Posted on September 2, 2016

Dracula: Body Horror’s Beginnings

Dawn Keetley

In her book, Horror (Routledge, 2009), Brigid Cherry defines “body horror” as “Films that explore abjection and disgust of the human body” (6). Body horror involves a graphic breaching of corporeal borders—the body splitting open, its substances bursting, oozing, out. So, because of the inherent limitations of film techniques (notably special effects) in the 1930s, as well as restrictions imposed by the Motion Picture Production Code, classic horror films are generally not considered part of the “body horror” sub-genre: bodies typically remain intact (and fully clothed). A crucial scene from Tod Browning’s Dracula, however, shows that, even in 1931, at the birth of the sound horror film, body horror was part of the fascination (of the repulsion and attraction) of the film.

The scene occurs after Dracula (Bela Lugosi) has first come to Mina (Helen Chandler) at night. She is sitting on the couch the next day and Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is questioning her about the “little marks” that are on her neck. We do not see them, but the other characters in the film are riveted by them: Van Helsing peers for a while at her neck, loosening her scarf to do so, and the camera cuts to Mina’s fiancée, Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and her father, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), both of whom are staring at her neck.

2. Dracula, men look at Mina's neck

This moment is perhaps the first scene in the horror genre to rivet attention on the penetrated body, the body whose borders have been compromised. And even though we do not see the “little marks,” do not see blood, we are forced by the narrative to imagine a body opened up—opened up when it should remain sealed and inviolate.

It makes sense that Dracula should contain the first scene of “body horror” because Dracula (the character, the vampire) is preeminently a figure of breached boundaries. Not least, he invades London from the vaguely-identified “Transylvania.” He brings the “taint” of superstitious, primitive eastern Europe to the “civilized” West (England, the US).

3. Dracula, face coming toward camera, 3

This larger invasion is matched by a more local invasion—of white, upper-class English women’s bodies. Of course, Dracula also bites / infects a man (Renfield) and the working-class flower girl, but the narrative does not dwell too much on these moments. Instead, the preoccupation is with Dracula’s violation of white, upper-class women—and of their bedrooms in particular. The “violence” of the marks on Mina’s necks represent not simply violence, but also sexual violence. Van Helsing has to loosen her scarf, all the men in the room stare with interest—a kind of sexual voyeurism that continues the obvious implications of the fact that Dracula’s attacks on both Mina and Lucy (Frances Dade) happen in their bedrooms.

4. Dracula, Mina moving toward Harker, 4

Paradoxically, though, the effect of Dracula’s “attack” on Mina’s body, which makes all the men in this scene gaze at her body, un-robed by Van Helsing, is that it empowers Mina to “look” herself—and it’s not too long after this scene that she gets Harker out on the patio, starts staring longingly at his neck, her face moving in toward him (and the viewer) as she imitates Dracula, hoping to put her own two “little marks” on him. Strangely, the marks don’t just victimize Mina, then, they empower her too, in ways that certainly defy the norms of her society.

Dracula anticipates, in short, the way that the visual spectacle and transformations of body horror can be liberating as well as destructive.

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