Just about every scary movie can trace its roots back to Nosferatu. Yet, the enduring popularity of the 1922 film almost seems impossible. The German movie is silent, appears mostly in black and white, and has no big-name stars attached. But Count Orlok simply has a knack for haunting moviegoers’ minds.
However, it’s a miracle that anyone at all has seen Nosferatu. Chilling issues during production and a whirlwind of controversy after the release nearly shut the vampire up in his coffin for good. Fortunately, the movie bit back in a huge way.
Even if you don’t have the guts to enjoy horror, you know Count Dracula. The blood-sucking, garlic-hating vampire is one of the most recognizable characters in all of pop culture, and yet his legacy was nearly burnt to ashes decades ago.
The future of Dracula all hinged on Nosferatu. But before a single frame was shot, the movie began as a germ in the mind of an occult artist named Albin Brau. He founded a production company, Prana Films, to share stories about the supernatural.
Nothing interested the German filmmaker more than vampires. Naturally, the most popular version of the tale came from Dracula, the best-selling 1897 novel by Bram Stoker. Brau was dismayed to find that adapting this book was impossible — technically, anyway.
For one thing, an adaptation called Dracula’s Death just came out in 1921, albeit with little fanfare. The bigger problem was that Brau’s coffers were nowhere near large enough to buy the book’s film rights. But he pondered ways around those legalities.
Brau planned to twist the source material enough so that his script would be deemed an original story. To his credit, he wanted to incorporate other demonic elements, including his own run-in with a Serbian family whose son claimed he was a vampire.
So Brau took almost the entire plot of Dracula and changed a few details. He moved the primary setting from England to Eastern Europe, with shooting taking place in Germany and Slovakia. Count Dracula also became Count Orlok.
The producer struggled to find an actor who could capture the eeriness of the titular Nosferatu — a Romanian word he assumed meant “vampire,” though it actually was closer to “plague bringer.” Brau eventually found someone almost too perfect when he met Max Schreck.
Unlike any performer Brau had ever met before, Schreck was a weirdo and a loner. Given his dark sense of humor and insistence on working at night, he seemed like an actual vampire! It didn’t help that his surname translated to “terror” in German.
Still, he fit the bill. Brau and director F.W. Murnau wanted to make him look far more inhuman than any other Dracula-type character. Inspired by illustrations in The Golem, they gave him animal fangs and long, pointed ears.
Hopping across Europe, the crew toiled over the course of four months. Financial constraints meant they could only afford one camera and original negative, which would become crucial later on. But Murnau did introduce a number of innovations despite the small budget.
Nosferatu’s biggest contribution of vampire lore involved the creatures’ relationship with the daylight. In Stoker’s Dracula, the Count wanders around in broad daylight, much like any other gentleman of his time.
Count Orlok, on the other hand, introduced the idea that the sun is dangerous — and even deadly — to the bloodsuckers. He became the first of many vampiric villains to perish in the glow of UV rays.
Murnau also utilized groundbreaking special effects to make Count Orlok seem truly supernatural. For instance, stop-motion techniques created the illusion that the vampire was rising straight out of his coffin. But would it be too scary for movie audiences?
Leading up to the 1922 premiere, Brau didn’t shy away from sensationalism. He plastered terrifying advertisements all over Germany and staged a costume party for the film’s debut. Thousands of dressed up Berliners flooded the Marble Hall at the Zoological Gardens.
Certain details of that first showing were forever lost, like the music that originally accompanied the film. But there was no doubt about the spectacle of the horrifying movie and over-the-top promotion. The filmmakers might have regretted so much notoriety, however.
Boston Pops / Hilary Scott
Florence Stoker, widow of the Dracula author, was furious about this flagrant ripoff. One official movie poster even advertised Nosferatu as an adaptation of the novel! She gathered all her friends in show business and sought out revenge.
Understandably, the legal system sided with the angry widow. But she didn’t want money. Instead, a judge ordered every print of the film to be burned. With that order, every reel of Count Orlok went up in smoke — except for one.
A Band Apart
The single surviving strip of negatives produced countless bootleg copies. In the ensuing years, Nosferatu only became more popular and served as the bedrock for countless versions of Dracula. Count Orlok remains a cultural icon a century later.
Besides Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized movie about the making of the German flick, Orlok appeared in multiple episodes of Spongebob Squarepants! Of course, the vampire lives on most vibrantly in sold-out screenings of the 1922 classic.
