I am, at this exact moment, working on two stories that borrow heavily from and are inspired by the Universal Monsters (one of which you can already start reading at my writing blog). I was raised on Universal Monsters. I grew up with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. I loved Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man, as well as less known classics like Dracula’s Daughter. And these movies are highly influential. The reason we view Frankenstein’s monster as a large foreheaded, platform shoe wearing, monosyllabic brute is because of Boris Karloff’s performance as just that. It’s for the same reason Dracula has evolved into a handsome aristocrat, wearing a cape and unable to drink… wine. These movies have become classics, relevant beyond the time period they were filmed in, and directly influenced how we viewed monsters.
Since I am so in love with monsters, and since I am so heavily influenced by the Universal Monster movies, I thought I’d examine those movies in context, starting with the greatest. Dracula is actually based on a 1924 play that was authorized by Bram Stoker’s widow, which may explain some inconsistencies with the actual book Dracula. Bela Lugosi played the title character in the play, which is what directly led him to being cast in the movie, and according to the Wiki article on the play, it was his first English-speaking role, being from Hungary. The 1931 movie was not the fist filmed production of Dracula, of course. A 1921 Hungarian silent film called Dracula’s Death gets that honor, though the film is now lost to time. The film itself had little to do with the actual novel, featuring a woman beset upon by frightening visions after she meets an asylum inmate claiming to be Count Dracula. This is about the most information I can find on this film, and it seems anyone can.
More famously, Nosferatu was released in 1922, while Dracula was still in copyright. Surprisingly, this film follows more closely than the more recognizable films. The first half of the movie is the book. Thomas Hutter (Jonathon Harker) goes to Count Orlock’s (Count Dracula’s) castle, becomes beset upon by midnight phantoms and discovers Count Orlock’s true nature, escapes, and suffers a mental breakdown for it. It includes Count Orlock’s journey across the sea on a doomed ship, and, most interestingly, spreads plague wherever he goes. Count Orlock is more associated with rats than any other creatures, to the point of his rat-like features and plague bearing nature. The film simplifies the ending, with Ellen (Mina) sacrifices her neck by keeping Count Orlock there until the sun rises, destroying him, and the Ellen and Thomas embrace. The film was well received in its time and as much as the Bela Lugosi performance is considered a classic, iconic, and still remains a genuinely good film. I had the pleasure of viewing it with a live orchestra a few months ago, and it more or less holds up. It is haunting. The shadowy form of Orlock as it creeps towards Ellen’s bed, the madness that overcomes Thomas, the empty streets as plague wipes out an entire town, it is, except for a few scenes which belie its age, a symphony of horror.
I mention Nosferatu not just because I adore silent films, but because the notion of Count Orlock carrying the plague is in line with vampires I’ve discussed before. Vampires are very many times related to illness. Tuberculosis is referred to as the White Plague, and it killed thousands, but to hammer in the point, it was a family disease. One person would die, and supposedly return to the family after death, spreading it that way. I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, but vampires as a disease is a common enough interpretation. Of course, vampire myth is as varied and wild as the cultures that have vampires (see: all of them). For every outrage at Edward Cullen sparkling, I’m reminded that vampire watermelons are a real legend, and ascribing a singular folklore to a mythology as vast as this is impossible. It’s worth noting Nosferatu was also nearly lost, as the Stoker estate set out to destroy as many copies as possible. This is a running theme with silent films.
I wonder if the reason the Universal Monsters have defined the monsters in our heads is because, for many of them, this is the first time they are on screen. The visual medium of film is something finite. It creates images that stay with us through generations. Similar to how Harry Potter will always look like Daniel Radcliffe, and Dorothy is defined by Judy Garland. Film is still new, and as a visual medium, it is often striking, memorable, and genre defining. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf-Man were filmed when movies were starting to become a thing. Dracula isn’t the first on-screen appearance of a vampire, but it’s the first one that was seen by a massive populace, and was catapulted into movie history. So now, even people who’ve never seen a black and white movie can see a man in an evening cape with long teeth going “bleh”, and they say, “Vampire.”
I am remiss to talk about movie Dracula without discussing book Dracula. While the movie Dracula condenses many elements of the book, it still carries over its themes and ideas. Made in a time when the copyright was still in place, Dracula was, in the grand scheme of things, fairly new. So it does owe a lot to the book, and to the many, many Victorian vampire novels that came before it.
