The Plague Within: Exploring The Disease-Like Qualities Of Vampirism In Bram Stoker’s Dracula

by Alfred DiGregorio

A Multigenre Researched Project (see ).

Preface: Disease infects the bodies of individuals and the minds of an entire population

Events that brought large death tolls—the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, or the Spanish Flu of 1918—are examples of the very real threat that a simple virus or bacteria can pose to an otherwise relatively healthy population. In more recent years, the panic in the United States regarding HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and the Ebola outbreaks in various parts of the world in 2014 show just how easily reports of a new killer disease dominate the minds of a population. The disease has and will continue to be one of the biggest threats to human civilization. Therefore, it is of no surprise that this fear of disease is displayed prominently in various media and, in literature, remains a staple of the horror genre.

In addition to the threat of death, many modern books, games, movies, and TV shows about disease feature an additional element; the inhuman. In these stories, we not only see those infected by the disease become increasingly weak or even die, we also see them turn into a frail husk of the former selves. The infected quickly become creatures that can no longer be considered as fully human as they are controlled by carnal or primitive instincts.

I consider Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, to be an early example of this type of media. In his work, vampirism is passed through the exchange of blood and forces the sickened into a weakened state before each dies and therefore becomes a vector; in this case, a vampire. This description of the vampire “disease” is eerily similar to the transmission and effects of real illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. In this multi-genre project, I would like to explore the Victorian’s concept of disease and how it is represented by Dracula. Secondly, I hope to investigate just how similar real diseases are to the process of becoming a vampire as described in the novel and determine how such diseases might have inspired Stoker during his writing process.

Exploring Disease Within Bram Stoker’s Dracula

To understand vampirism as a disease, we must first look to understand the concept of disease during the 19th century. During this century the two most prominent ideas of disease were 1) miasma theory—the idea that under poor environmental conditions the air became charged with an epidemic influence, and 2) germ theory—the idea that a living organism causes illness (“Brief History during the Snow Era”). Initially, the miasma theory appealed to many of the sanitary reformers in England as it explained why disease was so prominent in the rundown areas of the city that were inhabited by the poor as compared to cleaner upper-class areas.  However, by the 1860s the miasma theory fell out of style as Louis Pasteur, and later Robert Koch, proved the existence of pathogenic organisms and ushered in the “golden age” of bacteriology (“Germ Theory”).

Aspects of both theories appear in Dracula. For instance, foul odors are prominent among Jonathan Harker’s descriptions of Dracula’s castle, and a “thin streak of white mist” (Stoker 226) is identified just as Mina starts coming down with a case of vampirism. The principles of germ theory are represented by the character of Abraham Van Helsing as he uses the foul-smelling garlic like an antiseptic when dealing with the various vampires that appear throughout the novel. Martin Willis, in his article “The Invisible Giant: Dracula and Disease,” discusses these two opposing factions within Dracula. Willis identifies Lucy’s final night as an example of the conflict between these two groups, citing Lucy’s mother as a representative of miasma theory. Mrs. Westenra thinks she’s helping as she removes the garlic from her daughter and opens the windows so pure night air might come in. However, this only undoes Van Helsing’s work and ironically makes Lucy even more vulnerable to Dracula’s sickness. Willis goes on to claim that this is Stoker representing “miasmatism as an exploded paradigm that should be replaced by the principles of germ theory” (Willis 313). I agree with Willis in that this is likely Stoker showing that miasmatic practices are inferior or even detrimental when compared to Van Helsing’s germ theory approach. However, I have to point out that many of Van Helsing’s methods are seen as relatively strange to other known characters such as Dr. Seward. When Seward first sees his old teacher’s garlic flowers, he comments: “…the Professor’s actions were certainly odd and not to be found in any pharmacopeia that I had ever heard of” (Stoker 121) thus indicating that Van Helsing also relies on strange or even mystical methods to combat the developing vampirism.

Now that we have covered the two main theories of disease, what about the actual illnesses? Although I originally compared vampirism to HIV/AIDS in the preface, this is quite frankly an impossibility due to the fact the virus wouldn’t be identified for another seven decades following the publication of Dracula. If Stoker took inspiration from any real diseases when he described the transformation into a vampire, it would likely be one that was in the public eye during his lifetime. This leads me to consider three likely suspects: rabies, cholera, and syphilis.

