Nosferatu: The Film That Died (Part 1)

There is no doubt that Freidrich Willhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Symphony of Horror) is a piece of landmark cinema, both for its Expressionist filmmaking and its unique treatment of the vampire as plague. Yet few people saw this monumental film prior to 1960. Though slated for destruction by Bram Stoker’s widow, the film managed to survive, popping up in the most peculiar places.


Here is a trailer for Nosferatu (colorized, but it’s the best of the batch) that shows just how ominous Max Schrek was in this part.

Nosferatu debuted at the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens in 1922. The movie was the first and last product of a small art collective called Prana Films — the brainchild of artist Albin Grau (later Nosferatu’s production designer). A month later, Florence Stoker caught wind, and she started the legal machines rolling. Her only income at this point was her deceased husband’s book Dracula, and she would not let some German production company steal her meal ticket. During the 1920s, intellectual rights were a bit dodgy, so Florence paid one British pound to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors to help defend her property. Never mind that the society would also pick up the tab for the potentially huge legal bills.

Florence_StokerFlorence seemed unaware that a second vampire film, this one called Drakula, was produced by a Hungarian company in 1921. Although the title harkens back to Bram Stoker’s novel, the resemblance ends there. This film, now lost save for some stills, was more concerned with eye gouging than straight out vampirism. Nosferatu on the other hand took much of its plot from Stoker’s Dracula, changing only the names.

The film continued to be exhibited in Germany and Budapest up through 1925, though Prana was beleaguered by creditors and harassed by Florence Stoker. They tried to settle with the society, offering a cut of the film’s take in order for them to use the Dracula title in England and America. Florence would not relent.

She not only wanted Prana to halt exhibition of the film, she wanted it torched — all prints and negatives of the film destroyed. And she got her way. In 1925 Florence won her case and the destruction order went through. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens vanished into thin air just as Count Orlock, the vampire in the film, did when exposed to the rays of the morning sun.

For more information on the making of the original Dracula, check out David Skal’s book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen.

Tim Kane

Zombie Walk

How times have changed. I recall playing tag in the schoolyard pretty much the way it’s always been  played. One person is “it”. He tries to tag everyone else. No goal save running around like crazy.

Now, my daughter introduced me to the twenty-first century version: Zombie Walk. One person is it (called a witch). Everyone else  gets to be humans. The zombie/witch shambles along, trying to catch the humans, who shriek in mock terror. The zombie must touch a human and count up to the age of the human (an easy feat for a kindergartener). Then the human becomes a zombie and the game continues.

Imagine how shocked our parents would have been if we were busting out this zombie tag in the 70s and 80s? Back then, zombies were pure horror. Remember Night of the Living Dead? That was the staple back then. Now, we have a film with a zombie romance: Warm Bodies.

Additionally, there are even zombie picture books, like Zombie in Love (see my review of it here).

Vampire Apotropaics Part 2: Back Off Foul Beast

We all want vampires to stay away. Who knew that lemons, clocks, and tar would do the trick.

There are many ways to counter a vampire using natural substances. Most repel the undead, keeping the creature at bay. The most common is garlic, but what fun is that. I dare say any vampire worth his fangs knows to keep away from that stuff. Let’s delve.

Lemons placed in the mouth of the corpse would dispose of Saxon vampires. The acidic properties (just like the strong smell of garlic) may be the reason for using this fruit. Likewise, the strong odor of tar would repel the undead. People would apply it to doors in the shape of a cross. Another item stuffed in the deceased mouth was wool. My guess is the prickly quality of the sheep’s hair would discourage the vampire.

Various types of wood had repellant qualities. In addition to carving stakes, juniper was kept in the house to keep the undead out. Like wool, this plant has sharp, needle-like leaves. Holly also keeps the vampires away with it’s pointy leaves. Millet, in addition to catering to the obsessive counting tendencies of vampires, could also repel them. It was rubbed on the face of the corpse.


Blood bread was another tradition that provided protection in Poland. The blood of the corpse was mixed with dough and made into a bread. Partaking of the bread kept the vampire away. In Pomerania the blood was mixed with brandy and drunk.

I found this recipe for blood bread.

I found this recipe for blood bread. This uses cow’s blood. Click on the picture to check it out.

According to folklore in Europe, stopping the clock at the time of a person’s death will protect you from that person rising as a vampire. It puts the vampire in a sort of suspended animation. Also, placing a candle, a coin, and a towel in the corpse’s hand will keep it from rising as a vampire.

Iron is a common repellant for many magical creatures. However, you can protect against a vampire by simply keeping iron implements in by your bed. Scissors were common, but anything iron would do. Placing iron objects in the coffin kept the vampire from leaving the coffin.

The Telegraph reported that a skeleton was found in Bulgaria with an iron bar in his chest.

The Telegraph reported that a skeleton was found in Bulgaria with an iron bar in his chest.

Need fires were used all over Europe in plague times. All other fires in the town needed to be snuffed out. Then huge bonfires were lighted. Typically livestock were marched between the fires to imbue protection. Similarly this could provide protection against disease and vampirism.

Salt was another another excellent deterrent as it had the ability to preserve meats. People carried salt at night to ward off evil creatures or throw it over their left shoulder to blind whatever might be sneaking up behind (goes with the spilled salt superstition). Salt sprinkled around a cradle would protect the infant. In Romania, a woman who ate no salt in pregnancy would curse her child with vampirism.

