In praise of Dracula: a belated Halloween post

It was in Blackpool I first encountered Dracula. Not in the flesh, of course, because as we all know vampires don’t really exist. But no matter how insistently I kept saying that to myself, I couldn’t dispel the terror behind that nagging thought: “But what if they did?”

I was nine years old at the time, which may count perhaps as something of a mitigating factor. And it was in the Chamber of Horrors of a deliciously tacky waxwork exhibition on Blackpool Pleasure Beach that used to call itself Louis Tussauds.

To keep myself on the safe side of libel laws, I think I should point out that Louis Tussauds have now been taken over by Madame Tussauds, and, although I have not been to this place since the takeover, I have no reason whatever to believe that any element of tack attaches itself to this waxwork exhibition nowadays. No, indeed. No element of tack whatever.

I can’t help feeling, however, that waxworks should be a bit tacky, a bit seedy. And that the highlight of a visit to a wax museum should be a gloriously lurid Chamber of Horrors. That’s certainly the way Louis Tussauds used to be, and if the establishment has now become nobler, exhibiting likenesses of the latest wholesome showbiz celebrities rather than exciting the visitors’ baser instincts with vulgar and gratuitous displays of horror, then, alongside the undoubted gains, there may perhaps also be a certain loss. For I find it hard to imagine how even the most edifying likenesses of Posh & Becks & co could make the sort of impact that tableau of Dracula had made on me that day.

Memory can, as we all know, play the most outrageous tricks, but what I seem to remember of that tableau was a woman lying in bed, her skin a ghastly green, and with two lurid punctures in her neck dripping crimson. And next to her stood the Count himself, sated with blood, his face marked with a frown and a wrinkle and a sneer of cold command. I was horrified, in a way I never could be now in my middle age. And I was fascinated.

What perversity is it in our natures that makes us seek after that which horrifies and repels? The rational reaction to my terror in Blackpool that day would have been to avoid such things altogether. But no – the effect it had on me was quite the opposite. In those days, Scottish Television used to show Hammer Horror films on late nights on Fridays, and my parents, who took their parenting responsibilities somewhat more seriously than I might have wished, would not allow me to stay up for them. (Indeed, I don’t think they’d have allowed me into Louis Tussauds had they known at the time what it contained.) So I used to read the blurbs in TV Times, and roll those marvellous titles around my tongue – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Brides of Dracula… I used to envy my good friend Terence: his parents, unlike mine, let him stay up for these films, and every Monday morning, at playtime, he used to tell me what he had seen the previous Friday night. It may not seem like much now, but it was then: what Terence told me, coupled with what I had seen in Louis Tussauds in Blackpool, fired my imagination. At night, I would lie awake in my bed in the dark, imagining every creak of the floorboards and every gurgle in the water pipes to betoken the imminent approach of Count Dracula himself, whose deadly bite would drain my blood, and turn my skin ghastly green. Yes, my parents were in the next room, I knew, but what could even parents do against the power of the Count?

Of course, with the passing of the years, for better or for worse, our imaginations learn not to be frightened of vampires. We are frightened instead of more realistic matters – paying our bills, holding on to our jobs, maintaining our health, and so on. All very mundane, sadly. But the imagination is a fine thing, and the more beset we are by real everyday worries, the more attractive seems that flight of imagination that takes us back to our childhood fears. And, for me anyway, it doesn’t take too great an exercise of the imagination to return to that world in which Count Dracula really was a figure to inspire terror. Although I cannot return to feeling as I did when I was nine, even the act of remembering the fears I once had felt is strangely pleasurable.

But enough of this psychobabble. I don’t know why it is I still enjoy reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or why I enjoy watching those splendid Hammer Horror films. That I enjoy them is reason enough for my continuing to enjoy them. The opening section of Stoker’s novel, especially, remains terrifying for reasons I am not prepared to speculate upon. That entire section in which Jonathan Harker travels through Borgo pass into Castle Dracula, and then effectively finds himself a prisoner in that fearsome place, still sends up the spine shivers of supernatural terror, and reminds me that I am perhaps not too far removed from that boy who used to be terrified by the gurgles in the water pipes. Admittedly, the level of intensity of the early section of the novel is not maintained throughout, but there are, nonetheless, splendidly terrifying passages, not least the superbly staged finale where we return once again to Castle Dracula.

