Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Tod Browning | Dracula

homage to a dead vampire

by Douglas Messerli


Garrett Fort (screenplay, based on the book by Bram Stoker and the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston), Tod Browning (director) Dracula / 1931


Before I even begin discussing this film, I must reassert what has long been presumed and discussed often in academia, but not in the popular media: Vampires are inherently homosexual, and their activities of sucking the blood of living human beings cannot help but be associated with sexual activities, along with other queer forms of behavior which border on cannibalism and purposeful infection.

     Let me just begin by reminding the reader that in order to survive, the vampire, who lives only at night and evidently for eternity unless special actions are taken (a stake in the heart, sunlight pouring in upon a vampire in his coffin, etc.), survives only through the intake of human blood, the gender being of no importance. In both F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and in Tod Browning’s Dracula, in fact, it is the male courier Thomas Hutter in Nosferatu and Renfield (Dwight Frye) in the 1931 film to whom the vampire is first attracted, and who, in both cases, become slaves to his desires. In the original Bram Stoker fiction, the author expresses it even more clearly in having his Dracula, as he orders his women vampire cohorts out of John Harker’s room (in the original it is Harker who travels to Transylvania in order to meet with Count Dracula), exclaim “To-night is mine! To-morrow is yours?” as he moves into the bite.* And later, after Lucy Weston dies, becoming the vampire described as “the woman in white,” she dines almost exclusively on female children, hinting at kind of lesbian pedophile behavior as well.  

     Because of his needs of sleeping in the soil in which he is buried, his or her limitation to night time activities (the way we point to the gay life of bars and clubs today) and his or her strange sexual habits, the vampire inherently is forever an outsider, one who cannot safely be brought into heteronormative society. Of the numerous essays discussing this phenomenon, I’ll quote a couple of more recent critical studies, the first by Clare Nee from her essay “The Haunt of Injustice: Exploring Homophobia in Vampire Literature”:


“The classic texts of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula reinforce the notion that the vampire encapsulates societal anxieties about the “uncontrollable,” one that pertains to sexuality and transforms these narratives into cultural hauntings. While some people may believe that vampire literature are composed of merely silly, “make believe” stories, the truth is that they act as platforms to address serious social issues—such as homophobia—that still haunt our society. Carmilla and Dracula portray the hunts for and violent deaths of homosexual vampires to underscore the normalized marginalization of homosexuals, a cultural haunting that extends into modern society.”


     Or, as William A. Tringali puts it in his essay “Not Just Dead, But Gay!”:


“The vampire is the queerest of monsters. Its terror does not emerge because it is an ungodly creation of science, or a mindless killing machine. It does not rise from the deep, scaled and covered in algae to steal unwary beachgoers. It is not a mishmash of various corpses, sewn together by a mad scientist. It does not howl at the moon, or remain a mild-mannered Jekyll in its waking hours, only to transform when it lies down to bed.

     No, the horror of the vampire is sexual. Worse, it is sexual in all the wrong ways. It is beautiful, charming, even occasionally funny and likeable, but definitively abnormal. This allows the vampire to become a conduit for cultural anxieties concerning queerness within society. As a creature that straddles the binaries of life and death, drawing attraction and repulsion, the vampire queers both gender and sexuality. Stories about vampires can reflect and dramatize cultural anxieties surrounding queerness across both time periods and mediums.”


     Other than Dracula (Bela Lugosi) himself and Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), the female who he chooses to attack—more as a way to get to her fiancée John Harker, I argue, than his secondary  attempt to diminish the strong intelligent and independent-thinking women of the day who Mina and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) represent—the central figure of Browning’s version of the myth is actually Renfield, who is left by the vampire in the least pleasant of situations: a still-living man in the thrall of the beast, who, although able to survive in the daylight, is unable to fulfill his nighttime desires, particularly to feast of human blood. He is left only with rats, flies, and an occasional spider. Aware of what is happening to the Seward family, inculpating him the gradual murder of Mina, he is nonetheless unable to prevent what is occurring due to the ignorance of Harker and even Mina’s father, both of whom resist the warnings of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Renfield himself.

     Renfield is both made detestable because of his horrific laughter which is interrupted to be part of his madness and pitiable because of his “in-between,” twilight kind of existence. He is neither fully human or one of the “undead.” You might almost describe him as gender indecisive, or even as a closeted queer, a man who dreadfully desires to suck the blood of a human male but is forced to refuse himself the privilege, demanded by outside forces (in this case Dracula) to fulfill his  desires with unhuman flesh, making him also an outsider but with none of the vampire group support system. He can read the language of the wolves, but still cannot run with them. At only one point in the film, when the maid faints, does Renfield dare to move in for human flesh, and that it quickly interrupted.


