Select Page

Brandi B. asked that we sort fact from fiction on Vlad Dracula.  Personally, I can remember a time when I didn’t know that Vlad the Impaler was thought to be the inspiration from Bram Stoker’s genre-launching vampire Dracula.  Hop in your magic school bus, police box, or phone booth with aerial antenna, and let’s go back to 15th’s century Wallachia, a region of modern day Romania that was then the southern neighbor of the province of Transylvania.  Our Vlad was Vlad III.  Vlad II, his father, was given the nickname Dracul by his fellow Crusade knights in the Order of the Dragon, who were tasked with defeating the Ottoman Empire.  Wallachia was sandwiched between the Ottomans and Christian Europe and so became the site of constant bloody conflict.  Without looking it up, I’m going to guess that they failed, since the Ottoman Empire stood until 1923.  Dracul translated to “dragon” in old Romanian, but the modern meaning is more like devil.  Add an A to the end to denote son-of and you’ve got yourself a Vlad Dracula.


At age 11, Vlad and his 7-year-old brother Radu went with their father on a diplomatic mission into the Ottoman Empire.  How’s it go?  No too good.  The three were taken hostage.  Their captors told Vlad II that he could be released – on condition that the two sons remain.  Since it was his only option, their father agreed.  The boys would be held prisoner for 5 years.  One account holds that they were tutoried in the art of war, science and philosophy.  Other accounts says they were also subjected to torture and abuse.  When Vlad II returned home, he was overthrown in a coup and he and his eldest son were horribly murdered.


Shortly thereafter, Vlad III was released, with a taste for violence and a vendetta against the Ottomans.  To regain his family’s power and make a name for himself, he threw a banquet for hundreds of members of his rival families.  On the menu was wine, meat, sweetbreads, and gruesome, vicious murder.  The guests were stabbed not quite to death, then impaled on large spikes.  This would become his signature move, leading to his moniker Vlad the Impaler, but wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver.  Facing an army three times the size of his, he ordered his men to infiltrate their territory, poison wells and burn crops.  He also paid diseased men to go in and infect the enemy.  Defeated combatants were often treated to disemboweling, flaying alive, boiling, and of course impalement.  Basically, you turn your enemy into a kabob and let them die slowly and, just as important, conspicuously.  Vlad’s reputation spread, leading to stories we have trouble sorting from legend, like that he once took dinner in a veritable forest of spikes.  We do know that in June of 1462, he ordered 20,000 defeated Ottomans to be impaled.  It’s a scale that’s hard to even imagine.


When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II came upon the carnage, he and his men fled in fear back to Constantinople.  You’d think Vlad was on the road to victory, but shortly after, he was forced into exile and imprisoned in Hungary. [[how?]]  He took a stab, no pun intended, on regaining Wallachia 15 years later, but he and his troops were ambushed and killed.  According to a contemporary source, the Ottomans cut his corpse into pieces and marched it back to Sultan Medmed II, who ordered them displayed over the city’s gates.  History does not record where the pieces ended up.


Vlad the Impaler was an undeniably brutal ruler, but he’s still considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history for protecting it against the Ottomans and a national hero of Romania.  He was even praised by Pope Pius II for his military feats and for defending Christendom.  So how did get get from Vlad Dracula, the Impaler, a warrior king with a taste for torture, to, 400 years later, Dracula the undead creature of the night who must feed on the blood of living, can morph into bats or mist, and must sleep in his native earth?  Historians have speculated that Irish author Bram Stoker met with historian Hermann Bamburger, who told him about Vlad III, which ignited some spark of inspiration, but there’s not actually any evidence to back this up.  Stoker was actually the first writer that we know of to have a vampire drink blood.  Vampires are actually a common folklore baddie around the world, from the obayifo in Africa which can take over people’s bodies and emit phosphorus light from their armpits and anus to the manananggal of the Philippines who can detach her torso from her legs so she can fly around with her organs trailing behind her and use her snakelike tongue to steal babies from the womb.  In Western culture, though, Vlad the Impaler became the basis for everything from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Count Chocula.  That means he’s also the source of the Twilight saga, truly one of history’s greatest monsters.


Ronnie asked for “how some legends got their stars.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I asked for clarification.  No, I didn’t, I launched off immediately and at a full gallop with the first interpretation that came to mind, as I do in all aspects of my life.  So let’s talk horror actors and the Hollywood walk of fame.


