Dracula Speaks! by Carole Gill


          I don’t know how many of these press releases Dracula is going to make. All I know is what the Szgany Gypsies tell me. They say that their master has always moved with the times and will be releasing statements to the press when he feels he should.

          There are so many versions of him, some good some not so good (in his opinion), he often feels the need to speak out.

          What follows is something he documented shortly after meeting Mr. Lugosi. Bela, ever the gentleman, was cast as Dracula in the 1927 stage play, premiering in New York as well as the 1931 film of the same name.

          Carole Gill, Author

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 Count Dracula Statement

          ”He wrote to me and requested a meeting as a play was about to be done on the New York stage with Mr. Bela Lugosi cast as Dracula.

I wrote back that I’d be delighted. If truth be told, I was a bit apprehensive about the play, although I did see photos of Mr. Lugosi and thought him quite an imposing gentleman. Still, one never knows what a person (or vampire) will be like until you see them in the flesh (sorry).

          He impressed me immediately, not only was he tall and handsome, but he was polite and thoughtful. “I’m going to play you, sir.” Lugosi announced. “Can you give me any tips?”

          I had already leafed through the script I had been sent. “They’re doing it differently; they’ve changed so much about me! Why do they do that? Why can’t they follow my existence as it is? What’s with the opera cape and all that nonsense and why update the damned thing?”

Lugosi agreed. “If you prefer me to turn it down, I will but the contract has been signed.”

I nodded. “If you do, their blood sucking lawyers will nail you. No, I don’t wish that for you, you’re too nice for that.”

Well, we became firm friends. The show did very well. It went on tour and I was delighted.

Dracula's Web

When Bela wrote to me saying a film was going to be made, although excited and happy for him, I was once again apprehensive. I worried that yet more liberties concerning my existence would be taken. I did not however burden him with my worries.

The film was made and released and Bela invited me to a private screening at his home. I didn’t move for some time after the end credits.

“Well, how do you like it Count?”

 “Despite the updating and the massive changes to my story—I did like it. I liked it because of your performance!”

Bela was delighted. We parted as good friends and remained friends until Bela’s death.

By the way, I was the one that said to Bela, “Dracula is your Shakespeare.” Just thought I’d clear that up.

Count Dracula

(End of statement)

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 Carole Gill

“Carole Gill writes all sorts of horror, everything from gothic vampires to demonic clowns. She’s the author of The Fourth Bride (of Dracula), Book 4 in The Blackstone Vampires Series. She’s writing her eighth novel right now, something about The Blood Countess, Erzsebat Bathory!”

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“Child, never look into my eyes!” The Hypnotic Stare of Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi photographed by Editta Sherman

Joan Winmill appeared in the role of the Mary Wells the maid for the first half of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Beginning her acting career shortly after World War II, she had an incredible stroke of luck in 1947 when she landed a leading role in the West End hit The Chiltern Hundreds.  For more than a year the unknown actress had one of the choicest stage roles in London. After one performance at the Vaudeville Theatre Joan was introduced to future American senator Robert F Kennedy. A romance followed, but Kennedy’s father disapproved. Despite Joan’s hopes of marriage, the relationship came to a sudden end in 1949 when Kennedy announced by letter from America that he was going to marry Ethel Skekel instead.

Joan found it difficult to follow up the success she had enjoyed in The Chiltern Hundreds when the run came to an end. Her relationship and professional woes fueled her personal insecurities and bouts of stage fright. She coped through phenobarbitals before performances and sleeping pills afterwards.  Although the barbiturates got her on stage and through a performance, they also caused her to slur dialogue or drop lines. 

Joan Winmill

Joan Winmill’s entry in the January, 1949 edition of “The Spotlight” Casting Directory

In April 1951 Joan auditioned to play Lucy in Dracula, but only managed to land the much smaller role of Wells the maid, an indication of the extent of the reversal of the professional fortunes of the former West End star. She would perform the role 121 times before leaving the tour after eleven weeks when the play’s run at the Wood Green Empire ended on July 14, 1951. 

Her career began to improve over the next three years with regular work in the theatre, television, and films. Her television credits include a recurring role in Epitaph for a Spy, a 1953 mini-series starring Peter Cushing. She appeared in four films, including uncredited roles in Alastair Sim’s Innocents in Paris (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), which featured Greta Gynt who had played opposite Bela Lugosi in Dark Eyes of London in 1939, and The Harrassed Hero (1954), which gave Joan her highest profile film role as the leading lady opposite Guy Middleton.

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill in The Harrassed Hero (1954)

Despite the steady progress she was making as an actress, Joan’s inner demons were threatening to overwhelm her. By her own admission, she was feeling suicidal. Her “salvation” unexpectedly came when, “for a lark,” a friend invited her to go along to The Greater London Crusade, a 12-week evangelical event organised by Billy Graham and the Evangelical Alliance at the Harringay Arena in North London in 1954. To the amazement of her friends, Joan answered the altar call at the event.

Harringay Arena 1954

Harringay Arena in 1954 (courtesy of lettersfromthelibrary.com)

From that moment she was a transformed person. She left behind her life and career in England and has since devoted herself to spiritual work with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in America. She continues to act occasionally in films produced by Graham’s World Wide Pictures and she has written several books on devotional topics. In her 1975 autobiography No Longer Alone, which was filmed by Graham’s World Wide Pictures in 1978, Joan recounted her time with Bela Lugosi during the 1951 revival tour of Dracula. 

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No Longer Alone

“I don’t remember how I ever got to audition for Dracula, but I do know that once I signed the contract, my fears told me I had done the wrong thing.

As a child I had once seen a filmed coming-attraction for Dracula. (I was attending a bland comedy with my grandmother.) I went under the seat until assured that it was over. When we left the performance, we found a booth set up in the lobby with a sign which said, “Dare To Open These Curtains!” Someone did – just as I walked by – and there, life-size, was a model of Dracula staring at me. All the way home I knew he was following me. Nanny had to stay in my room that night until I finally fell asleep, having been convinced he was not under my bed. Now I was signed to go on tour with none other than Bela Lugosi, who had created the role in the movie!

I was very hesitant to attend the first rehearsal and meet Mr. Lugosi. He arrived late, making a grand entrance, and was introduced to each of the cast. When it came my turn, I stood there in sheer amazement. He looked just like the wax figure that had scared me so as a child. But he was gracious and very professional.

When it came time for the scene in which he was supposed to hypnotize me, I thought, “Here we go! I must not look as if I’m scared of him. After all, this is ridiculous – it is only a play and he really is just an actor.” But when he started to look into my eyes, I sensed a strange, burning sensation, and tears began to well up. He stopped suddenly and said, “Child, never look into my eyes. Always look here,” and tapped his forehead. I did just that every time we played the scene after that, and things went along smoothly.

He took playing the part of Count Dracula very seriously, and we were never allowed to change a word, a look, or a move. It was as sacred as Shakespeare to him. Once I heard him say that, perhaps, the worst thing for his career had been the success of Dracula, for people would never take him seriously as an actor any more. Apparently he had known great adulation in his homeland of Hungary.

In the final scene, set in a crypt, he was supposed to be in a coffin; the doctor and his friend, Van Helsing, drive a stake through his heart – the only way he can be killed. But Bela would never get in the coffin and would always give the death scream from the wings. He had a great superstition about this.

The only time we saw him during the day would be when we would meet at the train to move from one city to another. Then he would stride down the platform with his wife and son and disappear into a private compartment, to ride with the shades drawn for the entire journey.

The trouble with the cast was that, after we got over the awe of being with the Dracula, our emotions swung the other way. The overly dramatic dialogue became too much for us, and we all started to get the giggles. I cannot begin to describe the agonies we went through every night trying to control our feelings and playing our lines “straight.” Once the stage director called us all on stage after a particularly giggly show and said he would fire all of us if we did not stop this appaling laughter. Even as he said this someone giggled and started us all off again. We were appearing in a theatre way up north of London, and the poor director had no choice but to put up with us. It even got to him finally, as night after night he had to oversee the fake bats and smoke that always preceded Dracula’s appearance.

