Specters of Queer Trauma in Nosferatu, The Vampyr

It is ironic that a play about plague should be forced to cancel its theatrical run due to global pandemic. Such a tale was slated to premier in Boston in March: Nosferatu, The Vampyr, a queer re-telling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1891) and F. W. Murnau’s cinematic adaptation, Nosferatu (1922), written by playwright M Sloth Levine. Like its source material, this play centers on a foreign vampire: Count Orlok (Jo Michael Rezes), who brings disease and death to Western Europe. In May, director Hannah Pryfogle streamed a staged reading of it on HowlRound TV, co-produced by Sparkhaven Theatre and the Homesick Play Project, in which the actors performed and communicated via groupchat.

I’m well acquainted with the Transylvanian vampire, alternatively known as a “Nosferatu,” whose German incarnation in Murnau’s film Nosferatu was the focus of my master’s dissertation at the Courtauld Institute of Art last year. My research examined the audience perception of Count Orlok in the Weimar Republic as a queer Jew (a term used to express a spectrum of anti-Semitic caricatures), which I connected to centuries of German media conflating vampirism with “sexual deviance,” Judaism, and physical and spiritual sickness. While Levine’s Count is not explicitly Jewish, I believe Nosferatu, The Vampyr still serves to dismantle anti-Semitic tropes, due to the fact that Jewishness and queerness are inextricably bound in vampire lore. Unraveling one strand inevitably unravels the other.

The fears and stereotypes that historically constructed the myth of the vampire speak to the profundity of a queer retelling of the Gothic tale. And, given the particular strains of hate that have emerged amid COVID-19, exploring the convergence of sexual, racial, and pathological stereotypes in a cultural monster makes this adaptation feel particularly prescient.

The History of the Cultural Vampire

Monsters are born from the projection of cultural fears onto the body of an ostracized “Other.” As these fears shift, so too do the characteristics of the monster. Throughout history, the male Jew has been demonized as Satanic, animalistic, and over-sexed, as well as effeminate, sickly, and impotent. In the Weimar Republic, the tropes merged: The Jew was at once a harbinger of disease—intentionally spreading syphilis to his many sexual partners and polluting German women with his inferior bloodline—and a weak, feminized queer, whose deviant sexual behavior and propensity for illness rendered him inferior to German men.

The vampire accompanied the queer Jew from the medieval period through the twentieth century, and in the 1920s he manifested as Count Orlok, who represented both sides of the same, queer coin. This Nosferatu was balding (a symbol of impotence; of circumcision displaced from the penis to the scalp) and effeminate (delighting at sucking a man’s finger). But he was also oversexed (feeding on men and women indiscriminately) and animalistic (rat-like in appearance, and accompanied by swarms of vermin). In short: he was everything Christians had feared about Jewish people for a thousand years, much of which stemmed from the alleged health effects of their supposedly deviant (aka, non-heteronormative) sexual behavior.

A few years later, Hitler blamed Jewish and queer people for spreading syphilis and “degeneration,” and equated Jews to plague-carrying rats in his propaganda films. During the AIDS crisis, the same rhetoric of health and morality was used to label AIDS a “queer disease.” The media likened queer people to monsters and serial killers on account of their alleged threat to public health, the sacred family unit, and the spiritual health of the nation. The discourse of invasion was also applied, such that AIDS came to be seen as a “foreign” disease “invading” American borders. Like European Jews several decades before, queer people were painted as a predatory foreign entity.

I believe Nosferatu, The Vampyr still serves to dismantle anti-Semitic tropes, due to the fact that Jewishness and queerness are inextricably bound in vampire lore.

Nosferatu, The Vampyr

Stoker and Murnau’s tales were successful conduits of propaganda because the vampire’s queerness and Jewishness were veiled beneath heterosexual love stories. This subtext of hatred, fear, and repressed desire infiltrated the viewer’s mind, normalizing the image of the queer, Jewish monster, and intensifying pre-existing prejudices towards queer and Jewish people. By giving the Count in Nosferatu, The Vampyr an explicitly queer identity and pointedly sexual appetite, Levine prevents the semi-conscious absorption of queerphobic, anti-Semitic ideology and stereotypes. Stripped of ambiguity, the queer-Jew-vampire can be recognized as a social construction.