Even if he weren’t a recognizable face, Vincent Price is probably the most recognizable voice in horror history.  For folks my age, you probably heard him for the first time on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  Folks in their 30’s might have heard him first as Prof. Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective.  Price wasn’t always a horror icon.  He’d done theater, radio, including Orson Wells Mercury Theater of the Air, and other genres of films, but 1953’s House of Wax, which was also the first 3D movie to crack the top 10 box office gross for its year, solidified his place in horror history.  It’s almost odd that Price went into acting at all.  His father was the president of the National Candy Company and his grandfather had set the family up with independent means thanks to his brand of cream of tartar.  Price and his wife Mary wrote a number of cookbooks, one of which my mother had when I was young.  You cannot fathom my confused disappointment that it was just a regular cookbook full of regular, boring, non-scary recipes.  And now, for no other reason than it makes me smile, is another amazing voice, Stephen Fry, talking about Price on QI.: 

Romanian-born Bela Lugosi was a classical actor in Hungary before making the move to movies.  In fact, he was already playing Dracula on stage when the movie was being assembled.  Lugosi wanted the role so badly he agreed to do it for $500 per week, about $9K today, only one quarter that of actor David Manners who played Jonathan Harker.  It was a good investment, I’d say, since everyone knows Lugosi and this was the first time I’d ever seen David Manners’ name.  Though Lugosi turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, he was quickly locked into horror.  He appeared in minor roles in a few good movies, like “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo, but mostly bounced like a plinko chip from mediocre to bad movies, with ever decreasing budgets.  His drug addiction probably had a cyclical relationship with his work prospects.  He died two days into filming the absolutely dreadful “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and was replaced by a much younger and taller actor and his ex-wife’s chiropractor because he fit the costume.


Peter Lorre is a name you might not recognize, but you would absolutely recognize his overall aesthetic.  It’s still being referenced and parodied to this day.  See the bad guy?  Is he short, with round eyes, and a distinctive way of speaking?  What you got there is Peter Lorre.  Hungarian-born Lorre struck out at 17 to become a star.  For 10 years he played bit parts in amateur productions, but in 1931 he got his big break in the German film “M,” and Hollywood took notice.  His first English-speaking role was in the Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  The character spoke English, but Lorre didn’t.  Just like Bela Legosi during his first turn as Dracula, Lorre had to memorize his lines phonetically.  Imagine how difficult it must be to put the right pacing and inflection into a sentence when you don’t know which word means what.  He continued portraying psychopaths until John Huston cast him in a quasi-comic role in “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet, which led to lighter roles like the one he played in Arsenic and Old Lace.  If you never seen it, make it you next choice.  It’s a comedy, but you can definitely watch it with your horror movies, since it’s about a pair of serial killers hiding bodies in their cellar.


Arsenic and Old Lace also features a bad guy getting plastic surgery to avoid the police, which accidentally leaves him looking like Boris Karloff and he’s really touchy about it.  I don’t know why.  Even though he played many monsters and villains in his career, Karloff was said to actually be a kind, soft-spoken man who was happiest with a good book or in his garden.  We hear him narrate How the Grinch Stole Christmas every year.  He doesn’t sing the song, though.  That’s Thurl Ravenscroft, who was also the original voice of Tony the Tiger.  The title role in Frankenstein took Karloff from bit player to household name.  Karloff said of the monster, “He was inarticulate, helpless and tragic.  I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.”  By the way, if you’re one of those people who delights in going “Um, actually, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor,” can you not?  We all know that.  And since it’s the last name of the man who gave him life, aka his father, it’s a perfectly passable patronym to use.  Oh and by the way Mr or Ms Superior Nerd, Frankenstein wasn’t a doctor, he was a college dropout.  I refer you to my much-beloved Red at Overly Sarcastic Productions on YouTube for a thorough explanation of the actual story.  Penny Dreadful did get pretty close in their interpretation.


Here’s a name more people should know, John Carradine.  Wait, you say, the guy from Kill Bill?  No, that’s his son David.  Oh, you mean the FBI guy the sister was dating on Dexter.  No, that’s his other son Keith.  Revenge of the Nerds?  No, that’s Robert.  The patriarch John Carradine was in over 500 movies, big names like Grapes of Wrath and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but he also did a lot of horror, though it could be a mixed bag — everything from Dracula in House of Dracula down to Billy the Kid vs Dracula.  Not always for the love of it, either.  Sometimes a gig’s just a gig.  He told one of his sons, “Just make sure that if you’ve got to do a role you don’t like, it makes you a lot of money.”  Good advice for many areas of life.  If you’ve got Prime Video or Shudder, look for The Monster Club.  It’s an darling, schlocky little anthology movie, which they just don’t seem to make anymore, starring Carradine and Vincent Price.  


Jaime Lee Curtis could have been on this list since she was in 5 of the Halloween films, but I just don’t think people think “horror” when they hear her name.


