ARTICLE | FIRST BLOOD

Punctured Life

The person-changing experience of walking in on Tod Browning’s Dracula.

BY COLIN FLEMING | June 19, 2024
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A place where no actual blood was spilled—at least to my knowledge—my grandmother’s house proved strangely—even sagely—sanguinary as it pertained to an important development in my life.

I had existed in this world for a bit of time before I met my parents. One day, prior to our coming together, they went to my eventual grandmother’s house in order to debrief her on their plans to adopt a child. The notion proved sufficiently displeasing to my father’s mother that she declaimed the words, “Blood will tell!” after which she stormed from the room, her prophesy lacking only an offstage thunderclap from the sound effects department for further emphasis.

You might say that we got off to a frosty start, this grandmother and I, and for a number of years following my adoption, I took a dim view of our visits to her house. A child, though, who seeks to avoid one thing will search for another, which can have its benefits.

I believe that we enter this life as vessels containing undiscovered loves. A tragedy of humanity is that many of us limit our looking, which precludes those discoveries. We don’t know what will lead us to something inside of ourselves that becomes a passion, a purpose, an interest that we subsequently conclude we couldn’t have been without. The girl puts on a pair of ballet shoes and tries to make herself spring across the room, and there’s that click of, “Oh yes, this is for me; it’s who I am,” for example.

The horror-film buff almost always has an origin story of their own as to how they learned what they loved. We begin a life’s journey into the thrills of terror with a work that is never far from the spirit of who we are. Which isn’t to say we’re monsters, but rather that we embrace imaginative possibilities, and failure to do so is more frightening—in the bad way—than locating fright, in the good way.

On the afternoons of our visits to my grandmother’s, I’d go off on my own whenever I could, which meant small trips of exploration into the likes of the family room when everyone else was seated at the kitchen table. In Boston, there used to be a Saturday afternoon show called Creature Double Feature, which, as you’d surmise, played two horror films back-to-back. You couldn’t just order up the horror film of your choice as you can now. You had to get lucky.

Vintage horror films were typically the stuff of the night, and the deep night at that, after all of the normal and civilized programming had been completed, but in Boston, you might have been surprised what came on after the sylvan gambolings of the Smurfs had run their course. Creature Double Feature was great for kids, because obviously you were awake then. You also weren’t so sharply supervised. That which you weren’t allowed to watch in the evening was wide open to you in the early afternoon, especially if you were canny or on the lam, after a fashion, as I was.

Out of my grandmother’s kitchen I came and into a room where the TV had been left on. The picture on the screen was black and white. There were these men in a medical theater all staring at the body of a dead woman on a table. It was like a grandstand—same as at Fenway Park—full of these medicos, faces etched in grim expressions of what-the-hell-is-going-on-here fear.

This was the first cadaver I’d seen. The setting was formal—bloodless, ironically. Death—which was right here—looked so close to sleep and thus to being alive. It was as though you’d have felt better if there were spurting wounds. Death’s clinical efficiency was writ large across the composition, but with a further component of prospective blight. Spread and sprawl, death begetting death.

You knew this was a chilling moment in the story regardless of not knowing what had come before. Then one of the men—who was obviously the most learned among them—made a grave remark about there being two punctures in the woman’s neck. I was freaked out, mind-blown, hooked, fanged. My living-room discovery had led to a discovery of one of those loves inside of me. I was frightened, but the fright was palliated—organically augmented—by the feeling of something making perfect sense. Thus was my initial introduction to Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, a movie whose blood has been a part of my own ever since, as if it were there all along, only I just had to realize it.

I sat rapt for the remainder of the picture, lest not doing so would make me vulnerable as well to whatever—or whomever—had put those holes in that woman’s neck. When Bela Lugosi appeared as Count Dracula, I knew this was the ne plus ultra of monsters. The archetype of all American screen and pop-culture monsters.

Not that I used these specific terms in my thoughts, but an understanding was in place all the same. Nor was I thinking about how Dracula as a character was an English creation. For here was the heart of every Halloween, the fun spirit of being scared, wax fangs and dangling medallions extemporized from a locket you’d lifted from your mother’s jewelry drawer. It was the crypt and that smell of soil in autumn and the frisson of looking over your shoulder as you walked home on your own and the sun had gone down and you still weren’t quite there yet. And all of this was without knowing what had occurred before I came in.