One night the smoke got to me, too. I came to the scene where Dracula was supposed to hypnotize me (just after I gasped in horror at seeing him). The smoke, pumped under his cape each time he made an entrance – with arms wide apart, got down my throat and knocked me out cold. The audience was unaware of what had happened, and somehow Bela ad-libbed his way through the scene – with me prostrate on the ground. As soon as the curtain came down, I was whisked off to the waiting arms of a St. John’s Ambulance man. These men are volunteers who wait around for strange occurrences such as mine, so they can administer first aid. Bela proceeded to direct all the traffic that had gathered. He even prevented brandy being administered to me from a well-meaning member of the cast. “Noooothing by way of mouth,” he kept repeating. “Nooooooothing!”

I recovered enough to go on again the next day, but I was very careful not to exclaim too heartily upon seeing Dracula coming through my window.

We returned to London and played all the surrounding theatres, and then our tour was over. I was rather relieved, I must say. Touring had never been my favourite part of theatre life, and now perhaps there would be a good break waiting for me.”

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Joan’s reminiscence, written more than 20 years after the tour, contains both accuracies and inaccuracies.

Giggling among the cast—“corpsing” in British theatre slang—was an occasional problem in the Dracula tour, as it was in many provincial tours.  But it was not persistent and common.  None of the dozens of reviews or personal recollections from audience members that we had already amassed mention it. 

In the closing scene, a mannequin did indeed lie in the coffin, as Lugosi supplied Dracula’s death cries from the wings.  However, he had no fear of lying in the coffin himself—he did exactly that every night on the tour in the play’s prologue before the opening curtain. 

Bela Lugosi and his wife often socialized with other cast members on the train. Richard Butler, who played Johnathan Harker in the production, told Andi Brooks that the couple were not aloof. “..in Bela’s case, although he and his wife had their own compartment, they had no wish to travel alone and spent many hours entertaining us.”

Bela, Jr. did not accompany his parents on the 1951 tour. Joan is probably confusing him with Paddy and Sean Dawson, the sons of David Dawson, who played Dr. Seward.

Joan’s fear of looking into Bela Lugosi’s eyes was confirmed by tour producer John Mather, who recalled without prompting that she was genuinely terrified of the actor.

In an interview with Frank J Dello Stritto, Janet Reid, the assistant stage manager, recounted peeling the costume off the unconscious actress to take her place for the rest of the performance after Joan was overcome by stage fog in her big scene with Lugosi. She told him, “I do remember Joan Winmill. I remember when she passed out in Middlesbrough. I literally stripped off her costume backstage. There was no privacy. And I finished the performancefor her. In my career I was an understudy four times, and each time I got to go on when the actress could not perform. That one performance was my swan song with Dracula. I dropped out right after that. The company went on to Belfast, and I went back to London.”

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Related Pages

 1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

BBC ARTS magazine

I was contacted last month by John O’Rourke, an assistant producer at the BBC. John had discovered Vampire Over London: The Bela Lugosi Blog and thought that the story of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula would be an “incredible subject” for the BBC to mark Halloween with.

He originally envisioned producing a four-minute film for BBC One’s flagship daily magazine series The One Show, but was ultimately unable to get the green-light from his commissioners.

However, when he mentioned the story of the tour in passing to one of his colleagues at BBC Online, he was asked to write a feature. Myself and Frank J. Dello Stritto were asked to help with background information and to provide illustrations for the article. 

“A Dracula Disaster: When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain” has now been published on the BBC’s online ARTS page at:


Bela and leading lady Sheila Wynn at the Lewisham Hippodrome

Bela Lugosi and Sheila Wynn at the Lewisham Hippodrome in 1951

The page also features Mark Gatiss’ interview with Sheila Wynn, Bela Lugosi’s  leading lady on the 1951 tour, from his excellent 2010 “A History of Horror” series. You can read Frank J. Dello Stritto’s 1998 interview with Sheila on our 1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company page.

Sheila Wynn

Sheila Wynn interviewed by Mark Gatiss at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne in 2010.

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Related Posts and Pages

1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

Bela Lugosi’s British Films 3: Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

The Day I Met Bela Lugosi by Derek R. Pickering.

When Dracula Invaded England

Knee-Deep in Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler by Andi Brooks

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It by Frank J. Dello Stritto

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It

The book that I began writing some years ago was quite different than the one finally published. I had been writing about classic horror movies for many years. I was not raised on the classics, but on the schlock. Those low-budget movies, mostly from the 1950s, played constantly on television and at Saturday matinees, and I knew them well before I ever saw the great films of 1930s and 1940s. As my writing progressed, the book became less about the movies than about my seeing them. About staying up past my bedtime to see if a movie lived up to its provocative title, or about trying to pay attention to the screen at a crowded matinee while horsing around with my friends. As the narrative developed, it kept forcing me to push my reminiscences back further and further. Before I could write about movies, I had to write about the Kids TV I watch constantly as a small child. The Little Rascals, Abbot & Costello and George Reeves’ Superman demanded that their stories be told. Then came the TV of the fantastic–Twilight Zone, Thriller, Outer Limits–that I watched as I first discovered old movies.
While I watched television, the wider world unfolded, from something as mundane as my family’s move from the city to the suburbs (for me, a very traumatic event), to the launching to Sputnik (which changed my life forever), to the Cuban Missile Crisis (which almost ended everybody’s  life). I watched events on television just as I watched “Wagon Train” or “The Untouchables,” and wove everything together in my view of the world. 
My book, “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It” (an oft-repeated line in my all-time favorite movie, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”) is divided into five parts. Not until Book 4 do I focus on horror movies–Schlock and Classic–and only in Book 5 do I pay homage to my great movie hero. The chapter below opens Book 5, and is appropriately titled “Obsession.”


Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Spanish Photo 2

Bud Abbott, Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)


Before Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein begins at 2:00 pm on June 24, 1961, I am already a big fan of the comedy team. That afternoon I become a fan of the classic monsters, and devoted follower of anything Lugosi. I leave that hour and a half in front of the television with a resolve not only to see all of Lugosi’s movies, but to know more about his life. That very afternoon, as Momma prepares supper, I ask her about Lugosi. Momma is a font of all things Hollywood, but for Lugosi she only says “he always played vampires.” I look forward to all these great vampire movies, but soon learn that they were very few. Lugosi plays “real” vampires in only three movies, and in two other films plays characters who turn out not to be vampires at all. That disappointment proves one of many as I embarked on my quest.

The monster magazines often publish biographies of Lugosi. I read them all, but they are basically the same short pieces, maybe with different photos. Lugosi is a big reason that I start reading monster magazines, and a big reason that I stop. I want more than the typical fan magazine bios. When I learn that research libraries and newspaper archives exist, I descend on them convinced of the Lugosi arcania to be found. After my first visits, I suspect that archived facts of Lugosi’s life are as few as his vampire movies. The libraries hold many treasures, but yield their secrets slowly and only after many painstaking hours.   


Bela as Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Bela Lugosi as he appeared in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein


Why Lugosi? Why anyone? What are fans like me looking for?

Obsessive fandom is now part of popular culture. Supermarket tabloids regularly feature stories of celebrity-stalkers, and of fans who turn to plastic surgery to look like—in their own minds, to become—their idols. In the 1980s, the movies exploit the dark side of fandom in The Man With Bogart’s Face, The Seduction, King of Comedy, Garbo Talks, Misery. In Fade to Black, a killer stalks his victims dressed as his movie idols. One of them is Lugosi’s Dracula.

I have met many ardent fans of celebrities. For most, the shrines are part of their youths, abandoned long ago. Since 1961, I have always had a shrine of sorts to Lugosi in my home. First, a modest wall space in David’s and my bedroom that Momma lets me use, then my half of my college dorm room, and finally the better part of my bachelor apartment. Marriage and reality in general temper my expansive ways, but at least a small part of where I live is dedicated to Lugosi’s memory.

Boys need heroes, but I have no need of a new one. In June 1961, Mickey Mantle, my great idol, races with Roger Maris towards Babe Ruth’s home run record. Mantle, like Davy Crockett and Superman, is for me adolescent hero worship. My fascination with Lugosi is more. I see beyond Dracula, and wonder about the actor who portrays him.

