“Only the perverse fantasy can still save us”---Goethe
“No myth is filled with such life.” ---Einstein
Note: I’ve received a couple of inquiries about what I’m studying at Alaska Pacific University for my self-guided master’s program, in which I select my own topic and work independently with UAS mentors. Looking over my research proposal, I see that it has a remarkable amount of relevance for Film as Art, as it discusses various historical figures’ ultimate cinematic legacy. In fact, browsing my archives reveals something I didn’t yet realize—that the seeds to this inquiry began in essays that I’d previously written for this site (which can be read here and here). So I have expanded my proposal and turned it into an essay exclusively for this site’s sensibilities in mind, to explain what I’m up to. Enjoy!
This thesis proposal initially found its roots in an afterthought, a few years after I read a set of books by one Radu Florescu titled In Search of Dracula and its follow-up In Search of Frankenstein, two fascinating travel books speculating on the actual historical personalities who probably inspired Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to write their Gothic masterpieces.
Allow me a brief set-up, and then we'll get to the afterthought that planted the seed: Stoker is widely known (although few people probably know that it was Florescu who first suggested the connection—Clerici, 3) to have based his bloodthirsty Count on the sixteenth-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” dubbed “Dracula” (meaning “Dragon,” or “Devil”) by his enemies; he was a most brutal ruler, who earned his epithet from his practice of impaling his enemies on spikes outside of his castle walls (Florescu, In Search of Dracula, 15-28). Less widely known but equally fascinating is Florescu's research on the historical Dr. Frankenstein, one Johann Konrad Dippel, an eighteenth-century alchemist born in Castle Frankenstein whose diabolical experiments included grave-robbing, and grinding up bones and human flesh for life-lengthening potions (Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein, 65-94) (which were never successful). Both of these men were quite notorious in their own times, known throughout Europe both for their political influence—Vlad had as many allies as he had enemies (In Search of Dracula, 43-59); Dippel consulted with kings, promising them longer lives if they funded his research (In Search of Frankenstein, 90) —and for the rumors surrounding their devious schemes, both which involved murder and forms of cannibalism (Vlad reportedly drank the blood of his enemies as they hung impaled in front of his castle; Dippel was rumored to have had his enemies “dispatched,” dug up their bodies for his experiments, ground up the bones for his potions, and tested their effect on himself and whichever king would fund him at the time). It's important to note that both men lived before the time of telecommunication to successfully announce their infamy throughout the world with one easy broadcast of the evening news, yet according to Florescu's research, both were considered universal celebrities in their day. This means that their impact and, therefore, their deeds were spread through the snail-pace method of letters and word-of-mouth, circulating through enough channels that their names, when spoken, were uttered with trepidation. Consider the weight of their diabolical celebrity status in their respective eras: In times when most people didn't know anyone outside of their tiny villages, people of all walks of life readily knew of their infamy, and legends surrounded them inflated from person to person long after their deaths, so that when Shelley and Stoker traveled about Europe generations later, they couldn't help but hear of their exploits and be inspired.
When I initially read these books, I thought them fascinating historical footnotes, and moved on to other titles on my bookshelf. My interest in them rekindled recently when I immersed myself in Deborah Layton's superb memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple, an account of the occult leader's riveting power, ultimately used to lead his flock into a mass suicide. As I read, I could not help but think that what Jones accomplished was so outlandish that if it had been written as fiction, it would be dismissed as too incredible for anyone to take seriously. (i.e. “I can't buy into this premise—something like this could never happen!”) I've heard similar things said about Hitler's holocaust—it was so terrible, so diabolical, that it would make absurd fiction—a tale better suited to the plotting of secret fraternities out of a dime store penny-dreadful that only James Bond or Superman could foil. Yet the fact that these things happened reveals the terrible evil behind these men: Writers of fiction could not conceive of the horrible things that human beings are capable of doing to one another. They can but record them.
