“The Blood is the Life”: Blank Space in Dracula (1931)

Horror films are like vampires, they feed off their audience. They pierce and draw blood in more than one sense. You feel that sudden orchestral slam, the kind that rocks you back into your seat, clutching your chest. It’s carefully choreographed so your heart rate mirrors the victim. You become afraid of something that cannot physically hurt you but can visually assault. Hypnotized even. Yes, these films draw literal blood in their narrative, but they also control the audience’s blood and heartbeat. As Dracula- horror icon and cape-aficionado- once famously stated, “the blood is the life”, and that is especially true of cinema. Blood makes horror real; it gives it consequences and life.

The politics of celluloid bloodshed are more complex than I could properly discuss here, but suffice to say, films use blood to engage their audiences. We instinctively draw back from the sight of it, imagining what the subject must be enduring, and how horrible that experience is. Cinema uses this impulsive reaction to create horror, which explains why films like the Saw franchise feature so much blood. That excessive level engages the audience and adds to the experience of watching it. I would call this parasitic, but we feed off horror films too. We crave bloodshed in movies, otherwise, why would we seek out horrible and bloody films? Perhaps it’s that we appreciate the special effects, or the social commentary that the heightened effects create. Or perhaps we too are like Dracula. We feed off cinema, becoming a reflection of its horror.

There is a scene in the original 1931 Dracula film where Renfield cuts his finger on a paper clip. It’s the only time we see blood in the entire film, and Dracula doesn’t even drink it. He steps forward, captivated, and watches as Renfield dismisses his injury and then sucks his own blood. It’s a strange moment simply because the movie is obsessed with the threat of blood but only shows it here. The implication of blood and violence is more concerning than the sight of it. Audiences are left to imagine bloodshed, to create that picture in their heads, inside themselves. That is more horrifying and intruding than anything a scene could render. We act like Renfield, sucking our own blood, or thoughts, in the presence of the horror film, or Dracula. The horror film is just a catalyst for this, we act on our own.

“There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

Director Tod Browning understood that sight is horrifying. More than words or story, what a person sees goes beyond their language. Consider the multiple close ups of Dracula in his 1931 film, where the lighting elongates Dracula’s glare and creates this hypnotic terror. The film, as mentioned, does not show what Dracula does, and instead uses these stares to install whatever horror might follow. The camera itself seems to blink and move away just as Dracula leans towards his victim, as though the event is too horrible to depict. That approach is largely abandoned in later vampire films, which are known for blood. Take the nightclub scene in Blade (1998), where it begins to rain blood for the vampires. It is rather strange that the vampire film genre began with censored violence, both for style and because Universal Studio interfered with Browning’s work. It’s stranger still that Browning’s ‘restrained’ violence in Dracula led to Freaks, a movie which again refuses to show direct violence, but received a violent reception. More on that later, however.

Dracula introduces many of the horror features we now classify as trope. There is something very bizarre about watching a film where the protagonists must guess who the vampire is, when one of those people is named Count Dracula. Dracula has since become synonymous with the word ‘vampire’, and that is largely because of this film. It was a huge success for Universal Pictures, and like many of their monster films, it usurped whatever popularity its original novel had. People still read Bram Stoker’s novel, but their immediate image of Dracula arrives from Bela Lugosi. That collared cape and medallion is still found in costume stores across the nation. Many films have tried to redefine Dracula, the closest success being Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, but North American media still returns to Bela Lugosi’s version. Modern films must reference Lugosi tropes, even if they are rejecting them.

The 1931 film derives from Hamilton Deane and John Balderston’s play rather than Stoker’s novel, making it an adaptation of an adaptation. There is thus a degree of separation between it and the source material, and although we see some similarities, like character names and places, their context is entirely different. Rather than doing a detailed comparison between novel and film, I will spend the rest of this post covering specific issues in the film, and the impact these issues had in the years after it’s release.

“My blood now flows through her veins.”

Dracula opens with the Swan Lake orchestral theme which if you have watched Black Swan (2010), you’ll know arrives from a very dark narrative. Browning’s film is already hinting at female transformation and a dark figure simply by including this song. It also makes it abundantly clear that this is a sexualized transformation, as Swan Lake concerns a young woman named Odette who is transformed into a swan, in some version because she refuses to marry a dark sorcerer named Rothbart. One dancer plays the two different personalities – the white and the black swan- or Odette and Odile. Each of these personalities appear in Dracula, as he forcefully transforms women into his vampire brides, and they switch between personalities, at first appearing sweet and passive, then switching to violent predators. Or rather, they do in later sequels. This 1931 film is afraid of showing women doing anything, so we don’t see them attack or talk as vampires. Mina almost bites John, Jonathan in novel, but the camera cuts away before this occurs. The vampire women just sort of drift around looking ominous while their husband hunts. Yet, the presence of Swan Lake here implies two notable things. First, that this transformation is unwilling and a terrible curse. Second, it is inherently sexualized and concerned with controlling women. Whereas the novel implies that the women are literally empowered, though they still listen and obey Dracula, the passive women here undermine that reading. Lucy is described as promiscuous in the novel, but she is just slightly more romantic and Gothic than Mina in the 1931 film, and making the mistake of leaving her bedroom window open.

