The Deadly Irish Epidemic That Helped Bring Dracula to Life

June 29, 2020

Forget Vlad the Impaler. A 19th-century cholera outbreak in Sligo may have been Bram Stoker’s chief inspiration.

An afternoon wind funnels down deserted Old Market Street, past shuttered shops and darkened restaurants. The rowdy Irish student town of Sligo has been frozen. It is two months into a strict nationwide lockdown enforced by the Irish government to combat the novel coronavirus, which has killed more people per capita in Ireland than in the U.S.

The last time Sligo was this empty—this lifeless, this restricted—was 188 years ago. Cholera was the culprit. That epidemic spawned not just death, poverty, famine, chaos, and desertion but also a legendary vampire. Yet only in late 2018 did Irish researchers make this startling discovery: Dracula was born in Sligo.

In 1832, on Old Market Street, a 14-year-old Irish girl hid in her home during the cholera outbreak, which killed more than 10 percent of the town’s population. The ghastly scenes around her—mass graves, corpses in the street, victims buried alive—she later recounted to her son. His name was Bram Stoker, and those bleak stories were a key source of inspiration for writing Dracula—one of the most influential novels in history. First published in 1897, this vampire tale has spawned dozens of movies, plays, TV shows, and books.

In Stoker’s novel, an English lawyer travels to the Transylvanian peaks of Romania, where he visits an isolated place called Castle Dracula. There he is attacked and imprisoned by the blood-drinking vampire, Count Dracula. The rest is fairly well known.

Among many longstanding theories about Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula, the most popular is that the author was motivated by Vlad the Impaler, a sadistic Romanian leader famous for torturing his foes. This 15th-century prince was also called Drăculea.

That, however, is where the links between Dracula and Drăculea appear to end. Despite the Transylvanian setting—and the fact that that region’s Bran Castle is now also called Dracula’s Castle—historical accounts show that Vlad had minimal connections with that area, and never actually lived in that castle.

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