This thought brought me back to Florescu, who goes through great lengths to point out that Dracula and Frankenstein were not source from nightmares at all (as their authors claimed—Shelley, 11; Ludlam, 3), but from real men who did truly horrendous things. In making this assertion, I don't intend to rob Stoker and Shelley any of credit for their imaginative process, so much as I want to make it absolutely clear that they were engaged in a deep and vital form of cultural alchemy with their decision to base their fictions on the true lives of Vlad and Dippel—they were taking raw historical trimmings and rendering them into a palpable, intoxicating brew for their readers. It might be easier for us to believe that Dracula and Frankenstein live exclusively in the world of fiction, and this belief makes these stories terrifying but essentially harmless. To believe that these men were real—that a brutal prince really conducted an elaborate, macabre genocide, or that a mad scientist had people murdered so he could grind up their bones for his metaphysical experiments—was unthinkable. They simply had to be fictionalized, because it was the only way we as a society could readily digest them.
Christopher Lee as Vlad the Impaler, from the documentary In Search of Dracula
Matthew Flack as Dippel, from the documentary In Search of the Real Frankenstein
Let me be clear: I do not mean to imply that either Shelley or Stoker fostered a singular, messianic intention of “fictionalizing” evil when they spun their gothic yarn, as some sort of public service. They were both silent on their historical sources in their own commentary—a common trait for Romantic and Victorian-era writers (Day, 148)—and obviously they were more interested in chilling their readers' bones than providing them with trumped-up biographies. Nevertheless, it is necessary to consider the process in which the these real men morphed into their supernatural alter egos, and how these authors effortlessly transformed the historical into the mythological and successfully trapped them in the confines of fictional counterparts. Keep in mind that it took no less than two-hundred years for Vlad Tepes to become the vampire Count Dracula, and a century or so for Dr. Dippel to morph into Dr. Frankenstein. The myths and legends swirling around them up to that point were overwhelming enough for the two authors, in their travels, to stumble upon their notorious histories. Yet once they put pen to ink, it took a contemporary historian another century to make the connection back to the historical counterparts, so utterly contained in fiction that these two human demons became. It is difficult not to speculate that this containment occurred partially because the contemporary public from which Stoker and Shelley heard these histories preferred Vlad and Dippel in fictionalized form and even embraced these fictions as necessary developments to move on from real-life horrors that had plagued their villages and legacies.
While Shelley and Stoker perhaps unintentionally provided this containment, I propose that their own myth-making process suggests an intentional decision on society's part to obscure the darkest corners of our humanity. Consider, to point, how the mythologies of these two men continue to be written, even as I write these words: The reality of Vlad the Impaler and the myth of Dracula have blended, in light of Florescu's findings, into an even larger myth that molds fact with fiction—look no further than the “faithful” adaptation of Stoker's novel in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, which peppers historical facts of Vlad the Impaler into Stoker's Count. Indeed, even Gary Oldman in the title role is made up to look like descriptions of the real Vlad. Similarly, a big-budget biopic of Vlad the Impaler, Dark Prince (2000), cannot resist the temptation to end its otherwise accurate account of Vlad's life with his ultimate transformation into an immortal vampire. The same is true of Dippel: The recent horror novel Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth casts the historical alchemist as an immortal monster-maker concomitant with the fictitious counterpart Shelley created for him, whereas G.M.S. Altman's fantasy novel Dippel's Oil features the doctor living in modern times, having perfected his monstrous elixir of life and fully embracing his bragging rights over his influence on Shelley's Frankenstein. These are just a few instances that show how the incorporation of Vlad and Dippel into contemporary pop culture continues to morph their fictitious persons in an increasingly layered fashion—and notably not the other way around. The myths have become so ingrained into our culture that even the knowledge of the "real" men is not enough when Florescu uncovers them. Instead, the qualities and characteristics of the fiction are projected upon the historical figures - Vlad becomes a vampire, Dippel becomes a monster maker. This reversal perhaps proves my point, and touches on the heart of the matter: Before we knew about the historical figures, we were comfortable with Dracula and Frankenstein as fictions; now that we are aware such men existed, we intentionally fuse fact and fiction so as to avoid contemplating Vlad's bloody wrath or Dippel's macabre experiments in literal terms. We let their deed remain in fiction, although we know that they have never completely belonged there.
