Bad Mother Suckers

What vampire portrayals in film say about judgments on sexuality

Blood dribbles from a woman's grasped neck as a vampire plunges in his fangs

Vampires have long held a place in popular culture, tied inexorably to the subject of sexuality whether subtly or explicitly. This connection traces all the way back to Bram Stoker’s seminal 1897 book Dracula, a gothic tale about a small group of people battling the eponymous undead aristocrat.

Hundreds of films have been inspired by this book, yet for some reason a select few are prioritized in scholarly discussion. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Tod Browning’s Dracula (of the Universal Classic Monsters film series), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula are three such examples, but there are dozens of other lesser-studied films that offer invaluable insight into how vampires function as a metaphor for sexuality.

Here we will focus on two such films, Horror of Dracula and Blacula. Both movies are adaptations of Stoker’s original story, yet they convey two distinct views on sexuality through the lens of vampirism. Despite these films not being highly regarded in critical circles, they effectively showcase how the cultural context surrounding a particular text is as important as the text itself.

Horror of Dracula, released in 1958 by Hammer Productions and directed by Terence Fisher, follows a close retelling of the original Stoker story in Victorian times and showcases what has been described by Michel Foucault in his work The History of Sexuality as a “restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.”

Released more than a decade before controversial films such as A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, and Last Tango in Paris made sexual violence more acceptable or present in the mainstream, Horror of Dracula is subtle in its portrayal of the erotic and seductive power of sex through the vampire count. This is thoroughly reinforced by its use of a Victorian setting, one in which, to again quote Foucault, “sexuality was carefully confined” and “silence became the rule.” By discreetly portraying sexuality through vampirism as something less than human, addictive, and evil, the film supports a conservative viewpoint of sexuality — especially that which society does not approve of — as monstrous.

An illustrated headshot of Dracula. He's bald, with piercing blue eyes.In the beginning of the film, we see Count Dracula as an eloquent, charming, and seemingly benign individual anxious to have the help of Jonathan Harker. Tall, dark, and handsome, the incognito vampire is the picture of European royalty; however, as soon as his bloodthirst is revealed, he goes through a drastic change. Dracula speaks no more, only growling gutturally and hissing for the rest of the film. His eyes become red and lifeless, and he repeatedly bears his fangs, often bloody, like a predator.

Much more menacing, Dracula loses all humanity and becomes an explicit beast for the characters — led by the potentially asexual Dr. Van Helsing, the only main character without a romantic interest — to slay. As a subtle hint, three different times when Dracula feasts on a victim’s blood there is a fade to black, the same editorial effect used during the censorious Motion Picture Production Code era to indicate a sex scene. By representing Dracula in the heat as animalistic, the film draws a parallel between sexual appetite — something inherent to almost all humans — and a bestial nature.

Additionally, Dracula’s power is likened to that of an addictive substance. Jonathan’s fiance, Lucy, cannot stand to be away from Dracula after she is initially bitten, writhing around and begging the maid staff as if going through withdrawal. She decides to risk her own life rather than be without her fix, eventually overdosing on Dracula’s bloodsucking and becoming an undead horror. Van Helsing even makes direct reference to this in the film, describing victims that “consciously detest being dominated by vampirism, but are unable to relinquish the practice, similar to addiction to drugs.” By comparing the pleasure of vampirism/sex to another potentially deadly yet titillating activity, the film works to present both habits as dangerous and unclean: Dracula is the problem, and the poor souls he has infected are incapable of becoming sober after experiencing his physical seduction.

Keeping with the idea of uncleanliness, the film even goes so far as to say that the idea of sexuality is downright spiritually diabolical. Dracula is a devilish creature, irredeemable and killable through the power of “pure” sunlight. Crucifixes also work to stop him, literally burning his skin upon contact. When Mina Holmwood, the last of his victims and sister-in-law to Lucy, gets bitten for the first time, she is wearing a white dress reminiscent of a wedding gown. She returns home, and the next dress we see her in is black. Everything Dracula encounters becomes impure! Throughout the whole film, Dracula is shown as a wicked fiend and, at the end, it is the work of the benevolent, seemingly sexually abstinent Dr. Van Helsing and the happily married Arthur Holmwood (fighting for his wife, with whom he has a child) to defeat the unholy, polyamorous, flesh-hungry vampire.

In Stoker’s book Count Dracula suffers a similar fate, yet he has a moment of redemption: Mina (Jonathan’s fiance, who in this version survives at the end) claims that “even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.” The book shows that Dracula was suffering like his victims and, much like the sexually active who settle down and start a family, was able to be “cured.”

The film, however, offers no such closure for the villain: He is defeated, and our good, pure heroes leave in peace. By leaving out this detail, the film is even more affirmative of heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable prerequisite for erotica. Subtle yet unprogressive, this film never explicitly denies anyone a voice. But, upon closer examination, it showcases anything outside of post-marital reproduction to be subhuman, dangerous, and otherworldly by aligning any other expression of sexuality with a reprehensible creature — that of the murderous monster.

