How Can Musty Old Dracula Scare Sophisticated Viewers in the 21st Century?

Meredith Wade
Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)

The Count’s long and many lives have terrified us with our xenophobia, anti-Communism, and fear of AIDS. What will he do to us next?

Over the past few years, American film and television has revamped the undead for contemporary audiences, closing geographical, socioeconomic, and emotional gaps between ourselves and our bloodsucking fellow travelers. But the (un)holy trinity of Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries is more than a sexed-up rehash of a lucrative franchise with no pesky licensing fee. Since the publication of Dracula, creators have used vampires as a vessel for our collective societal fears, and the most recent crop of films, novels, and television series signals a major shift in what vampires mean about us. Now, even as the Twilight saga passes its torch on to such works as Warm Bodies and Beautiful Creatures, these sparkly heartthrobs may prove to be beacons of a more integrated, compassionate, and pluralist society.

Let’s take a step back here, and look at the monster that made this all possible: Count Dracula, the great fanged patriarch. Dracula is the most pervasive and ubiquitous vampire in any medium, portrayed more frequently than any other horror movie monster. But what’s more, he acted as a unifying figure for the multitudes of vampire myths in existence. The vampire of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel set the precedent for vampires in popular culture, cementing the vampire’s role as antagonist in addition to the connection between vampirism and sexual deviance through its exploration of malevolent seduction and topsy-turvy gender roles.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922)

Dracula’s cinematic debut came in 1922 with the release of the German Expressionist film Nosferatu. Although Stoker’s story was half-heartedly altered for copyright reasons, the Count remains an incontrovertible villain, grotesque and disturbing in both appearance and practice. When the United States entered the vampire film scene in 1927, it carried on this perception of vampires as a species with London After Midnight. But America’s first Dracula film changed everything.

Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula was the second American vampire film ever released, and film buffs consider Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Count Dracula therein to be the catalyst in the vampire’s transformation from hideous, uncouth adversary into the seductively smooth object of romantic interest. The film sold 50,000 tickets within 48 hours of opening, revitalizing Universal Pictures during the Great Depression and paving the way for sequels and remakes that continued lining the studio’s coffers.

Though the response to Dracula may have been indicative of economic anxieties, illustrating the link between financial instability and an audience’s appetite for fear, its conception and production seem more reflective of social ones. The 1920s had been rife with xenophobia and racial tensions, bearing witness to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and consequent mob violence, as well as staunch isolationism in the aftermath of World War I. America’s first Red Scare placed anyone with radical political views—especially those who were foreign-born—under scrutiny. It reached a peak in the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists accused of murder in an extremely questionable trial. As the Bolshevik Revolution tore down the entrenched autocracy in Russia, Americans began to see any political ideologies and actions that even dimly resembled Communism as a threat.

In Browning’s film, Count Dracula swoops into England from the mysterious Carpathian Mountains to prey on the blood of two chaste young women. Prior to Dracula’s production, aforementioned residual isolationism and the association of Russia with Communism primed Americans for a decidedly foreign, specifically Eastern European, antagonist. And Lugosi, himself Romanian, delivered: he’s memorable in the film for his thick accent and halting manner of speech, a characteristic replicated by anyone wanting to be instantly recognized as the Count. But what’s fascinating about this rendition is that while it clearly takes advantage of its audience’s xenophobia, Dracula isn’t seen, at least not physically, as a monster—like Communism and radicalism, he’s outwardly appealing but dangerous in actuality.

Francis Lederer in Return of Dracula (1958)

Let’s fast forward to the year 1958, when Cold War tensions found their way into an even more overt anti-Communist allegory. The Return of Dracula placed Stoker’s story in then-present-day America rather than Victorian England and transformed the Mina Harker figure into a teenage girl called Rachel Mayberry, making it easier for contemporary audiences to relate to the tale. The producers once again fixated on the vampire’s foreignness. This time, the Count hails from the Balkans, and tricks his way into the protagonist’s home by posing as her Czech cousin, whom Dracula murders en route to the States.

By the time this movie was under production, Soviet Russia and the United States were official enemies, and the threat of atomic warfare engendered a constant fear of nuclear Armageddon. Children of the Cold War practiced duck-and-cover drills to be prepared for the seemingly inevitable bomb, and some families constructed fallout shelters in their backyards. America’s second Red Scare, an out-of-control anti-Communist witch-hunt, permeated homes and strained relationships in communities across the nation. The nuclear arms race was on, stakes were brutally high, and Communism was explicitly presented as the enemy of truth, justice, and the American way.

Hollywood picked up on this, and played off our irrationally pervasive paranoia about Communism in The Return of Dracula. First, this Cold War Count was played by the fittingly Czech actor Francis Lederer (who also made an appearance as Dracula in Rod Sterling’s 1971 Night Gallery), once more lending him an Eastern European accent and harkening back to the xenophobia of Browning’s Dracula. Next, he displays an exaggerated sensitivity to crucifixes. The rise of Communism in Russia struck down the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in favor of atheism, Communist troops destroyed Church property, and believers faced persecution. If 1958’s Dracula represented the harbinger of such a hostile ideological system, a symbol of traditional faith would be a fitting mode of protection against him. Finally and most convincingly, this incarnation of Dracula harbors a desire to spread vampirism specifically to create an empire of blood-sucking minions.

The passage that introduces the Count’s background and origin has almost unequivocal implications for the real world, detailing the threat he poses not just to his victims, but to society as a whole. It ensures that the audience knows the vampire is from central Europe, and warns that “though human in appearance and cultured in manner, he was in truth... a force of evil.” This phrasing, like Lugosi’s debonair performance in 1931, characterizes Communism as a quiet threat, or at least one that presents itself as safe and reasonable in order to infiltrate the lives of its victims easily. Moreover, this introductory monologue accentuates Count Dracula’s ambitions: he does not feed for sustenance alone. His larger aim is to turn unsuspecting innocents into vampires, “thus spreading his evil dominion ever wider.”

Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Dracula (1931) and The Return of Dracula have more in common than similar plotlines and thinly-veiled anti-Communist and xenophobic themes: in both cases, Dracula is seen as an unambiguous villain. His malevolent actions are never justified or explained away by anything further than his evil nature, and the audience never really gets insight into Dracula’s point of view. Though the sympathetic vampire wasn’t new at the time, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, brought a deeper, more human Count Dracula into the public’s view, to the sweet tune of over $200 million brought in worldwide. This version of the Count had something neither of the others did: a back story.

Next Page
Pop Ten
Collapse Expand Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.