Not that I have no desire to be like Dracula. I would love to have Superman’s strength, Mantle’s home run swing, Crockett’s marksmanship. And to control minds and transform into a bat like Dracula. Soon, I am watching Lugosi’s mad doctor movies, and covet his crazy scientists’ creating monsters, and raising the dead. Yet always Lugosi, and not his characters, sparks my curiosity.       

Many years after 1961, I read in The Biographical Dictionary of Film a passage that for me comes close to explaining the Lugosi mystique:

His acting was so florid and yet so macabre that only some fanciful notion of Hungarian mythology could explain it. He could be frightening in a way that other actors in horror never achieved: because he appeared to believe in the literal meaning of the films.

About the same time, I read in The Vampire in the Cinema that Lugosi is:

The living tableau of a silent stage actor trapped in modern sound movies. It is precisely because Lugosi was an anachronism, allowed to flourish by an accident of genre history, that he exercises such a fascination.

Not bad. I admire both passages; but neither explains Lugosi’s hold on me.


Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris on the cover of Life magazine, August 18 1961

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris on the cover of Life magazine, August 18, 1961


Perhaps an accident in timing explains my fascination. About the time that I discover Lugosi, I am beginning to understand that not everything in print is true. As Mantle and Maris hit home run after home run, the broader media covers their drama. A lot of misinformation, especially about Babe Ruth, appears in newspapers and on television. As a long-time watcher of Yankee broadcasts, I learned the saga of the team’s great players from the men who witnessed it. In 1961 I know more than a lot of the reporters about the home run race.

No better place to grasp the limitations of the print media than in what is available on Lugosi. The Lugosi biographies in the monster magazines get the big picture right: born in Hungary, emigrates to America after World War I, hits the big time in Dracula, then is typecast in horror movies for the rest of his life. On the details, the magazines often falter, mainly through sins of omission. Much of Lugosi’s last years are lonely treks looking for paydays between film roles that became ever harder to land. In a short time, I know at least as much about Lugosi as anyone writing on him. In the early 1960s, not a hard plateau to scale.

Mastering a subject, even one as obscure as the life of Bela Lugosi, generates its own inertia. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. For the first time in my life, the better I get at something, the better I want to be. Being an expert on horror films and Lugosi—being an expert on anything—becomes important to me.


Dracula Still 5

Bela Lugosi as he appeared in Dracula (1931)

My Lugosi quest sometimes casts me as a defender of a Lugosi who can no longer defend himself. His stardom even after death rises and falls and rises. Through the 1960s, Lugosi morphs from an almost forgotten actor to a cult hero, then to a figure easy to mock. Whenever he is attacked, I plead his case, to the monster magazines (in letters never published), to adults and classmates less than entranced with the great man.

Lugosi detractors have some good points: a lot of Lugosi movies are pretty bad. Through the 1960s, I watch dozens. Simply seeing a new Lugosi title thrills me. For too many movies, the thrill ends there. Still, I watch them again and again. More than once, when Momma pauses to watch a few minutes of a movie with me, and says “God, he was a lousy actor.” I do not agree. He is just an actor in a lousy movie. His attempts to breathe life into the most hopeless productions are part of his lore.

Disdain for bad movies translates into a disdain for their star, which can extend even to his better films. “A corny Valentino imitation,” writes horror author Stephen King on Lugosi’s Dracula, “which even hardened horror aficionados and cinema buffs cannot help giggling over.” King voices an opinion that grows more common as the 1960s progress.

Through the 1960s, Lugosi’s supremacy as Dracula has a strong challenger. His vampire rises from the dead in October 1957 on television’s Shock Theater. Christopher Lee’s Dracula bursts into theaters seven months later. By 1973, Lee plays Dracula eight times, and through the 1960s, his growing fan base often insists on his superiority over Lugosi. I see my first Lee vampire movie in the late 1960s. My opinion: Lee vampire movies are lousy, AND Lee isn’t much better. Less debatable is how little Lee is in them.

For young boys, Dracula can be a test of manhood. To see Lugosi, we stay up late and watch a shadowy film alone in the dark. For Lee, kids in theaters sit through an explicitness cutting edge in its day. Perhaps the preference for Lugosi or Lee depends on which test a boy passes; or which he fails. On first try, I fail both. A coming attraction of Horror of Dracula plays at Lincoln matinees. It terrifies me and I have no desire to see the movie. No matter, Horror of Dracula never plays the day time show. Lugosi comes on too late, and I could not have stayed awake to see him even if my parents allowed.

Lugosi wins the race to catch my attention. His movies migrate to more godly hours long before I have a chance at Christopher Lee. By the time that I catch up with Lee, the great war of 20th century vampires, for me at least, is long settled. 


Chandu The Magician Still 3

Bela Lugosi as Roxor in Chandu The Magician (1932)


On 1960s television, the Lugosi canon is about three dozen films that air with varying regularity on television. They range from classics of the 1930s to schlock of the 1950s. I watch these over and over. Those most often televised are low-budget mad doctor epics of the early 1940s. At least one plays every week. On New Year’s Day 1962, I bet my brother David $1.00 that a Bela Lugosi movie will play on television at least once a week through the whole year. As a child, I am prone to such stupid wagers. For about a month, we check the weekly television listings each Sunday, and a Bela Lugosi movie is always among them. David loses interest; but I keep checking for the movies. After 13 weeks the streak breaks. I say nothing to David, never pay the bet.

About two dozen other Lugosi movies pop up rarely or not at all. I read often of these in the monster magazines, and know a lot about them. One by one most appear. For some—White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, or Mark of the Vampire—I have to wait until my college years of haunting revival cinemas in New York to see them.

The Lugosi movies repetitively broadcast through the 1960s total less than 50 hours of running time. Lugosi’s actual time on screen is less than 10 hours. I have watched those 10-something hours more times than I can count. Some performances I greatly enjoy, and will no doubt see them many times yet to come. The older I get, the less patience I have with Lugosi’s “bad” movies, but the more I admire his “good” ones. Those few films, the canon within the canon, sustain my love of the actor; but something more than acting talent or onscreen charisma attracts me to Lugosi.


Lugosi toothless smile

Bela Lugosi’s toothless smile


In my 60 plus years, I have had few dreams that I remember. One dream I vividly recall comes within a year after seeing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. It stars Bela Lugosi and my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Ruggles.

My first afternoon with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein comes just after my fifth grade ends in Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. I always dread the terrible teacher that I will face in September. The older kids impress on the younger ones the horrors that lie ahead. The tales always portray next year’s teacher as a decaying crone devising ways to make life hell. At Wilson School, the legends have some basis. As we move up in grade, the teachers get older, grayer, and meaner (except my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Finelli, who is a saint).

Warnings of all our earlier teachers pale before the legend of Mrs. Ruggles. Not only does she teach the highest grade in Wilson School, but she is also the Principal. Her double job forces her to stern discipline. When principal duties call, she has to leave the class, and only fear keeps us in line. Principal’s duties force Mrs. Ruggles to enlist her more trusted students as aides: delivering messages to teachers, getting visitors to the right places, minor clerical duties. By sixth grade, I have clawed my way back from the third reading group to the first, and am among those tapped. I do my share of time in her office. Thus, the dream.

The dream comes in early 1962. Mrs. Ruggles pokes her head in the classroom, and calls me into her office. There, dressed in a pin-striped suit, is a benevolent-looking Bela Lugosi. He looks directly at me, and smiles, exactly as he smiled in real life, showing no teeth. Lugosi, like a lot of his generation, had lousy teeth, and rarely showed them. I do not know that in 1962, but I must have seen a photo of him in one of the monster magazines and the image stays with me. Lugosi and Mrs. Ruggles are discussing me. He assures her that I am a fine boy, to trust me, and to expect great things for me. That is the dream, all of it. Perhaps a minute of “dream time,” certainly no more; but I remember it clearly when I wake up the next morning.

