The Vampires’ Journey IV. The undead comes to the movies

SPOILER ALERT: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Dir: F W Murnau 1922, Eclipse (movie and book), BtVS (Seasons One and Five), Dracula, Dir: Tod Browning, 1931

Max Shreck as Nosferatu in 1922

Ken Gelder observes of Dracula (and James Bond) movies that “these films each bear only a nominal relationship(s) to their literary source(s). Moreover as they begin to comprise a distinct genre, these films speak to themselves … much more than they to speak to any ‘original’ novel(s)”.[1] Each appearance of the iconic figure of Dracula in the cinema has seen a departure from Stoker’s novel. Each time this creates new sources of reference for what a vampire or Dracula should be.

Nosferatu and the heroines willing sacrifice

Dracula’s first appearance in film in the 1922 German production Nosferatu, directed by F W Murnau, retained the monstrous characterisation of the count. He appears as a wonderfully creepy creature from nightmares. The film was made without permission from Stoker’s estate so the names of lead characters were changed. While the main plot is the same as Stoker’s novel there are some key differences. Count Dracula (here called Count Orlok) comes from abroad bringing plague and death. Again the metaphor of fear of foreign invasion is central, but this time with an emphasis on disease. Orlok takes blood from his victims and kills them without any connection or love.

Interesting developments in this version include Orlok biting and drinking from the Jonathan Harker character (here called Thomas Hutter), re-establishing a homoerotic element, leaving behind some of the moralistic Victorian restrictions of Stoker’s Dracula. This version also introduces the scene where Orlok sees a portrait of Hutter’s wife, here called Ellen. This would become a staple element of Dracula movies. Orlok may not feel a deep affinity with her but admires her neck. Murnau’s version also reduces the centrality of the Van Helsing character, who along with other key male protagonists of the novel Arthur, Quincey and John form a moral, patriarchal force to challenge Dracula in Stoker’s novel. Van Helsing’s equivalent Bulwer is powerless and the other male characters are dropped from the narrative.

Ellen’s heroic sacrifice

Instead the defeat of the vampire comes at the hands of a woman. The “Mina” character, Ellen, researches Count Orlok and finds out from The Book of Vampires that he can be killed if a woman pure of heart willingly gives him her blood, distracting him from the rising sun. This marks a departure from Stoker’s novel where sunlight does not kill but only weakens vampires. It also places a woman in a position of power over the monster. While the men of the town seem unable to act in the face of the vampire invasion, Ellen takes control of the situation. She does her research and does what others (including the men) cannot. Her triumph though is a melodramatic one. Ellen’s behaviour is hysterical from the outset of the film. Can she be defined as a “strong” female lead? This was 1922, so let’s give the girl a break. The women’s liberation movement was still a long way off. However this early example of a woman taking a more active role may have been an indication of change in the air. The first decades of the 20th century had witnessed the women’s suffrage movement and women taking important roles in social struggles such as the Russian revolution.

Ellen’s sacrificial heroic act can also be seen as setting precedents for such acts by recent female leads Bella and Buffy. Bella’s sacrificial act of cutting her arm to distract Victoria in their final confrontation in Eclipse echoes Ellen’s pure hearted act of 1922. But her action is limited to saving her boyfriend and her friend, not the town or the world. The willing sacrifice is also seen in BtVS Seasons’ One and Five finales’ when Buffy dies twice to save the world. The first time she has been duped by prophecy, and by willingly going to the not un-Nosferatu like Master wearing a virgins white dress she releases him from his prison in the Hellmouth. She again wears white when she jumps to her death in season five emphasising the purity of this sacrificial act. This time she genuinely saves both her sister and the world. All three women make their sacrifices for personal reasons but in Ellen and Buffy’s case there is also a bigger picture.

Nosferatu also breaks from Stoker’s model in being more critical of human society. Stoker’s humans are virtuous and honorable while Dracula was grotesquely differentiated from the British Victorians who he terrorised. Nosferatu’s shadowy vampire mirrors a more sinister and savage community in the city of Bremen where it is set. This use of horror to cast doubt on the goodness of the people who are the victims of the monsters has flourished in film and TV in the 20th century. For example in George A Romero’s zombie movies the viewer is often forced to confront the question of who is most monstrous: the zombie or the human. This can also be seen in the True Blood TV series. Through Sookie’s mind reading abilities we often see darkness in the minds of humans that rivals the evil of the supernatural monsters. The series, and the books on which they are based, excel in blurring boundaries between good and evil with a human man perpetrating serial murders in the first season and the human congregation of a church willing to commit murder and sexual assault in the second.

