What’s the Deal with Vampires? Nosferatu (1922) and the Vampire Myth

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” is considered the first great vampire film.  Although a modern viewing reveals a dated, even silly, film, all of the elements of the vampire story are there (specifically the Dracula story).  The vampire is a monster that lurks in the shadows and feeds upon the blood of the living, or in the case of Nosferatu, draws strength from pestilence and death.

Nosferatu was indeed terrifying in 1922, as “Dracula” was for people in 1931.  The problem with the vampire villain in general is that it has been cliched to the point where it is no longer terrifying.  The concept of the good or morally ambiguous vampire, while breathing  life into the genre on television, has sunken into melodrama no thanks to the Twilight series.

How do we resurrect the vampire-as-a-villain myth from decades of cliche and, more recently, the moral ambiguity of the creature created by several excellent television series?  First we have to ask the question: do we even want to?  Isn’t the course mapped out by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “True Blood” a more interesting place for the genre to go?

I would argue that the route television has gone is interesting, but not mutually exclusive with the vampire as an archetypal villain.  We can have our cake and eat it too here.  The vampire story is excellent ground for rich characters and social allegory.  Still, it also remains a visceral and archetypal concept for a pure villain.  The answer to the future of the villainous vampire can be found in Murnau’s Nosferatu.

While Murnau’s film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most interesting aspects of his adaptation are the unique elements he brought to the story.  Indeed, the parts that seem silly to modern audiences are the parts of the story that are re-told in later vampire movies.  Murnau’s vampire, however, is not merely an evil count who stalks the night and feeds on the blood of the living, he is the very personification of disease and death.

For example, there is a scene in the film where the vampire, Count Orlock, has hidden himself in a coffin for transport from his castle in Transylvania to the German city of Wisborg.  He does not come alone, but with several other coffins filled with hundreds and hundreds of plague rats.  He doesn’t murder the crew of the transport ship by biting their necks because he doesn’t have to – his furry minions do his dirty work for him.  He is the master of disease and he can spread death and destruction without lifting a finger if he doesn’t want to, making him all the more terrifying when he does attack.

And there I think is a good answer – future films could break away from the cliches of the vampire story, especially the ones set forth by adaptations of Stoker’s great novel.  Instead, they can explore the abstract qualities of what the vampire brings to mind – primal fears of death in the night.   Films have no reason to limit the vampire’s power to only sucking the blood of the living, they can explore other ways that vampires can be terrifying.  There is a lot more territory to explore, and we shouldn’t drive a stake through the heart of the vampire as an archetypal villain just yet.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe