Nosferatu and the Unholy War to Bury a Classic 100 Years Ago

The crusade led by Florence Stoker, widow of Bram Stoker, almost obliterated Nosferatu from history and would go on to change the way we thought about vampires forever.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu as Count Orlok the Vampire
Photo: Getty Images

She is the Bride of Dracula. That is what they whispered whenever Florence Balcombe Stoker stepped into public view. Once an ethereal beauty whose features could capture Oscar Wilde’s imagination, if not his true ardor, the widow of author Bram Stoker spent the final decades of her life being haunted by her husband—but not his ghost; it was his vampire that refused to give her rest.

Today, Florence is chiefly remembered as the architect behind what some might call the greatest act of attempted vandalism in cinematic history. She did, after all, pursue with the tenacity of Abraham Van Helsing a scorched earth crusade intent on having all prints of Nosferatu burned to ash. If she had succeeded, F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionist masterpiece, and one of the finest horror films ever produced, would have been lost to posterity—instead of still being watched and celebrated exactly 100 years since its Berlin premiere.

Yet Florence Stoker was more than just the woman who attempted to drive the final stake in Nosferatu’s heart. That was a role she may have resented but had been thrust upon her as the caretaker of an undead Transylvanian count. And in the aftermath of that bloody battle, she inadvertently changed the way we saw vampires forever.

The Bride of Dracula

In 1979, the last descendant with a living memory of the Victorian Stokers, and a world which existed before Bela Lugosi, gave an interview about Bram and Florence.

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“She was teased mercilessly about being Dracula’s wife,” granddaughter Ann Elizabeth Stoker told The Daily Mail. “It really wasn’t fair.” For a woman as renowned for her beauty and unrealized talent as Florence, it might have even been the stuff of nightmares.

Born Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe in 1858 Ireland, the woman who eventually married Bram Stoker was Oscar Wilde’s fascination first. Wilde met her when she was 17 and he was on one of his many trips to Dublin. Afterward, he penned a friend that he had made the acquaintance of an “exquisitely pretty girl” (emphasis Wilde’s). The future author of The Picture of Dorian Gray (and eventual victim of a homophobic British law when he was convicted for “gross indecency” due to his dalliances with other men) courted Florence for several years and was likely the impetus for her pursuing a career on the stage.

How sincere the closeted Wilde was in romancing this young woman is a matter of some debate. But he was enamored enough to write frequent love letters to “Florrie” (which she saved), gift her treasured crucifixes, and draw the below sketch which seemed as taken with a willowy melancholy as her beauty. In his trenchant biography on Bram Stoker, Something in the Blood, author David J. Skal even speculates that Wilde might have been the man to introduce Florrie to Bram, an acquaintance of his from days at Trinity College Dublin and a dear friend of his mother’s—Jane Wilde hosted all the best salon soirees when she was in Dublin.

In whatever manner Florence met the man who’d write Dracula, after Oscar absconded to England (likely due to his first brush with syphilis), Florrie soon became the object of Bram’s attention, with the pair marrying after an apparently short engagement in 1878.

Florence’s run on the stage was brief, but her career in London’s high society was long. Indeed, the well-documented irony of her husband’s life is that one of the most influential writers of Gothic literature was never in his lifetime (and barely in Florence’s) recognized as an important voice of Victorian words. That level of esteem belonged to Bram’s closest friend, Hall Caine. Rather Bram was renowned in his time for being the boisterous and diligent business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, and lifelong aid to the celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving—uncharitable comparisons have been made of Bram being Renfield to Irving’s Dracula.

For all their lives, the sun in Bram and Florence’s orbit was their knighted actor who owned the theater, as well as his most popular leading lady, Dame Ellen Terry. In fact, much thanks to Bram’s engineering, Irving would eventually become the first actor considered worthy of burial in Westminster Abbey’s “Poets Corner.” Perhaps it was not a life with the celebrated playwright of The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde’s greatest public triumph before his fall from grace), but there were still glamorous first night premieres at the Lyceum in which she was friends with knights and dames, and a husband whose career made him pen pals with Walt Whitman.