Think of a band and I first think of The Beatles. Think of a poet and I think of John Keats. Think of a sundae and I think of hot fudge. Think of a movie monster, I think of Bela Lugosi. Actually, I think of Dracula, who also happened to be Bela Lugosi. The film had a strange rhythm. Usually there’s a pace, a beat. Not with Dracula. Its pulse is merely felt, as with free jazz. The rules of time seem to be broken, or nonexistent. It’s the movie version of that state when you’re not awake but not asleep either.

On a sunny spring day in my grandmother’s living room, I wondered if this was what death was like. I might have gone into the shadow kingdom with this vampire right then and there, despite how alive I felt. More alive than only a half hour before. But looking back later, I realized that with almost all monsters, you want to get away from them. No one swims toward the roguest of rogue sharks or roasts an extra hot dog around the campfire so that The Wolf Man is encouraged to pop in from the grove. But I wanted to be this vampire. To have a coffin. Transform into a bat. Create orifices where orifices ought not to have been. Emerge from out of the mist as the godhead—or devilhead—of the night.

I wasn’t some goth in the making. I loved baseball and identifying birds in the trees on bright mornings, but now there was this as well. And with the prince of the vampires, came a realization that one day you’d be dead. But if you were able come back, then it could be like you hadn’t left—except briefly, in the actual act of dying, for however long that official moment takes—and you’d be on to something. You wouldn’t be parted from people. You’d know less loss. Take away the worry of death and it struck very young me—however incorrectly—that there went most of your worries. I knew what I knew. I knew my world and the walls of it. I had some knowledge beyond them, but it wasn’t a huge amount. The pain of life was an abstract concept to me. I guess I thought that if I was Dracula I’d keep going like I’d been going, but with a really cool cape. Little did I realize, but as I watched Dracula for that first time, I was grappling with some of my earliest thoughts about mortality.

The drawing-room showdown between Lugosi’s Dracula and Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing (“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing”) excited me to a greater degree than the climatic lightsaber battle of The Empire Strikes Back. Cave people with a fire and a rock wall could have provided superior special effects. Didn’t matter. This was human and post-human, natural order vs. unnatural, and the stakes were the show. Plus, you weren’t sure who to root for. Dracula talked a big game—note how he qualifies that line about lifetimes. In the scene, he concedes defeat for now, but he’s confident that Van Helsing will also join the ranks of the undead, which is the victory that matters. I thought nothing was awry in Dracula desiring to use his mouth on this other man and hoped he’d get to it, in part because I didn’t know what Van Helsing would do.

No boundaries nor borders existed here. There were rituals, yes, but not ceremonies to stand upon. What was formal was informal—the Count attends the opera, then sleeps in the dirt—and vice versa. Life was death, death was life. What you learn is that life isn’t always life. It can be deathlike. Death in all but name. Being alive is not automatically living a life. Existence isn’t living. It’s not being dead—which is hauntingly similar to being undead.

I didn’t consciously have these thoughts. But they stirred within me, on some level, because that’s how it is with us. As humans, we have a preexistence in that we come with these aspects that are indivisible from human life. They’re in the box, so to speak—the life-box of parts rather than the earthen one. Dracula is such a nighttime picture. Do we ever see the sun in it? And yet, it switches on all of these lights inside of us. Gets us to venture up into a previously unexplored attic, or to seek a secret chamber behind a hidden door where we explore, learn, and realize more. Imagination isn’t just crucial for creativity; you have to put it to use to know who you are.

It would be a while before I saw the whole movie. As I said, you had to get lucky. But shortly after my partial screening of Dracula, I was at the library in the town where we lived for a movie-based recognizance expedition. The ground floor of this library was for the adults. That was where my mom checked out her Agatha Christie books. The basement had the kids’ books. Having come through the main doors, my mom and I parted with our standard unstated understanding that one of us would find the other when the time was right. She continued on to the “regular” part of the building, and I went down a flight of stairs in search of Dracula.  

Around a corner from the baseball biographies and out of eyeshot of the librarian, was a horror section, which consisted mostly of the Crestwood series on movie monsters. Each monster got its own book, laden with pictures. One’s cinematic appetite became rapacious for that which had yet to be viewed on TV or the big screen but ideally would be experienced someday. I have no doubt that my heart rate jumped many times as I looked at some still from a movie I was dying to see. I located the Crestwood Dracula volume and there I sat, gorging myself on its words and images. I stared at Lugosi, entranced by all he seemed to represent. No—all he was. It’s a wonder I didn’t leave some blood of my own on that book from paper cuts as a result of turning the pages over as much as I did.

