In preparation for a trip to China this past winter, I was forced to do something I had long dreaded: I needed to clear up space on my phone. It was a harrowing endeavor, and even though I’m glad I have vacation photos of my hotel breakfasts and odd birds, it was the first time in years that I didn’t have a copy of Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula ready for viewing at a moment’s notice. I felt naked and lost, two feelings you never want to have simultaneously. In March I finally set things right and moved Dracula_GOOD.mp4 back onto my phone, and since then I’ve spent many nights catching up on lost time. It’s the best version of the public domain classic I’ve been able to find: not too much background noise, good contrast, and no added music, as many of the re-releases have done. I don’t want any of that; I don’t need it. Why I love the movie doesn’t have anything to do with the sound design or lighting or even the story itself. The amount of changes made to Bram Stoker’s original has left Browning’s adaptation with plenty of undeveloped characters and plot holes (how does Renfield know who Mina is and why does he care if his howling frightens her?) and the special effects are almost charmingly laughable (the rubber bats, oh the rubber bats!).
In the end, there is one singular reason I keep coming back to this cinema classic: Bela Lugosi.
From the way his Hungarian accent makes each line sound like music to the way you can see his eyebrows express his every emotion even when he’s thirty feet away from the camera, Lugosi’s embodiment of the Count is simply magnetic. The first scene where he speaks is a masterpiece: A wide shot shows Renfield looking around the cavernous and decrepit interior of Castle Dracula, wondering if he’s come to the wrong place for his meeting with a Transylvanian count. Then, in one long shot, we see Lugosi’s dark figure slowly descend the massive staircase behind Renfield with a candlestick in hand. Renfield looks up, and with air of elegance and mystery about him, Lugosi utters that famous line, “I am… Dracula.” With three words, Lugosi established a larger than life image of Count Dracula that has since come to dominate the way we imagine the Transylvanian Count: handsome, suave, exotically foreign, and most important of all, possessing an uncanny undead allure. Cleveland Plain Dealer put it this way in their 1931 review of Dracula: “He plays his character slowly, deliberately, emphasizing its horrible charm.”
Around the same time I got Bela back into my life, I decided to dip my toes into the genre of Goth Rock, spurred on by the existence of the iconic Bauhaus song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, the more I learned about what it means to be “goth,” the more I saw the connection between the two subjects. When I first started looking into goth subculture, what little previous knowledge I did have was almost entirely from sources outside of and largely ignorant about the actual goth community. But after poring over essays and books and definitely messing with all my future Spotify recommendations, I’m not only fascinated by the goth movement, I can see that many of the ideas that run through the heart of the goth ethos also resonate deeply with what made Lugosi’s Dracula so legendary and indelible. A key idea in both is to become something that exists outside the surrounding world or culture; to become something “other.”
As much as it’s taken as a sort of vampiric gold standard nowadays, a lot of people don’t realize just how different Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of The Count was from anything that had been seen or described before. In Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, Count Dracula is described as old and monstrous, with white hair growing in the palms of his hands and a long white mustache. If you watch the 1922 silent film Nosferatu—one of the first, albeit unauthorized, adaptations of Dracula to the silver screen—you can see a version of The Count (called “Count Orlok” for legal reasons) that is in many ways closer to Stoker’s characterization; Orlok’s ravenous stare, claw-like hands, and towering figure make him seem like a grotesque walking nightmare. But when Lugosi first got the role of Dracula for the 1927 stage adaptation, he took the character in a different direction. He had slick hair and an aristocratic manner; he was suave and seductive with Lugosi’s own thick Hungarian accent; he was very much alive. Lugosi almost didn’t take the part because of how few lines there were, but once he got onstage he commanded the spotlight. Things were no different when Lugosi eventually played The Count in Browning’s 1931 film.