There were a few names surprisingly not set in the stones.  While ‘man of a thousand faces’ Lon Chaney, who played the original Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, has a star, his son, Lon Chaney Jr, who played the Wolfman, the Mummy and numerous other roles in dozens of horror movies, does.  Somehow, Christopher Lee doesn’t either.  In addition to the 282 roles on his imdb page, he deserves a star just for playing Dracula 10 times and still having a career after that.  Also, he was metal as fuck, recording metal albums into his 80’s and there was the time he corrected director Peter Jackson on what it’s like when you stab someone, because he *knew.  My buddies over at Cutting Class diverged from their usual format to tell us all about his amazing life.


Over in the Brainiac Breakroom, (plug sub reddit, thank Zach), Alyssa asked for the history behind clowns being evil.  One day, a man dressed up as a clown and it was terrifying.  Thank you for coming to my TED talk.


No?  Okay.  Fine!  It’s not like I have to research them and keep seeing pictures of clowns.  Clowns weren’t really regarded as frightening, or at least a fear of clowns wasn’t widely known, from the creation of what we’d recognize as a clown by Joseph Grimaldi in the 1820’s until fairly recently.  David Carlyon, author, playwright and a former clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1970s, argues that coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, was born from the counter-culture 1960s and picked up steam in the 1980s.  “There is no ancient fear of clowns,” he said. “It wasn’t like there was this panic rippling through Madison Square Garden as I walked up through the seats. Not at all.”  For centuries, clowns were a funny thing for kids — there was Bozo, Ronald McDonald, Red Skelton’s Clem Kaddidlehopper and Emmet Kelly’s sad clown– then bam!  Stephen King’s hit novel “It,” the doll in “Poltergeist,” and every incarnation of The Joker.  It could be seen as a pendulum swing.  Clowns had been so far to the good side that it must have been inevitable they would swing *way the hell over to evil.


Not so fast, argues Benjamin Radford, author of the book “Bad Clowns,” who argues that evil clowns have always been among us.  “It’s a mistake to ask when clowns turned bad because historically they were never really good.  Sometimes they’re making you laugh. Other times, they’re laughing at your expense.”  Radford traces bad clowns all the way to ancient Greece and connects them to court jesters and the Harlequin figure.  He points particularly to Punch of the Punch & Judy puppet shows that date back to the 1500s.  Punch was not only not sweet and loveable, he was violent, abusive, and even homicidal.


Maybe when isn’t as important as why.  Why are some of us afraid of clowns?  Personally, I think it’s their complete disregard for personal space.  Kindly keep your grease-painted face at least arm’s length away.  The grease paint may be part of it.  It exaggerates the features.  The face is basically human in composition, but it’s not.  It dangles us over the edge of the uncanny valley, where something makes us uncomfortable because it is *almost human.  The makeup obscures the wearer’s identity, so we don’t really know who we’re dealing with.  Clowns also act in aberrant ways, contrary to societal norms and expectations, and that might subconsciously get our back up.  As for coulrophilia, sexual attraction to clowns…. I got nothing.  You do you.


Charlie asked for the real history behind popular horror icons, like werewolves, vampires, and zombies.  Even though the zombie craze held on longer than the 2017 obsession with bacon, most people don’t know about them pre-George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.


The word “zombie” first appeared in English around 1810 in the book “History of Brazil,” this was “Zombi,” a West African deity.  The word later came to suggest a husk of a body without vital life energy, human in form but lacking the self-awareness, intelligence, and a soul.  The Atlantic slave trade caused the idea to move across the ocean, where West African religions began to mix with force Christianity.  Pop culture continually intermixes many African Diasporic traditions and portrays them exclusively as Voodoo. However, most of what is portrayed in books, movies, and television is actually hoodoo. Voodoo is a religion that has two markedly different branches: Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun. Hoodoo is neither a religion, nor a denomination of a religion—it is a form of folk magic that originated in West Africa and is mainly practiced today in the Southern United States.


Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by voodoo priests called bokors or houngan. Sometimes the zombification was done as punishment (striking fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death), but often the zombies were said to have been used as slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations. In 1980, one mentally ill man even claimed to have been held captive as a zombie worker for two decades, though he could not lead investigators to where he had worked, and his story was never verified.


To many people, both in Haiti and elsewhere, zombies are very real and as such very frightening.  Think about it.  These people were enslaved, someone else claimed dominion over their body, but they still had their mind and their spirit.  What could be more frightening to an enslaved person than an existence where even that is taken from you?


In the 1980s when a scientist named Wade Davis claimed to have found a powder that could create zombies, thus providing a scientific basis for zombie stories, a powerful neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which can be found in several animals including pufferfish.  He claimed to have infiltrated secret societies of bokors and obtained several samples of the zombie-making powder, which were later chemically analyzed.  Davis wrote a book on the topic, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which was later made into a really underappreciated movie.  Davis was held up as the man who had scientifically proven the existence of zombies, but skeptic pointed out that the samples of the zombie powder were inconsistent and that the amounts of neurotoxin they contained were not high enough to create zombies.  It’s not the kind of thing you can play fast & loose with.  Tetrodotoxin has a very narrow band between paralytic and fatal.  Others pointed out nobody had ever found any of the alleged Haitian plantations filled with zombie laborers.  While Davis acknowledged problems with his theories, and had to lay to rest some sensational claims being attributed to him, he insisted that the Haitian belief in zombies *could be based on the rare happenstance of someone being poisoned by tetrodotoxin and later coming to in their coffin.