Because the camera cuts away just as Dracula arrives and finds Lucy sleeping, we don’t know what happens next. There is certainly the threat of physical and sexual violence, why else would he refer to them as his wives, but that is left to the viewer. It is sexual however, as even the Universal executives (allegedly) sent down a memo where they outright declared that “Dracula is only to attack women“. There was evidently some fear that Dracula would be read as gay if he attacked men in the same way he attacked women. As a result of this memo, Dracula’s attacks on Renfield are under very different circumstances. He is not in bed during either attack and, more importantly, his bloodshed has a clear purpose. The first time Dracula attacks him is so Dracula can control him during their journey to England. The second time is after Dracula discovers that Renfield has led intruders to Carfax Abbey, and we see Renfield’s body falling down the stairs shortly after. It’s left unclear why Dracula attacks women, by contrast, other than to disrupt normative society and fertility systems. Dracula is a lot like Victor Frankenstein, in that he is obsessed with women’s fertility and tries to usurp it. Dracula removes women from their households and fiancées, and transforms them into baby killers, as Lucy begins feeding off infants. The only children we see in the film are the “children of the night”, who belong to Dracula’s perverted family.  

“The superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today.”

Like any horror film, Dracula is indicative of a much larger systemic anxiety, and by destroying Dracula, the film resolves this anxiety for a time. Dracula, and the broader vampire genre, are mainly concerned with the fear of foreign invasion and ignorant modernity. The 1931 film begins in Transylvania and follows Dracula as he travels to England and attempts to blend in with upper-class society. His first stop in England is the theatre, where he is immediately escorted to a private box. The audience knows that he is a terrible monster, but the characters do not, which implies that there is something very wrong with our society. Both the film and original novel are terrified by the notion that a strange foreigner will buy property and uproot the ‘proper’ English ways and acclimate seamlessly.

Much of the novel is spent discussing Dracula’s new properties, and the legal protocols he goes through with Renfield and Hawker. The Gothic literary world is similarly preoccupied with this fear, as a response to the growing industrialization, in addition to prevalent colonialism and racism. More recent vampire films have re-examined this fear of foreign invasion, sometimes transforming that fear to focus on colonizers and white people. I discussed in a previous post how effective this discussion is in films like Vampires Vs. The Bronx (2020), which modernizes, refocuses, and troubles this trope. I should mention, the fear of foreign invasion is not exclusive to vampire films, it’s widespread in horror. Take The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of many films from which is terrified that someone will invade and blend in.

Dracula was released at the start of the Great Depression, when there was already uncertainty over jobs and class. This lends to the second prevalent fear in the film: ignorant modernity. Dracula is a Count, and although he is not a Count in England, he is still an aristocrat. He is well dressed, owns multiple castles, and is articulate, meaning that he belongs to a certain class and acts accordingly. He attacks three women in the film, two of which become vampires. The first woman he attacks is a flower seller, and the only reason he attacks her is because she is on the street at night and is poor. He doesn’t try to transform her; he just leaves her body on the street for others to notice. Dracula feeds off the poor, and only transforms the wealthy, those of equal class to him.

The unnamed flower seller is also not the first woman to die in a Universal Picture simply for holding flowers. A young girl is murdered by the Creature in Frankenstein, which was also released in 1931, after she tries to explain that flower float. The Creature assumes that she will float too, and so he accidentally drowns her. That same dismissal happens in Dracula, as the Count assumes that the women is like her flowers, in that she too is for sale. I find this trend really interesting, because it almost seems like an extreme extension of the flowery language used against women. The idealization of women has become so excessive that monsters like Dracula and the Creature are unable to distinguish person from ideal language. Romantic poems might claim that women are like flowers, but that is taken literally by the figures in these films. Dracula also represents the old world, a land of curses and tradition which modernity seemingly chastises. The film claims that the old ways have more knowledge than modernity, as modern science isn’t the way to destroy Dracula. Van Helsing and his associates must look back at old superstition to defeat their foe, and they must study what has been dismissed by modernity.