The rabies virus can be found in the saliva of an infected organism and typically spreads through either a deep bite or scratch. The virus is usually associated with dogs, wolves, and bats. Early symptoms include weakness, hallucinations, fever, and unexplained tingling or burning sensation at the wound site. As the disease takes over, some individuals develop symptoms such as a changed personality, aggression, hydrophobia, and aerophobia (WHO). Now, if we compare this information to the vampires of Dracula, we see many similarities. Both diseases are shown to be transmitted primarily through a bite, and Dracula is often shown to take the form of bats and canines. The symptoms are also very similar to those experienced by Mina and Lucy as they become increasingly frail as the disease takes hold. The change in personality and aggression also match the fully vampiric Lucy as she is now considered nothing more than “a nightmare of Lucy” (Stoker 190) by the men who once adored her. The relationship with hydrophobia is established by Van Helsing who points out that “[Dracula] can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide,” (Stoker 212) and aerophobia can be seen in the vampires’ choice of decrepit and dusty dwellings. Additionally, rabies was a prominent issue in Victorian London as dog ownership was increasing at all levels of society leading to armies of dogs taking up residence in the streets. In his article published by the University of Oxford in the Journal of Social History, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen: The Conflict over Rabies in Late Victorian England,” John K Walton describes a “great public sensitivity to rabies, for the threat of a dog bite in the street was ever-present, and the possible consequences were too awful for all but the most sanguine to contemplate. Children, and especially the children of the poor with their exposed limbs and necessary propensity to play in the street, were seen to be most at risk” (Walton 227). This situation parallels that of vampiric Lucy when she terrorized children as the “bloofer” lady. When taking these comparisons into consideration, it becomes very apparent that rabies could have inspired the more animalistic nature of vampirism as a disease.

Cholera is spread through water contaminated with the bacteria Vibrio cholera and results in the infected experiencing profuse diarrhea or vomiting. Patients may become lethargic or develop symptoms such as sunken eyes, dry mouth, clammy skin, and loose or wrinkled skin (WHO). Although the symptoms of cholera aren’t comparable to those experienced by Mina and Lucy, there are many similarities between the disease and Dracula. Once again Dracula’s aversion to running water is akin to the bacteria as it only inhabits stagnant or highly polluted water. Dracula’s choice to travel by merchant ship is also reminiscent of cholera, as the first recorded incidence of the disease in England was a result of infected sailors carrying the bacteria from the dock to dock in 1831 on a return trip from the Baltics. For many Victorians, the threat of cholera was ever-present and affected both the poor and wealthy alike. Likewise, Dracula also poses a threat to the people of London and he too remains unseen by all except for the main cast. It is possible that this fear of a destructive force lurking in one’s neighborhood inspired Dracula’s invasion of London.

Syphilis is an STI caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and is passed on through sexual activity or during pregnancy. Syphilis causes a wide range of symptoms from sores and lesions to altered behavior, muscle spasms, and paralysis over a period of a few weeks to decades after initial exposure (CDC). In the Victorian era, prostitution was on the rise and with it came many outbreaks of syphilis. Many young men would acquire the disease and pass it on to their wives, who would then pass it on to their future children (The Great Social Evil). Both forms of transmission are seen throughout Dracula. For instance, we see Dracula breastfeed Mina as “his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom” (Stoker 247). This might be interpreted as a father poisoning his child through his past transgressions against the mother. On the other side of the spectrum, the Weird Sisters’ attempts to seduce Jonathan show how temptresses entice otherwise innocent men and spread the disease as a result. In her article “Dracula”: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman,” Carol Senf discusses Stoker’s portrayal of the “ravages of venereal disease on innocent women and children” (Senf 43). Senf cites the transformed Lucy as another example of a woman trying to pass the disease on to innocent men. Senf also points out that Lucy’s attacks on children make her representative of a “devouring mother” (Senf 46). This seems to be Stoker trying to show that woman who aware of their disease are equally responsible for the spread of syphilis to their children as the men that initially infected them. From these connections, it is very likely that Stoker’s highly sexual descriptions of the transmission of vampirism were inspired by the STDs running rampant in London’s many brothels.