I often think back on the dream, but never probe it until I began reading serious essays on movie horror. The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, I learn, are sons with issues.  Dracula is always the father, the devouring parent, trapping young people forever as the Undead. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula targets Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello). For Gray, Dracula’s plot means swapping badgering by Bud Abbott for servitude to Dracula.

Pop, my own father, is in no way a devouring parent. In my school years, I see devouring parents in action, who set out to ensure that their children never leave home. That’s not Pop, who beams at even the most trivial achievement of his children. I tell him little about my doings because he cannot wait to tell his huge family. I did not relish them knowing my business. My never leaving home would never occur to Pop. He dreams of our launching ourselves into the world from our first breaths. His only dictum is that we go to college.

I am not the best son for such a father. Pop never pushes. He has relatives who drive their sons onward but rarely upward, and has no intention of being like them. I like staying at home. Part of me probably yearns for a father like Lugosi’s Dracula, who would both keep me in the family fold, and demand standards that I should meet. That’s not Pop.

Does my fascination with Lugosi fill a void in my relationship with Pop? What strikes me about the dream, and why I remember it so well, is its utter serenity. Lugosi radiates parental warmth. I feel great hearing him tell Mrs. Ruggles what a good kid I am. Maybe I want Pop to do that; but even in my dreams cannot envision him doing something so out of character. I know that he says great things about me, but never in my presence or outside the family.


Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Photo

Lou Costello and Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein


In 1958, Abbott & Costello make me a Saturday matinee kid when their movies lure me into The Lincoln. Three years later, they make me a Bela Lugosi fan via Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The link between Lou Costello to Bela Lugosi is not coincidental.

Costello’s movie characters lead much more difficult lives than I do. No one slaps me around, berates my intelligence, or misinterprets innocent mischief. Maybe I suffer a little of all of that, and identify with Costello. Until I am eight years old, I am the baby of the family, and a natural homebody. How could I not identify with a hapless little man who struggles  through a world that he barely understands? Millions of Baby Boomer boys agree with me, and Costello is beloved by my young generation. We might want to grow up to be Davy Crockett or Superman; but for the time being, we are Lou Costello. When Dracula turns his gaze on Wilbur Gray, Lugosi turns his on me.

That gaze comes when Wilbur stumbles into a dilemma common to Lou Costello characters, and common to kids like me: he accidentally breaks something, and is now “in trouble.” The ghoulish exhibits in McDougal’s House of Horrors terrify Wilbur. He backs into a guillotine, which falls and lops off the head of a manikin. “Now you’ve done it,” chides Chick. Older brothers always distance themselves from the second born’s mishaps. McDougal is outside, fumbling in the fuse box. “Get rid of that,” says Chick, and goes outside.

I identify with Wilbur. I would hide the head rather than hand it to short-fused McDougal. Wilbur swings open a coffin lid to ditch it; and up sits Dracula. Wilbur is caught red-handed, as Dracula rivets him with a stare of parental displeasure. I know that stare well. From the death ray in War of the Worlds, to the slow-burn rages of Mrs. Ruggles: I know the unblinking eye that sizes up its prey before it strikes. That eye comes often from Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  He saves his most penetrating looks for Wilbur.

Dracula paralyzes Wilbur, revives The Monster, and escapes before McDougal restores the lights. No one believes Wilbur’s claims of the dead walking. Pleas of the young and naïve are easily dismissed or ignored. No wonder millions of little boys identify with Lou Costello.

I am as mesmerized as Wilbur by Dracula’s stare. My identification with Costello transfers to a fascination with Lugosi. I am still enthralled by the scene, though I have now watched it hundreds of times. Dracula rises from his coffin, and waves his fluid fingers before Wilbur’s eyes. “Eye to eye,” Wilbur later recalls, “Eye to eye! Staring! I never saw anything like it.” Neither had I. In a wonderful touch, Dracula ever so gently taps his victim to make sure that the little man is completely under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork.


Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (PS)

Lenore Aubert (as Sandra Mornay) and Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

(Still courtesy of Paul Seiler)


A boy might identify with Wilbur, but must admire Dracula, the master of every situation.   Sandra warns that her assistant is asking too many questions: “Leave that to me.” Joan is on the trail of the missing exhibits: “I’ll take care of the girl.” Wilbur escapes: “I’ll take care of our fat friend.” Lawrence Talbot is a formidable foe; but Dracula belittles his insistent warnings. “What an odd hallucination, but the human mind is often inflamed with strange complexes.” He brushes Talbot aside, and leads Joan to the dance floor. He is most formidable when his plans are disrupted:

Sandra:   This thing is too dangerous. We ought to wait.

Dracula:  And jeopardize the success of the operation? Never! I must warn you my dear Sandra, I am accustomed to having my orders obeyed. Especially by women with a price on their heads.

Sandra:   Don’t try to scare me, Count Dracula. Here, The Secrets of Life & Death by Dr. Frankenstein. Memorize them. Operate yourself if you’re in such a hurry.

Dracula:  I have other means of securing your cooperation.

Sandra:   You’re wasting your time. My will is as strong as yours.

Dracula:  Are you sure? Look into my eyes.

She does and is soon Dracula’s slave. Wilbur, Joan, Chick and The Monster also fall under Dracula’s spell. What boy could resist looking up to him?


Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Spanish Photo 6

Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello


Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein parallels the monsters and the comedians throughout the story. Scenes often shift between The Monster and Dracula, and Abbott & Costello. The movie consistently bridges Wilbur to Dracula. In cutting between monsters and funny men, Wilbur and Dracula are in similar poses. Both men are dwarfed by their taller cohorts: Chick for Wilbur, The Monster for Dracula. The two women in the movie both kiss Wilbur, and both in turn receive the vampire’s kiss from Dracula.

Lugosi would never be heavier than he is in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Wilbur and Dracula are two round men, with slicked back hair. Costello would never be mistaken for Lugosi; but their appearances would never be more similar than when Wilbur and Dracula meet. The finale has extreme close-ups, in which the two appear to be imitating each other. Wilbur is struggling in the stockade where Dracula has stowed him. A few minutes later, Dracula is in a death duel with The Wolf Man. The grimaces on both Wilbur and Dracula make them look very much alike.

The links between Wilbur and Dracula, between Costello and Lugosi, may be coincidental. Intentionally or not, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is crafted to make a Costello fan into a Lugosi fan. That is what happens to me.


Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Photo

Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Glen Strange, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.


The climax of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein ties the threads of the plot together. The Monster disposes of Sandra, who would have removed his brain, and pursues Wilbur, who would have supplied a new one. The Wolf Man, loose in a castle filled with potential prey, immediately attacks Dracula. At age 11, I have yet to learn the history of Talbot and his fellow monsters, but obviously a showdown between werewolf and vampire has long simmered. I am unaware of the subtexts; but I feel the power of myth taking hold of me. The charms of the movie and of Lugosi’s performance, and of whatever psychic forces lie within me, conspire to make me a monster fan forever, and start me on a quest to learn all that I can about Bela Lugosi.

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I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies, and Frank’s previous books, A Quaint & Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore,The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films and (with Andi Brooks) Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain, are available from Cult Movies Press at http://www.cultmoviespress.com

Bat Head 3Reviews

Standard Examiner


Mondo Cult



Interview with Frank J. Dello Stritto

Plan 9 Crunch


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Related Pages

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Dracula’s Coffin: The Story of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Bela Lugosi’s Clara Bow Nude Painting Sells For $30,000 At Auction.

Clara Bow Nude

Prominently displayed in each of his homes from when it was painted in 1929 until his death in 1956, Bela Lugosi’s nude oil painting of actress Clara Bow sold at Bonhams in New York for $30,000 on November 25th, 2013.

Until being announced as lot 138W in Bonhams’ “What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction as Curated by TCM” auction, the whereabouts of the 37 3/4 x 33 1/2 inch canvas had remained a mystery since being sold by Lugosi’s widow, the former Hope Lininger, to an undisclosed art dealer before she moved to Hawaii in 1976. It is now known to have passed through at least two private collections during its “lost” years.

