How Nosferatu Ripped Off Dracula and Became a Plagiarism Success Story

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 4, 1922, spectators filtered into the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Garden to witness horror movie history. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror opens with a young clerk traveling to see a wealthy count at his castle in the mountains. Upon arrival, he's greeted by a tall man in black. Later in the clerk's stay, he discovers that his host has been spending his days asleep in a coffin beneath the building.

For many viewers, the premiere of the silent film marked the first time they saw a vampire on the screen. The most memorable images, like Count Orlok's shadow creeping across a wall, or his fatal reaction to sunlight, are now tropes of the genre the film helped create. But all of Nosferatu's innovation didn't change the fact that it blatantly ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula—a detail that nearly buried the work before it had a chance to earn its reputation as a cinematic masterpiece.

German film producer Albin Grau claimed he got the idea to make the picture while stationed in Serbia during World War I. There he met locals who shared with him legends of blood-sucking demons terrorizing the countryside. He was especially captivated by the story of one farmer who claimed his own father was a member of the undead. Unable to forget what he had heard, he decided to make vampires the basis of his next project upon returning home.

Even though Grau's inspiration for the subject matter came from personal experience, he was set on pulling the actual content of the film from the most popular vampire tale of the day: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. He partnered with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann to form Prana Film in 1921 and hired Henrik Galeen to write the script and F.W. Murnau to direct. The only obstacle standing in the way of the production was the fact that they didn’t have permission to make it.

Dracula's Irish author had been dead for nearly a decade at this point, and his material was already in the public domain in the U.S. due to a copyright error (although this wouldn’t be discovered until later). But in Germany, where the book wouldn't become public property until 50 years after the writer's death, his widow Florence Balcombe Stoker held ownership of his work. The filmmakers were either unable or unwilling to get her to sign off on the project, so to make the movie they would either need to leave the country or wait until the 1960s.

They ended up choosing a third option: Going ahead with it anyway and hoping no one would care. The team rationalized this decision by tweaking some of Dracula's most identifiable elements. The main setting went from London to a fictional town in Germany, the protagonist Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, and Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlock. But for the most part, the major characters and plot points remained the same.

Both stories start with a man signing away a house in his hometown to a man later revealed to be a vampire and end with that vampire preying on the man's wife. Even the word nosferatu, an Eastern European term for the undead, was lifted from the pages of Stoker's novel.

When Nosferatu premiered it looked as though Prana Film might have gotten away with its intellectual thievery. The film was warmly received by German critics, who praised its striking visuals and unsettling atmosphere. But the picture didn't perform as well at the box office as expected.

Following an ambitious promotional campaign that cost more than the production itself, Nosferatu's ticket sales were underwhelming, leaving Prana Film broke. And in case there was any chance of the company rising from the dead to make more movies, Florence Stoker arrived to hammer the final nail into its coffin.

The 63-year-old London resident learned of the unlicensed movie through an anonymous source. She received an envelope containing a flyer from Nosferatu's debut at the Berlin Zoological Garden; an explanation for why it had been sent to her wasn't needed. In clear writing it said, "Freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula." If a legal adaptation had been made of her late husband's book, she would have known about it—in the years after Bram's death, she had acted as his literary executor and hadn't approved of any feature films. Royalties from the novel were still a significant part of her income, and she wasn't about to let anyone make a penny from it without her consent.

With support from the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence got a lawyer and sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. The defendant, which credited Bram Stoker by name on both the promotional materials and in the opening credits of the film itself, was an easy target. But Prana had declared bankruptcy before getting to court, so even though Florence was in the right, there was no money there for her to collect.

Realizing there was no financial win to be gained, she shifted her efforts toward ensuring Nosferatu would never again be seen by human eyes. The judge ruled in her favor and swiftly deployed government agents across Germany to seize all copies of the film and have them burned. The movie was eradicated from its home country and Murnau's work was set to join other lost films of the silent era.

But it wasn't long before it resurfaced. The ordered destruction turned out to be not entirely thorough, and a surviving reel ended up in the United States. Overseas, the movie enjoyed an existence free from the legal reach that made it unlawful in Germany. Copies were made from the imported film, and Nosferatu found a new audience of admirers among American horror film lovers.

Florence, naturally, was furious. Back in Europe, she continued to round up any copies left floating around and had them set ablaze. She railed against every new screening she heard of, but failed to stop the film's growing cult status. Eventually she tried a different tactic: If the courts weren't able to kill Nosferatu, she figured a second vampire film might do the trick.