Rudolph Martin as Vlad in the 2000 film Dark Prince
I should briefly note that while Shelley and Stoker are the most famous examples, the idea of adapting historical persons into fictitious counterparts appears to be a common occurrence throughout Gothic traditions. The first chapter of Stoker's novel (often published as the short story “Dracula's Guest”) features a vampire countess who was most certainly inspired by the “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory; Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla was probably inspired by Bathory as well (Florescu, Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, 170). Robert Louis Stevenson combined the mythos of Jack the Ripper with the notorious Deacon Brodie, aristocrat-by-day, grave-robber-by-night, to create his Jekyll and Hyde (Danahay, 184). Most modern werewolf mythology found its roots in the factual case of the 11th Century Belarusian Prince Usialau of Polatsk, who claimed to be a wolf on the battlefield and killed people quite brutally (Baring-Gould). Jane Loudon, who first introduced the undead mummy to western literature with the Gothic spoof The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (published in 1827), named her antagonist Cheops after the real-life pharaoh. Matthew Lewis based his gruesome gothic novel The Monk on real-life scandals going on in the church in his day (McEvoy, xv). Florescu himself wrote a followup book called In Search of the Pied Piper, which makes absolutely clear that the story of the magician who steals Hamlin's children was based on an authentic event and person. The point perhaps is that you can peel away the layers of a myth and eventually uncover a real person.
I nevertheless believe that something unique occurred within Stoker and Shelley's discoveries; in Vlad and Dippel, these authors tapped into real-life figures who transcended the others on this extensive list. How and why this transcendence occurred is a subject of my ongoing research; that said, I suspect at this point that much of it concerns the combination of their horrific, documented deeds with the inflation of their personalities into supernatural proportions by political and religious powers of their days. Case in point, while the rest of these colorful figures might have inspired fiction, they have remained footnotes in history and are essentially considered solely on their own terms—when they are considered at all (Florescu, In Search of the Pied Piper, 205). Vlad and Dippel aren't merely being adapted; they have been contained and continue to be almost imprisoned in fictitious terms. Many included on the above list were considered notorious in their day, but none—with the exception of Bathory—found themselves heralded as purely evil, even Satanic, by their contemporary public in the way that both Vlad and Dippel were. Archeological research, for example, indicates that Cheops was as fair and as progressive as any pharaoh could have been (Freeman, 22), and much of what is recorded of Deacon Brodie suggests he was more of a scoundrel than a monster, and he has grown into a local folk hero in contemporary England (Florescu, In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 129). Bathory has gone the opposite route; in her own time, her crimes were highly scrutinized, and while the Church indeed accused her of devil-worship, it was a charge highly contested by both her admirers and her detractors (Nagy). In contrast, Florescu's books reveal that Vlad and Dippel were transparent enough while committing their crimes to leave little doubt about their guilt (Curran, 45), and in their own lifetime they were deemed heretics and devil-worshippers by the Holy Roman Church (Florescu, Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, 195; Seymour, 110). As their infamy grew, so too did the horror that their personalities instilled throughout Europe. In short, their authentic deeds coupled with their demonization by the church elevated them to legendary figures even in their own lifetime—from human villains into mythological prototypes of the Kantian definition of horror and sublime. It is this distinction, I believe, that allowed Vlad and Dippel to remain the only historical figures on this proposed list who have, once society was again reminded of their existence in contemporary times, blended with the fictitious characters which they inspired.
What I would like to suggest is that the process of history to fiction found in Vlad and Dippel reveals the way that our society deals with the evil that exists in us, that we intentionally, though perhaps not consciously, forget about the darkest historical personalities by obscuring them into demonic, otherworldly abstractions. Can we look, for example, at Vlad and Dippel's respective transformations to a demonic vampire and a mad monster-maker and see what will eventually become of men like Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler? At what point (if ever?) in history will the historical legends surrounding these men ultimately become the stuff of fiction? I believe that this is a reasonable question that reveals the process in which reality becomes mythology, and the acts of terrible men become the stuff of momentarily chilling, but harmless pulp.
