Depiction Of Vampires In Literature: Analysis Of Bram Stoker’s Dracula And Murnau’s Count Orlok

The description of Count Dracula, stated by Van Hellsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, provides a fitting description for (arguably) the most influential vampire in history. His unchecked sensuality and enigmatic morality have become staples of vampirism, often replicated to the point of cliché. However, the quote also relates to the way in which vampirism travels through mediums, and the fluidity of the ideas behind such an elusive creature. Within the concept of vampire, questions central to our existence are often explored. In particular, they embody polarizing features within humanity, including pleasure, infatuation, obsession, vanity and sexuality. When the vampire undergoes adaptation into other mediums, these concepts often remain woven within the creature, though the symptoms expressing them are varied. While they still maintain a foreign threat capable of moral corruption, the medium of film, for example, expands on the psychological presence of the vampire. As opposed to Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau’s Count Orlok is a crude rendition of a vampire, one whose threat cannot be mitigated by his grotesque appearance. It is, however, a technology that pulls the creature into another direction, one in which presence and absence are not mutually exclusive.

In spite of the creature’s prevalence as a tool of oral storytelling as early as the eighteenth century, it was through an adaptation from oral to textual in which vampires became more prominent sources of gothic. They were a symbol of allurement, popularized during the age of enlightenment as a means of exploring the conflict within humanity, between being, dying, love and hatred. Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes inspiration from the vampires discussed in the works of Lord Byron, romantic creatures filled with charm, seduction and destruction. Their desire to possess, to control, is only accentuated by narcissistic tendencies approaching self-obsession. Within these characters lies a monster, though our contempt is blunted through their appearance and status, a creature that, at times, “blurs the Gothic distinctions of hero and villain'. Byron’s vampiric conceptualization was added to by English writer John Polidori, adding elements of aristocracy to the vampire’s profile. These alterations, to what was once an exploration of humanity became “a creature … arrogant and seductive … of which Stoker's Dracula is an illustrious embodiment'.

'Even Dracula is sometimes overwhelmed by passion'.

Kathryn McGinley uses the term “attractive power” to describe both the alluring and threatening nature of the count. Evil travels through him, but unlike his counterpart Orlok, Dracula is presented with such charisma that his presence is almost attractive. As the vampire has further developed, it was identified that not through morality, but aristocracy was Dracula wicked, for this form of corruption provided a more damaging role on society. It is not through the supernatural that Dracula is villainized. While he may require the life-force of others to survive, it is through transforming them into vampires alongside him that their lives are, ironically, extended. Dracula holds a desire to possess, to control. His links to wealth are far more grounded in his actions than Orlok. Similarly, it is his looks prevent the inner otherness from being malignant. While draped in black and possessing an ice cold touch, his seductive and manipulative tone extend a warm invitation to anyone who chances to cross him.

Dracula, while characterized as a monster, does still possess the capacity to feel. When responding to the vampiric women who inhabit his castle, he reminds them, “yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from your past”. Yet, he is rarely characterized as an emotional being. It is often through the lens of Christian morality that Dracula aims to disrupt. An outsider unaffected by the domestic, sexual and familial structures that govern Victorian society, it is this hazard to normality where Dracula is at his most supernatural. When reading the text, in spite of various romantic relationships developing, it is 'only relations with vampires [that] are sexualised” (Roth, 1982). The immorality that comes with vampirism deliberately condemns a promiscuity linked to hedonistic tendencies. However, it is this idea of unrestrained pleasure that Stoker borrows from Byron’s characterization.

While cold and calculated, Dracula is described by the various narrators of the text as “out of control” (Stevenson, 1988). There is no self-control, and as Dracula lands in England, his desire for power and corruption is dispersed in a plague-like manner. But Byron’s romantic tendencies counter the inherent ghastliness that comes from such a conniving being. As Dracula is never given the opportunity to explain his motivations first hand to the reader, he is separated from a generic monster by the polarity of emotions. Even though Dracula, and Orlok, for that matter, are characterised as being capable of feeling, Stoker’s vampire is often left devoid of sympathy, seen as injecting unnatural emotions into others as opposed to being the keeper of appropriate ones. While Mina does pity the vampire, noting how he looks “at peace” after perishing, it is not until later iterations of the vampire where a focus on their motivations and beliefs are adequately explored, perhaps due to a separation between religion and morality (p.400). Gradually, the religious limitations of the vampire are lifted, and, as seen with count Orlok, revise the purpose of appearance to the entirely.

