The Antisemitic History of Vampires

Bram Stoker's original blood-thirsty, wealth-hoarding degenerate was no doubt based on antisemitic stereotypes, but a lot has changed since then.

A chill can be felt in the air, the leaves are changing color, and Home Depots the country over are newly stocked with gargantuan skeletons. Halloween is around the corner, and in deference to spooky season, I recently saw Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” for the first time. It’s a portrayal of the vampire myth that veers dramatically from the cultural standard for Dracula: Instead of a slicked-back, red-caped Eastern European with fangs, the Dracula that Gary Oldman plays is a pure outsider, sporting pancake makeup and an elaborate hairstyle. This departure from the norm begs the question — where does that norm even come from?

As rendered by Bram Stoker, the literary depiction of Count Dracula is deeply antisemitic, with roots in the long-standing blood libel against Jews and the antisemitic archetype of the wealth-hoarding degenerate. I am by no means trying to “cancel” vampires as a concept. I’m just an inquiring (Jewish) mind who loves a good vampire story. This summer, I also saw the “Twilight Saga” for the first time in its entirety. In contrast to the cultural markers of vampirism popularized by adaptations of “Dracula,” the sparkly, tender-hearted, alabaster-skinned vampires spawned from Stephanie Meyer’s popular YA series read as extremely white, and seek to protect the human population from their innate transformative abilities.

What are we to make of this flattening of vampirism? What does it have to say about the assimilation of, and therefore widespread acceptance of, the Jewish people?

The roots of Bram Stoker’s initial characterization of Count Dracula start with a real man: a Romanian count known today as Vlad the Impaler. The ruler of Wallachia, a geographical region now considered to be part of Romania, Vlad Dracula (which basically means Vlad, Son of Dracul) was captured by the Ottoman Empire and engaged in some Hungarian border-storming before he was killed by the Ottomans in battle. There is no evidence that the real Count Dracula engaged in blood-sucking, but the loose connection between Dracula and Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman accused of drinking the blood of virgins (Báthory’s uncle was an ally of Vlad’s) seems to have captured the Victorian imagination.

What had also captured the Victorian imagination was the fear of infiltration by Eastern Europeans, namely, Jewish Europeans. By 1882, 15 years before “Dracula” was published, 46,000 Jews lived in England, many having been chased out of Russia and Poland by antisemitic pogroms. Many Jewish merchants and bankers soon reached prominence in their fields, and their otherness became a threat to English cultural identity. In his landmark essay “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’,” Jack Halberstam identifies vampires as “a race and family that weakens the stock of Englishness by passing on degeneracy and the disease of blood lust.” Halberstam references an 1899 essay from The Spectator that configures Jews as “a parasitical race with no ideals beyond the precious metals.” In fiction, Dracula, a foreigner with a penchant for wealth hoarding, lives in a house so “neglected that yer might ‘ave smelled ole Jerusalem in it.” These dog-whistles are more like foghorns.

Halberstam recalls British histories of eugenics in noting that “racial stereotyping depends upon the visual.” The shape-shifting Count Dracula, in his various forms, is described as having “bushy hair,” ears “extremely pointed at the top,” “extraordinary pallor” and “a beaky nose[,] black mustache and pointed beard.” Dracula’s nose gets a lot of attention; he is also described by a zookeeper as “a tall thin chap with a ‘ook nose.” These supposed cultural markers, as well as his degeneracy and obsessions with wealth, do more than enough to draw attention to Stoker’s situating of the vampire as a metaphor for the Jewish outsider.

While Halberstam’s text is more focused on Dracula and deviant sexuality (something that Jews were frequently accused of), this piece offers a brilliant groundwork for exploring the dark allusions to Jewishness in “Dracula.” For Halberstam, a Jewish queer theorist, it’s a rich text for exploring how a shapeshifter character with an aversion to the cross and a compulsion for coin represents a multi-pronged attack on white Christian patriarchy. What is intriguing to me, though, is where Stoker introduces true elements of Jewish culture and history into the vampire tradition.

Most of the tropes that we in 2021 associate with vampirism come from “Dracula.” The Count must be invited into homes that he visits, a direct cribbing from the Jewish folk legend of the dybbuk, a malicious spirit and soul removed from a dead person. Notably, dybbukim are said to be male spirits that possess virginal women on the eve of their wedding, not dissimilar to Dracula’s tracking of the English rose Lucy Westenra, who is engaged to Arthur Holmwood. Through the now-commonplace convention of neck-biting and drinking of blood, Stoker invokes the blood libel, a long-standing antisemitic canard that Jews drain the blood of kidnapped children for matzah (Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Fixer” brilliantly portrays modern blood libel in action). What are we meant to do with the fact that Stoker seemed to know what he was talking about in regards to not just antisemitism, but Jewish custom as well? Perhaps he did not intend malice, and instead sought to — with requisite British detachment and insensitivity — create a supernatural legend that invoked the Jewish people.

