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Excerpt: 'The Dead Travel Fast'

Chapter 3: I Don't Believe in God; The Crucifix Is to Keep Away Vampires

The author travels to the land of the vampire and along the way deals with dog attacks, floods, possible amputation, and running out of hand sanitizer.

I've ridden in turbulent airplanes, ferries crossing stormy water, and roller coasters that seem solely designed to separate me from a recently consumed funnel cake, but nothing has quite matched the experience of trying to watch an old black-and-white movie while riding for hours in a tour bus across barely paved mountain roads in Romania.


Every time I come across it my first thought is how incredibly tired I am of seeing this movie. On this particular occasion, I couldn't decide which was worse — the movie or the act of watching the movie.

I could have looked out the window, but I was even more tired of looking out the window. All I'd seen that day were winding roads, pine-covered mountains, and tiny country houses with clay roofs.

I went to Romania to tag along with a group of twenty-five vampire enthusiasts on a Dracula-themed tour of Transylvania. It's a collection of people, ranging from the off-puttingly freakish to the shockingly normal, willing to travel halfway around the world to visit the sites of both the historical and literary Dracula, and sometimes a mixture of the two.

To this point, we'd kept to our itinerary, but things hadn't gone smoothly. To complicate matters, things are getting a bit tense on the bus: several people were sick from drinking the water, a few others were plotting how to get rid of one couple, a woman was weeping over a psychic message she received from a stray cat, our "celebrity host," the former child actor Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster of The Munsters), has been asleep for hours in the back of the bus, and a twenty-four-hour-old insect bite on my hand is slowly turning from pink to a disturbing shade of black.

The ride wasn't supposed to take this long, but we were forced to re-route our journey through the mountains because of flooding. The day before I arrived, it started to rain and hadn't stopped since. The floods were big news in Romania, even showing up in the international press. Earlier that day we stopped at a gas station for snacks and a Romanian man, who guessed that I was an American, confronted me. He was trying to blame me for the floods.

His argument was that the floods were the result of the Gulf War, the Gulf War was Bush's fault, and I, as an American, should feel blame for Bush. Since leaving the gas station, I was alternating between trying to understand his logic and not throwing up.

I had spent most of my time figuring out how a military action 1,500 miles away would cause a flood in the Romanian mountains and even a harder time understanding my personal responsibility for Bush. To kill time on the longer bus rides, our guide played a variety of Dracula and vampire movies. In the subjective world of vampire movies, even some of these were bottom dwellers: the movie version of the TV soap opera Dark Shadows, the pathetic and practically unwatchable Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula, a 70s bio-drama about Vlad Tepes (entirely in Romanian with bad English subtitles), and this, the silent 1922 original Nosferatu. Whenever my mind drifts away from my personal responsibility for washed out bridges or my churning innards, my eyes wander to the screen and take in Nosferatu. Again.

This version of the film is a particularly bad one. During the 1960s, someone decided that Nosferatu would be more marketable if they re-tooled it to be more in-line with Dracula. The movie's been reedited and shortened (dispelling the story tangents far from Stoker's tale), the title cards have been replaced with contemporary English, all the characters have been renamed to match their Dracula counterparts, and some of the close-ups of signs and books have been reedited with new footage featuring English instead of the film's original German.

In Nosferatu, Hutter (the Harker character) is sent to Transylvania to sell property to a mysterious nobleman named Graf Orlock (the Dracula character). Hutter eventually makes it to Orlock's castle and meets Orlock, a bizarre man with a constant stare (Orlock never blinks during the entire film) and gaunt features. The next day, Hutter stumbles across Orlock resting in a rotting coffin and flees just as Orlock packs up and heads to Bremen.

Hutter makes it back to Bremen before Orlock and shares a book of vampire legends with Ellen. She reads that the only way to kill a vampire is for a woman to allow the vampire to feed on her until morning, when the daylight would destroy the nosferatu. Orlock, who'd been watching Ellen from his new digs across the street, gladly enters her bedroom when she deliberately leaves her window open. Orlock feeds throughout the night, and then is reduced to a puff of smoke when sunlight enters the room at dawn (even though death or burning by sunlight has become a part of our vampire lore today, Nosferatu was the first time this idea was introduced — previously, vampires were only active at night, but exposure to daylight didn't harm them).