The good guys?

Dracula in a Tux

Bela Lugosi’s Dracula

Tod Browning’s Dracula made in America in 1931 is famous for Bela Lugosi’s performance of the Count in a tuxedo and a cape that would define representations of Dracula for decades. Lugosi injected Dracula with a certain sexuality, embodied in his exotic accent. Desire for this Dracula meant embracing his foreign strangeness. Browning’s version reinvigorates the role of Van Helsing who pushes aside other men to proclaim himself the leader needed to defeat Dracula. Like Nosferatu, this Dracula bites his male visitor. This time Harker is swapped for the insane bug-eating Renfield, who unlike Stoker’s reluctant Harker is “an eccentric trespasser who courts transformation”.[2] Auerbach argues that the restless male travelers featured in both Murnau’s Nosferatu and Browning’s Dracula “look back with some yearning toward the homoerotic phase of vampire literature”.[3] But ultimately both these films reject intimacy. Such desires are cast as perversity, which courts disaster. In the meantime Lugosi’s Dracula stalks Lucy and Mina. Although this time Dracula insinuates himself into their social circles appearing as a guest at his prospective victims’ home and at the theatre in their box, he still acts as a predator with no pretense of romance, coming to their rooms in a bat form and taking from them without consent.

As noted earlier, vampires of the early 19th century were established as romantic interests so that they would appear in deceptively human form. They left behind the earlier vampire model of a zombie-like creature that feeds off the living. But while Stoker’s Dracula and Nosferatu’s Orlok appeared physically monstrous, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula invented a more suave and sensuous Count. Although entirely monstrous vampires also reappear in vampire fiction, from Lugosi’s portrayal in 1931 most vampires become more attractive. Even those with monstrous intent often hide this behind an attractive, seductive exterior. The post-war period saw a further revival of alluring vampires, this time with their attention fully focused on the opposite sex. And now women began to take a more active role in those relationships.

Coming soon … Dracula in the 1960s, Hammer Horror’s blood, sex and interior design …

Please note this is part four of a series of articles. If you feel you are missing something please refer back to earlier posts.

[1] Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire, Routledge, 1994, p90.

[2] Auerbach, p76.

[3] Auerbach, p79.

Text © Angela S

10 thoughts on “The Vampires’ Journey IV. The undead comes to the movies

  1. Very interesting article.

    I found particularly enlightening the character of “Ellen”. I haven’t seen the movie so I wasn’t aware of how liberated (comparatively speaking) she was. Taking action while the mean fluttered about. You go girl!

    My only argument would be with the inclusion of Bella. I don’t consider giving oneself a cut in order to provide distraction to save one’s immortal boyfriend much of a sacrifice. Certainly not on the level of the other women listed who actually gave their lives for the greater good. But then perhaps I am biased as I really detest that particular character.


  2. You’re not the only one to detest that particular character! Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t claim Bella as a strong female lead, but I do like to draw out connections between vampire narratives across the decades.

    When I watched Nosferatu I was struck by Ellen’s shockingly melodramatic performance (you will see what I mean!). Throwing herself into her man’s arms, fainting and beating her chest (before a vampire has even shown up!). It reminded me of Bella and while the hysterical woman can be expected in a 1920s performance it is a real shock to see that in cinemas and novels today. Despite that behaviour, Ellen still made for a stronger female role model than Bella. While her actions make a real difference, Bella’s are dismissed by Edward as a “little stunt”.

    But I still feel it is worth bringing out the connection of these women’s compulsions, (and the trends to write/play them) be they genuine one’s or a melodramatic stunt.


    • I’ve got to watch that if just for the sheer melodrama! lol

      I guess the big difference here is that Ellen is from a time when women were still looked at as “less than” and treated so. While Bella is, supposedly from a more “enlightened” age.

      It is certainly a thought provoking comparison. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we though…


  3. ooh – Ken Gelder marked my honours thesis! I’m not sure he liked it that much … Just love Nosferatu, as you probably noticed! We had the weirdest lecture on it once, about how Nosferatu existed in the ‘tain’ of the mirror (that’s the bit under the reflective surface). There’s a bit of use of negative images in the film, but to be honest, most of that lecture went completely over my head… I think it was more to do with the unknowable and the surface and I should have read some more on philosophy. I just thought it was a lovely film to look at and was happy to leave it at that.


  4. Pingback: 9 of the best recurring minor characters introduced in Season 1 of Buffy | Vampires These Days

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