Noah Taylor the 2002 film Max
Bruno Ganz in the 2003 film Downfall
I suspect that such a process has begun with at least Hitler. Why else would storms of controversy surround movies like Max and Downfall (Ebert 2) (Ebert 7), which attempt to humanize Hitler without justifying him? As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the former film, “But of course Hitler was human, and we must understand that before we can understand anything else about him. To dehumanize him is to fall under the spell which elevated him into the Fuhrer, a mythical being who transfixed Germans and obscured the silly little man with the mustache” (3). Hitler has become the face of evil in Western civilization, a legacy far greater than his short-lived dictatorship, to the point of absolute parody. Consider Quentin Tarantino's World War II film Inglourious Basterds, which so accurately recognizes the mythological qualities of Hitler that the director literally changes his fate from a cowardly suicide to an over-the-top, covert assassination by Jewish-American soldiers. Hitler is elevated in this medium from a troubled dictator to a comic book Super Villain, yet this absurd revision is nevertheless contained in a traditionally-staged war film. Another good example is the recent episode of BBC’s Doctor Who, titled “Let’s Kill Hitler,” which features time travelling vigilantes on a mission to kidnap Der Führer and, for his crimes, torture him in a manmade Hell specifically designed for this purpose. The teleplay can’t resist lines like, “Oh, just shut up, Hitler!” and “Go put Hitler in the closet;” obviously the weight of the man’s real-life crimes must be glossed over for the high-camp episode to work, and thus Hitler is played almost exclusively for cheap laughs—the “sins” that he’s being tortured for are never specifically referenced, and the philosophical implications of punishing Hitler for the Holocaust are side-stepped in the assumption that anyone in their right mind would accept this as an acceptable tampering of the space-time continuum. I believe that these instances represent the beginning of a fictitious reconsideration of the man, that a time is coming when Hitler will live outside the confines of history and exist in shape of a legendary counterpart who knows no time or space (Abbott and Costello Meet Hitler, anyone?).
The Doctor (Matt Smith) accidently saves Hitler in Doctor Who’s 2011 episode “Let’s Kill Hitler”
There are, certainly, unique qualifiers that distinguish modern day villains like Hitler or Jim Jones from their ancient counterparts that we should responsibly consider when we speculate on the sort of fictitious forms that they may take. First, let's briefly return to Vlad and Dippel in order to set up the difference: We have exactly one known painting of Vlad the Impaler, and no written accounts from the man himself about his life. Everything else exists in mythology. Dippel has one sketch of himself and a few published books containing his theology (which he published for political reasons instead of religious ones, as many people did to gain influence with protestant powers—indeed, his most famous work, “On Nothing,” was written as this seminary thesis but renounced traditional religion for alchemy; he was promptly kicked out of the school—Day, 149), but nothing containing records of his experiments or alchemist convictions—his true life's work. Again, all we have are the stories and myths surrounding him. The point is, history gives us very little in the way of who these men actually were, what they looked like, and why they did what they did. All we have are the houses rumor built.
On the other hand, documentary footage and sound archives reveal exactly what Hitler looked like leading his Nazi army and spreading his hate speeches. We know how Jim Jones appeared as he walked through a room, lead his followers, calculated his next move. Because we have such a thorough historical record I suspect it will be more difficult to divorce the established personalities of men like these from the direction their fictions will eventually take. As their myths develop, I propose that the media that tells us so much of them will contain and shape their budding mythologies.
