Vampires and Mirrors

The September 1964 issue (#30) of Forrest J. Ackerman’s monster-culture magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland published a list of the powers of Dracula. It was a pretty impressive and specific list, and it seems to be gleaned from Van Helsing’s speeches in Bram Stoker’s novel, along with details from various film versions and other bits from who-knows-where.


I’ve often wondered about that list. Where do these very specific ideas about vampire abilities and weaknesses come from? Certainly most of them don’t come from legend, despite what the films and novels say. Most of them were invented by storytellers, chief among them Stoker himself. In order to create his novel about ancient sorcerous evil vs. modern-day science and technology, he actually created an entire folklore about vampires that really didn’t exist before him. There was a central nexus of folklore to start with – Stoker didn’t create vampires, after all. So the “creatures of the night”, the revivified corpses feasting on blood or vitality of the living, the destruction by staking,  the sleeping by day in a coffin – these were there before Stoker. But he adapted other items not specific to vampires – the weakness to garlic and wolfbane, the aversion to the cross and other holy items, the need to sleep in their native soil, the inability to cross moving water – these were applied to vampires by Stoker. (It’s interesting that his magical vampire still uses “scientific” solutions to overcome his limitations. Vampires can’t cross water? Let someone else put his coffin on a boat and carry it overseas! Vampires can’t leave their native soil? Then bring boxes of his native earth with him! Stoker created both the limitation and the solutions. No vampire before him thought of doing these things because, before Dracula, these weren’t problems that vampires had)

Some other items Stoker invented out of whole cloth. One of these is the way vampires are not reflected in mirrors. This looks like an authentic bit of vampire lore, but as far as I know, it doesn’t apply to vampires or other supernatural creatures. There’s a Frazierian logic to it – maybe vampires don’t reflect in mirrors because the mirror captures your soul and displays it, as certain groups of people claim that photographs do. But vampires don’t have souls. Therefore, they don’t cast reflections. But this chain of reasoning is modern – it didn’t apply to anything before Stoker conceived it. He used it to dramatic effect when Harker does not see the Count in his mirror while he is shaving. For the stage play written by Hamilton Deane (which does not include the episodes in Transylvania), Van Helsing observes that Dracula is not reflected in the mirrored lid of a box, and shows it to the Count, who dramatically slaps it away. The scene was retained by John Balderston when he rewrote the play for the Broadway stage, and he kept it in the used in the 1931 film, as well (even though they could have included the Harker mirror scene in that – they did not)


It was a dramatic effect, and easily produced on film. Later films took the idea and ran with it, produced intentionally and unintentionally funny results, as when a mirror reflects a person dancing, but not their vampire partner. Here it is in Van Helsing (2004):




And here it is in Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), where it’s funny by intention:



Later writers carried the idea still further, to vampires not being captured by images on film, or by video cameras.

The idea is scientifically ludicrous, of course – mirrors don’t capture souls, they simply reflect light beams. And we certainly see light beams from a vampire. Stoker doesn’t try to account for it. When people write books or stories rationalizing vampires, they simply say it’s part of attached legends, not a real effect. Lots of other vampire fiction simply ignores the effect, despite Dracula’s place of honor in Vampire Canon. So when Fritz Murnau made his unauthrized version in 1922 under the title Nosferatu, he had no problem showing “Count Orlok” reflected in a mirror:


That’s Nosferatu’s reflection in a mirror, just to the right and upwards of his head. It was still two years before Hamilton Deane would write the stage play of Dracula, so the “fact” that a vampire casts no reflection in a mirror wasn’t foremost in people’s minds.


Even Bela Lugosi as Dracula gets reflected, in this scene from the 1948 spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein:



In both cases the mirrors were deliberately placed there – or at least were deliberately left there when it was obvious that the vampire would be reflected. In the Abbott and Costello film, in fact, the fact must have been particularly obvious. Not only had Lugosi himself played that famous scene with the mirror in the 1931 film, he also continued to play it onstage throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Neither he nor director Charles Barton could have been unaware of the significance of that scene. Moreover, it had to be properly lined up for it to show the reflection (but not the film crew). The camera plays with the mirror, too – at first you see only Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) reflected in the mirror, with the edge or Lugosi himself blocking our view of where his reflection should be, so that the audience is left to wonder if they’ll show his reflection in the mirror or not (The film explicitly showed not only the Wolfman transformation, but also Dracula’s transforming into a bat and back again. A feature of the Abbott and Costello films was the use of state-of-the-art special effects. If anyone would take advantage of them to exclude Dracula’s reflection, it would be them.) But finally, as Dracula does surge forward to bite Dr. Mornay on the neck (which occupies our attention), his reflection is unabashedly shown, almost as an afterthought.

