One year, at the suggestion of another teacher, I required my Advanced Placement Literature students to read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Hamilton was a serious scholar who compiled myths from varied sources and combined them into relatively easy to read, concise packages that, lined up one after another, formed a fat, enticing book. I was so compelled, as a 25-year-old, by the magical stories in her text, that I’d sit in my bedroom all night, reading, underlining, and scribbling notes in the book’s margins. I’d set the book down every so often and take manic walks in my pajama pants around Montrose, an artsy neighborhood in Houston, Texas, while listening to Joan Baez on my IPod and letting my mind roam. My decision to walk around downtown Houston at night was not a product of common sense or concern for safety, but I suppose none of the horror movie’s I’d watched up to that point properly indoctrinated me with a rational fear of the dark, or of other people. (I was watching The Ring on repeat then, so I likely thought that it was more dangerous to sit in front of the television – lest an evil little girl crawl out – than it was to walk outside.) Then, I’d hurry back in the house, run to my bedroom with its deep, maroon walls and black and brown bookshelves from Target, and re-enter the world of myth.
Until sitting down to write this post about Nosferatu, I hadn’t thought about that particular interest for some time. I suppose much of horror is mythology, but my mind creates separate receptacles: one for terrifying tales of the supernatural, and another for myths of the ancient world. Some ancient myths are indeed terrifying, and some horror stories tell us as much about morality, mortality and culture as an ancient myth, but it never occurred to me that my fixation with these two highly interconnected categories was so natural,
so expected. Nosferatu prompted these thoughts because it was the third movie I saw based of Bram Stoker’s original telling (novel) of the Dracula story. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one of the first horror movies I’d ever seen. Last October, Michael and I saw a Halloween double-feature of the 1931 Dracula and its Spanish language counterpart – both of which are also at least partially based off Stoker’s novel. With much excitement, my mind started conjuring comparisons and contrasts between the three films. The movies became less-film like, started losing their statuses as discrete entities, and became more like alternate variations of one myth.
I’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t read Bram Stoker’s Dracula yet. (Yikes – cringe – and she’s writing a horror blog? And she’s spent much of her adult life as a literature teacher? This is embarrassing). In my defense, it’s in my bag right now and I plan to start it tonight. That said, there are a few commonalities between the three versions of the film I’ve seen that I have to believe derive from the book (though you can discredit my theory if you’ve read it and find otherwise). In reality, there are probably many commonalities, but the ones listed below struck my imagination as salient:
- The Carriage Ride: In all three versions of Dracula, a mysterious
carriage picks up Jonathan Harker where the village driver leaves him (because the positively petrified, lovable-peasant carriage driver refuses to go any further.) Count Dracula’s ghoulish carriage, in each film, can incite the most tepid imagination. Who, exactly, is that man driving the carriage? If Dracula is a malicious amalgam between life and death, what is the carriage drivers’ relationship to those seemingly (but, not really) dichotomous states of existence? The carriage is an essential link – a necessary degree of separation – between the folksy, typical life of the Transylvanian villagers (alive, normative) and the counter-normative, dead-in-life, profane realm of the Count. If Count Dracula represents the living dead, the carriage driver and his team of phantom horses are one conduit between the living and the dead, or between the living and the living-dead. As such, the carriage-driver represents a highly altered degree of alive-ness. He collapses our narrow alive-dead dichotomy even more than the Count himself does. He exists — along with his team of horses — in a murky center, and for that reason becomes infinitely captivating. But wait? What if the carriage driver is Count Dracula? Especially after reading the first 20 pages of Stoker’s text (yes, it’s been a day now, and I’ve started reading it) it seems like this may have been Stoker’s intent. Does this diminish the power of the scene in which Harker first meets Dracula? For me, it does. I prefer to think of the carriage driver as a mysterious other-being, one of many unfortunate minions who inhabit Dracula’s castle.
- The First Night Dinner: In each of the three film versions I’ve watched, Harker sits down to dinner his first night at the castle, a dinner provided by the Count. Of course, it’s natural that Count wouldn’t eat with him, since the Count eats human blood. In fact, in both the 1931 and 1992 versions of the movie, the Count says, suggestively, “I don’t drink……wine,” (insert sharp, clever Romanian accent here). Then Harker cuts his finger, and the insatiable Count can hardly control himself (exhibiting varied degrees of frenzy, depending on the film version). But this scene seems very intentional for another reason: literarily, dining together is a sign of character communion. After all, we choose who we dine with. People gathered around a table for dinner can be the great equalizer between otherwise notably different human beings – or literary characters. How telling it is, then, that Harker eats while the Count, dead-in-life, watches on, a distinct indicator that the Count is different – to say the least. After all, how often do you see the living and the dead dine at the same table? The ritual of dining forecasts Harker’s solitude in the castle and highlights his inherent difference from Dracula (Harker is living, breathing, good, and Dracula is half-dead, life-sucking, bad).