Despite any plagiarism on the part of Nosferatu, it’s important to note that Stoker himself didn’t invent vampires. His inspiration came from a recurring nightmare. The idea may have come from a wild dream caused by a “helping of dressed crab at supper,” according to Stoker.
In his dream, the Irish author saw “a vampire king rising from the tomb,” and he couldn’t get the image out of his mind. The fact that Stoker started to write Dracula during London’s most frightening time in history only made things creepier…
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
Stoker started Dracula a mere two years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London. Everyone in the city was already afraid of the dark at this point, which Stoker used to his advantage — and in his creation of Count Dracula.
It’s speculated that Count Dracula, who was described by Stoker as being tall and alluring with “gracious manners,” was actually based on Stoker’s boss, Henry Irving. An actor, Irving was both egotistical and charming, two of the Count’s defining qualities.
Lewis Strang, Players and Plays of the Last Quarter Century, Vol. 2
But other historians believe that the Count and his bloodthirsty ways were actually based on a real-life historical figure. Not only do both figures have Transylvanian-sounding names, but they each shared a pesky hankering for blood…
Vlad III of Wallachia — also known as Vlad the Impaler — is obviously known for one thing: his tendency to impale people. His connection to Dracula goes much deeper than a sword, though. Surprisingly, it goes all the way back to his father.
The elder Vlad was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, which made Vlad III the “son of Dracul,” or “Dracula.” Interestingly, “drac” translates to “dragon” and “devil,” so it shouldn’t come as a shock that Vlad wasn’t the nicest guy.
According to legend, Vlad III once invited hundreds of wealthy nobleman to a banquet and, knowing they would challenge his authority, had them — you guessed it — impaled on spikes. Multiple violent Vlad stories were printed, and one eventually landed on Stoker’s lap.
When reading a book about Wallachia, Stoker was taken by the name “Dracula.” He was struck by the name’s devilish origin and by how much Vlad III had embodied its meaning. It seems Stoker got more than one idea from his research, however.
Stoker was especially interested in a painful time in Vlad’s life: when he was held captive for years by the Ottomans. During this period, Vlad III and his brother were kept in an eerie castle complete with dungeons and secret passageways.
So, is that where Dracula’s iconic castle came from? No one pictures a vampire living in a condo, and that’s because of Stoker’s description of Dracula’s shadowy castle, complete with cobwebs and opulent furniture. But some think the castle has a different origin.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula,1931
Some historians believe Dracula’s castle resembles Scotland’s Slains Castle. It’s “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light,” Stoker wrote in Dracula. This description calls to mind Slains Castle, one of many eerily accurate details in Stoker’s book.
To people in 1890s Europe, some scenes in Dracula sent a chill down their spines — and not for the reason you’d think. As is now clear, much of Stoker’s inspiration came from real life… including one of his novel’s the goriest scenes.
In the book, a woman is slowly killed by Dracula. After she dies, the woman-turned-vampire is dug up from her coffin and re-killed via a stake to the heart, a scene that, for some people, hit a little too close to home.
For example, Stoker’s friend buried his deceased wife with a book of poetry and then, years later, exhumed her to retrieve it. This was frightening enough, but after Dracula was published, this exhuming habit only intensified.
Vampire mania had been growing for centuries, and works of literature that came before Dracula, such as Lenore, The Vampyre, and Carmilla, solidified vampires as the blood-sucking monsters they are today. But it was Stoker that pushed vampire-mania to its peak…
People took their fear of vampires very seriously by covering their home in crucifixes, having extra garlic on hand, and, in particularly gruesome circumstances, exhuming and stabbing corpses in the heart in order to prevent future “vampire attacks.”
There’s a silver lining to all the hysteria, however: without it, we wouldn’t have today’s thriving vampire genre. Thanks to Stoker, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series exist to obsess over — and obviously, the mania didn’t stop at literature.
The creepiness of Dracula ended up bleeding into the entertainment business. From Nosferatu and Dark Shadows to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries, people are just as enamored with vampires now as they were back then.
Though Vlad the Impaler and other “vampires” probably won’t rise from the dead, there’s no denying the sheer creepiness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oddly, though, there were other vampiric sources he could’ve drawn on for his book.