Dracula implies that there is a danger in our past which we have forgotten about, but one which has never forgotten about us. Dracula has just been hiding in Transylvania, a place depicted as a forgotten and even backwards land filled with terrified people. Dracula’s appearance in England is transgressive, in that his culture, vampirism, and attitude has been suppressed by modernity for so long. This is especially interesting because Dracula created vampire lore which we still use in modern vampire films. So, it praises looking to the past to defeat old foes, but while encouraging that, it invents its own lore. Modern filmmakers go back to the 1931 film to remind themselves of where vampire lore began, even though many of these ideas were found in Stoker’s novel and in works like Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Lord Byron and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). The 1931 film is thus used in the same way that Van Helsing and his associates use ancient lore.  

Dracula must keep up appearances in the film by play the role of ‘Count’ on several occasions. When Renfield arrives at the Borgo Pass, Dracula has dressed up as a coachman rather than introducing himself there. Although Dracula no longer has servants, hence the decimated castle and cobwebs, he knows that a Count should have servants. So, he creates this whole charade of pretending to have servants, both to assure Renfield that he is human, and to keep up with this ‘Count’ expectation. We first meet Dracula as he emerges from a coffin with his brides, leaving no doubt that he is a vampire. Renfield doesn’t know it yet, but the audience does. We therefore know that Renfield is in danger before he does, but more importantly, we know that the Count is playing this game. He continues it while in England, playing the role of a normal human Count, albeit a little strange, but just because he is foreign. This emphasis on performance suggests that Dracula is deeply aware of his class and will go to great extents to maintain that image. The attention to dress and behaviour went on to influence the form of later vampire cinema, specifically the aristocratic air and dismissal of life. It’s noteworthy that this 1931 film creates a firm hierarchy of life, one which is influenced by class and gender. Renfield is the lowest tier of Dracula’s cohorts, left to feed on insects and “small lives”. Next are Dracula’s brides, who are powerful, but are only allowed to feast on children. Mina tries to feed on John but is unsuccessful. Lucy feeds on children, although it’s only discussed, and that plotline goes unresolved in the heavily censored and re-cut 1931 edition. Dracula is at the top of the hierarchy, feeding on women, and thus corrupting and interrupting the chain of proper inheritance and lineage. This order parodies broader class and gender systems, as poor women are placed at the bottom, as fodder for Dracula, rich women become wives who feed on poor children, and Renfield (a middle-class solicitor) is a step higher than the poor but is still much lower than Dracula and the other vampires.

“God will not damn a poor lunatic’s soul.”

It’s somewhat difficult to return to Browning’s Dracula with a modern eye, because so much of what was innovative has become repetitive. There is, however, one element which remains eerily relevant: sight and unstable narrative. Renfield is arguably the most compelling and frightening character in the film, and I think that is because we are already quite familiar with Bela Lugosi’s legacy and parodies of his character. Renfield has had less focus in contemporary media, despite Tom Wait’s incredible performance in the 1992 adaptation. You truly believe that Renfield is insane, although it’s never explained why or how. The last sane moment we have with Renfield is when he passes out just as Dracula leans towards him. It’s implied that Dracula drinks from him, without killing or turning him, yet this hypnotism is unseen. While a vampire acts in defiance of God, Renfield’s madness has no explanation, and is thus more unstable and frightening. There is one shot which affirms this, suggesting that Renfield has experienced something truly horrific, something not even the camera can show. Dracula’s ship has just crashed into England with a dead crew. A few local men stubble around the ship, confused at the absolute desecration. The Captain is still tied to the helm, completely drained of blood. As they open the galley, a pale figure rocks back and forth, surrounded by shadows. It’s Renfield, he is standing at the bottom of the stairs, gripping the banisters, and starring up at the men. He is laughing, and the camera doesn’t move. Back and forth, with no real mirth. Laughing. It reminds me of the ghost scene in Parasite (2019), where Da-song looks towards a staircase and sees a terrible smile on a totally pale face. These moments are horrifying because they involve an invading smile. An unexpected stowaway who has seen what happened to the crew but doesn’t have words for it.