“In all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document .… We could hardly ask any one … to accept these as proofs of so wild a story”.

An important element of any medium exploring vampirism is the way in which their lecherous qualities are embodied. Stoker’s text does not play out as one coherent story, but rather a collection of accounts from a group of individuals who come into contact with, and eventually destroy a supernatural force attempting to invade England. Harker, however, is not satisfied with the text merely as a series of disconnected retellings, as its capacity to be distributed is what, in a sense, weaponizes the information. When Mina is able to gather their stories and recreate them into a comprehensive account of the Count, only then do they possess the ability to defeat him.

As the copies of their collaborative piece circulate around each other, and by extension the reader, a cultural shift is represented through the distribution of information. No longer is the disclosure of such knowledge restricted to the affluent (were Dracula is situated), but is reproduced on a commercial scale, no longer chained to the boundaries of race, class or gender. This freedom of unrestricted travel mimics the spread of vampirism, a being that freely exists through reconstruction. While the text itself may not be indicative of new technology, the characters place a large amount of value in the technology used to reproduce documents, and the construction of an “authentic” document. In fact, Dr. Seward, who recounts the development of Renfield, a patient at his mental institution, does so through the use of a phonograph, a new piece of technology that functions off of audio, as opposed to text. Throughout various stories of vampirism, the vampire is not only at the mercy of the medium in terms of its creation, but the human character, who are often given the platform to construct and reconstruct the creature.

Towards the end of the text, Harker seems more concerned with the way in which the story is presented, as opposed to the events themselves. Worried that the tale will be dismissed as “too wild a story”, the anxiety produced by Dracula’s destruction in England is almost matched with the fear that it cannot be produced in a mass culture context, one were developing technologies have the capacity to transmit events to the public. In this sense, Dracula undergoes a transformation without expressing any first-hand knowledge. The information is vaporized by mass mediation. While various mediums and technologies are used to collate information, the reliance is on each human account as opposed to a “mechanical input” leads to the tale the reader experiences, as its Mina’s ability to reconstruct the tale of the Count that spreads it through the British population. In a sense, the gothic elements of Dracula’s tale, and the mystery surrounding his demeanour, are inexplicably linked with the fates of “production, consumption and distribution” (Wicke, 1992) within an increasingly industrialized society.

“Much of the vampire cinema is coming to an end [as the vampire] has ceased to be a part of western civilisation's dreams and nightmares” (Pirie, 1977).

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, provides a vampiric figure whose purpose often contrasts that Stoker’s, while still presenting the same underlying themes of vampirism. The representation of a vampiric-foreign threat transcend mediums, and situates itself within the German town of Wisborg. Even the very way in which cinema is circulated may suggest that the medium is a fitting place for vampires to dwell. It possesses the ability to travel to any place that show films, and with it, the capacity to hold large spaces. Along with allowing the vampire to become internationalised, the new technology draws on aspects of the fantastical. The creature no longer relies on horrific encounters to spread fear, it is through his image being brought to life in a darkened room where his threat is directly related to the viewer. Pre-cinematic activity has been linked with gothic tales, described as “ghost shows”, tales that bring the “dead” back to life.

In terms of narrative, most similarities dissolve after Hutter’s (Harker’s) journey to Transylvania to discuss the terms of a property deal with Count Orlok, and Orlok’s infatuation with Ellen (Mina), a storyline leading to a similar sexual deviancy often linked with vampirism. When the viewer is introduced to Orlok, romance associated with vampires is swiftly deflated. The count is depicted as bald, with long, pointed ears and a jagged nose. While his appearance creates a form of uneasiness, it is not in the traditional sense of a threatening monster. The anxiety that Murnau’s count relies on is the link between his malformed being and the bubonic plague, a disease he spreads through Wisborg upon arrival. As in Dracula, Noseferatu often attempts to construct a town bound to reality, and juxtapose its harmony with a supernatural foreign threat (Guillermo, 1967). In spite of their settings being similarly constructed, the foreign threat each figure represents is not just transcendental of medium, but time period.