Lugosi commissioned his friend and fellow-Hungarian Geza Kende to paint the portrait as a memento of his brief affair with Bow, who kept a signed photo of Lugosi until her death. Despite their relationship making headlines in November 1929 when Lugosi’s third wife, Beatrice Weeks, told a reporter about it after filing suit for divorce, very few details of it are actually known.

Lot 587

This photo from Lugosi’s estate sold for $1,000 at the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011. The catalogue described Kende’s portrait as the “infamous nude painting of  Clara Bow.”

Lugosi and Bow first met backstage after a performance of Dracula during its eight-week run at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles sometime between June 24 and August 18th, 1928.  The meeting was recalled by Bow’s friend, the actor Jack Oakie, in his autobiography, Jack Oakie’s Double Takes. 

‘Suddenly she came running out (to her swimming pool, where she had left friends to take a phone call). “Come on everybody! We’ve got tickets!” she said. “We’re going down to the Biltmore to see Dracula.” She was so excited she didn’t stop to dress. She just threw a great long mink coat over her swimsuit, and we all got into her chauffeur-driven black Packard limousine. Bela Lugosi was starring in Dracula on the stage of the Biltmore Theatre downtown.

Bow had read about it. “I want to meet that man,” she said. “Do you know he doesn’t know how to speak English.” She couldn’t get over the fact that he was on stage for two hours performing in a language he couldn’t speak. Bow kept her mink coat on, and we watched Bela Lugosi in his monstrous makeup with his teeth sticking out, chewing on gals’ necks all evening. Then we went backstage.

Clara Bow In Dancing Mothers 1926

Is it? Isn’t it? Despite disagreement on the identity of the model in Geza Kende’s painting, she bears a striking resemblance to Clara Bow as seen in this publicity still for Dancing Mothers, 1926

He couldn’t speak English, but no language barrier could hide his thrill at meeting Clara Bow. He was overwhelmed with the redhead. “How do you know your lines?” Bow asked him immediately. We finally understood the Hungarian’s explanation. He told us that he memorized each word from a cue and, if by mistake another actor should ever give him a wrong line, he would be lost for the rest of the night. Bow invited him to her home, and they became very good friends.’

Neither the depth nor the length of their relationship is known. Lugosi is said to have shown off scratches on his body which he bragged were inflicted by Bow during their lovemaking. Beatrice Weeks, whose disastrous marriage to Lugosi effectively ended after only four and a half days, told a reporter from The Daily Mirror that Lugosi had confided that he and Bow had become engaged during their relationship, but had decided to spend a year apart to test the strength of their relationship and would marry after the divorce was finalized. There is no evidence to support Lugosi’s alleged claims.

The only account we have of Lugosi and Bow together after their first meeting comes from Bow biographer David Stenn in his biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, in which he writes of Lugosi being invited to stay at Bow’s Malibu cottage one weekend. Upon his arrival, it was discovered that every bedroom was already occupied by other guests. One of the female guests gave up her room to him and moved in with Bow. In whose room Bow actually spent the night is unrecorded.

Clara Bow Nude postcard

A willow nude? Clara Bow in the flesh.

Despite the fact that Bow had previously posed nude for photographs and had appeared semi-nude on screen, it is not thought that she posed for Kend, who also painted an impressive full-length painting of Lugosi in the early 1930s. There is also nothing to suggest that she was even aware of the existence of the portrait, which was painted after whatever relationship they may have had was over. It has been suggested that the image was in fact conjured up from Lugosi’s memory, which may explain why several commentators have stated that it is not a painting of Bow and actually looks nothing like her.

Whatever the truth of the identity of the model, described as “a willow nude” by reporter Bob Thomas when he interviewed Lugosi at his home in October 1953, the memories Lugosi associated with the painting remained potent enough for him to compel his next two wives to live under its gaze for the duration of their marriages.

Clara Bow Nude in Lugosi HomeLugosi, Bela Jr. and fourth wife Lillian pose under the watchful gaze of Clara Bow

What could have driven him to have kept this memento of a distant brief affair on open display when married to other women? Maybe writer Adele Rogers St. John had the answer when she wrote of Bow’s effect on men, “When men fall in love with Clara Bow, they go a bit mad.” Perhaps Lugosi’s madness for Bow, like Dracula’s grip on his life and career, never ended. (Andi Brooks)


Related articles

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

The Day I Met Bela Lugosi by Derek R. Pickering.

Derek's autographed Photograph

Derek’s signed photograph

It was sometime in the afternoon of Friday the 14th of September , 1951, possibly 2 or 3 o’clock, when I first saw the poster for Dracula on an advertising board. The venue was the Hippodrome Theatre in Derby. The Hippodrome was formerly a cinema which was converted to a stage theatre and later, regrettably, a bingo hall. Having seen the play advertised, I was rather thrilled about it because I had seen a couple of Bela Lugosi’s earlier films.

Although I was underage to see a film with an ‘H’ certification, my aunty’s ex-boyfriend happened to be the manager of a cinema in Derby, now long-demolished. All I had to do if I wanted to see a film was to have a word with him and he would let me in. I saw three of Bela Lugosi’s films, and I was rather taken with the technique of the actor and the characters he played. Even at that young age I had a keenness for the arts.

It would have been during the first performance of the night, commencing at 6.10pm, on Wednesday the 19th of September that I decided to go to the theatre and, hopefully, obtain the autograph of Bela Lugosi. It took a little bit of courage, being of such a young age I did not know what to expect. I was very apprehensive. I knew that I would either be rejected at the stage door or the book would be taken from my hand, taken to him to be signed and then returned. Alternatively, I might catch a glimpse of him, as I had done with other celebrities from time to time, and hopefully attract his attention and ask for his autograph.

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As it happened, my arrival coincided with the end of one act of the three act play. I suspect it would have been soon after act two. I knocked at the stage door rather loudly. Realising that more than the stage door attendant might have heard my loud knocking, I then started to knock more gently. Eventually, the door was opened by a rather tall lady. I was rather diminutive at the time – I was only about four feet tall. She was quite tall and slim, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s. Her hair was of the fashion we now call afro,. Very, very curly! I was rather taken aback by her. She seemed a very daunting figure. I don’t know who she was. She said, “Yes?”

“I’m very sorry to trouble you,” I said in my usual very polite way, “but is it possible you would kindly ask Mr. Lugosi if he would give me his autograph?” I held out my autograph book.

There was a moment’s silence when I thought, “I’m going to be told to clear off.” A big smile spread across her face and she said, “Yes! Would you like to step inside?”

I went up three steps and stood with my back to the wall by the door as she closed it.

“If you would like to wait here, you must be very quiet. I will have a word with Mr. Lugosi and ask if he will sign your autograph book,” she said before going off.

Derby Programme CoverCoverof the Derby programme

Needless to say, I became extremely nervous. Not because here was one of the greatest of all creatures ever written about, a vampire called Dracula, but because I was rather in awe of this personality I had only seen on film. As I waited, I could hear noise in the background – “oohs” and “ahs” and the occasional applause. Then, to one side of me where I could see the curtains in the wings of the stage, a tall young man stepped into the shadows and started swinging his arms around his shoulders. His face was a livid colour, yet had a pale pallor. His lips were thin and very red, he had curly hair. I wondered what he was doing, then all of a sudden he put his hands around his mouth and let out a horrifying, loud howl. I thought, “I’m getting out of here. This is more than the nerves can bear.” After this, he looked at me and smiled. Possibly, he thought I was frightened. I suppose I was in a way. I was, after all, only about 141/2. He went off. I don’t know which direction he too, he just seemed to melt into the dark corners of this section of the theatre and disappeared. Obviously, I should imagine, to his dressing-room.

I waited and waited. I could hear the noises on and off stage. I thought, “What a strange thing!” Then it dawned on me that that was the character I had seen in the film of Renfield, and the actor, I refer to the programme, was Eric Lindsay

Suddenly, from around the edge of the curtain in the wings of the stage, a very tall, dark person walked towards me. The hair was tightly swept back, almost as if it was greased, the face looked pale and haggard, the lips were red, the eyes looked tired. The figure was wearing an evening suit with a bow tie, and was covered up to and over the shoulders by a long black cape. I saw the long black cloak was lined with what looked appeared to be red satin.

