Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Stoker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors — Holmwood, Morris, and Seward — in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the reason Stoker chose to have not one, or two, but three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: he worked in the theater. And from theater he took his inspiration.

First things first: what to call these three.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known (but are never mentioned in the novel as such) are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishman writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited (so I will give them credit here: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw). They are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sexuality is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls” (arguably, Joanna Lumley‘s Jessica Van Helsing is meant to be the titular bride).

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

Dracula with Brides in VAN HELSING (2004)
Dracula with Brides in VAN HELSING (2004)

Fast forward to 2004 and Universal’s attempt at resurrecting its classic monsters in VAN HELSING, and there we find the return of a trio of brides. Taking flight in the form of harpies, they consist of Marishka (Josie Maran), Verona (Silvia Colloca), and Aleera (Elena Anaya), playing much more than mere temptresses. A scene where Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) do battle with them in a town square is the highlight of the movie.

STOKER AND THE STAGE

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who many suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It may be as simple as that.

[note: the following amazing (to me at least!) revelation has been added in November, 2022, after reading Dacre Stoker’s and Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s edited and annotated version of the novel, released upon its 125th anniversary]

The proof was waiting there all along for Dracula scholars, hiding in a typescript lost for almost a century.

A TYPESCRIPT IS FOUND

As noted by Stoker and Bisang in the 125th Anniversary edition of DRACULA, no copy of the manuscript for the novel was ever found among Bram Stoker’s personal possessions. It was assumed any complete version was lost to time. Until 1997, when a printer’s copy was found on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Titled “The Un-Dead,” the typesecript went to auction at Christie’s. Microsoft’s Paul Allen came to possess. Scholars were allowed to study it — including Robert Eighteen-Bissang. And in it? The following excised lines from the novel (underlined as in the 125th Anniversary edition), from Harker’s diary, June 29; on the date of his last letter, Harker hopes to never see the Count again:

“I dared not wait to see him return, for I feared to see those weird sisters. How right was Shakespeare, no one would believe that after three hundred years one should see in this fastness of Europe the counterpart of the witches of Macbeth.”

Turns out Bram had originally intended to make it quite clear: his vampire sisters were counterparts of the witches of Macbeth.**

THE POWER OF THREE

As for Shakespeare, he most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard (inspired by classical literature), or Stoker (inspired by Shakespeare) didn’t on some level make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole.

The primary colors.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Father, son, and Holy Ghost.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll.

Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to threes — be they witches of Macbeth, or Stoker’s weird vampire women.

* Update: want to watch a modern re-interpretation of the weird sisters of Dracula? Neil LaBute’s HOUSE OF DARKNESS (2022) is a misogynist’s nightmare with all the trapping of classic gothic horror. It’s a slow-burn, to be sure, that feels more like a stage-play than a movie. And it requires patience, but the dialogue is delicious and the performances are strong with Justin Long as a hapless man named Hapgood who happens upon a woman named Mina (Kate Bosworth) who he sees as a “sure thing” because of her often bold behavior and frank language. But as the tension between them builds, Mina’s sisters show up (Gia Crovatin and Lucy Walters) and Hap gets more than he bargained for.

** Manuscript aside, the argument that Stoker based his vampire women on the witches of MacBeth had long been out there, argued by critics and film historians. But to have it have been in the manuscript all along was a confirmation of what many had only posited as a theory for many years.