Through these comparisons, it becomes clear that the concept of vampirism described in Dracula was inspired by many actual diseases. Rabies is represented in Dracula’s ability to shapeshift into the various animals associated with the virus in addition to his infamous bite. Influences of syphilis can clearly be seen in the various vampires’ attempts at seduction before conversion. However, the influences of cholera are much more subtle. Unlike the other two diseases, cholera doesn’t require risky sex or a ravenous bite, rather it can occur from something so banal as drinking water. The horror of this disease comes from the fact that it can infect anybody at any time just as Dracula and the other vampires in the novel kill and feed indiscriminately. To a society so focused on order, an abrupt change in one’s life that occurs through no fault of one’s own is a terrifying concept. Stoker embraces this idea in Dracula and uses it along with other contemporary fears related to public health to create a vampire pandemic.

Infected: A Found Poem from Bram Stoker’s Dracula 


Humor was good, now it is bad

Black, yellow, red, green

It is enough to drive one mad


One minute she was sitting in her bed

The image of a perfect woman

Now she is dead


Thrown from the Heavens of society

Disgusted, sickened, and hated

Soon to be forgotten by friends and family


Now we must find a cure

Lest we run out of time

So that the other may once again be pure


We will find the source of this miasma

We will put an end to his plague

We will no longer be infected.


Announcing the Newest and Greatest Vampiric Cure!

Back from the mystical land of Transylvania, the distinguished Dr. Abraham Van Helsing brings with him a powerful medicine; garlic.

Van Helsing tells of the plants high content of vitamins B (1, 5, 6) and C and other dietary metals such as calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and phosphorus. (USDA) Most notably, he claims that garlic is both an effective repellant and cure for anything from the common cold to vampirism and lycanthropy!

Skeptics, calm down! Your disbelief will soon be proven to have been in vain! As the good doctor plans to demonstrate the amazing properties of garlic in Piccadilly Circus this Saturday at 1:30 in the afternoon!

All are invited so long as they bring an open mind and an open wallet!


Vampirism Eradicated? A Look into the Efforts of Dr. John Seward and Dr. Arthur Van Helsing


London, England – December 23, 18—

It certainly seems like a Christmas miracle: the millennia-long, but little known, threat of vampirism seems to have come to an end this past November due to the efforts of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and Dr. John Seward.

This may, of course, be of some surprise to many readers out there who may remember we were recently faced with a potential pandemic back in September when we put out an advisory for young children and women of a marriageable age. However, this was avoided when the fine doctors’ compatriot and patron Lord Godalming stepped up to cure the young female patient using the treatment Dr. Van Helsing has been personally developing for the past few months.

However, the greatest contribution was made when the party traveled to the eastern land of Transylvania. There they were able to cure four longtime suffers from the disease. When treated, the results were immediate and all traces of the condition vanished into the wind.

Of course, many academics still doubt that this is the end of vampirism and advocate vigilance. They claim that the disease might still be waiting just around the corner for its next victim.

Works Cited

Murphy, Frederick A. “The Rabies Virus.” National Geographic,

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Cholera.” NPR,

Wikimedia Commons. “Syphilis.” Business Insider,

“The 1832 Cholera Epidemic in East London.” The 1832 Cholera Epidemic in East London, Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

“Brief History During the Snow Era.”

Accessed 22 Apr. 2017.

“Cholera.” World Health Organization. Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

“Food Composition Databases Show Foods — Garlic, Raw.” Accessed 2 May 2017.

“Germ Theory.” Disease, Microorganisms, Pasteur, and Diseases – JRank Articles, Accessed 22 Apr. 2017.

“The Great Social Evil: “The Harlot’s House” and Prostitutes in Victorian London,” Accessed 28 Apr. 2017.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Cholera.” NPR,

Murphy, Frederick A. “The Rabies Virus.” National Geographic, Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.

“Rabies.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.

Senf, Carol A. “‘Dracula’: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman.” Victorian Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1 Oct. 1982, pp. 33–49. JSTOR, Accessed 28 May 2017.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

“Syphilis – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Feb. 2017, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

“Syphilis: Prevalence of this ancient STD increased in every region of the US this year,” Business Insider, Accessed 26 April 2017.

Walton, J. K. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen: The Conflict Over Rabies in Late Victorian England.” Journal of Social History, vol. 13, no. 2, Jan. 1979, pp. 219–239.

Willis, Martin. “‘The Invisible Giant’: Dracula, and Disease.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 39 (3), pp. 301-325, MLA International Bibliography.


  1. Murphy, Frederick A. “The Rabies Virus.”
  2. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Cholera.” NPR
  3. “Syphilis.” Business Insider, prevalance-of-this-ancient-std-increased-in-every-region-of-the-us-last-year-2015-12.