The Seduction of Renfield
Being an excerpt from a larger work,
Sex and Violence: Two Perspectives on Gender in Horror Cinema.
The "aristocratic vampire," as depicted in Bram Stoker's Dracula, was invented at the Villa Diodoti by Lake Geneva, on June 16th in 1816, the legendary "Year Without a Summer." Trapped indoors by incessant rainfall (one of the many meteorological consequences of the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora) and prompted by a group reading from the Fantasmagoriana, Lord Byron challenged Mary and Percy Shelley and his physician John Polidori to write one ghost story apiece. Percy and Byron's stories were unmemorable, but Polidori began work on "The Vampyre," the first modern romantic vampire tale, featuring a thinly disguised Byron as the titular character. Mary remained uninspired until the night of June the 22nd, when a discussion about the principles of life and the possible construction and reanimation of human bodies led to a terrifying nightmare. The following morning, she began to write her most famous work, "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus"i. The novel was published in January of 1819, with "The Vampyre" following sixteen months later. Thus, Frankenstein and Dracula's vampire went hand-in-hand from genesis to publication, and the films did the same: 1931 was also the year that Boris Karloff's portrayal of Shelly's monster was unleashed on the public.
The Internet Movie Database indicates that over 200 films have included Dracula as a character, and the Guinness Book of World Records lists Count Dracula as the world's most portrayed character at 161 representations, but Bela Lugosi's majestic, icy Count has become the best-known and most frequently duplicated version of the role. To don Dracula's cape in any cinematic or theatrical era is to open a vein of possible performances drawn from a rich selection of cultural references. Lugosi's performance borrows more from the romantic vampire novels of the early 17th century than even Bram Stoker did. In these novels, the creatures were more likely to be portrayed as "singular friends, quintessential sons, aging schoolboys wandering beyond patriarchal regulation,"ii and Lugosi borrowed this nomadic spirit and elaborated upon it, crafting a subversive parody of aristocratic antisexuality in the process. While homosocial attractions may have provided some of the romantic underpinning for Nosferatu, Dracula supplies a quite explicit level of homoeroticism from the opening scenes.
We are introduced to the vampire through the eyes of Renfield, who is traveling to castle Dracula in order to finalize the terms of a lease; the Count, it seems, is interested in moving to a home in London. What is refreshing about Lugosi's Dracula compared to other screen monsters is his hedonistic freedom. Immortal and massively powerful, Dracula lives out a decadent unlife in his opulent-macabre castle, and his transparent seduction of Renfield is something he takes considerable joy in. Greeting the young man, the vampire stands on the inner staircase of his castle, arms outstretched in a gesture both welcoming and sinisterly batlike. He welcomes his guest with a broad smile and an eerily soft voice. Upon hearing the howls of distant wolves, Lugosi's speech becomes breathy and excited. "Listen to them!" he croons. "Children of the night! What music they make!" As Renfield is forced to use his cane to slice through thick layers of cobweb to follow the vampire deeper into the castle, he bumps a spider. Dracula merely grins. "The spider is spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield." As they settle to details of the transaction, the dialogue is punctuated frequently by closeups of Lugosi's hypnotic gaze. His expression seems frustrated at first, as Renfield seems at least disturbed by this breach of eye contact etiquette, if not somewhat wary of the power of those eyes. Resolution comes at last when the discussion moves to the journey to England. Dracula leans low over the table at which Renfield is seated, virtually forcing the man to make eye contact, and suddenly there is an expression of rapt enthrallment on the young man's face. "I have chartered a ship--to take us to England!" Dracula crows, half-singing each word. "We will be leaving...tomorrow...evening!" Terrified, Renfield visibly shakes himself as the vampire turns his back. "I hope you will find this...comfortable," Dracula purrs, indicating the four-poster guest bed.
Soon afterwards, Renfield pricks his finger on a paper clip. Dracula advances hungrily across the room, but recoils at the sight of Renfield's cross. (Nosferatu also used this scene, substituting Harker as the victim and adding a more predatory edge: in this version, Orlok continues to advance, driving Harker ferociously backwards and into the next room.) "Oh, it's nothing serious, just a small cut from that paper clip," the young man murmurs, and he casually stops the bloodflow by sucking his finger, a sensuous gesture that prompts another frustrated glare from Dracula. Apparently angered by this display of insubordinate sexuality, Dracula slips Renfield a bottle of drugged wine and retires to his room to wait. It doesn't take long for him to collapse. As he does so, three women in diaphanous white dresses advance upon him, but Dracula sweeps through the open French windows and brushes them aside. The vampire kneels by his victim, greed etched in his features. He places his left hand over the man's face, and the right on his thigh, and the scene fades to black.
The sexual duet between the vampire and his victim is significant in this instance because it seems to play so strikingly against expectations. The Dracula of the first twenty minutes of the film is purely sexual, and bisexual at that. There is little hint of the cruelty to come that can be derived from voice or mannerism, even as he baldly states his intentions to ensnare and consume his protégé through the teasing metaphor of the spider. The image of the Count dismissing his wives in order to take the first bite out of Renfield himself is indelible. This was not lost on the film's creators. The producer, Carl Laemmle, Jr. was deeply uncomfortable with the entire scene despite his complete enthusiasm for the project. Combined with Dracula's polygamy and bisexuality, this early part of the film could well have informed the development of the musical Cabaret, in which the similarly made-up Emcee character seduces the audience before implicating it in a harsh exposé of the role hedonism and political apathy played in the rise of Nazism in Germany. While a universally Victorian audience might have treated the scene as unequivocally sinister, as Stoker's novel was when it was originally published, the whole scene could play differently amongst modern audiences depending upon personal attitudes towards sexuality. In this manner, the Dracula character functions as the earliest example of a sinister homosexual archetype deconstructed for the audience's benefit on-screen.
1. Parallels between the 1931 Frankenstein and Dracula continue, and they are alternately amusing and compelling. Both are higher-budget productions of classic horror novels that had been originally adapted semi-legally twenty years earlier and had not been produced again since. (Frankenstein had been produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1910.) Both films draw visually from the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s, Frankenstein more so, and both were based on stage plays rather than the direct source material. Dracula's assistant Renfield and Dr. Frankenstein's assistant Fritz were played by the same character actor, Dwight Frye, forever cementing the role of the submissive mad scientist's servant in the public's mind. It is not a surprise that the collective moviegoing audience of the time was searching for cathartic release from the Great Depression in the form of scary movies. It seems to be a coincidence, however, that children on Halloween know Lugosi's accent, Karloff's stumble and flat-top makeup, and Frye's slavish stoop by heart.
i. Clubbe, John. "The Tempest-toss'd Summer of 1816: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." The Byron Journal (1991), 26-39.
ii. Auerbach, Nina. "Our Vampires, Ourselves." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.