Still, by perpetuating mythology on a wider, commercial scale, mass media generates a timelessness of its own. Television and news flashes provide instant recognition of villainy, spreading the notorious legends of these men faster than the word-of-mouth sparked fear of Vlad the Impaler from village to village ever could. And with this technological advance comes new ways to springboard the fiction that borders on the history. In Hitler's case, we need only park of the cinema of Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker and contemporary of Hitler’s whose two most famous works were the 1938 documentaries Triumph of Will and Festival of Nations, two propaganda-riddled films about, respectively, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the 1938 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The films were obviously made to celebrate German superiority to the rest of the world, and for all of their cinematic achievements (which are considerable as touchstones in the way documentaries are made— they contain some of the most beautiful single shots in all of film), they are forever marred as Nazi-approved puff pieces. The majority of the iconic images we have of Hitler marching with the Hitler youth, of the German public lauding him and raising their hands in salute, come from Riefenstahl's work.
It is fascinating to observe how, over the years, it is specifically these images of Hitler and his army that trickle down into our popular culture, and little else. There's a stunning, somehow moving shot that we never see—of Hitler sitting in his private booth watching the Olympics, bobbing back and forth like a buoy, his face blank and his movements almost childlike (Olympia 2. Teil - Fest der Schönheit). It's the portrait of a man in a very private moment, not realizing he is being filmed, clearly deranged.
Flash forward to today's treatment of Hitler, in which he has become a caricature of the “Mein Furher” that he so desperately sought to become. He's been parodied in popular culture to the point that he is the punch line to countless jokes (I've previously mentioned Inglourious Basterds and Doctor Who; further considerations: Family Guy's “Tonight on Hitler,” which turns him into a clearly gay talk show host interviewing has-been celebrities; the popular videogame series Castle Wolfenstein, in which the player encounters a high-tech Robo-Hitler as the main “boss”; B-movies like They Saved Hitler's Brain and Hard Rock Zombies that cast a wise-cracking, sniveling Hitler as the chief antagonist and play him for laughs); more to the point, his name is now commonly thrown out by pundits when they want to disparage their political foe du jour. Indeed, the Hitler mustache has adorned virtually every presidential candidate in some farcical protest poster since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson). Consider how Glenn Beck tosses around the name “Hitler” like some sort of apocalyptic refrain—he can't get enough of pointing out how Obama, or whomever, is “just like Hitler,” as if this is the most extreme and compelling comparison you can make. The word “Hitler” is usually coupled with images from Triumph of Will and/or Festival of Nations playing on a screen behind Beck, of Hitler leading his forces in rallies. No attempt is ever made to undermine him, to show the little man rocking himself madly in a bizarre private moment, even though this footage is widely available. We need Hitler to be the bedrock of clarity, a veritable compass of evil genius to whom we can compare all others. I submit that it is in this deliberate use of images depicting his power and influence in full bloom that the Hitler myth is born.
Born here yes, and also continually rewritten—echoing the transubstantive process of Vlad and Dippel into their fictional doppelgangers: I believe that we can even take such speculation a step further when we consider how the mythologies of Dracula and Frankenstein continue to morph in our culture. To hear what has been written about Vlad the Impaler and Johann Dippel—both were dubbed “Blood Brother to the Devil” by Holy Roman Church officials (Seymour, 110) —leaves little room for speculation as to how they were considered in their respective times. This was translated more or less accurately in their initial fictitious adaptations: Certainly Stoker leaves no room for sympathy for the Count in his novel, and while Shelley does allow sympathy for Frankenstein's Monster, she in no way justifies his evil or allows either him or his maker the redemption that they seek. Yet modern interpretations of the tales certainly cast both monsters in far more heroic roles—just watch the tortured prince in Francis Ford Coppola's aforementioned remake, which essentially translates Dracula as the misunderstood romantic battling against bloodthirsty vampire hunters, or films like Monster Squad or Van Helsing, which go so far as to give Frankenstein's monster a heart of gold. That's saying nothing of recent pop-culture literature like Stephanie Meyer's Twlight saga or Dean Koontz's ongoing Frankenstein series, which updates these mythos in a way that makes absolutely clear that anyone might aspire to be a vampire or a man-made monster, so romantic as they are and utterly badass. Is a time coming, far in the future, when men like Hitler and Jim Jones, or whomever, will be so filtered through fiction that they will finally be justified?