In the next segment, we’ll look into ways to tying down your vampire, including, but not limited to: carpets, needles, and ignoring the undead.

Tim Kane

The Un-History of the Undead Part 1: Zombie Folklore

Don't bury me. I'm not dead!

Imagine that a zombie knocked on your door—a real, true to life (or death) zombie. You open the door and find a black man, looking every bit normal and alive, except for the listless expression and glazed eyes. No shambling carcass of rotting flesh and bones. It does not salivate for your intestines or brains.

The word zombie signifies a member of the undead—those creatures that come back to haunt the living. However, the image that comes to mind for this creature has been greatly shaped by popular media, such as literature and film. In the example above, the first description comes from folklore, while the second is influenced by fiction. How did our perception of these creatures change over the years?

Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. (Although the OED dates zombie back to 1819, it was Hearn’s article that circulated widely enough to catch the public’s attention.) Hearn had traveled to Martinique in 1887 to study local customs and folklore for a series of articles on the Caribbean. It was there that he heard talk of zombies.

While it’s true that Hearn discovered the zombie, it was left to American adventurer William Seabrook to capitalize on it. Arriving in Haiti in 1928, he left no stone unturned in his quest for the corps cadavers (walking dead). This led to his autobiographical travelogue The Magic Island, which became an immediate bestseller.

A Haitian farmer by the name of Polynice introduced Seabrook to some real live zombies. The farmer brought the adventurer to the middle of a plantation and pointed out three zombies and the man controlling them. Seabrook went up to each of the zombies in turn, and found them to be little more than dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.

A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. The loa is usually translated as god or divinity, but it is closer to a genie, demon, or spirit. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.

A Voodoo sorcerer, called a bòkò, had the ability to transform any person into a zombie. The bòkò would sprinkle a powder on the doorstep, and when the intended victim stepped on it, the magic entered through the soles of the feet. The person died soon after. Within three days the bòkò snuck into the graveyard, recited a magical chant, and called the victim’s name several times. The zombie had no choice but to answer and come out of the ground. The bòkò then beat the body with a whip to keep the ti-bon-age from returning. Often the bòkò kept the ti-bon-age in a jar. This was called a zombie astral, while the body that walked around, soulless, was called a zombie cadavre.

Every member of society shunned the zombie. This fear did not center on what the creature might do physically. Zombies were entirely docile. It was becoming a zombie that so horrified the islanders. This represented a return to slavery, as the creature must literally do whatever its master bids. Even after death, you might return to work in servitude. Canadian ethnobiologist Wade Davis spent several years researching the zombie powder. He commented, “Given the availability of cheap labor and the physical condition of the zombie, there is no economic incentive to create a force of indentured labor” (American Scientist, 1987).

In order to prevent loved ones from becoming zombies, Haitians took precautions similar to what the Serbians did for vampires. The body was often killed again, either by poison, strangulation, stabbing, a shot to the head or decapitation. Measures were also taken to prevent the zombie from rising. A wealthy family would bury their loved one in a solid tomb, while the less off would inter the body under a piece of heavy masonry. In order to prevent the zombie from answering this call, precautions were made. The mouth might be sewn up or tied shut using a strip of cloth fastened over the head and under the chin. Finally, a zombie might be distracted so that he might not hear the bòkò calling his name. There were two types of distractions. First the body would be buried with an eyeless needle so the corpse would spend eternity trying to thread it. The other method involved scattering seeds in the coffin, and the zombie was forced to count them all, one by one.

Becoming a zombie was not necessarily a permanent condition. There were several cases of people who died, only to be discovered many years later seemingly normal. One Clairvius Narcisse died in 1962 after complaining of sickness and coughing up blood. Eighteen years later his sister, Angelina, discovered him in the l’Estere marketplace. His speech was slurred and his muscles were weak, but he knew that he was no longer a zombie. Apparently, after being dug up and beaten by the bòkò, he had worked on a farm with other zombies. Only when one of the zombies killed the zombie master did they all become free.
Another way to cure an individual of the zombie curse was with salt. If a zombie consumed even a grain of salt, the fog that swirled around his brain would lift, and he would become filled with an unspeakable rage. He would first turn on the one who controlled him, killing the zombie master and destroying his property. The released zombie would then go in search of his tomb, claw at the dirt, and collapse onto his empty grave.

Seabrook’s 1929 publication of Magic Island touched off interest in the zombie and the Caribbean. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, the zombie wasn’t under copyright, since Seabrook was essentially reporting on fact. This led to the production of Universal’s 1932 White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi as the zombie master. (The film was preceded by a dreary play, Zombie, penned by Kenneth Webb. The production opened and closed in 1932 after only twenty performances.) The film cemented the Haitian myth of the zombie as a soulless body accepting any order. However the Voodoo version of the zombie would quickly be forgotten in the 60s when an independent filmmaker from Pittsburg got a hold of the concept.
Part 2 will examine what Romero has done to the zombie mythology.

By Tim Kane

I brought this article back from the dead in recognition of the digital release of Stories in the Ether. This has my story, Moth and Rust, which is my take on the zombie story that involves a weary husband who does his wife’s chores for years, only to drop dead. Yet, she still insists he work his butt off. No rest for the dead. Don’t worry, the young nephew has some ideas how to solve this undead problem.

Check out Stories in the Ether in Kindle or Lulu.