The word nosferatu is only mentioned once in the novel Dracula, by Professor Van Helsing, as a generic term for vampires, implying that the word originated in Romania. Bram Stoker probably picked this up from one of his primary sources, Emily Gerard's 1888 collection of Transylvanian travel essays called The Land Beyond The Forest, which claims nosferatu is a folk term for vampires. Problem is, there is no such word in the Romanian language — referring to vampires or otherwise-nor does the word exist in Hungarian or any other Eastern European language. Scholars think that Gerard (who didn't speak Romanian) misread the adjective nesferit (meaning "troublesome") as nosferatu.

When Nosferatu was released, it was widely heralded by critics, who wrote reviews attempting to reveal the heavy metaphors they viewed in the film about World War I, Communism, and all sorts of assorted nonsense. That inclination has continued in the decades since, though the perceived metaphors seem to change with time. Many later critics and film historians have commented that Nosferatu is filled with not-too-subtle references to homosexuality (the film's director, F.W. Murnau, was openly gay). However, I don't see it. While most vampire films are laden with sexual imagery and metaphor, Nosferatu is the least sexy vampire film of all time. The film's core vampire metaphor seems to be disease rather than sex (homosexual or otherwise). Also, little of anything in Nosferatu could be considered subtle. There was one element missing from Murnau's vampire film: permission. Back in the early 20th century, film rights and copyright were in a kind of "Wild West" period. It was very unclear how stage and literary rights applied to the new medium, let alone the twists and turns of international copyrights, so many producers, including Murnau's Prana-Films, just winged it. While Nosferatu's opening credits acknowledged the film as a loose adaptation of Stoker's novel, no one bothered to figure out if it would be a problem to do this.

Nosferatu was the production of a flaky art collective based in Germany called Prana-Films. Prana was founded by artist Albin Grau (who became Nosferatu's production designer). Grau had no experience in filmmaking at all, but felt he could spot a good spooky story when he saw it. Grau was a hard-core spiritualist and member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret offshoot of a group led by renowned Satanist Aleister Crowley.

Permission wasn't the only thing they lacked — they also were pretty short on money, a distribution system, a business plan, or many other elements of a professional film company. Despite plans for several other macabre films, Nosferatu was the only film the company ever completed.

Nosferatu had its debut in March 1922, at the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens. Within a month, all hell had broken loose. The company's creditors started demanding payment and Florence Stoker, widow of Dracula author Bram Stoker, announced she would sue Prana for violating her copyright. By June, Prana-Films had closed up shop and was in receivership.

After Bram Stoker died in 1912, Florence Stoker, with Dracula royalty checks as her only means of support, was pretty tight with the rights. Florence had an odd relationship with Dracula. It's obvious from her correspondence that she didn't really care about the artistic or thematic elements of the book. Whenever someone came forward with an offer to adapt, translate, or otherwise exploit the book, Florence's sole concern was the size of the check, rather than maintaining the novel's integrity or storyline. Since the time of her husband's death, Stoker had been playing cat and mouse with different stage and film rights schemes and, to her, Nosferatu couldn't have shown up at a worse time or been more of a pain in the ass.

Apparently Florence was either unconcerned or unaware that there was another unauthorized film adaptation making the rounds in 1921, a Hungarian film with the nerve to actually title itself Drakula. While the film (now lost except for some still images) borrowed the title and some plot elements, its characters are more concerned with cutting out people's eyes rather than drinking their blood, so it isn't even clear if Mrs. Stoker would've had much of a case. Nosferatu was a straight-up rip off, coming at the same time she was negotiating the U.K. and American film rights.

Realizing that a huge (and expensive) legal fight lay in front of her, Florence spent one British pound for a membership in the British Incorporated Society of Authors because one of its services to members was legal representation to defend literary rights infringement. Before the ink was dry on her membership card (seriously, the very next day), Florence contacted the Society and asked for their help in suing Prana-Films over Nosferatu.

Initially, the Society of Authors was happy to represent Mrs. Stoker, as the film rights issue was affecting many of its members and they saw the Dracula-Nosferatu case as a way to score a simple and needed victory. However, mostly due to Stoker's insistence, the case dragged on for years.

