampire is taking blood from you.

DAVID: And these rules changed over time. Stoker labored over this for years! The storyline in your new book, really, looks at all the influences that shaped his thinking and his final novel during those years.

JIM: For example, we know from Stoker’s notes that he originally planned to set part of his novel in Styria, because that’s where Carmilla was set. But, during his research and writing, he picks up Transylvania. We know from Stoker’s extensive notes that he was familiar with Arminius Vámbéry, the Hungarian travel writer. We know that Stoker and Irving had dinner with Vámbéry, while he was was visiting London, then we know Stoker had dinner with Vámbéry again a couple of years later.

DAVID: But this is very important, as you explain in your book: Stoker never went to Transylvania.

JIM: He did read about the region and it became the perfect setting for his novel, but he never visited. In fact, he got some key details about the region—wrong. For example, he describes one area as rocky, craggy peaks, when that area really is rolling mountain meadows and is much more farm like than what he describes. But, then, he’d never visited the place.

DAVID: You also put to rest the popular notion that Stoker borrowed his Dracula from Vlad the Impaler.

JIM: We now know that Stoker was aware of that name, but he only knew the slightest bit about Vlad. He didn’t know what historians know today.

DRACULA AS AN ANCIENT HORROR
CRASHING INTO A MODERN WORLD

DAVID: Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about Stoker’s novel is its setting. Most of it is not set in Transylvania. In fact, most of the action is in England.

JIM: One of the most important aspects of Stoker’s story is that his vampire comes crashing into the modern age by coming to England. That’s why this is a new kind of horror story, a template by which we can tell these stories in new ways after Stoker. When you read the novel today, this claim may be a little hard to understand, because the whole story seems dated. But this is a modern novel. It’s written in the form of journals and letters. And Stoker intentionally includes the very latest Victorian innovations.

DAVID: I had not remembered until I re-read it recently that, when Dracula is looking for property to purchase in England, he is told that Kodak photos have been taken of some of the prospective locations. I guess, today, that would be like bringing your iPad into one of the world’s remote ancient cultures for the first time.

JIM: Part of the journal in the novel is written on a typewriter—another recent invention. Edison’s phonograph also makes an appearance in another scene—as a way to record notes on a cylinder. This all is part of Stoker’s careful attention to shaping this drama as the figure of Dracula crashing into modern life. Remember that Dracula seems to have been doing just fine in Transylvania. It’s only when he aspires to come to a big city, buy property and set himself up for business in England that we see the horrific reaction and people wind up chasing him back to Transylvania.

DAVID: Other literary scholars have written about this point—the clash with the modern world in Stoker’s novel. But this idea is an important part of your own approach to Stoker and his novel. You set out to find what other “modern” influences shaped the tale. And you argue that Whitman, Wilde, the actor Irving and also the true-crime horrors of Jack the Ripper all played their parts.

JIM: We know that Dracula is not based on Vlad the Impaler, or what we might call the historical Dracula. I am arguing that Stoker’s Dracula is a character he built as an amalgam of people he knew very well and dealt with in his everyday life. I am drawing on the existing literature about Stoker and his novel. I’m also using Stoker’s own extensive notes and other historical sources. I’m saying that there were four important real-life people in the creation of the character we know today as Dracula. Stoker worked for years with Irving. We know that Whitman and Stoker knew each other and corresponded. There are a few speeches in Stoker’s novel in which his Dracula speaks about death much as Whitman did. And, there are other echoes of Whitman in Stoker’s novel.

Another important influence was Wilde, a childhood friend of Stoker’s since their days in Dublin. They didn’t work together in the theater, but they worked in similar circles and, while the novel Dracula was being composed, their mutual friends were reacting to the famous trial of Wilde. One of the points I make about this vampire story is that it’s really about sex, without talking about sex. For people who aren’t supposed to talk about sex, you can read vampire stories. This certainly was true in the 1800s. There are influences of the whole case involving Wilde in the novel. Then, I also look at Jack the Ripper. Stoker himself acknowledged that this horrific case influenced his writing. We also know that Stoker had dinner with one of the leading suspects in the Ripper case.

