My October Begins with Nosferatu

Before the corniness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, teeny-boppers of Twilight, The Lost Boys of the ‘80s, sexy interviews with Tom and Brad, and the cliché of Dracula himself, there was an insufferable, disease-bearing beast that crept through the dark forests of the Carpathian Mountains. The Romanians of the late 19th century called him Nosferatu, and in 1922, this pale incarnation made his cinematic debut in a black and white silent film that continues to make your skin crawl almost a hundred years later.

You know the basic story because it comes straight out of Bram Stoker’s 1897 legend: Feeble-minded Hutter, a real estate apprentice, travels through the Transylvanian woods to the eerie castle of Count Orlok (Max Shreck). Orlock is interested in purchasing a “deserted” house in the nearby town, Hutter wants to close the deal, and everyone but Hutter knows there’s much more behind Orlock’s plan: A ship full of plague-ridden rats is about to dock, and while death knocks on the townspeople’s door, Orlock will be the first to feast on their blood. He just needs to find a place to stay and enjoy a few human necks on the way…

Through the first attempts at montage in cinema history, an accelerated celluloid frame rate, and an overabundance of shadows, Director F.W. Murnau unleashes images only our nightmares can conjure. Even without a single jump scare, splash of gore, or an anticipated sense of “horror” in general, Murnau’s silent film frightens by eternally imprinting dark pictures into your mind. The deathly slow walk up the stairwell, the wide-eyed glare from the windowsill, and the infamous levitation out of the casket scene – these are ghostly icons other movies have only been able to copy or mistreat. (Simply by adding color, for example, a director erases optical depth and defeats the purpose of cinematic ambiguity.)      

All you need is black and white (and gray)

If Robert Pattinson could see a starkly contrasting image of himself in the mirror, he would see Nosferatu. Played more like a rabid dog, cowering in the corner, Max Schreck’s interpretation of a vampire is less a spectacle and more a freak of nature. The myth is that his interpretation was so painstakingly odd to watch, everyone on the set actually believed he was a vampire! (Be sure to see Willem Dafoe play Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, 2000.)

Max Schreck playing himself?

Because Nosferatu is a black and white, silent “oldie,” its appeal may not suit younger audiences or anyone with a short attention span, for that matter. You have every right to poke fun at the over-the-top acting, ancient technology, or disjointed narrative, and this alone is entertaining. However, if we try to imagine sinking our boots into the cold, central Romanian soil of the 1920s and looking up at the daunting castle looming above us, and seeing the pale face of a sickly beast in the highest window, we also have the right to feel chills.

The etymological origin of the word, Nosferatu, isn’t clear with historians, making the lore even creepier. “Insufferable” and “disease-bearing” are the closest terms historians can come to the Romanian understanding of “blood-sucking evil animal.”

I prefer “Nosferatu” to “Dracula.” One remains an obscure nightmare, while the other becomes a cartoon and a typecast.

Happy October, readers! May you find the escape you need in your horror movies (because that is what some of us do).

16 thoughts on “My October Begins with Nosferatu

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  1. This is one of my all time favorite horror movies. I’ll admit the first time I watched it I was skeptical, I mean how scary can a silent film be? Quite! In fact, the silence adds to the creepiness. My eyes were glued to the TV the entire time, and now it’s tradition to watch it this time of year!!

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    1. Thank you for sharing, Kristian! Maybe it’s the minimalism of a silent movie that forces the viewer to focus 100% on the images, and when those images are as grim and mysterious as the ones in Nosferatu, we’re scared out of memory default. I just can’t get those images out of my head!

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  2. Oh yes, Nosferatu – with this movie the term “moving pictures” gets back its original meaning… Every cadre is carefully planned, and the play of contrasting planes is just perfect. And yes, there were some serious doubts about Schreck’s species 😉

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    1. I haven’t heard/read the word, “cadre,” in a long time. We used the term when collecting donations for our Jesuit brother and sister schools in South America. It was our “cadre collection.” I like how you use it here, and, yes, the use of “contrasting planes” is brilliant work here. Used so early in its cinematic history, I often wonder if the viewers understood that Murnau was foreshadowing or making metaphorical connections. Today, montage and interwoven narratives are overused, exploited, or painfully obvious. I’m glad you can appreciate this little number too. And, Happy October reading to you!

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      1. Yeah, it seems I was rash to assume it will retain in English the original Latin meaning 😉 ‘frame’ would be the correct term here, I believe, and Nosferatu is full of artfully arranged frames 🙂
        Thanks! I actually don’t have anything spooky planned for October, except Gaiman’s comic book A Study in Emerald, but I might get back to my favourite Żelazny Halloween book, A Night in the Lonesome October 😀

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        1. All good. It’s a word with many meanings, and it still worked! “Lonesome October” looks whimsical 🙂 I’m into darker, Clive Barker material right now, but it’s still been so hot where I live that anything “horror,” “October,” or “autumn” just doesn’t ring true right now. I yearn for fog, cooler weather, and radiant colors in the trees…

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  3. His use of shadows is so effective. The copy I have has an orange tint to it and it makes it all the more creepier. This creeped my 19-year-old out. It still works.

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    1. Yes! Totally – I’ve seen it with the orange tint and black and white. And, of course, there are several different versions of film scores. I’m still trying to find the version with the German steam punk rock band interpretation – super creepy!

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      1. I never heard the punk band score…that would be interesting.
        It was more creepy than the two IT films put together. It’s lack of technology is used it’s favor.

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        1. Completely agree – there’s a pseudo realism going on here: Is this Max Schreck actor a little “too” creepy? What do the film locations look like now? What would it have been like to see this in 1922? Subtle horror has more impact than the shock “value” these last few decades…

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          1. I just looked up the film locations…the castle-like structure looks better now than it did… that would be fun to visit.
            CGI can be overdone…

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