- Renfield – the raving lunatic: Each of the three Dracula films I’ve seen deal with Renfield slightly differently, but in each film Renfield is Dracula’s pawn – albeit too comical and crazy to seem “evil,” in the
word’s truest sense. Renfield, according to Coppola’s rendition of the story, went to Dracula’s castle to broker a deal before Harker. Unlike Harker, who escapes with his sanity, Renfield comes back a bug-eating madman. In Nosferatu, he’s far more intelligent and calculating; he actually sends Harker to the Count’s castle so Harker will forge a deal to bring the Count back to America. But, ultimately, even in Nosferatu, he loses his mind, becoming unfailingly reverential of his dark master. Renfield is interesting not only because he’s simultaneously comedic and unnerving in every
version of Dracula I’ve seen, but because he speaks to Dracula’s demonic powers. How does evil spread itself around? Well, if you watch a lot of horror movies, you can answer this question. Demons inhabit peoples’ bodies, right? And witches cast spells. And ghosts, well, they usually make
noises and throw things. And vampires suck blood, traditionally turning their victims into vampires. Only, Dracula seems to have a bit more power than mere vampire-creation when he so specifically aligns Renfield’s will to his own; he does more than turn Renfield into a mindless vampire. He seems to have the agency to make intelligent beings (still intelligently) bend to his whim. His presence in the myth does, however, seem to solidify one important fact: one cannot sit too close to a transgression between life and death without losing one’s mind.
- Dracula’s Journey: In each of the films (and, I’m assuming, in the book) Dracula travels to London and destroys the ship he’s traveling in, often plaguing, maddening, or killing the other passengers. In Stoker’s text, Harker consistently mentions being from the “West,” (Western Europe) and going “East” (to Eastern Europe). In the “East,” everything is different; people are always crossing themselves and carriages are never on time. It’s no wonder, then, that an exotic being who situates himself on the middle of the life-death spectrum comes from the equally exotic East, seemingly, in Stoker’s text, a combination of simple-minded, unassuming peasants and insidious evil. Dracula – though he can’t go out in the light of day – is frighteningly unrestricted when it comes to traversing space. While traditional horror lore has it that ghost inhabit houses, and are confined to said edifices, Dracula can go anywhere. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, the devil is a fast-traveling, cosmopolitan man, an all-knowing man of the world. Dracula is something similar. He would be far less formidable if he were a shriveled- fanged creature (which he is, in Nosferatu) confined to his Castle (which he is not). But, though quiet, stealth, and sneaky, he’s startlingly powerful, as evidenced by his journey to London.
A Note on Dracula’s Appearance: Despite myriad similarities between the three films, filmmakers have differed remarkably in regards to what this blood-sucking ghoul should look like, and what his personality should be like. Arguably, F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu, concocted the best movie monster, with his wiry frame, hunched back, blackened eyes, sharp fangs, and merciless claws. In fact, the monster in the contemporary film The Babadook surprisingly mimics Nosferatu, at least in terms of his long, razor-sharp talons. (It is worth noting that this eerie, less-than-subtle Dracula proclaims ‘What a lovely throat!’ when Harker displays a picture of his wife, Mina, making him a bit more laughable despite his sinister façade).
Dracula gets decidedly less scary – and arguably, disappointing – enshrined in the body of Bela Lugosi, who, in the film, portrays a suave, well-dressed, attractive gentleman. However, traditional lore would posit that evil often presents itself in pleasant packages, providing ample justification for this movie-making decision.
To Francis Ford Coppola’s credit, he spanned the gamut with his version of Dracula, providing us with a decidedly white and somewhat withered old man who also has the power to present himself as an attractive, young prince with wavy hair. Thus, we get something close to the chilling ghoul of Murnau’s vision (though, still, not quite as scary), but with the ability to hide his disturbing mien behind the epitome of handsomeness.
Ancient Myth was a product of oral tradition. Before scholars could create literal renditions of the stories craved by the public, such stories were passed down, by word of mouth, from teller, to audience, to new teller, to new audience, and so forth. We get frustrated, so often, when film adaptations deviate from the book off which they’re based. Admittedly, a director has many reasons for making changes, some noble, some not, some artistic, some profit-driven, but perhaps – at least, in the case of Dracula – the multitudinous film adaptations are just like the different versions of myths that oral storytellers would tell. Perhaps the myth becomes richer from re-telling. And, perhaps, we can learn as much from the similarities between each telling as we can from the differences. What is it about getting “the ultimate hickey” from a half-dead man that terrifies us? Why does Renfield’s pathetic, madman character persist in varied adaptations, despite other character differences?
After writing this, I’ve deduced that the 25 year-old combing curiously through Hamilton’s mythology was not fueled by interests starkly different from the 31-year-old who devours vampire lore with avarice, who will likely stay up until three a.m. (significantly, the witching hour!) to read about Harker’s stay in Dracula’s castle, and to read about the man-beast who sits at the nexus of life and death, praying on the vital life-force of his hapless victims. If Stoker’s Dracula reads more insidiously than a Greek myth for its fearful tone and gloomy imagery, it similarly encapsulates the thoughts and fears of a society. Fear of the unknown? Fear of rampant, neck-sucking sexuality? Fear of the Eastern “Other?” Fear of the ever-more-mutable boundary between life and death? One could – and many have – analyzed the exact symbolism endlessly, but one thing seems decidedly certain: The story of Count Dracula remains among the most pervasive myths of Western Culture. And, if I do say so myself, it’s a damn good story.