Hat was very striking was this figure walked so tall – no sign of any roundness of the shoulders could be seen. The figure walked past me. By this time I was a little nervous because Bela Lugosi looked very stern. “I’m not going to get his autograph,” I thought. I did not know whether to turn around, open the door and run. It is not very often that one comes across such a well-known and well-followed film star.

A Derby Ticket

A ticket stub from Dracula’s run in Derby

I waited for a few more minutes. The lady approached from the direction of the wings of the stage and informed me that she would now go and have a word with Mr. Lugosi and return with his answer. She went up some steps and through a door to my left. As she went through, I could see the light within was rather bright. As she came back out of the room, which was Mr. Lugosi’s dressing-room, I caught a glimpse of him, sitting. “Mr. Lugosi would like to see you now,” she told me. So, gathering up all my bravado and my courage, I walked with her up the steps to the door.

The room was well-lit and although it was rather narrow as you walked in, it was rather longish. I cannot remember what size it might have been, but it was not over big. The great man sat on his chair, facing his dressing-table. On the table were a lot of grease-paint sticks, a pot of what appeared to be cold cream and a pot of white powder. There was not room between the dressing-table and the door, it was rather near the door, so I walked to the other side and turned to face him. He looked up at me and gave me the widest, nicest smile I have ever seen. Believe it or not, I didn’t see any teeth, let alone fangs. He gave me a smile of his lips without opening his mouth. When he did that I relaxed.

I said, and I remember very clearly, “Oh, Mr. Lugosi, thank you for seeing me. I was rather nervous waiting for you. I didn’t know whether you would agree to see me or not. I have seen some of your films and I thought maybe you would be kind enough to give me your autograph.”

“Hello, very nice to see you. What is your name?” He spoke smoothly, quietly and calmly at my sudden outburst of excitement. His accent, which was not unlike the accent of his character, was quieter and not so pronounced.

When I told him my name, he said, “Pull up that chair, Derek, and sit and we will have a talk. I have a little time to spare before I go back to the show.”

So I pulled up a smallish upright wooden chair and sat about two feet away from him.

“How old are you?” he asked me. I told him that I was 14, coming on 15.

“Do you go to work or are you still at school?”

I am still at school,” I replied. “I leave next year after I am 15.”

He then asked me about the school I attended and the subjects I was studying. I told him that I had an interest in photography.

“What do you intend to do for a living when you leave school?” I told him that I was interested in learning to play the piano. I wanted to take it further, but Mum and Dad could not afford to continue to pay for lessons. My mother, whom played very well, taught me as best she could. She knew someone who worked in a music shop in Derby which sold pianos. They told me that I could get a job there with them learning how to clean and repair pianos.

“That sounds like a very interesting job,” he commented. “I wish you every success for that. Are you interested in movies?”

Derby Programme

Centre pages of the Derby programme

I told Mr. Lugosi that I had seen three of his films and I had been very impressed by his character, it was so domineering. I then asked him if it took him long to put on his make-up.

“No, not really,” he replied. “After a few years in the business one doesn’t need a make-up artist. One can do it one’s self. It’s just grease-paint.”

He seemed to be more interested in myself. It took some time to get around to talking to him about his films. He told me that he did not have much time because he had to go on stage again soon. I very quickly got round to the subject of films in which he had appeared. I told him that I was very interested in special effects and he explained to me how the transformation from bat to man was achieved – a combination of models, animation and live action. I also mentioned that I was interested in Boris Karloff and that they had both played the Frankenstein monster. Basically, our conversation was about film making.

He was certainly very intent upon his conversation with me. I respected that and I know that he would have liked to have talked to me a lot more, but he did tend to ask about myself. We chatted casually for a brief period of time, but I can’t remember what was said. He did ask me if I had seen the show. I told him that I hadn’t as I only got two shillings a week pocket money. He did not comment, he just turned and pressed a bell button on one side of his dressing-table. The lady who had let me in came into the room. He quietly spoke to her and then she left. He turned to me and we chatted informally for a little while until she returned. She handed him something which he looked at. He turned to me. Held it out and said, “Here is a ticket to enable you to get in to see the show.”

I was dumb-struck. I couldn’t believe it. He then asked me if I would like him to sign my autograph book. I handed it over and he signed it.

Derek's autograph

Derek’s autograph

“While I’m doing this, I might as well give you my picture.” He reached for a photograph, signed it and handed it to me.

“I’m shortly due on stage, so I will have to say good night to you now and prepare for my next entrance,” he told me. We shook hands and I went through the door, my heart pounding. The lady was by the stage door. She opened it and said, “Good night!” I went off into the night.

The ticket had “COMPLIMENT” rubber-stamped across it in red. I went to see the show and when I took my place in the auditorium I found I was in the middle of a number of people who were the notables of the town of Derby, including the Mayor. Well, I sat there and looked at the programme. Suddenly there was some music, I have an idea that it was recorded music, and the curtain opened. I sat entranced throughout that show.

When the show was over I left my seat and walked out with the rest of the audience and went into the night. “I must remember my manners and thank Mr. Lugosi,” I thought as I came down the steps. I shot around the corner, went to the stage door and knocked on it. A gentleman opened the door to me. I explained that Mr. Lugosi had given me a ticket to go to see the show and would appreciate, realising Mr. Lugosi is busy, if you would pass a message on for me that ”Derek enjoyed the show very much and thank him for his kindness. Tell him that I will never forget him.” I thanked him and came away.

Bela Lugosi was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He took time to see me and talk to me. He was the only one of all the people whose autographs I had sought who really took trouble to speak to me. I kept my promise, I never forgot him. He was a gentleman, a very quietly spoken gentleman – that is the only way I can describe him. I was so sorry when I heard of his tragic death. I hope that in spirit he has found relief and happiness.


Related pages and articles

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

Knee-Deep In Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler

In The Footsteps Of Dracula: An Interview With Author Steven P. Unger

Since its publication in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become a hugely influential book, spawning a whole sub-genre of literature. Both novel and author have been studied, documented and analysed from every possible angle, and subjected to evermore convaluted readings, which, no matter how ludicrous, appear to have found a readership. With the interest in Dracula and vampires stronger than ever, we can probably look forward to the, sometimes dubious, pleasure of many more Dracula-related writings vying for our attention and money.

Rising above the inevitable sea of dross are some real gems, amongst which is the second edition of Steven P. Unger’s In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide. Published by World Audience, Inc., the book takes the reader on an unforgettable journey to every site that is closely related to both the fictional Count Dracula and real historical Vlad the Impaler. Part memoir, part travel guide, In the Footsteps of Dracula was, the author writes, “written to entertain, to inform, perhaps even to inspire.” For this reader, he succeeded in achieving those aims and more. I could easily have enjoyed that rare pleasure of reading the book in one sitting, but was glad that the demands of everyday life meant that I had to spread my reading pleasure over several sessions, which gave me time to digest the wealth of information it contains. I found the biographies of Stoker and his novel and Vlad Ţepeş and the account of Steven’s journey through England and Romania (with the accompanying practical details on how to duplicate it) equally fascinating. One of the many  joys of the book is the collection of Steven’s own photographs, some of which are included with the following interview I did with him.

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When and how did your fascination with Dracula begin?

Growing up, I voraciously read science fiction books and horror comics (the best of which you still can read on this great New Zealand Web site— http://thehorrorsofitall.blogspot.co.nz/), and especially loved watching the old Hammer Films about Count Dracula on TV.  They were produced between 1958 and 1974 and almost always starred Christopher Lee in the title role.  Although they plummeted in quality from superb to abysmal over the years, I saw them whenever I could.

Around 1980 I found a large-format paperback published in 1975 titled The Annotated Dracula, with surreal artwork by Sätty, copious notes, maps, and even a calendar of events.  I read every word.  I loved Bram Stoker’s imagery and his skillful foreshadowing of dire events; at the same time the annotations helped me to understand how his imagery boiled up from the collective unconscious of the Victorian mind and the sexual repression of the 1890s when Dracula was conceived.

