“I had no idea he had it in him,” is how one literary historian characterised the response when Bram Stoker published his iconic novel Dracula in 1897.
Stoker was hardly the brooding romantic most would associate with gothic fiction of the time. In contrast to his flamboyant and controversial contemporary Oscar Wilde, Stoker was a mild-mannered, almost prudish man who embodied Victorian ideals to the extent he even published a lengthy pamphlet in support of censorship.
For some, Stoker’s perspective is precisely what made Dracula the book it is: unlike the sexy, scandalous and remarkable lives of Wilde or Mary Shelley, Stoker approached Dracula from the most pedestrian of viewpoints and the novel can almost be read as the collective nightmare buried beneath Victorian-era hegemony.
It would be wrong to say that the novel makes a concise ‘point’ exactly because for many the book reads as Stoker subconsciously poking around at the moral underside of his time. It’s why critical discourse on the book is like playing theoretical bingo, with Freudian, Marxist and feminist critiques all staking pretty reasonable claims over the book’s ‘deeper’ meaning.
That so many of literature’s iconic monsters come from Victorian England is not a coincidence.
On paper this was a great time to be British: an expanding empire; a renewed focus on morality; rapidly expanding technologies and industries, and a profound faith in rationalism and science.
But that expansion of empire came at the cost of millions of lives and multiple genocides. Moreover, Victorian morality severely repressed and punished the desires of women and gay men, and the poor were exploited to keep the factories operating. All of these practices were justified by a rationalism that refused to recognise its own bias towards whiteness, masculinity and the accumulation of capital.
When such injustices are buried by a privileged narrative of ‘prosperity’, cutting through these mythologies falls to the nightmarish counter-narrative that horror offers. While a lot of horror isn’t explicitly political, there is always a radical potential in such a deliberately negative reading of the world to find the darkness in the status quo.
It’s not all surprising that the manifestation of buried Victorian anxieties and desires would make his first truly iconic screen appearance in Weimar Germany.
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror became an instant sensation in 1922 when it (illegally) adapted the Dracula story for the screen and created one of cinema’s first iconic vampires. The Weimar period was far from a time of prosperity – with a brutal combination of War reparations and the Great Depression destroying the livelihood of most – yet it forms an interesting parallel to Stoker’s context.
With the corrupt and ineffective Republic being disliked by pretty much everyone, Germans were driven to find foundational narratives that may have explained the situation they found themselves in.
Choose communism and diagnose the situation as part of an ongoing class antagonism that was an inevitable byproduct of capitalism? Or choose fascism and accept the Jew as the root cause of all problems and fight them head on with a militarised nationalism?
As ideologically conflicted as the time was, the rise of German Expressionism – in a way, another manifestation of the Gothic – is similar to the Gothic’s antidote to Victorian rationalism: in a time when everyone was offering explanations and antidotes to chaos, the jagged shapes and heightened emotions of expressionist cinema embraced the chaos. Digging beneath the surface of a culture failing to self-diagnose can be horror’s greatest strength. It can even show the warning signs of the kinds of darker future a culture is heading towards.
In his seminal 1947 history of German expressionism, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer argued that the genre documents the subconscious of the German people’s fixation with tyranny that would climax in the rise of the Nazis.
For Kracauer, the figure of Count Orlock (a thinly veiled Dracula) from Nosferatu represented the combination of fear and fascination that the spectre of fascism elicited. The Count, like Hitler, offered a complete mastery over his subjects and demanded total submission.
Of course, this thesis completely ignores one of the most troubling features of expressionism and particularly Nosferatu. The vampire design used for the film, as well as its invented subplot involving a plague of rats, drew strongly from anti-Semitic propaganda of the time.
As much as the monstrous may offer a radical unearthing of a dominant culture’s darker undercurrents it is also an appallingly efficient way to create a stigmatised Other. Nosferatu’s plot essentially posits that the disease and despair plaguing Germany can be simply eradicated by destroying the vampire and it’s really frightening how this tantalisingly straightforward worldview echos what the Nazis were selling.
Like the town in Nosferatu, Germany’s woes were simply the result of a menacing foreign presence and just as in the film, they would go away with the destruction of that presence: a final solution. Horror’s cultural role oscillates between these two poles. It can unearth the violent foundations that a society is too afraid to look at, or it can reinforce a monster myth that, despite the supposed fear attached, actually makes the chaos and cruelty of the world easier to deal with or ignore entirely.
