The best way to explain ICON is to think of it as a representation of something. The 1931 version of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was probably not expected to be any more popular than any other penny dreadful of the late Victorian era; however, its epistolary format gave it more mystique and its Gothic conventions were spot on for the audience of the day. But the iconic vampire of today was not the Count Dracula we meet in stoker’s novel. It was the Count Dracula played by Bela Lugosi.
The interesting thing to me is how the director of this film didn’t even want to cast Lugosi even though he had nailed the Count in the stage version to great popular success. But Lugosi was persistent and fate had him in Hollywood touring the play when auditions were being held and he got the part.
What makes Lugosi’s Dracula iconic? I’m glad you asked. All of the mannerisms that we associated with vampires came from his performance. The hiding behind the cape, the claw-fingered hand reaching towards it’s victim, the aristocratic cape and tux and white tie, the hiding his victim with his cape as he bites their neck, the glare of that exotic and evil stare, and even the accent not only became iconic, but also a little cliché. Best line in the movie: “I do not drink…wine.”
I would love to present the history of vampires in literature, but that would take far more research than I’m willing to do, so sorry. Suffice it to say that in order to understand where most of this nonsense came from, you need to see Ken Russell’s film Gothic where we see a spooky night where a guy named Polidori came up with the idea for a story called simply The Vampyre in 1879. If you really have too much time on your hands you can go back even further to Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanufrom 1872.
Whether you prefer your vampires vicious and lethal like in The Lost Boys or 30 Days of Night, or you like them dark and mysterious like Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, or as dangerous half-breed day walkers like Blade, or you like them sparkly and brooding a la Twilight… (and shame on you if you do! Hehehe) nothing will ever wipe from our collective cultural consciousness the iconic image of the Bela Lugosi Dracula. Even as the silly flying bat or the wolf we never see…he’s still better than Edward! And crucifixes work on him!