Even without the context of earlier interpretations, Lugosi’s Dracula seems otherworldly next to the other characters onscreen. While the rest of the cast opts to play their characters more or less true to life, Lugosi goes big. He recoils from crucifixes as though he’s exercising a full body workout and says corny dialogue like “I don’t drink…wine.” His utter excess makes it almost as if someone dropped Captain Kirk into Apollo 13, except Lugosi actually pulls off the balance between honesty and hammy-ness that Shatner never really nailed. Lugosi fully commits to embracing the larger than life “other”-ness of being a vampire without losing the character’s pathos. In regards to his acting method with monsters, Lugosi later explained that he had to get inside the mind of the character, feel what they feel. “For a time I become Dracula—not merely an actor playing at being a vampire.” He didn’t look to previous portrayals of Dracula or the actors around to inform how he would play The Count, he instead went somewhere outside those systems for inspiration—himself—and embraced that “other”-ness. This also happens to be one reason why the goth subculture that arose in the early 80’s has been able to sustain itself for as long as it has.
Goth style is much more complex than just wearing black. In his chapter “Dark Admissions” for the book GOTH: Undead Subculture, Joshua Gunn asked a member of the goth community how they defined goth fashion. The answer Gunn received wasn’t a simple one, but instead a list covering varying styles and practices, all at home in gothdom. Of course they said some people do dress in simple all black clothing, but others opt for Victorian-influenced ensembles or even a style inspired by vampires and witches known as Darkside. They even mentioned the different types of fabric that can be used depending on what kind of goth scene you’re into. What I find so interesting about this is that none of these styles really show up a lot in the mainstream, even when the book was originally published in 2007. Sure, there have been times, especially in the 90s, when goth-inspired fashion was “chic,” but that was fashion designers aping goth as opposed to people in the goth scene trying to appeal to wider audiences. Unlike the trends and fashions of other subcultures that have either burnt out or been commodified to meaninglessness, those of the goth subculture seem far less influenced by wider consumer markets and more by the community itself. This has allowed them to still stay strong after such a long time, luxuriating in their disconnect from the outside world. Lugosi’s Dracula and the goth community both find strength in their “other”-ness, but where they truly converge is in their captivating treatment of an undead existence.
As Lugosi slowly descends the decrepit steps of Castle Dracula towards the confused Renfield, he creates an image that captures what is at the heart of both his legendary performance and goth subculture. All around him is the decay and crumbling ruins of death, but he stands in the midst of it all and invites Renfield further in. Lugosi’s Dracula is a character somehow between the two extremes whose undead nature makes him profoundly powerful and alluring. In the goth community, death isn’t seen as something to be feared, but instead something to revere and see as a fount of inspiration. When you can be aware of your own death without feeling fear towards its inevitability, you gain an undead sense of the world; an enticing existence of in-between. Lugosi’s version of Count Dracula is the embodiment of this. He’s bizarre and unnatural and horrific while at the same time possessing the undead allure and supernatural power that comes only when life and death become one.
Sadly, Lugosi and goth subculture also shared a terrible curse: being deeply misunderstood. Many people today see goths as depressing and sometimes even violent, far from the way most self-identifying goths see themselves and their community. For Lugosi, his spellbinding performance as The Count led him to be typecast for the rest of his career, finding fulfilling roles few and far between. He died of a heart attack on August 16th, 1956 at the age of 73. Lugosi was laid out in one of his Dracula capes, an idea put forth by his fourth (then ex) wife, Lillian, and their 18-year-old son George. We’ll never know if this is what he really wanted, but we do know that near the end of his life Lugosi was thinking more and more about death. He told his friends he was afraid of dying, but not because he feared death itself. Instead it was the richness of life, and with everything going on in the world he said he “would suffer to miss any of it.”
Tim Parzyck is a Senior at DePaul University studying English and Chinese and works part-time as a tour guide in Chicago's Chinatown. When he has free time he likes to write poetry and short prose, as well as the occasional essay on Bela Lugosi. His favorite food is phở and his favorite Beatle is George. This is his first time being published.