The original novel of Dracula is good. It is drenched in Victorian morals and themes of good Christians winning out against hairy, women-stealing foreigners, but it is still good. It’s worth noting that it came after a long string of Victorian vampire novels and it borrows elements from many of those. Carmilla, notably, has a female vampire who embeds herself in the home of another young woman, visiting her in her sleep every night, transforming into a large black cat, and drinking her blood slowly and purposefully until she’s discovered, and a team of men go to her grave to chop off her head. Varney the Vampire as well was a penny dreadful that ran for two years, which features an aristocratic vampire who harrasses a family. Many modern day vampire tropes are ascribed to Varney, including the two fangs leaving puncture wounds, hypnotic powers, superhuman strength, and the fact that he doesn’t drink… wine (or eat food). He’s also a sympathetic vampire, as he despises his condition, though he’s also a bitter, lonely man who turns a woman into a vampire out of spite. Dracula may owe the most of his design to Varney.
Many, many people have read various things into the character of Dracula and the themes of the novel. Anxiety seems to be the primary one. Of what, there is little agreement. Anxiety over colonialism, anxiety over capitalism, anxiety over religion, or homosexuality, or racial mixing. Similarly, vampires before this embodied anxiety over plague and disease, or anxiety over war, or anxiety over the afterlife. Monsters have always stood in for an “other” and given form to the anxieties we as a culture are experiencing. (If you’re wondering why alien invasion fiction was so popular in the 1950s and 60s, look into the Cold War.) Vampires are good for representing many “others”. Homosexuality is an easy one, and they’re a pretty good stand in for the predatory gay. After all, they corner people against their will, penetrate them, exchange fluids, and make more of their own. Capitalism also gains a stand in, since they are aristocratic in nature, often oppressing the villagers in their own home regions, often Eastern European, where communism and socialism thrived. Their tolls of blood mimic the blood spilled by workers for the benefit of one man or corporation. I’ve always viewed the original book of Dracula as a fear of immigrants, who come from across the sea to attack good Christian women and turn them into bloodsucking monsters.
The women of Dracula I find fascinating, and I could write a ten page research paper on Mina, Lucy, and the brides, the Madonna-whore complex of the book, how they become hypersexual in adaptions (and Lucy in her original form, who courted several men and was disappointed she couldn’t marry all of them), and how they are treated, but instead, I’m going to talk about Dracula’s Daughter. Dracula’s Daughter is a direct sequel to the 1931 film and it features, yes, Dracula’s daughter, a woman named Marya Zaleska. Like Varney from before, Marya is a sympathetic vampire who considers her state a curse. She steals Dracula’s body and burns it, attempting to break that curse. Here is what is most interesting about Marya Zaleska: she realizes her bloodsucking is a compulsion, and so she seeks psychiatric help. She meets Dr. Jeffrey Garth, and begs him to help her. What’s more interesting is how this ties into her compulsions. Marya specifically preys on young, attractive women. She paints and invites women back to her studio, where she succumbs to her compulsions and bites her while she is barely even clothed. Later, Marya takes a young woman hostage, which leads to a scene described as “the longest kiss never filmed”.
I think, perhaps, the most informed vampire story since Bela Lugosi graced the screen as a vampyr is the 1985 film Fright Night. Here, our vampire is a villain, a force beset upon Charley Brewster and his friends. This is probably a more overt reference to Dracula, as Charley clearly plays the Jonathon Harker, his girlfriend Amy as Mina, and his friend Evil Ed as Renfield (there’s always a Renfield). There’s even a moment where the resident vampire hunter, Peter Vincent, looks at a pocket mirror and realizes that the vampire has no reflection in it. Jerry (I adore that the vampire’s name is Jerry Dandridge, it’s so generically middle America) is Bela Lugosi’s Dracula played in a modern era. While not an aristocrat, he’s clearly rich, or has money, since his house is large and filled with stuff, and he invokes a following. His might-be-gay lackey follows his word to the letter, and seems to enjoy his own immortality through being made of green goo. Ed similarly becomes infatuated with Jerry (I use this word purposefully) after a sudden encounter with him, and transforms into a vampire as well. Like Renfield, he’s obsessive, desperate for his own immortality, and reduced as a human being into a desperate, blood hungry, mentally shattered pawn. Amy becomes entranced by him, adding an extra level of terror, since she is a teenage girl, and is turned by him, much like Mina is in the original novel, and she is saved by the vampire hunter and her beloved, her demons cast out of her. While many, many vampire stories try desperately to tie in sexuality with the blood drinking, anything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Moth Diaries, this is one that makes that sexuality come across as dangerous and transformative. That dangerous sexuality and disregard for humans as more than meals is made more obvious in the better-than-expected remake, in which Jerry spends one scene watching a Real Housewives scene in which the women discuss their implants, right before Charley finds girls literally kept prisoner in the basement below. It weaves together the power the vampire wields, the sexuality it exudes, and the danger the characters are in even when they don’t know it as well as the original novel and the movie that spawned a thousand others.