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That all went away when Bram died. Before his death, the Stokers’ finances were strained, perhaps because they lived beyond their means in a great London house that subsumed much of Bram’s savings. And while he made a comfortable income from his time at the Lyceum, the only one of his lurid commercial novels to still be selling well by the time of his death in 1912 was Dracula, a lascivious book that Florence was at best indifferent to if not outright embarrassed.

Florence was also a woman always haunted by appearances. Not unlike a character in Wilde’s books, she began refusing to have her picture taken after she turned 40. And following Bram’s death (which evidence also persuasively suggests was due to complications from syphilis), the invitations stopped altogether. She was remarked upon, often, for retaining her beauty for a woman of her age by the time she was 54 and tending Bram’s deathbed. But the back-handed compliment did little to pay the debts left by her husband’s estate, even after she auctioned off his books and papers, which included the Dryden copy of the first folio Shakespeare, a sheaf of original notes of Walt Whitman’s lecture on Abraham Lincoln, and molds of Lincoln’s death mask.

As per Skal’s book, she wrote a friend, “I made £400 on the ‘Bram Stoker Library,’” a quarter of which she surmised was “rubbish.”

Yet for the rest of her life—which would extend for another 24 years—her only source of income or notoriety was Stoker’s backlisted book, the one she even mysteriously found a lost chapter for and published as Dracula’s Guest (though some suspect it was not finished by Bram’s hand). She was wedded—bound, really—to the shadow of the vampire.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors

When Prana Film premiered Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors  at the Berlin Zoological Garden on March 4, 1922, they brazenly put in their program that it was “freely adapted” from Dracula by Bram Stoker. The names and settings had been changed—Dracula became Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker was now the German Thomas Hutter, and Mina’s Christian name transformed into Ellen. Yet right down to the film’s new title—“Nosferatu”—nearly everything about its origins is owed to Stoker.

It is, indeed, a common misconception in pop culture that “nosferatu” has always meant “vampire” in Latin or some other dead language. This inaccuracy was first created by Emily Gerard’s essay “Transylvanian Superstitions,” where Bram read “nosferatu” was the Romanian word for “vampire.” This was wrong. “Vampir” is the Romanian word for “vampire.” Nevertheless, Stoker eagerly included the term in his notes and wound up using it as an interchangeable word with “vampire,” “the undead,” and other descriptors for the children of the night.

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Murnau’s 1922 film put it out into the world in big bold letters with a capital “N.” Granted, they were hardly the first to steal from the mildly popular Dracula; a lost Hungarian film titled Drakkula halála (1921) ripped off Stoker’s title one year earlier, although in a now impossible to see film that reportedly had more in common with another German Expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), than Stoker’s story. Nosferatu, by comparison, is more or less Stoker’s concept stripped down to its festering, decayed bones.

Whether or not the filmmakers at Prana Film were aware of this obscure Hungarian title (Florence apparently never was), they nonetheless felt shamelessly entitled to adapt and credit Dracula without bothering to look into things like copyright.

But then, they seemed to be drawn by different spirits. Although Nosferatu is generally credited as a product of Murnau’s genius, the then-young German film director (who would go on to make 1927’s Sunrise) was not the person who first lit upon adapting Dracula. That credit belongs to Albin Grau, one of the co-founders of Prana Film and the chief producer and production designer on Nosferatu.

Grau is a curious figure in his own right: a veteran of the German Army in the First World War who after the conflict became an occultist and spiritualist. He even alleged that he first heard about vampires while in the trenches where a Serbian villager told the future filmmaker about the time his father was transformed into a vampire in death. Whether Grau’s story is true or apocryphal, superstitions became his obsession as he joined the Ordo Templi Orientis, an extension of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society led by the Satanist Aleister Crowley.