It’s further interesting because Universal had been faithful to the trope before this. In House of Dracula (1945), just three years earlier, John Carradine’s Dracula throws no reflection:


Dracula casts no reflection in Harker’s mirror in Jess Franco’s surprisingly faithful (at least for the first half) 1970 adaptation Count Dracula. Nor in the BBC/WGBH 1977 production that starred Louis Jordan, which was also very faithful.

But the movies in the 1960s and 1970s often didn’t seem to care about keeping the lore on reflections straight. In the 1968 Hammer film Dracula Has Risen from the Grave Dracula is seen reflected in a pool of water:




This is clearly intentional. It was probably done because it was so dramatic, despite contradicting Movie Vampire Lore. But there might be more to it than that.

Later in the film, Dracula is reflected in the window pane in a patio door:



This seems to be pure carelessness – there’s no obvious point to that reflection being there. It could have been eliminated by removing the pane of glass, or by re-staging the shot.

The 1979 John Badham film Dracula also gives us a vampire reflected in a pool of water. This film is the version starring Frank Langella, who had starred in the Broadway revival of the Balderston/Deane play – which certainly did contain the Dracula/Van Helsing confrontation over the mirror. Like the 1931 film, this was made to capitalize on the success of the play, and had the same person playing Dracula (Frank Langella in 1979, Bela Lugosi in 1931). But this time the film departed from the 1931 version, starting with the arrival of the Demeter in Whitby Harbor, thus eliminating the Transylvania scenes. There is no meeting between Van Helsing and Dracula indoors as participants at an evening soiree, so the mirror scene is gone from there, as well.  The characters are also scrambled in an attempt to make them seem to fit logically into the narrative, and to explain why they care about each other. So the character of Lucy Westenra, the much sought-after ingenue, becomes Mina Van Helsing, the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Mina Murray, in the same way, becomes Lucy Seward, the daughter of Dr. Jack Seward who runs the sanitarium that houses Renfield, Dracula’s minion. It’s self-consistent, but needlessly jarring if you’re at all familiar with Stoker’s novel.) In any event, Abraham Van Helsing is startled to see the reflection of his undead daughter Mina in a puddle of water as he’s hunting for Dracula:


Did Badham see Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and simply take the idea from there? In both cases, the person seeing the reflection is startled to see that reflection before being confronted by the actual vampire. Also, in both cases, you never really do see the image clearly – the water’s surface is in motion throughout the shot (I know – I searched through frame-by-frame to try to get a clear image, with no success for either film)

There might be more to it than breaking a rule for shock value, but I’ll hold off discussion of that until another essay on Vampires, Images, and Reality.

Most vampire films, however, and even Dracula films that had no pretensions of following the novel, avoided all mention of mirrors for many years. It’s absent from the 1979 Herzog/Klaus Kinsky remake of Nosferatu, for instance, and from most television adaptations. The Hammer films avoided it, including their own take on the original novel, Horror of Dracula. “Rationalized” vampires had no part of lacking reflections. Richard Matheson, in his novel I Am Legend counts it among those “cultural” features of vampires (like turning into a bat) that even those infected with the “vampire plague” believe, although they don’t manifest it.

Anne Rice’s vampires, in all her novels, reflect normally. So do Stephanie Meyers’ vampires in her Twilight series. So do the Vampires in Charlaine Harris‘ Sookie Stackhouse series, and in the HBO adaptations of them, True Blood. The vampires in the Thirty Days of Night series also appear to be subject to physical laws.It is, I think, simply too much for a modern audience to accept that anything corporeal would not be reflected in a mirror. As noted above, when it appears in a film these days, it’s played for kitsch or humor.