Many people, including myself, have dreamed of this kind of journey, but few of us have actually embarked on it.  What motivated you to turn the dream into reality?

My obsession to travel to every site related to either the fictional Count Dracula or his real historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, grew out of a visit to Whitby, England, where three chapters of the novel Dracula take place.  I stood on the cemetery hill where, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray spent hour after hour sitting on their “favourite seat” (a bench placed over a suicide’s grave near the edge of the cliff), gazing out toward the “headland called Kettleness” and the open North Sea beyond—while Count Dracula slept just beneath them.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the un-dead count rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide’s gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.

The graveyard where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the ever-present North Sea winds.  That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.

At that moment I decided to visit and photograph every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler—to literally walk in their footsteps and to write a book about my experiences.


The Old Church Cemetery in Whitby, England

How long was the journey in the planning?

It took a good year until I was ready to book my passage.  The initial research took many months.  The primary scenes in Dracula take place in Whitby, where much of the book was written; London; and, of course, the Borgo Pass in Transylvania, the site of Count Dracula’s castle.  I knew I would travel to those places.

Researching the life of Count Dracula’s historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, took considerably more time.  I read all I could find on him, tracking down obscure references and unpublished theses online.  I needed to separate myth from reality (he was not a vampire, but he certainly was bloodthirsty, with a penchant for impaling his victims regardless of gender or age), and to eliminate from my itinerary those places in Romania that were geared toward tourists on the Dracula Trail but had no connection to the real Vlad the Impaler.

I decided to go to Sighişoara, his birthplace; Tărgovişte, his center of power; Poienari, his hidden fortress; and his purported tomb on SnagovIsland.  I also tried to research how to journey to those places using public transportation, and got nowhere.  There are no tourist offices in Romania as there are in Western Europe, and I wound up waiting until I arrived at one site to find out how to travel to the next, whether by bus, by train, or by the Romanian equivalent of stuffing a telephone booth, the Maxitaxi.  That was all part of the experience, certainly, but not one that I would wish upon my readers. 

Therefore, for the independent traveler who would leave his armchair for the Great Unknown, In the Footsteps of Dracula:  A Personal Journey and Travel Guide contains a Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail, with a complete Sample Itinerary (updated for the 2nd Edition) featuring recommendations for lodging and detailed instructions on traveling to each British or Romanian Dracula-related town or site.

How long did the whole journey take and what was the cost?

 I spent almost two months in all traveling, but because this was to be a photo journal, I always allowed at least one extra day at each location in case of heavy rain or snow.  I spent almost a month in Romania for the price of a week in England.

Following is a breakdown of a typical day’s expenses in Transylvania converted into American dollars.  (These are 2005 prices; a check of hotel prices in different cities in Romania in 2010 showed increases of about 40%, which would bring the day’s expenses to about $77—still an incredible bargain):

 MaxiTaxi from Sighişoara to Bistriţa:  $ 6.17

Taxis from Bed and Breakfast Coula, Sighişoara to MaxiTaxi stand, and from MaxiTaxi stand to Hotel Codrişor, Bistriţa, plus tips:  $5.00

Room with two beds, private shower, cable TV, and full breakfast, Hotel Codrişor, Bistriţa:  $35.00

Dinner at Crama Veche, Bistriţa, including cherry brandy, bean and ham soup, chicken paprikash, and pickled salad, plus tip:  $9.00

Total day’s expenses:  $55.17

What was the high point?

That would be Poienari, the real Castle of Dracula.  I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poienari.  But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad Ţepeş’ mountaintop fortress at Poienari.  The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can’t recall hearing the song of even a single bird.

The ascent was exhausting.  At last, I encountered a grizzled, elfin gentleman sitting on almost the very top step, who indicated with his fingers the amount of the small entry fee.  From there the lone approach to the fortress is by a wooden footbridge.

Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad Ţepeş, only at Poienari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch.  Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the FăgarăşMountains of southern Romania, Poienari remains pristine and almost inaccessible.  Because the terrain is too steep and isolated to ever be cultivated or developed, there will never be a theme park at Poienari with scary rides and Count Dracula/Vlad Ţepeş collectibles.  Nor should there be, given the malevolent history of the fortress.

Thousands of boyars (nobles) and their families had been force-marched there from Tărgovişte to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble.  And it was here that Prince Dracula’s wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.


The Fortress of Vlad the Impaler at Poienari

 Were there any disappointments?

 I can’t say it was a disappointment, since I was warned . . . northwest of the Piaţa Unirii, Bucharest’s main square, is the Historic Quarter and the Old Princely Court of Vlad the Impaler.  The Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) in the Historic Quarter is worth seeing.  In a bygone century it was a caravan stop, and it still serves as a hotel and restaurant with a large courtyard surrounded by wooden balconies.  Don’t eat at the restaurant, though.  Lonely Planet’s Romania & Moldova describes the service as “appallingly slow and surly,” and, actually, that’s giving the restaurant way too much credit.

You did the journey seven years ago.  What, if anything, do you think will have changed?

There’s likely to have been some inflation, as indicated above, and probably less reliance on internet cafés by locals, as more and more people use smart phones.  I’d take one too if I were going again, but I’d never use a phone in place of a camera.  But I don’t think the important places will have changed much.  The locations are either protected as a World Heritage site, as with Sighişoara, or are too inaccessible to develop, as with Poienari.  The Romanians won’t kill the goose that lays their golden tourist eggs.

Have you had any feedback from anyone who has inspired to follow in your footsteps?

I have, and it’s a great feeling, not only to have been read as an author, but to hear that my writing changed people’s lives in a positive way.

If you did it again, would you do anything differently or add any locations to your itinerary?

I’d go to the places in Dublin that I wrote about; to Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery in London and to Bran Castle in Romania even though it’s a tourist trap.  I’d also bring a smart phone with temporary foreign coverage and a shockproof, weather-resistant digital camera.

You mentioned that a friend helped you to overcome language problems when you visited the grave of Vlad Ţepeş.  How much of the journey were you able to make alone?

That was the only place that I didn’t travel to alone, and the only place where readers of my book might require a guide to get them there.  Otherwise they can safely and economically follow my Sample Itinerary as described above. 

Would it be possible for someone to make the whole journey alone without any knowledge of Romanian or German?

 Yes—the Berlitz Romanian Phrase Book & Dictionary is worth taking along with you.  A lot of the younger people in the larger towns and cities learned English in school, and generally you’ll also be able to speak English with hotel personnel and the proprietors of Bed and Breakfast establishments.  However, in the countryside or at smaller restaurants, you’ll need some basic Romanian phrases.  If you do happen to know German, most Transylvanians of Saxon descent speak German and Romanian, although the majority of ethnic Germans left Romania after the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The “Eating Out” section is invaluable—it’s always the most-used section of my Berlitz phrase books when I travel.  Speaking of food, I was able to maintain a very healthy diet in Romania.  Fresh vegetables, especially cucumbers and tomatoes, were plentiful, and roasted red peppers were always available as a side dish at restaurants everywhere or at self-service cafeterias in Bucharest.  The meat served is mostly pork or chicken, as an entrée or as part of a delicious, slightly sour soup called either borş or ciorbă, made from a fermented mix of flour, cherry bark, thyme, and basil.  (With respect to dining out in England, if you like East Indian food, I don’t think there’s any town in the nation without at least one “take-away” Indian restaurant.)

You wrote that, taking sensible precautions, there are no safety issues when traveling through Romania, but one incident on your journey seemed rather sinister.  While waiting for the boat to take you to Vlad Ţepeş’ grave, you were accosted by two men, who you had to give some money to.  What exactly happened?

That was when I was traveling with a native Romanian, Daly Gurman.  I deferred to his judgment in giving the men a small amount of money to go away.  If I’d been by myself, I would have truthfully told them that I didn’t understand what they wanted, and maintained what the soteropolitanas—the people of Salvador, Brazil—call a mão-de-vaca, a cow’s hand, which never opens.