In subsequent promotional materials for Nosferatu, Grau even described the war as an undead thing, saying, “Suffering and grief have shaken men’s hearts and monstrous events that had depleted the world like a cosmic vampire, drinking the blood of millions and millions of men.”

Grau might have been the impetus behind Nosferatu, but there is no denying Murnau’s genius in turning it into what is perhaps still the scariest vampire movie ever made. A disciple of theater producer Max Reinhardt, Murnau infused the tricks from Reinhardt’s love of light and shadow play to get around the technical and budgetary limitations of his time. Because despite this being the most famous film of the German Expressionist movement, Nosferatu is arguably one of the least expressionistic in the classical sense. Due to financial restraints, the movie was shot on location in northern Slovakia and ancient corners of the German seaside city of Lübeck. Rather than rely on the artificiality of sets which expressed the internal torment of its characters, a la Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu was steeped in the real ancient world with its imagery.

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Yet Murnau’s innovation of the vampire’s shadow, which took on a sinister life of its own, became the central expression of the film’s eponymous vampire, Count Orlok. And as portrayed under heavy makeup by actor Max Schreck, the undead count became a greater nightmare than even Stoker could imagine. In Stoker’s book, Dracula is far from a suave seducer of women; he is a cadaver given physical movement. However, he still has the regality of his ancient familial line with elegant (if weathered) black clothing and a proud drooping mustache in his old man form that offsets the horror of long fingernails and hairy palms.

By contrast, Murnau and Schreck’s Orlok is bestial—an expression of the universal fear of plague and death, oblivion and pestilence. With fingernails that better resemble talons and a seemingly emaciated skull, Orlok is Death himself given ghastly animation. And most unsettling of all is his teeth. Rather than canine extensions, his fangs drop down from the center of his mouth, deliberately mimicking rat incisors. In this way, his image conjures the face of the Black Death that ravaged Europe, killing off more than a third of the population in the 14th century. And rather than bats, that plague’s rats are Orlok’s true familiars, sharing his grave and his rapture.

When he makes his way to Thomas Hutter’s hometown of Wisborg, he brings with him the literal demons of a shared past, a Jungian nightmare that descendants of the survivors of a 1300s apocalypse instinctively remember—and dread. When we finally bear witness to Orlok feasting without interruption, draining Thomas’ wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) to her death, there is something obviously sexual about the act of penetration, yet grotesquely functional in Orlok’s demeanor; he is a leach gorging himself from a young woman’s throat in total stillness.

Whereas Stoker’s novel is, in part, about the modern world conquering the revenant of a bygone age, Nosferatu is a helpless surrender to the medieval. The ancient world wins and corrupts modernity to the point of annihilation, even if the vampire dies at the end.

Nosferatu Must Die

Florence Stoker was unaware throughout the development and production of Nosferatu of that film’s existence. In fact, it only came to her attention in April 1922 when a mysterious and unmarked letter was sent to her with a program from Nosferatu’s March premiere. It included the remarkably brazen admission that the movie was “freely adapted” from Dracula. She quickly joined the British Incorporated Society of Authors and fatefully mailed one G. Herbert Thring a copy of that program. She wanted justice. And money.

As detailed in David J. Skal’s other book about the undead count, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, Florence’s war on Prana Film and anyone else who attempted to distribute Nosferatu was an unholy odyssey. The ferocity of the campaign was so intense that the conventional broad strokes are still relatively well known, although despite popular misconceptions Florence did not sue Prana Film into oblivion. Their own attempts at accounting black magic saw to that self-destruction.

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The publicity expenses for releasing Nosferatu alone, including that glitzy Berlin Zoo premiere which included a full symphonic orchestra, cost more than the actual making of the vampire movie. All that money being spent in Berlin is what caught Florence Stoker’s eye. They clearly have money to burn. Well they did, and burned to a cinder it was. By the time Florence convinced the Society of Authors to reluctantly get involved, Prana Film was in a receivership of its own making.