1. Petar Blagojevich: In 1725, a certain Serbian peasant named Petar Blagojevich died. Not really that remarkable of a story, right? Just wait until you hear what happened after he died, because that’s when things got really strange…
According to the story, Petar reportedly crawled out of his grave and asked his son for food. When his son, terrified, denied him, Petar murdered him and drank his blood. In a panic, the villagers thrust a stake through Petar’s heart once he had returned to his grave.
2. That same year, another Serbian man named Arnold Paole claimed to have been bitten by a Turkish vampire. To cure the ill effects, he ate handfuls of dirt from the vampire’s grave. Unfortunately, that might not have been quite enough; three days later, Arnold died…
Then, four people came forward claiming he had emerged from his grave and bit them. They all died shortly thereafter. The townspeople agreed to dig up Arnold’s body and when they did, they found his eyes open and blood pouring from every orifice.
3. Myslata of Blau was a humble and simple shepherd from the 14th century who lived in a small village in what is now the Czech Republic. Myslata died, but then began to reappear to villagers at night. Those who saw him were doomed to die within eight days of his appearance.
Eventually they dug up his remains and drove a stake through his heart—but it did nothing! So, they dug him up again and tried driving stakes all over his entire body, which made him roar in pain before finally dying for good.
4. In 1582, Johannes Cuntius, a civic official with an unfortunate surname from the Czech town of Pentsch, died tragically when a horse kicked him in the head. He was rushed to his death bed, but things only got worse when a black cat jumped up on his bed. This was considered to be a terrible omen.
After his death, villagers started seeing him wandering around at night giving off an unholy and disgusting aroma. To put a stop to it, they dug up his body, chopped off his head, set it on fire and ground it to ash, leaving his grave empty.
5. Countess Elizabeth Bathory: Born in Transylvania in 1560, Elizabeth had it all: She was a noblewoman with good looks and plenty of money to throw around. She was even engaged at the age of 12 to Ferenc Nádasdy, a well-to-do gentleman of the day.
Ferenc and Elizabeth married in 1575, though Ferenc eventually died in 1604. Left to her own devices, Elizabeth took to killing young virginal women so she could bathe in their blood and drink it, believing it would keep her looking young and beautiful forever.
6. The Alnwick Castle Vampire: Alnwick Castle has stood in Northumberland, England, since 1096. In the 12th century, it was recorded that the castle had its own vampire: a man from Yorkshire who had been buried in the local cemetery.
Apparently, the vampire was a hunchback who would perform fiendish deeds at night, upsetting the local villagers. They took matters into their own hands; they dug up his body and started hacking at him with their spades.
7. Sava Savanović: This malicious blood-sucking vampire was said to lurk by a water-powered mill on the banks of the River Rogačica, in the village of Zarožje in Serbia. When people came to use the mill, he would kill them and drink their blood.
Unlike other stories, the villagers never actually succeeded in ending Savanoić’s reign of terror. In 2012, however, the town considered reopening the mill as a tourist attraction. Shockingly, the mill collapsed into a sinkhole shortly thereafter, giving Sava the last laugh after all.
8. Jure Grando Alilović: Jure Alilović was born in the town of Kringa, located in contemporary Croatia, in 1597. When he died in 1656, it wasn’t the end of him, though. Instead, townsfolk claimed to have spotted him stalking the streets late at night.
For 16 years it was said that if Jure knocked on your door at night, you would be doomed to die not long after. Eventually, the villagers finally worked up the courage to dig up his body and drive stakes through it, but that didn’t stop him!
9. New England vampire epidemic: In 1990, archaeologist Nick Bellantoni was excavating some colonial-era graves in the town of Griswold, Connecticut. All of the graves seemed pretty ordinary, until Nick noticed one strange plot. In this plot, the skeleton had no head and its thigh bones were deliberately crossed.
Bellantoni discovered other plots where the bones had been treated in the same way. In the process, he learned that there had been a vampire panic in New England in mid-19th century. The strange bones he found belonged to suspected vampires.
10. The Blandford Forum Vampire: In 1762, a manservant named William Doggett ran off with his master’s fortune. Crushed by the shame, William took his own life later that year.
Death was not the end for William Doggett. Villagers reported seeing him driving the streets at night in a ghostly carriage. They also reported that he had developed a taste for human blood. They dug up his grave, and their fears were confirmed: William’s remains weren’t even touched by decay…