Ed Gein has evolved into the cinematic villain Leatherface
I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of what I'm trying to get at here. I've said nothing of modern-day horror films which claim to be “inspired by true events,” now an all-but obligatory gimmick in modern-day fright-flicks (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel, etc.) so heavily-utilized today that I'm certain that contemporary versions of Dracula and Frankenstein could be slapped with the same disclaimers. Did this tradition find its root in what Stoker and Shelley were getting at, and have we reached the next stage in our horror that we actually want them to be based on reality, so that they can frighten us all the more? Is this popular horror film trend born from the authentic media sources concerning Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, et al because the nightly news has told us of their deeds, and we feel compelled to fictionalize them faster so that we can forget they were “real”? Certainly Ed Gein, the infamous 20th-century serial killer who wore his victims' skin—is to Leatherface what Dippel is to Dr. Frankenstein (Siper, 1), which suggests that the process that I'm referring to can occur more quickly than the time-frame established by these gothic Victorian writers. This obsession with “true events” suggests a tumultuous and urgent mythologizing in contemporary Western thought—a sharp contrast to the slow, methodical processes in which Vlad and Dippel grew into Dracula and Frankenstein. On the other hand, this obsession with mythologizing is not without its narrative merit: The documentaries of Werner Herzog spring to mind as we watch this melding process, which notoriously blend facts and fictions in order to create an "aesthetic truth"(Herzog, 301). “Facts create norms while truths create illumination” (301), so Herzog insists, suggesting that the integration of lies with facts reveals an “illumination” upon which mere fact can only hint. Herzog’s is a controversial idea to be sure, but I wonder if it's a thought that occurred to both Shelley and Stoker as they first heard the tales of the men who would become their monsters, and what Hitler as a propagandist understood.
I've not mentioned whether or not the stories circulating about Vlad and Dippel during their lifetimes were actually more grounded in fiction themselves than truth: Vlad is a hero in Romania (Florescu, Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, 213-220), where he is considered a strict but just ruler who unified his people and only used tactics as repulsive as his Turkish enemies; they insist that Vlad's deeds were grossly exaggerated so that his allies would abandon him and his power could be usurped. Dippel likewise was an outspoken protestant theologian who might have gained his dark reputation as a result of jealous clergymen who wanted to destroy his political favor; grave-robbing and bone-grinding were macabre practices about which he remained vocal, but such practices were not uncommon for scientists of his era who lacked funding to provide raw materials for their research (as speculated y History Channel's Decoding the Past episode, “In Search of the Real Frankenstein”). Yet both men are considered villains even today, so at what point does perception become reality? And, more to the point, does their current place in fiction as heroes somehow correct their fraudulent legacy?
This line of reasoning begs the question: Does the opposite happen as well for the good who have walked among us? Does the deification of Jesus to Christ or Siddhartha to Buddha (or, for that matter, Saint Nicolas to Santa Claus) reveal what will happen in ensuing decades to men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.? In the same way that we cannot tolerate our evil men without limiting their power to fiction, do we justify our own fallibility by transforming our greatest heroes into gods who demand our worship, in order to elude their own shortcomings and mortality? By turning them into deities, do we allow ourselves to be mere mortals who could never achieve what they achieved? In the crucible of pop culture, the inflation of anyone, either as saint or as sinner makes it easy to believe that petty things are blown up out of all proportion, while anything that seems to transcend the bounds of the everyday has to be reduced to manageable size. As University of Alaska Southeast English professor Nina Chordas observed when I discussed this with her, “Sadly, I think we tend to be a race of cowards, and maybe that's why we need to have our evils contained in fictional form and our transcendent impulses contained within glorified abstractions.” It is perhaps a pessimistic thought, but the transformation of Vlad to Dracula or Dippel to Frankenstein, and the motivations behind this metamorphosis, suggests that it is one well worth further investigation.
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