That didn’t stop Dracula’s so-called wife.

By 1922, all of Stoker’s non-Dracula novels were out of print, and despite modest success in publishing Dracula’s Guest as well as other short stories that her husband left behind, Florence was unable to generate new interest in his previous works. Worse, Dracula remained a mild literary success. According to Hollywood Gothic, the royalties off French sales of the vampire book in 1920 only amounted to a meager 350 francs. She wasn’t going to allow what appeared to be the toast of Berlin to profit off her modest estate.

Initially, the Society of Authors was reluctant to help Florence—and by the the end of their years-long legal battle, outright resentful—but eventually the organization agreed in the summer of 1922 to acquire a German lawyer “on the understanding that if the film company gives in, all well and good, but if they show a disposition to fight that we cannot take the case further on your behalf.” Little did they know.

While the letters of the aforementioned Society of Authors liaison, G. Herbert Thring, were saved by Florence, it is perhaps telling that he saved few from the Stoker widow. Even so, the thinly veiled exhaustion in his communications with the Dracula rights holder throughout the process speaks volumes.

“I am sending you a copy of a letter I have received from a German lawyer,” Thring wrote Florence in August 1922. “You will remember that this case was originally taken up in the hope that our Lawyer might be able to settle out of court. The question has now become so complicated, and the legal point so difficult, that I doubt the Society could afford to carry the matter any further….” Yet they did.

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Over the following three years, Thring and the Society of Authors repeatedly tried to extricate themselves from the affairs of Florence Stoker and Nosferatu, first by suggesting she essentially owed them £20 for services rendered in paying for the lawyer. Eventually though, Thring was pleading with Florence to take £20 from the Society as essentially an “advance” on the legal troubles she’d personally face in Germany now that the Society was dropping the case. Every time, however, Thring would write a few weeks or a month later with obligatory apologies and news about further developments. Why did they stay on the case of this backlisted book for so long at their own expense?

Because while the age of Irving and the Lyceum might have ended, the contacts Florence developed as a member of London society survived, and that included favors and pressures on the Society’s trustees which caused them to pursue Nosferatu until the bitter end.

This included transferring their target from the bankrupted officials of Prana Film to those who had taken on the receivership—who claimed, in turn, there was no money to pay the Stoker estate, even as they were opening the film in Budapest and other European markets. The Society’s one small victory over Florence’s fervor was thus talking her out of pursuing legal challenges in every foreign market that played Nosferatu.

By the summer of 1924, Florence finally had the current owners of Nosferatu in German court where in her first victory she was awarded £5,000 (about £323,000 in 2021 pounds) and the rights to the film. The Deutsch-Amerikanisch Film Union, which was the receiver clinging to the rights, refused and appealed the case—the first of several appeals that increasingly made it clear that Florence would never actually see a single mark come out of Germany for the movie.

So Florence Stoker pivoted—and began demanding all copies and prints of Nosferatu be burned instead.

As the greatest example of this phenomenon in film history, the copyright owner of what is essentially valuable intellectual property demanded every last print of an unauthorized adaptation be burned at the stake. Florence never saw Nosferatu; she had no interest in ever seeing Nosferatu. She only knew Nosferatu violated her rights and should be eradicated from the face of the Earth.

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The prospect of losing one of the greatest horror films of all time is a horror unto itself to our modern eyes. Yet it almost came to pass when in July 1925 Prana Film’s receivers withdrew their final appeal, and a German judge ordered all copies of Nosferatu be rounded up and incinerated.

Dracula Transformed

Florence Stoker killed her monster. Nosferatu was gone (or at least underground). But Dracula remained, and her need to find income off his monstrous existence persisted.