Bearing in mind the questionable authenticity of Vlad Ţepeş’ grave, is it worth making the trip?

I think so.  Snagov Lake, about 25 miles north of Bucharest, is narrow but almost 12 miles long, with a small island in the northeastern part of the lake.  With its rustic scenery, boisterous frogs lining the lakeshore, and posters of Vlad Ţepeş’ exploits in hopelessly fractured English, the Snagov Lake area has just the right tone for a Draculaland.  Besides, if you go there in winter you might be able to ice skate across the lake from the village of Silistea to the island, where Vlad Ţepeş’ purported tomb lies in the inner chamber of a stone monastery church that dates back to 1521.

Having brutally tortured and murdered tens of thousands of his own subjects, Vlad Ţepeş hardly seems like a suitable figure to be honored and respected.  Do Romanians really “dream of Vlad Ţepeş or a new Vlad Ţepeş” in times of trouble?

Many do.  Vlad Ţepeş was a product of his times.  His father was required to give him up as a hostage to the Turkish sultan when Vlad was in his teens, and it was there that he repeatedly witnessed the practice of execution by impaling.  And although in his quest for power and dominance he impaled more Romanians than Turks, he is still seen as a hero for his part in later battles against the Turkish Empire.

A visit to the island tomb of Vlad Ţepeş confirms the reverence still felt for the historical Prince Dracula as someone who defended the cross, as opposed to the literary Count Dracula, who abhorred it.  The tomb is covered by a stone slab surrounded by golden icons and giant candelabras.  An antique lantern rests on the left side of the slab, a silver engraving of Vlad Ţepeş is at the center, and a vase of fresh-cut flowers graces the right.

On one of the church walls, below Vlad’s portrait, is the following inscription (recreated verbatim):

“King Vlad the Impaler Dracula

He was a great European personality in fighting against Turkish Empire for Christianism.  His courrage was admired also by Turkish Army & leaders.”

As I took in the medieval splendor of the tomb of Vlad Ţepeş, Father Bănăţeanu, the latest in a line of monks who for over 500 years have lived alone on Snagov Island to tend Vlad’s grave, handed me a leaflet that read in part:

” . . . Prince Vlad the Impaler was known in all Europe as Prince Dracula; he was a great fighter against the Turkish Empire.  It is a strange story isn’t it?”


Father Bănăţeanu and His Dog

 What distinguishes him from Nicolae Ceauşescu, who inflicted more recent horrors on the long-suffering people of Romania?

What was unforgivable for Ceauşescu was his hypocrisy.  Obsessed with repaying the soaring national debt and building edifices that were really monuments to himself, Ceauşescu banned the importation of consumer products and commanded the exportation of all goods produced in Romania except minimal food supplies.  While the official television broadcasts showed stores full of groceries that were actually painted plastic, thousands of Romanians were being tortured in political prisons and millions were near starvation.

Vlad Ţepeş never pretended to have his subjects’ interests at heart; he fought, and fought well, against whoever opposed him, be they Turk or Romanian.  And while Vlad Ţepeş died in battle with his father’s sword in hand, on Christmas Day in 1989 the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were executed by a military firing squad in Tărgovişte, Romania, after fleeing from their country residence at—of all places!—Snagov Lake.  The videotape of their execution, with Nicolae loudly singing The Internationale as Elena cursed at the soldiers, telling everybody to go to hell, was immediately released to news agencies in Western Europe.

Bram Stoker never traveled to Transylvania.  How accurate were his descriptions of the land?

While his descriptions of the Carpathian Mountains bore a superficial resemblance to the actual terrain, when it came to specific details, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania bore little resemblance to any Romania that ever existed.  For example, Stoker wrote of “hay-ricks [haystacks] in the trees” based on illustrations of Transylvanian haystacks built around stakes, with the ends of the stakes poking out like branches.  Thus, generations of Dracula readers assumed that Transylvanians put their haystacks up in trees!


Haystacks on Transylvania’s Borgo Pass

It still seems possible to conjure up the spirit of Dracula in Romania, but Gothic Weekends in Whitby, England, while good for the local economy, hardly seem conducive to capturing the spirit of the town as Stoker knew it while researching and writing Dracula there.  How did a Gothic Weekend in Whitby add to your Dracula experience?

I chose to go to Whitby during the Gothic Weekend   specifically because I knew I’d get much more interesting pictures for my book with a trio of Goths posing, for example, on the Bram Stoker Memorial Seat than at other times of the year, when I’d just have a picture of an empty bench with a plaque in the middle.  For the serious sojourner on the Dracula Trail, August 11th was the day Mina ran through the town to save Lucy from the blood-thirst of the Count.  Alternatively, a dreary winter’s day might convey a more somber atmosphere around the old church graveyard and the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  So it’s really a matter of intent–is it to be a party or a sort of contemplative walk back into the Victorian subconscious   for a day?

There is nowhere else on Earth besides Whitby where one can truly walk in the footsteps of the literary Dracula.  Bram Stoker’s Transylvania was the pipe dream of an armchair traveler with a genius for writing:  real enough for the 19th Century English or American reader, but bearing little resemblance to the society or even the architecture of Romania at that time or any other.

On the other hand, Stoker was intimately familiar with Whitby and its ancient legends.  He lived there:  you can see his house.  You can see the “house at The Crescent” where Mina Murray (later Harker) stayed with Lucy Westenra and her mother, and where Count Dracula circled Lucy’s bedroom window in the form of a “great bat.”  Three doors away from the “house at The Crescent” was the office of Mr. S. F. Billington, the attorney who arranged for “50 cases of common earth, to be used for experimental purposes” (one of those cases containing the Count in his coffin) to be transferred by rail and wagon from Whitby to Dracula’s estate at Carfax near London.

You can stand on the Tate Hill Sands where Count Dracula first touched the English shore in the shape of an immense wolf-like dog, and stroll among the ancient tombstones of the churchyard cemetery where he took refuge in a suicide’s grave and first tasted Lucy Westenra’s blood.

You can see all of these places, and more, virtually unchanged from the 1890s.  All in all, Whitby adds immensely to the spirit of the Dracula Trail.

As a novel and cultural experience, Dracula has attained a status that it never had during Stoker’s lifetime.  Why does its popularity continue to grow when many more “serious” and acclaimed pieces of contemporary literature are now forgotten?

 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its imagery and sheer sexuality, much of it stemming from Stoker’s unconscious mind, captured the imagination of the public in 1897 and has never been out of print—in fact it’s the 2nd most widely-read book in the world, after the BibleDracula was published during the height of Victorian sexual repression; two years later, in 1899, Freud would publish The Interpretation of Dreams.  It’s not a coincidence that vampires have remained so popular.  They’re immortal, powerful, and seductive—who wouldn’t want all of those attributes?  Or at least two out of three.

Above all, vampires are creatures of the night, as are dreams, and, just like dreams, they can never be controlled.

Is the 2nd Edition now the definitive version of your book?

I would think so.  It’s the result of reviews from all over the world; everything has been updated and corrected where necessary.  And besides, I’ve got new books to write and new heights of imagination to climb!

One final question.  Who is your favorite Dracula?

I think that Bram Stoker’s original vision of Count Dracula was most closely represented in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu with Max Schreck (below).

Bat Head 3


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Bat Head 3

About the Author

Steven P. Unger

Steven Unger was one of a handful of white students at a black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and a member of the Bear Tribe, a California commune that tried sharecropping, goat herding, and living in teepees—and failed spectacularly at everything.  These adventures and many more are described in his novel Dancing in the Streets (http://www.amazon.com/Dancing-Streets-Steven-P-Unger/dp/1937536114/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_3).

He also wrote the accompanying text and Preface for Before the Paparazzi:  Fifty Years of Extraordinary Photographs, which includes over 250 pictures taken by Arty Pomerantz, staff photographer and assignment editor for the New York Post from the 1960s through the early 1990s.  Before the Paparazzi is available from www.amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Before-The-Paparazzi-Extraordinary-Photographs/dp/1935444395/ref=la_B007MAM64E_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1346780528&sr=1-2) and from their own site at www.beforethepaparazzi.com.