After just a few months of championing the case, the Society was growing tired of defending the rights of its newest member and incurring hundreds of pounds in legal expenses to keep the case going. Yet every time the Society made noise about dropping or settling the case, poor widow Stoker somehow convinced them that this was important, and they soldiered on. At several points during the process, Prana's receivers attempted to settle with Stoker and the Society, even offering a portion of the film's proceeds in exchange for allowing them to attach the Dracula name to the film in England and America. Florence would have nothing to do with it.

Finally, in 1925, Stoker won her case. However, instead of collecting cash damages, Florence wanted Nosferatu destroyed, including all negatives and prints of the film. Like the characters in the film itself trying to lure Count Orlock into the sunlight, Mrs. Stoker literally wanted the film to disappear in a puff of smoke. Nosferatu would continue to haunt her for more than a decade. Contraband copies of the film surfaced in England, America, and Germany, shown under the guise of the film's historical and artistic importance (despite its odd origins, the film was widely seen as a key work of expressionist cinema). Each time, Stoker fought it, wanting the copy of the film destroyed. A few months after a battle ended, another copy of the film would surface elsewhere.

After Florence died in 1937, the film popped up more frequently, but there was little interest in it. In the 1960s, a condensed version showed up on television — the version I was viewing on the tour bus. Soon after, Nosferatu was rereleased in its full form under a few different titles — Nosferatu the Vampire, Terror of Dracula, and even under the Dracula moniker itself. Despite a fifteen-year battle over the film, Florence Stoker never once did what I and my traveling vampire fans were doing on that bus: watch it.

While the bumpy bus ride was bad enough, the real stomach churner was the fifteen-hour-old pizza sitting on the seat in front of me. Eating it wasn't making me sick; looking at it was making me sick. The pizza's owner was Elaina, one of the Gothiest among my fellow vampire-lovin' travelers. Elaina was a twenty-four-year-old devout vegetarian PETA member who, coincidentally, didn't like mushrooms or tomatoes. As a result, her diet appeared to consist of plain Pizza Hut pizzas, Doritos, chocolate, and french fries. While Pizza Hut isn't uncommon in Bucharest, hot water and electricity were hard to find out in the mountains — let alone a Cheese Lovers stuffed crust. After two days of eating nothing but cucumbers, she bribed the manager of our hotel to go out at 2:00 a.m. and get her an "American-style" pizza. What he brought back was this thing in front of me. Among the toppings: corn, fried eggs, venison sausage, whole olives (complete with pits), red chili peppers, chicken strips, sliced potatoes, and goat cheese.

Elaina had thrown up twice since we started out this morning and judging by her skin's gray hue, we were quickly heading towards round three. Despite feeling like an alien was about to burst through her stomach, Elaina and her boyfriend Brad had brought the remnants of this unrefrigerated pizza to share with the group. As others piled on to the bus, several would exclaim, "Pizza!" then whip a slice out of the box and into their mouths without much concern over what was on it or what state of biological decay it was in.

The pizza, coupled with shots of flaming brandy and a case of wine consumed at dinner last night had resulted in three pukers already this morning, not counting Elaina. I was determined not to join their ranks. Radu, our tour guide, walked up to Elaina and Brad's seat.

"Dr. McAllen, he want you to have this," he said, presenting a small blister pack. It was an antinausea pill.

Until this point, few on the tour knew Dr. McAllen was a doctor. In fact, at that point no one could quite figure out what he and his wife were doing on this tour. Dr. McAllen had come on the tour with his wife and two adult children. Notwithstanding the Scottish surname, they were from Mexico. He and his wife were just a sweet older couple who didn't seem to have any connection to vampire stuff at all. They were here because of their daughter, Sam, who was heavily into all things Goth. Sam had just finished college and instead of a big party and presents, she asked to go on this tour. Once her family heard about it, they decided they'd all go together. You'd think that having your parents along would make a young Mexican Goth girl cringe, but Sam seemed to enjoy having them there. While the McAllens didn't know much about the undead, they certainly seemed up for a good time.

"We are hoping to see many bampires, eh?" Dr. McAllen told me when we met at the airport.

Both Radu and Brad tried to convince Elaina to take the medicine, but she wouldn't touch it.

"He's a Mexican doctor. I don't want it," she said.

Despite the puking, we were slowly making our way to Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Vlad Dracula, a.k.a. the historical Dracula.

Excerpted from The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula by Eric Nuzum Copyright © 2008. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

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Eric Nuzum
Eric Nuzum is NPR's Vice President for Programming.