Before his death, Bram Stoker dreamed of Dracula becoming a great work of the stage. In the same year as the book’s publication, Bram famously had a play he adapted from the novel read at the Lyceum Theatre with the hope of mounting a production in which his employer and idol, Sir Henry Irving, would play the vampire. Upon the completion of the reading, Irving is reported to have said, “Dreadful.” How little he could foresee that this story would far outlive his own legacy.

Before her death, Florence hoped to make Bram’s dream a reality and produce (and thereby copyright) an authorized stage production. But by 1924—while still in the maelstrom of legal battles in distant German lands—Florence’s finances were fraught and her desire for a faithful adaptation of her husband’s work faded. So that year she reluctantly agreed to a proposal by a provincial actor and manager named Hamilton Deane. He would adapt the novel into a traveling play for the countryside, and otherwise ignore her one request to retain as much of the original dialogue as possible.

Florence came to loathe the play Deane wrote, produced, and starred in as Van Helsing. She likely cared for it even less after it became the laughing stock of London (at least among critics) where it premiered following years as a traveling novelty in the provinces. Nonetheless, it sold out every night. And in the country? It was a raging success, transforming the tale of Dracula into a drawing room mystery where the vampire was a dandy in a tuxedo and cape. This choice made a certain economical sense for the stage, but it also set the standard for virtually every Dracula adaptation to come afterward: ignore the book.

Did Florence’s exhaustive war with Nosferatu pave the way for her “take the money and run” agreement with Deane? Quite possibly. But that choice allowed him to mutate her husband’s novel into a macabre magic show for yokels. It also set the stage for something else—the image we have of Dracula today.

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Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi never technically played Deane’s Dracula. The Broadway adaptation Lugosi starred in was written by John L. Balderston, a playwright who called Deane’s original play “illiterate.” Yet Balderston took Deane’s story, his drawing room mystery that changed characters’ names and functions, and his vision of Dracula himself as a cape-wearing bon vivant who hobnobbed with high society. Lugosi then added the sex appeal. It was Balderston’s adaptation of the Deane play, eventually complete with Lugosi in the title role, that Universal Pictures adapted into the first movie legally approved by Florence Stoker. She received $20,000 for the rights (about $337,000 in 2022 dollars). Dracula finally paid off, and our cultural image of vampires would never be the same.

As for Nosferatu? For a while, at least, Florence assumed that that vampire was good and dead. Later in life, she tended to just want to look back, even to poor, dear Oscar Wilde. According to In the Blood, Florrie spent the last months of her life reminiscing about the ill-fated Dorian Gray author after her old friend, stage actress Dame Ellen Terry, sent her a letter that Wilde penned Terry in 1882 (long after the Stokers had married). It was postmarked right before Terry was to go on stage in a performance of Tennyson’s The Cup, in which Florence also appeared. “By rights this belongs to you,” Terry wrote.

“I send you some flowers—two crowns. Will you accept one of them, whichever you think will suit you best. The other—don’t think me treacherous, Nellie—but the other please give to Florrie from yourself. I should like to think that she was wearing something of mine that first night she comes on the stage, that anything of mine should touch her… She thinks I never loved her, thinks I forget. My God how could I?”

– Oscar Wilde, 1882

That was not the only fateful letter dear Terry, the Lady Macbeth of her age, sent Florrie. Much earlier in October 1925, Florence received a letter from Terry, warning her that London’s The Film Society—of which Terry, alongside George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and others was a member—was about to screen a print of Nosferatu… the film Florence was assured by German courts had been snuffed from this mortal plane. It would be the first of several phantom appearances of that supposedly “lost” German film in Florence’s lifetime.

Poor Mr. Thringer and the Society of Authors were roped in again upon this first resurrection as Stoker’s widow pursued a man named Ivor Montagu, who had acquired a copy from an unknown third party. Montagu never gave up the name and eventually Thringer was forced to write Florence that “the Sargent’s Trust have already done everything to help us trace the man who actually held the film, but we find this person has disappeared entirely.”

Vampires are like that. What’s thought to be dead may always rise again.

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