I am telling readers: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that these people were important influences on the novel and on the figure of Dracula.

DRACULA & VAMPIRES: TODAY & TOMORROW

DAVID: We can’t close this interview without my asking: What movie version do you prefer? There are hundreds of Dracula-and-vampire movies!

JIM: Well, first, it’s amazing how this character keeps getting reinvented over and over. Can you think of another figure who has this much life and potential for reinvention?

DAVID: Perhaps Tarzan or contemporary super heroes: Batman maybe? I guess we might say Santa Claus, who also is an Energizer Bunny for reinvention. But, you’re right. Dracula is an absolutely magnetic force force for creating new books and films—and comic books and TV series as well, we should say. So, what’s on your short list of essential Dracula movies?

JIM: I would suggest that people go back and find a good version of the silent film Nosferatu.

DAVID: I agree. I love that 1922 version and have watched it a number of times throughout my life. Decades ago, only fragmented, scratchy old prints of the film were circulating. Now, Kino has produced a terrific DVD version, sold via Amazon under the name: Nosferatu (The Two-Disc Edition).

JIM: If you’ve never seen Nosferatu, you owe it to yourself to see the 1922 film. It feels very foreign and odd and other worldly. There’s something about the German designs for that silent film that are just so fitting. That movie follows the original novel in some ways, but it also departs from it. Nosferatu is set in Germany; the vampire never makes it to England.

DAVID: How about Francis Ford Coppola’s version that’s pointedly called Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

JIM: Hollywood, for years, chopped out more and more parts of the original novel. Coppola went back and restored elements from the novel. But he also was indulgent and it was a very expensive, over-done film in which everything is dressed up in this very high style. For my taste in Dracula films, I think some of the cheaper productions feel closer to the original intent.

DAVID: And the whole Twilight phenomenon in novels and movies?

JIM: We may think it’s an irony to see Dracula recast as a teenager today, but think about this: Dracula is one of the ultimate disenfranchised characters. He’s a character out of time. Alone. Misunderstood. Then, think about the common ways teenagers view themselves. In that light, Dracula becomes this perfect kind of character for teens. In creating Twilight, Stephenie Meyer extensively used the mythology of the vampire and she went right back to Bram Stoker. Of course, she also added some of her own rules about vampires to enhance her characters.

Overall, Twilight is evidence of Dracula’s staying power. I’m sure we will see this character reinvented again and again.

WANT MORE?

GET THE BOOKS!
We provide links to Steinmeyer’s Amazon book pages, above—but for easy navigation, here they are in one concise list:

  • Who Was Dracula? This is the focus of our interview today; it’s Steinmeyer’s new book on Bram Stoker and the world in which Dracula was born.
  • The Last Greatest Magician in the World You probably haven’t heard of Howard Thurston, but everyone has heard the name of the other major figure in this joint biography: “Houdini.”
  • Hiding the Elephant Explore a fascinating early era in the history of American pop-culture.
  • Magic. 1400s-1950s A big, lavish coffee table book perfect for gift giving.

WANT TO EXPLORE MORE EXOTIC CORNERS OF POP-CULTURE?
Jim Steinmeyer’s publisher, Tarcher/Penguin, specializes in bringing contemporary audiences new editions of classic spiritual books—as well as new books exploring the lesser-known streams of American spirituality. Our last interview with a Tarcher author explored the amazing world of Ray Palmer, a pioneer in science fiction and in bringing American readers stories from Asian religious traditions.

INVITE A VAMPIRE TO CHURCH

Author Jane Wells also is an expert on vampires (and zombies) in pop-culture. You may enjoy Jane’s Glitter in the Sun, a Bible-study book for small groups, drawing on themes from the Twilight saga. Jane also has written a new column, headlined: Invite a Vampire to Church This Weekend

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