No adaptation has, to my mind, quite captured the atmosphere of the novel. I suppose the closest is the BBC adaptation from the 1970s: the casting of Louis Jourdain as the Count was certainly unexpected, but it paid off handsomely. The old Universal films with Bela Lugosi seem hopelessly stiff and stagey these days: they certainly haven’t lasted as well as the wonderful Frankenstein films from the same studio, with Boris Karloff as the monster giving one of cinema’s finest performances.

But the finest screen Dracula, certainly for me and, I suspect, for many others as well, is surely Christopher Lee. It was 1958 when the Hammer Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) first hit the screens, and while it was quite different from the novel on which it was based, it was, and remains still, a considerable achievement in its own right. Above all, it fixed for ever our mental picture of Dracula: from now on, Dracula is the suave, aristocratic and darkly menacing figure presented by Christopher Lee. There have been many other actors since who have played the Count, but none has supplanted Lee in this role.

The surprise is not that sequels followed, but that it took so long for the first one to turn up: it was the mid-60s by the time Dracula, Prince of Darkness appeared, and, for my money at any rate, it is even finer than its predecessor. The sequence in the first half of the film where the four travellers find themselves in Dracula’s castle is still weird and eerie, and retains its ability to frighten, and to cause unease. There are many other splendid scenes as well –  not least the scene taken straight from Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights in which Helen (Barbara Shelley), now undead, appears at the window, begging to be let in. Add to that the finest staking scene of any vampire film, and we have what, for me at least, is among the great classics of horror cinema.

The following sequels (five more featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula) did not quite maintain this standard, although there remains even in the least of them much that I find enjoyable. But then again, I am a diehard aficionado. Ah – those waxworks in Louis Tussauds have much to answer for!

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on November 6, 2011 at 3:23 am

    I went to Madame Tussaud’s a few years ago, largely against my will, as my son’s mother thought it would be a great birthday day out for him – he was 6 as I recall.
    The exhibition was almost entirely celebrity based in the way that you would expect, but despite myself I found myself enjoying it because it was very revealing of our relationship to celebrity – they might as well be wax works for all the difference it makes.
    As for a waxworks of a fictional monster, what is our relationship? I read some time ago in an article on robotics an opinion that the attempts to make robots too closely appear human or animal can produce a very creepy effect, and that there was an ‘uncanny valley’ that lay between the human and the clunky ‘mechanical men’ of science fiction.
    I think that the horror tableau of your youth would at that time have lay in that ‘valley’, especially when combined with a child’s view of the world unjaded by modern special effects, because the vampire of Bram Stoker’s imagination was of humanity, even if no longer human.


    • … the vampire of Bram Stoker’s imagination was of humanity, even if no longer human.

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here: Dracula terrifies because he represents a certain aspect of humanity, an aspect that is
      predatory, and utterly ruthless and unfeeling. This is why recent attempts to present Dracula as a romantic lover are so misguided.

      Of course, Bram Stoker’s novel presents endless possibilities to those who enjoy untangling Freudian sexual imagery…


  2. The Mrs Warboys waxwork prize in One Foot in the Grave says all that needs to be said about waxworks.


  3. Once again, I’m coming belatedly to these posts. The S.T.V series of late Friday-night horrors that you mention was the wonderful ‘Don’t Watch Alone’, I think. Before they ever moved onto Hammer they ran the six Universal Frankenstein films, followed by the four Dracula ones and then two of The Mummy.

    I THINK the first non-Universal that they showed was ‘Paranoic’ with Oliver Reed. Unfortunately for me, whilst my parents hadn’t had a problem with Universal the penny dropped that Hammer meant lots of T&A and that was the end for me; which may explain why I never got as deeply into the Hammers. That and by the time I got to them it used to irritate me that they just never bothered with even the vaguest nod to continuity.

    Anyway, thanks for another article bringing back (surprisingly vivid!) memories.


    • “Don’t Watch Alone”! yes – that was the title of the series!

      Also, in the late 70s and early 80s, BBC used to show double bills on Saturday evenings in the summer of a black & white horror film (usually a Universal film, but sometimes a Val Lewton film), and a colour (usually a Hammer, but occasionally an Amicus compilation). Happy days!


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