This basement became my Carfax Abbey on rainy days when I took that volume from the shelf as if it had been placed there for me by Jonathan Harker to broaden my knowledge should I ever follow down his same path. We’re talking loads of buildup and expectation, but when I finally did see Dracula all the way through, it exceeded my hopes and would have quelled my fears if I’d had any that I’d be let down. Most will say that the first few reels are the best, and now I was experiencing them, so there’s that, but it was only part of why my love was deepening for this movie as though that love were a grave that the sexton kept digging after the job was done.

I liked geodes. Hitting a rock with a hammer and finding fractured crystals inside. Dracula was a movie geode to me. A viewing experience as a kind of splintering dislocation. Crystalline spalling. Dracula made a few years earlier or a few years later, it’s a different movie. It would have been a silent or what we now think of as more traditionally scored. You get two pieces of music in the picture—a passage from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays over the opening credits, and then there’s some diegetic Wagner sound at the symphony. Dracula doesn’t work as Dracula with a score. It becomes less like what it is: a hypnagogic cinematic state of both finite and everlasting existence stashed between consciousness and dream, life and death. You will see no movie like it because no such movie exists. Dracula is a one-off. It is gloriously strange, like Rimbaud, Joseph Cornell, Frank Zappa, and William Hope Hodgson are strange. It’s stranger than Lovecraft. This is one of the strangest works of popular art ever made.

The strangeness, I believe, has hurt the film critically with scholars. People who think they ought to know such things don’t know what to make of this movie and that creates discomfort for them. Dracula is a movie without any frame of reference. It comes from no tradition. It fostered no tradition. We have hundreds, if not thousands of vampire movies, but none of them look, feel, or sound like Dracula.

Critics and historians default to saying it’s stagey. If you take five nuns, put them on a bench, and have them remain in place and calmly witness a ritualistic sacrifice as though they approve and it’s normal to them, that’s stagey. Executed in a master shot perhaps it’s more so. But is that not more disturbing than if someone took an art-house approach in editing the scene? There are many master shots in Dracula, despite the cinematographer being Karl Freund, a man who normally liked to make the camera move. We experience so much of life in master shots. And death, too—consider, for example, the “master shot” of the casket at the funeral, family gathered on each side. Tod Browning presented a horror. That’s the key—this wasn’t realism, but nor was it artifice. One may cite the movie’s rubber bat on a string—okay. But the film is working with your imagination by then. You believe. When we believe, that belief has greater and graver potency than any special effects on however big a budget. Imagination will always supersede trickery and post-production dazzle because it is the ultimate effect. The right shadow puppet, in the right context, our imaginations firing, can send someone screaming from a room.

Over time, I’ve come to believe that there is no more influential American film. Horror movies pre-Dracula had cop-out endings, with the supernatural explained away, Scooby-Doo-style. It was those bank robbers using the dilapidated manse as a hideout. Sure it was. Dracula went for the proverbial jugular. This fellow was dead, he was back, and he’d snatch your soul from you. Best-case scenario if he got you was that you’d be allowed to die, assuming that someone drove a stake through your heart, chopped off your head, and tossed some garlic into the pit of your neck. Consider that for a second. People are often terrified of death. Here you would want it. That’s unsettling. As is the idea of mercy-killing someone who is already not alive.

Would some other movie have come along to help me realize this love that lived inside of me? Yes, I’m sure. Other movies were probably doing that concurrently. And stories. I looked and lived for that which would make me more alive. But I think I would have preferred to be a boy who emptied out the toy box at the base of his bed and repurposed it for his box of earth, scrunching himself inside, than I would have wished to raid the medicine cabinet for gauze and bandages and been The Mummy. Or anything else for that matter.

But even if something else had preceded it, Dracula is the film that would’ve ended up meaning what it has meant to me. Today we may feel less alive than yesterday. Tomorrow we may get back to ourselves, or become more alive still. States of death, states of life. Dracula made me aware of passing modes of being and existence. Iterations of here-ness. Otherness. It was, and is, as archetypical as anything gets. Undead until the last, alive so long as we are. 🩸

COLIN FLEMING

is the author of eight books, including the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope, a 33 1/3 volume on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Meatheads Say the Realest Things: A Satirical (Short) Novel of the Last Bro, and a book about 1951’s Scrooge as the ultimate horror film. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, Cineaste, Film Comment, Sight and Sound, JazzTimes, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other venues. He’s completing a book called And the Skin Was Gone: Essays on Works of Horror Art. His website is colinfleminglit.com, where he maintains the Many Moments More journal, which, at 2.7 million words and counting as of autumn 2023, is the longest sustained work of literature in history.

X: @colinfleminglit

How to see Dracula

The film is also available on various DVD and Blu-ray editions.
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