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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dracula’s Biting Appeal

TR Warszawa and Teatr Narodowy's Nosferatu. Photo: Stefan Okolowicz

Excerpts from an essay by Clemens Ruthner

“This is the textbook of vampirism, but the journalist Bram Stoker has turned it into a typewriter ad,” wrote the Austrian Alfred Kubin, himself a master of uncanny art, in a letter full of contempt in 1915. He has not been the only critic since who tried to desecrate the tomb of the Anglo-Irish author. However, this has done little damage to the undead popularity of the literary work in question: Dracula (1897), apart from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) probably the most successful undead monster of world literature; a novel that has never been out of print in its more than 110 years on the book market.

Its ingredients are simple and fairly tradtional: the Transylvanian nobleman Dracula first threatens the bourgeois British business traveler Jonathan Harker, and later the wife-to-be of the latter, Mina, until the vampire is eventually hunted down by male bonding. What is really new about this vampire villain from the depths of eastern Europe is that he does not only assault women, but covers all of Britain with a veritable undead D-day invasion: a (latently racist) horror scenario as a consequence of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Whatever you may think about the political correctness of vampire tales, Dracula is pretty much written in the spirit of the English fin de siècle, insofar as the novel foreshadows the military confrontation with Germany and the multi-ethnic state of Austria-Hungary in World War One.

[...] In 1732 the Austrian army surgeon John Flückinger documented the most famous case of Medvedja, a village south of Belgrade, where vampires became almost an epidemic. The “Heiduck Jowiza,” for instance, reports to the authorities “that his daughter by the name of Stano(ica) went to bed 15 days ago, being fresh and healthy, however, around midnight she woke up screaming, shivering and frightened, saying that she had been throttled by a Heyduck’s son who had been dead for nine weeks, after which event she finally died on the third day.” This story and others can be found in Viennese archives and in the excellent text readers by Klaus Hamberger (Mortuus non mordet, 1991) and Dieter Sturm/Klaus Volker (Von denen Vampiren und Menschensaugern, 1988), respectively.

TR Warszawa and Teatr Narodowy's Nosferatu. Photo: Stefan Okolowicz

At the time, Serbia obviously was a sort of (colonized) Empire of the Evil for the imperial center in Vienna. And much as in cases of “possession” by “evil spirits” in Africa, what appears in the vampire belief are precarious social dynamics rather than the hereafter. The Hungarian historian Gábor Klaniczay suggests a certain contemporary substrate from which the Serbian undead “grew”: the aftermath of the Turkish wars, i.e. the religious conflict between Islam, Catholic, and Orthodox churches at the time, a kind of culture war between “liberated” Slavs and their new Austrian management, and last but not least, unrecognized epidemics, as it was noted already by Gerard Van Swieten, personal physician to Maria Theresa. In their scapegoat function to explain the unexplained, the vampires for awhile replaced witchcraft, which had already been banned by early Enlightenment.

[...] It is undisputed that Stoker’s demonic vampire count had a great historic role model about whom many academic and amateur authors have written and speculated extensively: the cruel Wallachian prince Vlad III Dracula (1431–76), a fierce Christian warrior against the Turks, who soon received his nickname Tsepesh (“the Impaler”) because he had the cruel hobby of putting his opponents—prisoners of war, Transylvanian merchants and rebellious nobles, tens of thousands allegedly—on stakes where they died painfully. Contemporary pamphlets show him at a banquet, surrounded by almost a forest of impaled people. For the Romanians, nevertheless, he remains one of the great heroes of their cultural memory; the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, for instance, had a monument built for Dracula in the ancient capital city of Tirgoviste on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death in 1976.

[...] A best-selling dramatized version of Dracula in London was exported promptly to New York’s Broadway, where an unknown actor took over the title part with a heavy Hungarian accent: Bela Lugosi, the man who in Tod Browning’s film version of 1931 made the black cape finally a trademark and was buried in it himself. Ever since, the biting and impaling business has moved more and more from textual to cinematographic cemeteries in the aftermath of F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu film from 1922—a German rip-off that led to a copyright lawsuit with Stoker’s widow. 

In any disguise, the vampire is not only an attractive villain, but also a willing victim. The reflection-free monster stands ready to absorb almost every interpretation into itself, as the German literary scholar Hans Richard Brittnacher has shown: “The vampire appears sometimes as the emblem of a disenfranchised and vengeful aristocracy, sometimes as the symbol of femininity, sometimes as that of an excessive Don Juanism, at times it is identified with Stalinism, at others with the Franco regime and at still others with the Jesuits, then again it is bureaucracy, venereal disease or the fear of newer scientific discoveries such as hypnosis and magnetism which find their likeness in the image of the vampire. Precisely this elasticity prohibits a simple interpretation” (Aesthetics of Horror, 1991).

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