The vampire with slicked-back hair, pointy teeth, a red-lined cape and pancake makeup is a much more recent invention in vampire lore. That rendering of vampirism is best attributed to the 1931 film version of “Dracula” directed by Tod Browning, starring Catholic Hungarian emigré Bela Lugosi in the title role. This was the first Hollywood rendering of Stoker’s novel, and was actually based on a then-recent stage adaptation written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. In many ways, this version is considered an ur-text for Count Dracula in public perception. The character’s rendering is incredibly genteel and formal, alternating between a spiffy tuxedo (which does, notably, include a six-sided star pendant) and the black cape which has become so indicative of the character. His otherness is subtle in Browning’s film, employing Lugosi’s own accent. Lugosi’s version of the Count is not by any means a Shylock-level Jewish caricature; he is merely foreign and strange.

Parallel to the silk-lined Dracula of the 20th century was the appearance of Count Orlok on film in versions of “Nosferatu.” Originally invented by German director FW Murnau in 1922 to get around issues with the recently deceased Stoker’s estate, Count Orlok is essentially Count Dracula by a slightly different name. A pure expressionist product of the Weimar Republic, Murnau’s film is stylish, yet deeply disturbing regarding antisemitic parallels. Max Schreck as Count Orlok hews fairly closely to Stoker’s explicit descriptions of Dracula, with long, pointed fingers, sharp teeth, elfin ears and a pallid complexion. Notably, Murnau makes the choice to have Orlok arrive from Transylvania surrounded by rats, an animal that Jews were frequently compared to in Europe at the time. Critics have noted that Murnau worked with and was friendly with many Jews and may have not been an antisemite, but the timing of a vampire in 1922 Germany (rightfully) raises some hackles.

Later, in 1979, Werner Herzog released a remake of “Nosferatu,” a sort of conflation of Murnau’s film with Stoker’s novel, which had entered public domain at that point. Klaus Kinski (a monster in his own regard) plays Dracula in this version, wearing makeup that is a facsimile of Schreck’s. Herzog, however, views Dracula as “not a monster, but an ambivalent, masterful force of change.” He brings plague to the town of Wismar, but the plague leads people to “discard […] bourgeois trappings. A re-evaluation of life and its meaning takes place.” In Herzog’s view, the outsider is not a threat, but an opportunity for change.

The early 1990s brought new, intriguing treatments of Dracula to the screen. Francis Ford Coppola and Mel Brooks’ respective adaptations are as different as two films can be, but both offer departures from the mythology of the vampire on film. Coppola’s film, released in 1992 as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” has deep and well-researched roots in the Gothic. Count Dracula, as portrayed by Gary Oldman, is explicitly shown to be the real-life Romanian hero Vlad Dracula. He speaks Romanian, and his transformation in the film’s prologue is filled with explicit Catholic imagery. The film functions more as a commentary on strict sexual mores in the Victorian era than a specific fear of the outsider. Interestingly, Mina, the vision of English propriety, is played by Jewish actress Winona Ryder in this film.

Mel Brooks’ 1995 rendition, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” is a direct evocation of the Lugosi Universal films. The movie is faithful to the general outlines of Stoker’s plot, and is full of silly bits involving Dracula, as played by Leslie Nielsen, banging his head on various surfaces. The movie itself isn’t much to write about, but there is an interesting commentary in Brooks, a Jewish filmmaker who popularized Jewish humor for the masses through films like “The Producers” and his television work with Sid Caesar, making a film parodying one of Western culture’s greatest blood libels. Brooks was not the first Jewish director of a “Dracula” film (that accolade goes to Robert Siodmak, director of 1943’s “Son of Dracula”) but Brooks was the first Jewish filmmaker to incorporate a markedly Jewish, Borscht Belt-inflected voice into the Dracula myth. In one scene, Nielsen’s Dracula and Van Helsing, played by Brooks himself, engage in an argument in a distinctly Yiddish-inflected gibberish, referred to as “Ancient Moldovian.”