If Hutter’s German town is believed to be set in Weimer Germany during the 1920s, the physiological changes made to the Orlok may perpetuate social fears at the time. The persecution of both the count and Renfield by the townsfolk in spite of Renfield being a citizen of the town symbolises a perceived corruption rooted deeper than just geographical location. As both characters are intended to show the shady nature of trading, a combination of stereotypes may permit an anti-Semitic viewing of the film. As opposed to representing the motherland in its entirety, Ellen instead represents the innocent German psyche, one who is the most vulnerable to the invading “Jew-vampire”. Recreating the ending of a vampiric film to account for this new narrative, Ellen, who simultaneously represents the innocent German and the German youth, is able to expel Orlok through self-sacrifice. The mobilization of the Wisborg citizens, who are ailed by these beings, are able to expel Renfield from the town, a figure who welcomes the oncoming invasion by selling Orlok property, and speaking in a language unknown to people (or the audience). While his appearance may be susceptible to an anti-Semitic reading, it is through the positioning of his body, the framing in the doorways or the overblown shadows invading the bare walls around him which allow Orlok to dominate the film.

“The cinema image is marked by a particular half-magic feat in that it makes present something that is absent” (Ellis, 1982).

Murnau’s manifestation of the vampire, and the technology used to conceive it, allows for a more illusionary presence when following the count. Through the use of shadow and light, the vampire is nothing more than “disturbing contours of familiar shapes” (Micheals, 1998). It is through this reimagining that the vampire finds new appeal. Stoker’s Dracula possesses a charisma attractive to the reader, a being composed of suppressed human desires that are permitted to run rampant. But it is the medium of cinema that provides audiences with a renewed intrigue about the vampire, and can utilise techniques that provide a newfound fluidity. Every time Orlok travels through shadows, he possesses the intrinsic nature of film within him. While the film artist’s had the capacity to exhibit a Stoker-esque creature, Murnau’s vampire is devoid of any charisma or looks. Ultimately, it is not the physical presence of the vampire that makes them so tantalising, but the elusive nature linked to the ‘other’. Through the film, Orlok operates in a space separate from human characters, and the viewer for that matter too. It is not through substance that we fear Orlok, but his shadow. They are “not larger than life, but truly dead” (Micheals, 1998).

This elusive nature of the vampire is faithful to the text, as Dracula rarely offers a narrative presence. However, it is the link between an indefinable character and the use of phantom images that allows Orlok to remain detached from the human realm. Not only does Murnau bring a phantom to life through techniques, but also by expanding on Orlok’s role while simultaneously reducing his presence. Orlok is not asked to explore social concerns as Dracula is, which in many ways requires an apparition, instead focusing on the psychological relationships he shares with others. Ellen and Orlok are linked together through the former’s sleepwalking segments, in which she communicates with the vampire. As Jonathan lies asleep in Orlok’s castle, unaware of his host’s potential threat, Nina calls out to him. However, it is the shadow of the count who retreats in response, as if heading to her calls. Later in the film, Nina exclaims in her sleep that “he is coming”, with the audience assuming the spouse to be talking about her significant other. It is, however, Orlok’s ship in the next shot, who is sailing towards her location. Stoker uses women in his text to embody the motherland, a pious, innocent entity that must be protected from foreign threats. But Murnau’s film opts for Ellen as Orlok’s main antagonist. The film almost shifts from a battle of morality to a tragedy between the only three characters that are ascribed depth.

The use of shadows to convey otherness is completely absent from Stoker’s vampire, who does not even possess a reflection. It is this lack of presence in a literal sense that conceives Dracula as a threatening entity when he stalks his victims, whereas the augmented beings projected on Murnau’s walls serve as a reminder of Orlok’s threat. The technical aspect used to elucidate the vampire lies at the centre of film. The count remains a truly isolated figure, with no exploration into his family, beliefs to motivation. He is never burdened with the exploration of his being, which allows him to weave between reality and the imagination. While we question whether or not he remains a figment of fiction, the grotesque shadows signify his presence. Murnau uses negative shots to display the spectral realm of the vampire. As Hutter is thrust through the forest on Orlok’s coach, the vampire’s presentness is questioned through a visual defiance of the human plain. Orlok’s death also brings with it elements of the fantastic. The realism in his perishing comes not only from its cause, but the spontaneous combustion that follows it. The vampire’s utter disregard for conventionalism brings with it fascination as opposed to realism. As if the medium’s final role, the sun’s rays, which destroy Orlok, can be attributed to a form of overexposure. In this sense, it is the text itself which both creates and destroys the vampire. 

09 March 2021
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