Fantasy stories featuring bitter rivals never fail to capture the imaginations of readers, which is perhaps why Dracula and Van Helsing have endured for quite so long.
However, their relationship has evolved significantly over the years, with Van Helsing’s initial role as a helpful professor gradually replaced with the more compelling title of vampire hunter.
A new version of Dracula – from Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – launches New Year’s Day on BBC One and while Van Helsing isn’t listed as appearing, it’s possible he might factor into the backstory of the Count (Claes Bang).
So, who is Van Helsing? Here’s everything you need to know about the character…
Who is Van Helsing?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel compiled from letters, diary entries and other informative scraps, which reveal Professor Abraham Van Helsing to be an old teacher to one of the book’s main characters: Dr John Seward.
His expertise is called upon to diagnose a serious ailment suffered by young Lucy Westenra, which he soon recognises as a classic case of vampirism.
Notably, this version of the character is lacking the more kick-ass elements of his future interpretations. He’s a very intelligent man and a crucial figure in Dracula’s defeat, but not a “vampire hunter” by trade.
That said, he does appear to have prior knowledge of how to treat a vampire bite, prescribing Lucy with garlic and giving her a crucifix but ultimately failing to save her life.
After Lucy’s death, he teams up with her friends to track Dracula back to Romania where they strike against him.
Van Helsing kills three vampiric women he encounters in the Count’s Transylvanian castle, but isn’t actually the one who kills Dracula, which is ironic given their now established relationship as archenemies.
Though he did appear (briefly) in 1922’s Nosferatu and 1931’s film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi, the character of Van Helsing as we know him today emerged in the 1958 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Portrayed by veteran actor Peter Cushing, this is the first time Van Helsing is depicted as an outright vampire hunter from the beginning. It’s a look that stuck.
What are the most famous Van Helsing depictions in film and TV?
Peter Cushing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1958)
The aforementioned performance by Peter Cushing in Hammer Horror’s Dracula movie proved hugely influential to the character’s future direction. Van Helsing as a professional vampire hunter wasn’t an accurate translation of Stoker’s original novel, but did feel like a natural evolution of the character.
Laurence Olivier in Dracula (1979)
This adaptation of Dracula was based largely on the stage play version by Hamilton Deane and John L Balderston, meaning that there are some variations from Stoker’s original novel. However, Professor Van Helsing (as portrayed by celebrated actor Laurence Olivier) makes the jump quite faithfully, reverting to his initial characterisation of intelligent academic.
Anthony Hopkins in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola gave the world his interpretation of Dracula in 1992, with an all-star cast that included Gary Oldman in the title role and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. As the title would suggest, this film is based on Stoker’s original story and as such it depicts the classic version of Van Helsing, a medical expert called in to assess the condition of the ill-fated Lucy Westenra.
Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing (2004)
Hiring director Stephen Sommers, the man behind 1999’s The Mummy, to tackle another classic horror character seemed like a smart idea at the time, but few could have expected just how drastically things would go wrong. Hot off the success of the first two X-Men films, Hugh Jackman takes on the role of Van Helsing here in what was hoped to be another action franchise for him. Instead, the film was panned by critics and a commercial disappointment.
Kelly Overton and Michael Eklund in Van Helsing (2016-19)
It took over a decade for the Van Helsing name to recover from that Hugh Jackman abomination, but we currently have a new version of the character on screens which is faring significantly better. Van Helsing is a television series from the Syfy channel, which stars Kelly Overton as a near-future descendant of Stoker’s character.
The series has accumulated a niche but passionate fanbase across its four seasons and recently introduced A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Michael Eklund as the original Abraham Van Helsing.
Dracula begins 9pm on New Year’s Day on BBC One