There are several blank spaces in Dracula, and many feature Renfield. We miss what happens to him in Transylvania, his ongoing correspondence with Dracula from the asylum, and his death. We see the results of these events, even the buildup, but not the moment of. There is also one sinister cut which is never explained nor discussed after. When a maid discovers an unconscious Mina in the garden, she runs to the house and alerts everyone. The men rush out of the parlor to help Mina but leave the maid behind with Renfield. She passes out in terror as Renfield inches towards her, much like Dracula to his victims. We don’t know what happens next, and the Maid does appear later in the film. There is some implication that Renfield tries to rape the Maid, or assault her somehow, like his Master does, but we don’t know. This is just one way the film involves erasure, as the violence done to women goes largely unrecognized. It’s only when Mina becomes a vampire that anyone tries to stop Dracula, and that is largely because he flirts with Mina in front of John, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing. Dracula gives himself away, they don’t even have to hunt for him. No one pays attention to Lucy, by contrast, and there is no resolution in her storyline. We learn that she has returned from the grave, but unlike the novel, there is no scene where the men chop off her head. It is implied that Van Helsing does so, or that she dies once Dracula does, but once again, it’s left to the viewer. Violence against women is left unseen, but still occurs, and is thus dismissed by the lens.

“Mina, why didn’t you let us know?”

Dracula’s death is handled in a similar way, off camera, but we hear him moaning as it happens, so we are more present. There is one strange event after, however, as Van Helsing does not follow Mina and John out of Carfax Abbey, noting that he still has something to do. Seeing as this film introduced many viewers to vampire lore, they may or may not have understood what that task was. Readers of Stoker’s novel would know that Van Helsing still must cut off Dracula’s head, but without that context, this moment is left ambiguous and rather sinister. What plans does Van Helsing have with such a relic of the old world? Will he take Dracula’s body and study it using modern science? Given the number of extreme cuts and edits Browning had to do to this film, it’s no wonder that the narrative feels rather unstable, much like Renfield. We catch bits of narrative, but they appear without context or explanation. Why does Dracula come to England? It’s explained at length in the novel, but not here. What is Mina’s reaction to Lucy’s death? She doesn’t have one in the 1931 film. Perhaps most egregious, what was Dracula’s plan for Mina, and why didn’t Lucy suffer a similar fate?

Lucy was buried in the family mausoleum, and largely abandoned by Dracula. Mina is kidnapped and taken directly to a coffin in Carfax Abbey, beside Dracula. She also doesn’t die immediately as Lucy did. There is no explanation for this favoritism, other than some vague implication that Mina has a purer sole, as Lucy is more direct with her admiration of Dracula. Again, all of this is cleared in the novel, but not every audience member has read Stoker’s work. Modern viewers most likely use later film adaptations to fill in the gaps, and that is exactly what Coppola’s 1992 film does.

I have already written about Coppola’s incredible film, and will most likely do so again. Without spending too much time here, the film is called Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and so it makes it quite apparent that it is a literary adaptation rather than a direct adaptation of the 1931 film. But it does pick up on some of the blank spots left in the novel and 1931 film, especially around Mina. The novel is structured through different journal entries and newspaper clipping, all organized and collected by Mina. She is the unseen author of the entire story, and Coppola’s film implies that she similarly edited certain elements in novel’s version of events. One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Mina stands on the deck of a ship, casting journal entries into the sea, documents which include information about her mysterious lover, as she is afraid someone will discover them and tell Jonathan. She is responsible for her own story; she is the writer behind every detail we receive. So, although the novel has its fair share of passive women, Coppola’s film implies that this portrayal is extremely purposeful, and that Mina did so to avoid implication. I find this reading deeply engaging, as Dracula is a difficult and occasionally frustrating novel to read, and it’s made so much better if you account for this unseen author. Mina is consciously manipulating the story and the language through which it’s told for a specific reason. This reading implies, by extension, that the passive and consistently erased Mina in the 1931 film has erased herself, or at least, there is a reason for that erasure.

There is a violence which neither the author- Mina, Browning, and Stoker- nor the camera can really talk about, because the camera is ultimately following the events of sexual assault survivors, and the way it renders those events comes from these women. That’s not a reading Browning or even Stoker would necessarily agree with, and it’s not addressed in the 1931 film, which doesn’t have a narrator or journal emphasis, but I do find it interesting. It suggests that these moments where the film cuts away is a method to avoid prolonging the horror that Dracula inflicts. It still happens, but the violence is not as important as what follows.

“Gentlemen, we are dealing with the undead.”