Subverting a powerful stereotype is a significant achievement as is, but what makes Nosferatu, The Vampyr truly profound is the way the story links its source material to queer trauma and contemporary queer experiences. From the bare bones of the deconstructed vampire tale, Levine constructs a complex queer narrative in which a plethora of queer voices are heard. Orlok is non-binary, and Harker (Dev Blair) and Will (Maurice D. Palmer) are a happily married trans couple. Lucy (Victoria Brancazio) is polyamorous, and her partners span the gender spectrum. Nosferatu, The Vampyr retains the structural components of its source material, but its characters experience the fears, joys, and mundanities of queer people today—a level of realism achieved, no doubt, by a creative team and cast composed almost entirely of queer and/or non-binary people.

These bare bones are a constant, quiet presence beneath the surface of the story; not the structural beats of the vampire tale, but the specter of a mythologized figure—the queer predator—who hovers in the background, in those liminal spaces where the light from my laptop cannot reach. Levine’s characters are not archetypes, but their lives are affected by queer history, and the queer-vampire-Jew is an unfortunate pathogen in that history. Its ghostly detritus manifests as trauma, enveloping the tale like an invisible plague and burrowing deep inside Orlok’s psyche.

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Jo Michael Rezes as Orlock in Nosferatu, The Vampyr by M Sloth Levine.

The Count has spent their long, immortal life alone, in a remote, rural area where the villagers fear them. Their characterization positions them, allegorically, as a member of the older generation in the queer community—someone who lost friends to AIDS and likely grew up feeling ashamed and afraid of being who they were. When Orlok sighs, “I’ve been carrying this for so long,” we wonder if their moldy, dirt-filled coffin represents more than heavy luggage. Might it symbolize shame and self-loathing? Or perhaps a dark secret resting on their soul. It’s possible that Orlok themselves has AIDS—their wan, bony countenance suggests its symptoms, and their preoccupation with blood evokes one method of transmission. But regardless of Orlok’s status, their trauma is nonetheless rooted in their experiences as a queer person who lived during the AIDS crisis.

Trauma is the driving force behind Orlok’s actions throughout the play. They are surprised to learn Harker is married, and subsequently try to undermine Harker and Will’s relationship, through snide digs to Will about Harker’s untrustworthiness. These remarks are the Count’s twisted attempt at seduction, but Jo Michael Rezes injects them with sympathetic vulnerability. “I’ve never had a room to share with anyone,” Orlok says, their voice cracking. These words carry loneliness and bitterness, not malice. And the Count has reason to be jealous of the younger lovebirds; Will and Harker have freedoms they never had. In Orlok’s eyes, the two will never know the pain of losing so many loved ones, or the self-loathing that accumulates from years of public scapegoating and survivor’s guilt.

There are many other moments throughout Nosferatu, The Vampyr in which the specter of the queer predator appears again, accompanied by the ghostly detritus of trauma, affecting the characters’ narratives. Of these, one in particular stands out: When the plague reaches the German city of Bremen, Will blames themself for the spread of the disease, and expresses fear for their life and the lives of their friends. “We are being hunted,” Will says, their eyes wide. In this scene, we see the young, queer generation infected by the revenant of trauma, in the guise of shame and fear.

From the bare bones of the deconstructed vampire tale, Levine constructs a complex queer narrative in which a plethora of queer voices are heard.

The Context of COVID-19

That scene would have resonated with viewers in an alternate universe, free of COVID-19. But in this world, the specter of trauma haunting Nosferatu, The Vampyr assumes an increasingly foreboding presence, in part because the pandemic nurtures the very stereotypes Levine has sought to dismantle. Recent political developments give a sense of urgency to Will’s fear of being hunted. Here, the predators are double: a pathogen and the resurgence of the queer-Jew-vampire in public discourse.