    If Seward and particularly Harker were not so stubbornly traditional and heterosexual in their presumptions, they might have used Renfield very effectively as a conduit to the vampire world, saving Mina far earlier from the intermixture of blood which will doom her to the life of vampirism. But Harker is insistent in Browning’s version of enacting a kind of rape, of carrying her off to London presumably to protect her, when in fact it will simply remove her from Van Helsing’s useful, if still ineffective protection.

     Instead, Dracula uses her as a tool to get to Harker, forcing her to attempt to bite into and suck her would-be lover’s blood, another evidence of gender shifts in this film, demanding that Mina be the active force of sexual desire while the male Harker sits back in dull contemplation of what he might possibly do to save his woman. And in this sense, the scene when she interrupted mid-bite is a truly comic scene.

    Of course, male privilege and English Victorian order must be restored, the source of sexual deviation—as well as representing an infiltration of foreignness (a symbol of the British fear of being overwhelmed by Jews and the Romani) and well as the Victorian fears of disease which Nosferatu and Dracula both represent (particularly Syphilis, but also with the specter of rats, Bubonic Plague and other diseases)—permanently destroyed before it spreads. The strange mix of scientificism and belief in primitive folklore that Van Helsing represents finally forced into action as he and Harker visit the Abbey where Dracula resides.


     Dracula, feeling betrayed by Renfield, murders his slave who cries as he is strangled are those a still human being who knows that for him there will be no afterlife, since his blood has not yet been fully intermixed.

    Wandering about calling out Mina’s name instead of being able to bring himself to action, Browning’s Harker is sent to find some object to help Van Helsing pound in the stake, and it is Van Helsing who finally destroys the sexual abnormality that Dracula represents.

     That destruction, oddly, completely restores Mina to complete female lassitude as she explains to Harker her attempt to call out for him but had now power to express. Van Helsing, in a strange moment, sends the now normalized lovers off, explaining he will join them shortly. Why, one must ask, does he remain in the cellar of the Abbey with the dead monster, even momentarily? It is a question that has haunted ever since I first saw this film as a young man, and even more so when I revisited it the other morning.

      You needn’t be academic to simply wonder about this event or even in one’s attempts to possibly to explain it. I think the answer might have something to do with the fact that throughout the narrative, Van Helsing himself as been in a kind of middle-ground of the societal concerns in which he lives. He is, as I suggested earlier, both a believer in the scientific method and in the ancient myths and wives-tales of the Romani, who play a much larger role in Stoker’s original epistolary fiction. It is Van Helsing who first notices that Count Dracula does not appear in the cigarette box mirror, or, in other words, that his image is not properly reflected in the normative vision of the Sewards and Victorian society in general. Realizing that Van Helsing is his true enemy, Dracula attempts to do away with him through hypnotism, drawing him near so that, perhaps, he might suck Van Helsing himself into his world.


      Van Helsing moves slowly forward, as if on command, but then moves just as slowly backward in his tracks, obviously fighting the force of Dracula’s power. Dracula himself recognizes that his foe has “a very strong will,” realizing that he cannot simply pull the scientist into his orbit even if the man believes somewhat in the supernatural, or, to put it in other terms, perceives that there is in fact a world of sexual difference available to the society.

       Could it be that Van Helsing himself feels the pull of homosexuality, but has been successful throughout his life in resisting it, in disallowing his emotions to overtake his intellect? If so, it would only be natural that the man wants a moment to bow down in homage to the monster he has overcome, a monster even within himself. He perhaps needs a moment of private worship or prayer to the force he has been able to destroy not only in the world but within his own being.

       Given the immense outpouring of Dracula-based films and vampire movies since the appearances of Nosferatu and Dracula, it might have seemed like a wonderful idea to group and compare the dozens of films as I have done for the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-influenced works and the films involving Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. But the Dracula and other vampire films are so numerous and also involved, many representing a gradual transformation of the original myth, that in the end I felt it better to contextualize such films within the periods in which they were released.

A substantial number of directors, moreover, not fully grasping the sexual implications of same-sex blood sucking, have presented their Draculas to be primarily heterosexual opportunists, like the monsters that the #MeTo movement have come to speak out against, who represent little of direct interest for the LGBTQ community. Particularly given the vast resurgence of interest in the vampire that has occurred in the past ten years, giving rise to dozens and dozens of new films mostly aimed at younger audiences, I will discuss appropriate works within the context of the period in which they were created. If the 1994 Anne Rice-inspired Interview with a Vampire is a direct descendant of Dracula, George A. Romeros 1968 ghouls of Night of the Living Dead issue from the graves of another fictional universe.


*Stoker, who was apparently homosexual himself, was worried that the line might make the novel unpublishable in the England of 1897, feeling that, as Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal put it, “the America that produced his Walt Whitman would have been more tolerant of men feeding on men.” Stoker wrote highly homoerotic letters to Whitman and the two became friends. Stoker also began writing Dracula one month after the death of his friend, Oscar Wilde.


Los Angeles, January 25, 2023

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2023).

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