While the genre can land at either end of the spectrum, much of it settles uncomfortably in between, providing both a glimpse at the underlying tensions a dominant culture is invested in covering up while often failing to interrogate its use of certain fears that the same culture relies on to perpetuate its own narrative.
Because the genre relies so much on an instinctual approach to finding its scares, it’s often a crapshoot on what will be subversive and what will be reiterative.
There’s a good chance Murnau didn’t consciously set out to make an anti-Semitic propaganda piece, just as the slasher directors of the 1980s probably didn’t intend to make moralistic judgements about premarital sex. But in searching their own cultures for a scary scenario, certain reactionary myths were reinforced and whatever the intention behind them may be, that reinforcement will always be there.
But the reverse can be true: while explicitly political horror can be both intelligent and scary – Dawn of the Dead to Get Out, for example – unique insights into the underlying violence of dominant cultures can be revealed by creators like Stoker, who simply want to find something nasty.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really has one job: to scare the shit out of you with as many chainsaws, hillbillies and pieces of human flesh as possible. But its aesthetic choices made it as important a snapshot of late 1970s America as All The President’s Men or The Deer Hunter, with critics reading it through the Vietnam War, Watergate and everything else you can imagine.
Nosferatu: A Fractured Symphony really began as a formal exercise, a development of Montague Basement’s scrapbook approach to adaptation whereby we would take the title cards (and title cards only) to recreate Murnau’s iconic silent film.
As amazingly provocative as that prompt has been, the unique strengths of bringing Dracula Down Under became clear to us early on and our own Australian Horror Story began to take shape. When you take the fundamentals of the story and chuck it into a border-obsessed island nation, the erotically charged vision of Dracula that has carried on throughout the years takes a back seat to Stoker’s other focuses in the original novel.
Dracula’s plot is first and foremost that of a Romanian vampire who wants to buy a house in London and then hitches a ride by boat to get there. Dracula is both an old-money foreign investor and a boat person, the two modern boogeymen that plague contemporary Australia. He plays into both the legitimate fears of globalisation’s influence on our lives and the more toxic spread of xenophobia that has remained a constant within our country since settlement.
There’s probably a well-made political satire to be found by combining these particular aspects of Stoker’s story with contemporary Australian anxieties but I really don’t feel that there’s much point in a well-articulated put-down at this point. Great artists, writers and journalists have so rationally and convincingly argued against the inequality and inhumanity that underpins the Australian monoculture that it seems futile at this point.
Instead it might be worth rediscovering Stoker’s impulse to subconsciously poke around inside the horrors occupying the margins of our lucid perception of the world. Is it time to cut the current moment open just to see how it bleeds?
A turn towards horror’s irrationality in making a theatre for here and now is important for the same reason the Gothic thrived so well in Victorian England. It is not so much that Australia is currently experiencing a Victorian moment of its own, but that it is perpetually Victorian.
The history of the ‘lucky country’ is devoid of significant political violence that ever reached the white middle or upper class and that has made our own national narrative mirror the Victorian tendencies of self-aggrandisement and self-denial. Australia is frighteningly good at deliberately ignoring the colonial violence of our past, the xenophobic violence of our present and the ecological violence of our future.
Horror’s pole of reinforcement and subversion is pretty evident in Australian discourse at the moment.
An appeal to fear is what allowed One Nation’s resurgence, it was the drive behind Sydney’s lock-out laws, it was the strategy of the Victorian Liberals in their most recent state election and it was Scott Morrison’s final trump card in a last ditch effort to save face in matters of both offshore detention and surveillance to close the parliamentary year.
Yet softening the edges of violence – denying the horror underneath our ‘lucky’ facade – is what allows us to treat horrifying domestic violence statistics as business as usual, to ignore pleas from the UN to obey international laws and to constantly fob off climate change as a problem for another day.
Like so many other countries right now we are leaning into imaginary horrors and turning our backs on very real ones. To grapple head on with the role of horror, fear and violence in our culture right now, in all its chaotic ungainliness, seems to me like a vital perspective to have on our stages right now.
It’s time to make an Australian Horror Story – and to shock audiences as much as those who knew Bram Stoker before he wrote Dracula: I had no idea we had it in us.
Of course we did.