In 1931, Universal Pictures released its own take on Dracula, the first adaptation to receive Florence Stoker's blessing. Despite Bela Lugosi’s sexy portrayal of the title vampire—as opposed to Max Schreck’s vermin-like monster—and the film earning an impressive enough sum to encourage the studio to produce more monster movies, it was ineffective in wiping out Nosferatu for good.

Nosferatu endured the fight to have it forgotten thanks to early fans preserving the film and passing it along, making it not only the first true Dracula flick, but the first cult classic. Florence did everything she could to diminish its chances of survival until her death in 1937.

In the decades since, Dracula has returned to the movies again and again, reimagined as everything from a kids' cartoon to a 30th-century space vampire. He's currently the literary character with the most silver screen portrayals, with over 270 cinematic appearances. But even with all the new competition, there's something about Nosferatu's non-Dracula Dracula that still resonates with viewers nearly 100 years later.

In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because Nosferatu inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable."

Netflix's Stranger Things Season 3 Video Is Full of Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed

Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Stranger Things's third season was full of many surprising twists and turns, not to mention some awkward teen romances. While the gruesome Mind Flayer and the evil Russians were no doubt terrifying, the show kept its sweet touch of nostalgia due mainly to the fact that the Hawkins gang is now smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s.

It doesn’t take a keen eye to see many of the series's '80s references, particularly in the latest season. With scenes taking place at the new mall, references from the decade—including Hot Dog on a Stick, Sam Goody, and Back to the Future—are all part of the setting. However, creators Ross and Matt Duffer wanted to pay true homage to the decade, and thus left Easter eggs throughout the season that you likely missed.

Luckily for us, as BGR reports, Netflix has just released a video explaining the hidden references (with the New Coke debate, Mrs. Wheeler’s erotica novel, and Hopper’s Tom Selleck-inspired Hawaiian shirt among some of our favorites).

Check out the full video above and see what you missed!

[h/t BGR]

10 Out of This World Facts About Area 51

Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Robert Heinst/iStock via Getty Images

Though it's officially a a flight testing facility, the Nevada-based Area 51 has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades, and accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not already know about Area 51.

1. Area 51's existence wasn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government until 2013.

Although it was chosen as a site to test aircraft in 1955, the government did not acknowledge that Area 51 even existed until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were released thanks to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who was granted access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.

2. We still don't really know why it's called Area 51.

Out of all the things we don't know about Area 51, Encyclopedia Britannica says that the one for-certain uncertainty about the zone is its name. Like everything else involving the site, the theories are out there: A video published by Business Insider suggests the name stems from the location's proximity to nuclear test sites that were divided into numerically-designated areas.

3. Area 51 is still expanding.

Area 51 has been growing, something which true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Business Insider points out that satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. BI posits that this could mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site—"or this is what they want us to believe."

4. The Moon landings were supposedly faked at Area 51.

One of the bigger conspiracy theories out there not only questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing, but claims it was staged at Area 51. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.

5. The first UFO "sightings" in Area 51 were easily explained.

Unidentified Flying Object UFO
ktsimage/istock via getty images plus

In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane ... unless that’s what they want you to think.

6. Area 51 employees might travel to work via plane.

Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. According to USA Today, employees board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Referred to as “Janet” due to its call sign—which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn't mention any encounters of the third kind.

7. Former Area 51 employees who were sworn to secrecy are opening up about their work there.

Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.

Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.

8. Area 51 employees once took the facility to court over hazardous working conditions.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Turley—a lawyer and professor at George Washington University—was approached by workers from Area 51 who claimed exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste was making them sick. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Turley wrote that the workers "described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as 'London fog' by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care."

According to Turley, "we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]"

9. The best place for UFO-spotting near Area 51 is supposedly by a mailbox.

According to one person who claims to have worked in Area 51 and to have seen alien technology there (whose "claims about his education and employment could not be verified," according to How Stuff Works, which raises doubts about his credibility), there's one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes which is apparently a hotspot for alien action (they're located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin's mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own post.

10. It's impossible to sneak into Area 51 without being spotted—and use of deadly force is authorized if anyone tries to evade security.

Given the intense nature of its secrecy, it comes as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and a stint in the can. The land is patrolled by “cammo dudes,” men wearing camouflage that have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for pesky civilians looking to break into the area. But truth-seekers, beware: Signs placed outside the area warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone looking to sneak onto the property.

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