Dracula is certainly an influential and defining film, but it wasn’t the first adaptation of Stoker’s work. First came Nosferatu (1922), a term which even appears in the 1931 film. This German Expressionist film has a similar plot, but takes direct influence from the novel, instead of a stage play. The largest indication of that is how Count Orlok looks, as he is unmistakably horrifying. The Dracula in the novel is not some romantic figure, as even the Coppola film suggests. He is ghastly and violent, elements which are best found in Nosferatu. There is a very famous shot where we see Orlok’s shadow move up a flight of stairs, his long claws protruding. There is no human in his shape, unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, who although eccentric, still blends in. Browning’s Dracula is a direct response to Nosferatu, in fact, Lugosi was allegedly sent as an intermediary between Universal Pictures and Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, after the Nosferatu incident. As I mentioned in my introduction of Universal Monsters, Nosferatu was released while Stoker’s widow was still alive, and she sued the film for copyright infringement, which was relatively unheard of at the time. It led to a huge scandal, and many of the Nosferatu copies were destroyed, while Stoker’s novel gained unprecedented publicity.

We can watch Nosferatu today, but most copies were destroyed and hidden in Browning’s time, so his film is a slight successor to the German work. I am not sure if Browning was even able to see the original, nor his audience, but regardless, Universal Pictures became interested in the story because of the scandal. They sent Lugosi to create a formal deal between the estate and Universal, which strange enough, mirrors the first events in Dracula. Except Dracula was sent to the author’s wife (a Mina figure if you will, one in control of the narrative) to sign documents entitling the story to travel across the ocean and into cinemas everywhere. Dracula’s intention in the novel is to spread his vampiric influence across England and the world. Lugosi did exactly that, as vampirism swept into movie theatres. It’s rather poetic, although Lugosi was apparently sent with the main intention of convincing Florence to lower her price, which she eventually did.

“We accept her. One of us, one of us.”

Just as the 1931 Dracula arrives from a scandal, so too did it lead to another. Browning’s next project is perhaps the most compelling and controversial film of the early 20th century. It’s still controversial by some regard, up there with John Waters. I am speaking about Freaks, which was released in 1932, and was allegedly intended to compete with Frankenstein’s popularity. I should preface, I really love this film, and that will play into my commentary. It has been referenced in countless modern works, everything from the Ramones’ “Gabba Gabba Hey” to American Horror Story. It also appears to be an influence in Guillermo del Toro’s new film, Nightmare Alley, just based on the trailer, as it takes place in the same decade and features a prominent Freak Show. I think the reason Freaks remains so influential is because of its commentary on disability, the depression era, and Freak Shows in general. It never tries to replicate the destructive and cruel gaze of those attending a Freak Show, even though the film received such a gaze in its reception. The film is quite compelling and sympathetic, which was unheard of, and arguably still is. My main objection to the later American Horror Story, whose season 4 took place at a Freak Show in the same era and featured some disabled actors, was that none of these actors are protagonists, and many suffer horrible fates. The protagonists that are ‘freaks’ in the television show wear prosthetics, meaning that the disabled communities don’t get to speak for themselves.

I digress, Freaks stars actual side show actors, people who had traveled across the US in touring companies, and who have dealt with discrimination, even on set. There are several accounts of actors not being allowed in certain areas while filming, even the dining area. That is nothing compared to the film’s reception, which was in a word, aggressive. It sold out in each theatre but was met with fierce backlash even by MGM (the studio Universal Picture’s lent Browning to). One woman claimed to have had a miscarriage during a screening, because the film was so disturbing, and she tried to sue the production company. As a result, many scenes were cut and destroyed, even while filming. We have some idea of the ‘original’ film based on shooting scripts, but multiple scenes are lost.

Freaks takes its sympathetic gaze, one already established in the Universal Monster cannon, further than any film had before. It not only argues that ‘normal’ people are the true monsters, it punishes these figures in a graphic way. A scheming trapeze artist named Cleopatra is captured and transformed into a grotesque duck, complete with feathers, and her legs and eye are removed. This punishment, while extreme, is justified in the film, as she humiliates and rejects the trope, and marries Hans (a little person) just to kill and steal his inheritance. The sideshow performers are more than welcoming to Cleopatra, but she doesn’t return this welcome, instead rejecting the very implication that she is “one of us”. I mention this film in regard to Dracula, because each approaches sight and spectacle from a similar perspective. Dracula poses a threat because he can blend in with ‘normal’ society, meaning that the true monster is often hidden. Freaks takes this commentary further by suggesting that what ‘normal’ society dismisses and rejects deserves respect, while the act of dismissing is monstrous. Normal people, the kinds who label things to begin with, are the true horror, and they are encouraged and fostered by our unjust institutions. Dracula operates successfully inside our legal system and aristocrat world, which implies that these spheres are inherently problematic. If such a violent figure can walk through these orders, protected, then who is to say that another wouldn’t take advantage? Perhaps not a vampire, but another violent figure who should be banished from society yet isn’t.