Modern vampire movies are remaking Dracula. They are expanding on it, they are sympathizing with it, they are subverting it, but they are ultimately working off the baseline of Dracula. I believe horror writers have read a vampire book that isn’t Dracula. I may even believe they’re familiar with the works of John Polidori and James Malcolm Rymer. But the pop culture framework, the shorthand for vampire, and the countless jokes that continue to this day are all based in the 1931 film. Dracula was the first true pop culture vampire. The book is certainly better remembered than its predecessors, and the film is ranked highly among monster movies and classic movies. And perhaps what’s most interesting in Dracula’s evolution as a character is how he and his kin have grown from emotionless, consuming monsters to sympathetic creatures burdened by their curse.
As a lesbian, I tend to identify very strongly with lesbian characters, which explains why I write so many characters as lesbians, and also explains why I’m so invested in many of these monster movies. The characters of Carmilla and Marya Zaleska have informed more of my writing vampires than any other vampire fiction. And as an “other”, I identify strongly with the “other”. I could write a hundred papers on gay vampires and plan to write a hundred more stories using just that, but what I will say is that these creatures identifying with an “other” has made us identify with them. So whatever vampires are meant to represent, or whatever they have represented to people in the past, those narratives have given way to sympathetic portrayals of creatures we would otherwise refuse to understand. Immigrants, gays and lesbians, addicts, people who are invisible in society until deemed a monster, and then the hunt begins. It’s also possible, with the advent of the sexy vampire, that people are just completely willing to give a pass to handsome men doing terrible things, but I like to believe that we learn to identify with the monster and, in a sense, the people society would choose to reject.
I adore vampires, so I consume vampire fiction near constantly. If you are looking for more modern vampires to engage in, I recommend the 1985 Fright Night and its remake, both which have its high points and its low points. For more lesbian vampires, The Moth Diaries is a fairly good film based on a book I never read, and it gives a more ambiguous vampire, and deals heavily in those anxieties. In a completely different vein, the Carmilla web series is a delight from start to finish, and its ending came at a time when lesbians were near constantly dying off in fiction, giving a heartwarming reprieve to those of us who wish for a happy ending. Carpe Jugulum is a Terry Pratchett book that makes fun of many vampire tropes (including the vampire watermelons) and is a delight from start to finish. It’s in a long series known as the Discworld, but you do not need previous knowledge to pick it up. (Monstrous Regiment is also in this series, and features one of my favorite vampire characters written.) If you are a fan of the classics and haven’t seen the Spanish version of the 1931 Dracula, it was shot on the same set at night while the English version was going on, and they set out to make a better movie. And they did. For the art crowd, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a Persian-language film described as “the first Iranian vampire western”, which throws in a lot of elements discussed and is a very interesting watch. For those who love Hammer Horror, The Vampire Lovers is an actually fairly straight forward adaption of Carmilla, with all the things you love about Hammer Horror thrown in. And if you haven’t see What We Do in the Shadows yet, like the Pratchett example, it’s a parody of many vampire tropes, and it’s delightful.
You can tell I consume a lot of vampire media. Sitting down with this, I was trying to come up with my favorite vampire book or movie, but honestly it’s such a rich fiction with so many diverse elements, I find it hard to choose just one. There are many, many elements to vampires that make them fascinating, and it makes audiences want to see more. Of course, with us being burned out on Twilight and the like, we probably won’t be seeing any big name vampire story any time soon, but we still enjoy the supernatural. We still want to see more of it. And, honestly, I really enjoy vampires as an aspect in a larger supernatural world. They can play foil to many others (most notably werewolves). They are more interesting when they share the screen, which is probably why they do so many times.
Again, you can start reading my 1950s monster mash that borrows almost exclusively from the Universal Monsters here, as well as an excerpt of my Victorian era monster mash (I like what I like) that I’m in the midst of editing here.