The film is full of the requisite scatological jokes and double entendre that populate Brooks’ filmography, yet does not grapple with the xenophobic concerns of Stoker’s “Dracula.” That’s probably because, by the time that Brooks’ film was made, the cultural conception of vampires was completely divorced from the fear of the outsider that motivated Stoker. Popular culture has ironed out the myth of the vampire so much that a Jewish filmmaker like Brooks (or Adam Sandler, in his voice role as “Drac” in the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise) sidestep the unsavory roots of the vampire.

Which brings us back to “Twilight.” Edward Cullen single-handedly transformed the vampire archetype from a hook-nosed, becaped outsider to a sensitive, baseball-playing white boy. The invention of Cullen came on the heels of Anne Rice’s construction of a distinctly American strain of vampirism in the ‘90s. As film critic Jourdain Searles pointed out on Twitter, Rice’s character Louis de Pointe du Lac was a plantation owner, while several characters on HBO’s “True Blood” (itself adapted from Charlaine Harris’ “Southern Vampire Mysteries”) and Edward’s adoptive brother Jasper Cullen are all former (albeit apparently repentant) Confederate soldiers. To create American vampires is to situate them in this country’s violent past, so vampiric involvement in chattel slavery and the Civil War is inevitable, but the extent to which modern authors of vampire stories are invested in this era is something akin to a fetish. These vampires’ Confederate pasts have no real moral bearing but are instead shading to create a sexy, mysterious man witness to the formation of America.

As portrayed on film by Robert Pattinson, Edward is quiet and brooding, an element of his performance lampooned by some and savored by others. In an inversion of the oversexed vampire archetype of Stoker and Murnau, he is extremely reticent to have sex with his girlfriend (and later wife) Bella Swan. In one of the more goysiche elements of the “Twilight” franchise, Edward’s relationship with Bella, particularly his refusal to turn her into a vampire, is a distinctly Christian allegory for purity and virginity. Written by Stephenie Meyer, a devout Mormon, Edward is a far cry from the generations of Draculas seen on film, in presentation and composure.

How did the vampire go from an antisemitic dog whistle, sporting a hook-nose and an Eastern European accent, to the American teenage dream? Is it possible that the construction of the vampire in the United States, a country that many Ashkenazi Jews (including my own family) fled to after pogroms and the Holocaust, is reflective of what felt like a lack of antisemitism (at least on the surface)? Inadvertently, these authors have turned the vampire white at the same time that Ashkenazi Jews have assimilated into whiteness.

Like other European ethnic minorities (see the Italians, Irish and Germans, for example), Ashkenazi Jews, typically defined as being from Eastern Europe, have shifted their self-identification into something resembling whiteness over the last 75 years or so. According to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, 70% of third-generation Jews (i.e. those whose ancestors emigrated at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century) identify as white. There is more focused discourse on this (like Emma Green’s 2016 article in “The Atlantic” entitled “Are Jews White?”), but the 20th century saw large swaths of American Ashkenazi Jews entering the middle class, abandoning the use of Yiddish and ultimately assimilating into whiteness. By this token, it is fitting that the vampire shifted from a cruel Jewish caricature to just another white guy with a complicated political history. As we began to benefit from white privilege, so did the vampire.

Yet the vampire continues to evolve. A popular and deeply silly depiction of vampirism can be seen today in Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” in both its film and television incarnations. Both follow different sets of vampires, notably from global backgrounds including, in the television series, the Greek Romani Nadja, medieval Iranian warrior Nandor and white American middle-management energy vampire Colin Robinson. Among these vampires there is a distinct, well-defined sense of otherness. Even Laszlo, a British nobleman, is an outsider (in large part due to his extreme horniness).

Taika Waititi, as a Jew of Maori descent, has a relationship with otherness that is filtered through the characters, specifically in relation to the antisemitic roots of the vampire. The four central vampires are outsiders, but that difference is a point of celebration for them, as they all gleefully suck blood from their Staten Island mansion. As (again, primarily Ashkenazi) Jews have begun to reckon with our intersecting relationships with antisemitism and white privilege, we are given a show, made by a mixed-race Jew, that gleefully celebrates otherness and the community found therein.

The threatening foreign stranger, who hordes wealth and sports a mysterious accent, now represents something much less sinister and much more emotional, tortured by his powers. An archetype with deep antisemitic roots has become defanged (pun intended). While the fear of an unexplained other will always motivate horror, and the blood libel is still wielded, now assigned by the QAnon crowd to a “powerful cabal of the wealthy” harvesting the blood of children for adrenochrome, the vampire is no longer an outlet for anxieties about the Jew invading a lily-white gene pool. The vampire has lost some of its antisemitic bite, but remains a central part of our spooky iconography.

Read More