In late March, Reverend Ralph Drollinger—who leads a weekly bible study group for President Trump and his cabinet—published a blog post blaming queer people (among others) for the pandemic. According to Drollinger, “America is experiencing the consequential wrath of God.” Indicative of such punishment, he explained, “is a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality.” In May, an outbreak of COVID-19 in Seoul sparked queerphobic backlash after it was revealed that an infected person had been partying in a queer nightclub. This scapegoating is particularly ominous considering the current lack of anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ+ people in South Korea, where politicians still blame queer people for the AIDS epidemic. These accusations illuminate the spectral form of the queer predator: taking form once again, drawing on past connotations of disease for credibility.

The prevalence of queer scapegoating during this health crisis harks back to the conflation of queerphobia and Jewishness in the body of a mythical, predatory monster. A special report published on June 23 by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University notes the global proliferation of this trope across social media platforms. Anti-Semitic memes frequently paint COVID-19 to be a Jewish conspiracy, spread by Jews to profit off vaccinations and treatments—and eliminate non-Jews in the process.

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Maurice D. Palmer as Will and Jo Michael Rezes as Orlock in Nosferatu, The Vampyr by M Sloth Levine.

It’s important to note that anti-Semitism amid COVID-19 has not been confined to extremist circles. In April, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sparked outrage when he tweeted a warning to the city’s Jewish population, following a busy funeral in one Hasidic community. Given that Orthodox Jewish people don’t use social media, and would have no way of reading the message, the tweet felt inflammatory rather than productive. Furthermore, for every news story targeting Orthodox Jewish communities (or Black and Hispanic communities, which experience the heaviest policing for social distancing compliance) there were gatherings of young, often White, people in the city’s parks and piers that went unnoticed by police and media. This is not only unethical, but also dangerous, since targeted policing and media coverage of specific communities perpetuates the myth that those communities are the only ones spreading a dangerous pathogen. Biased policing and reporting fuel fears of the “Jew-Flu,” and the “Wu-Flu.”

Speaking of which, it would be remiss to discuss prejudiced rhetoric during COVID-19 without addressing the proliferation of anti-Asian racism worldwide. Reports of harassment, violence, and discrimination directed towards individuals of Asian descent (even healthcare workers) reflect a collective fear of disease that’s been conflated with Asian bodies. This stereotype is not new, and it was constructed in conjunction with the other stereotypes discussed in this essay. At the same time that Jewish people were blamed in Europe for the spread of syphilis, American media outlets accused Chinese sex workers of the same alleged crime. A few years later, San Francisco shut down Chinatown in response to a wave of bubonic plague—a disease first attributed to medieval Jews.

Nosferatu, The Vampyr is a powerful weapon because it dismantles the myth of the predatory monster at its core: the fusion of queerness and sickness that link all racial stereotypes about disease and immorality.

Combating the Cultural Monster through Theatre

What makes these contemporary racist strains relevant to one another—and to Nosferatu, The Vampyr—is their origin in queerphobic rhetoric. In my research last year, I discovered Benedict de Spinoza’s Theologico Political Treatise, published in 1670. In this text, Spinoza drew comparisons between Jewish men and Chinese men, noting that the plaited hairstyle worn by both—a zopf—indicated their low virility. He claimed the zopf bore resemblance to the circumcised penis, also a symbol of emasculation. In short, the Dutch writer painted Jewish and Chinese men inferior on account of their perceived femininity and physical abnormality.

For hundreds of years, racial groups have been “Othered” by queerphobic means—through the attachment of gender non-conforming traits and physical/moral sickness to their bodies—as a means of producing a frightening, gender-bending, disease-spreading, foreign invader. Understanding this pattern is vital if we are to fight the proliferation of hate during COVID-19 and beyond.

Nosferatu, The Vampyr is a powerful weapon because it dismantles the myth of the predatory monster at its core: the fusion of queerness and sickness that link all racial stereotypes about disease and immorality. In place of propaganda, Nosferatu, The Vampyr provides a story about the people affected by it. From the Gothic wreckage of fangs and dreams emerges a vampire… who never really was a monster, but could not escape the world that made them one.

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