Bonus fact: Ever wonder where we get brain-eating zombies from?  Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the first zombie to eat brains was the zombie known as Tarman in 1984’s Return of the Living Dead.  This wasn’t a George Romero movie, though.  It’s based on a novel called  Return of the Living Dead by John Russo, one of the writers of Night of the Living Dead.  After Russo and Romero parted company, Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring the phrase “Living Dead.” 


Cindra asked for movie monster facts.  The moon is getting full, so let’s hit these facts muy rapido.


1922’s Nosferatu was an illegal and unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Stoker’s heirs sued over the film and a court ruling ordered that all copies be destroyed.  However, Nosferatu subsequently surfaced in other countries and came to be regarded as an influential masterpiece of cinema.


Not a single photograph of Lon Chaney as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was published in a newspaper or magazine, or seen anywhere before the film opened in theaters.  It was a complete surprise to the audience and to Chaney’s costar Mary Philbin, whos shriek of fear and disgust was genuine.


In the original Dracula, Lugosi never once blinks his eyes on camera, to give his character an otherworldy vibe.  Francis Ford Coppolla did something similar by having Dracula’s shadow move slightly independently, like the rules of our world don’t apply to him.


Even though he starred in the film, Boris Karloff was considered such a no-name nobody that Universal didn’t invite him to the premiere of 1931’s Frankenstein.


Karloff’s classic Mummy the next year did not speak because the actor had so many layers of cotton glued to his face that he couldn’t move his mouth.


The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s look was based on old seventeenth-century woodcuts of two bizarre creatures called the Sea Monk and the Sea Bishop.


To make a man invisible for 1933’s The Invisible Man, director James Whale had Claude Rains dressed completely in black velvet and filmed him in front of a black velvet background.


The movie poster for The Mummy (1932) holds the record for the most money paid for a movie poster at an auction: nearly half a million dollars.


Boris Karloff’s costume and makeup for 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein were so heavy and hot that he lost 20 pounds during filming, mostly through sweat.  His shoes weighed 13 lb/6 kg/1 stone apiece.


The large grosses for the film House on Haunted Hill (1960) were noticed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make a horror movie after the seeing the box office gross for William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill.


Filming the shower scene for Psycho was pretty mundane, but actress Janet Leigh was so terrified by seeing the finished product –thanks to the editing by Alma Reveill-Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann score– that she did not shower, only bathed, from the premier in 1960 to her death in 2004.  You can read more about Alma Revill in the YBOF book.


According to our friends Megan and RJ at Oh No! Lit Class podcast, the first use of Toccata Fuge in G Minor in a film was the 1962 Phantom of the Opera.  It’s hard to imagine classic horror without it.


In Night of the Living Dead, the body parts the zombies ate were ham covered in chocolate sauce.  George Romero joked that they shouldn’t bother putting the zombie makeup on the actors because the choco-pork made them look pale and sick with nausea anyway.


A lot of people know that Michael Myers’ mask in the original Halloween was actually a William Shatner mask painted white.  They bought it because it was on clearance and the film had a small budget.  Most people don’t know that Shatner later repaid the favor by dressing up as Michael Myers for Halloween.


Freddy Kruger’s look was based on a scary drunk man Wes Craven saw outside his home as a child.  His glove made of leather and steak knives was actually inspired by Craven’s cat.  Looks down at scratches on both arms.  Yeah, that checks out.  The idea of being killed in your sleep comes from real deaths of people who survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, only to die mysteriously later.


1987’s The Monster Squad. With a werewolf, a mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster in the mix, the group looked suspiciously like the line-up of the 1930s and ’40s Universal horror movies. To avoid confusion (i.e. lawsuits), filmmaker Fred Dekker made some subtle changes to his monsters, like removing Dracula’s widow’s peak, and moving Frankenstein’s neck bolts up to his forehead. See? Totally different!


Yes, those were real bees in Candyman, even the ones in Candyman’s mouth.  Tony Todd had a clause in his contract that he would get $1k for every bee sting he got during filming.  Even though juvenile bees with underdeveloped stingers were used, he still got $23k worth of stings.


You might think 1991’s Silence of the Lambs was the first horror movie to win an Oscar, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde beat them to it by 60 years with Fredric March’s Oscar for Best Actor.