The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

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