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The 1972 film Blacula, on the other hand, takes a very different approach to sexuality. Made at the height of the Blaxploitation filmmaking era, it follows an updated version of Stoker’s story, this time focusing on a centuries-old black vampire living in Los Angeles. By humanizing the bloodsucking lead, portraying his erotic preference as something specific and separate from his condition, and showing him as a tragic hero, the film modernizes many aspects of vampirism and thus portrays a more nuanced metaphor for sexuality.

From the beginning of the film, we see that Blacula is more than just an evil caricature for some virgins to defeat. Named Mamuwalde, he is an African prince entombed in 1780 by the original Dracula for the audacity of trying to bring an end to the slave trade. Trapped for nearly 200 years, he searches the City of Angels to fulfill his need for blood; however, he is not incapable of expressing himself. William Marshall delivers his lines with poise and elegance, reminiscent of Christopher Lee in the beginning of Horror of Dracula. The striking difference here is that Mamuwalde can still sound like a gentleman even after engorging himself on the living; he often is the most well-spoken of the crowd he is in. He even accepts his fate at the very end of the film, not getting killed by a vampire hunter but sacrificing himself out of despair.

As we follow Mamuwalde’s journey, we see he is neither a one-sided monster nor a damnable devil but a man who has been wronged and is trying to cope the only way he knows how — by killing to save himself. Novotny Lawrence notes this in his Film International journal article “Fear of a Blaxploitation Monster: Blackness as Generic Revision in AIP’s Blacula,” stating that the film “ensure[d] that the image of the first black horror monster contained a level of dignity.” Looking through a different lens, it was also groundbreaking by showing that characters not strictly conforming to societal notions of permissible sexuality did not have to be exclusively antagonistic; they could in fact be well-written, well-versed, and, above all, well-thought-of.

An illustrated headshot of Blacula, the fictional vampire from the famous Blaxploitation film of the same name. His mouth sits agape, and his face features a prominent widow's peak, eyebrows, and sideburnsMamuwalde does have a sexuality, but it is not to be conflated with his hunger for human blood. While he kills numerous people, this is solely because of Dracula’s curse. He desires only one woman, the voluptuous Tina, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his late wife, Luva. Mamuwalde is suave and sexy, a far cry from Lee’s beastly Count in Horror of Dracula and closer to the archetypes of ladies’ men, such as John Shaft and Dolemite, essential to the Blaxploitation movement.

He certainly has a libido; one scene shows him and Tina in bed after a vigorous session of lovemaking. Mamuwalde is even considerate of Tina’s wants and needs. He both refuses to bite her and tells her that he will not make her join him in the afterlife.

By showing him as a respectable, considerate character the film highlights the fact that people considered to be “deviant” — whether sexually, socially, or supernaturally — are no inherently less ethical than those considered “normal.”

Mamuwalde is not even the villain by the end of the film. He does eventually bite Tina, but it is to save her after she is shot by a white cop while unarmed and trying to escape with Mamuwalde. In the context of 2018, this has a huge political subtext, but even in the 1970s this was loaded imagery.

This version of Dracula also has no qualms about the sexuality of the people he bites. Dr. Gordon Thomas and Lt. Jack Peters, the pair leading the search for the undead killer and this film’s stand-ins for Van Helsing, repeatedly refer to the flamboyant antique dealers that brought Mamuwalde from Transylvania and became his first victims as “faggots.”

At the end of the film, the two vampire hunters are so caught up in killing their target that they don’t even bother to check who it is they kill in the coffin. They thought they ended the terror of Mamuwalde, but in fact they killed his one love, whom he had just saved! This causes Mamuwalde not to go on a killing spree as he had done previously but simply give up on life, voluntarily walking into the sunlight to commit suicide. He had told Tina that he loved her more than life itself, and without her he saw no reason in continuing his existence. This is a tragic ending; remember, Mamuwalde had no desire to become a vampire and fed only to satiate his cursed appetite for human blood.

Mamuwalde suffers a fate much like that of Lee’s and Stoker’s Draculas yet showcases a very different form of sexuality: not at all latent but thoroughly recognized, developed, and matured. He is proud of and embraces his erotic tendencies, more than willing to share himself with the one he loves without turning her to the undead. He still does feast upon the living but more out of necessity than pleasure. By showing a complicated character who is in some ways more human than his human counterparts, confident in who he is as a person, and unapologetically comfortable in his own skin, Blacula offers a progressive representation of sexuality. The film is not perfect — it still reinforces a standard of heteronormativity and monogamy, no doubt disenfranchising to some — but is certainly a step toward more inclusive acceptance of different types of sexuality.

Vampires show up in hundreds of films, all of which owe something to Bram Stoker’s original novel. And, while the vampire is almost always a metaphor for sexuality, it is in some films more explicit than others. More recent films such as Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In have helped to open to a larger audience the discussion of sexuality (especially non-heterosexuality) in relation to vampirism, but older films should not be automatically disregarded. Even if the films themselves have lower production values, a lack of star-studded casts, and what are considered today somewhat unimpressive narratives, they are still important tools to create a thorough history of how society approaches sexuality from the oblique angle of a monster that repulses and attracts, gives and takes, and receives and transmits over time and across cultural contexts.

Parker Bowling headshotParker is enrolled at Wright State University, working on his dream of becoming a filmmaker. His interests include Scrabble, football, and obscure cinema. He also owns more movies than he is willing to admit.
Cincinnati Area Mensa | Joined 2017