Most of you are at least a little familiar with Count Orlok, the vampire in the 1922 film “Nosferatu”, which forever changed the face of cinema.
The story itself may have been an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”, but “Nosferatu” revolutionized the visual art of cinema. The now-classic “burn-up-in-sunlight” trope started with this film. Count Orlok’s sun-ray immolation is just one of the great, ground-breaking visual effects featured.
Count Orlok himself is, of course, another bold visual statement. What many may not realize is that Nosferatu’s director, F.W. Murnau, intended Count Orlok as a return to the hideous monsters of original vampire folklore, as they were two centuries before Nosferatu’s release.
History time: In the original folklore, most vampires were short, ugly, Eastern European peasants. Then (in 1819) Polidori creates the character of Lord Ruthven and suddenly they’re all elegant, English, aristocratic and look suspiciously like Lord Byron. Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847) gives them fangs and the whole “wandering the world hating what they’ve become” thing. Then Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was written (in 1871), and vampires suddenly became alluring, bisexual upper-class gothic girls. Then, Dracula was written (in 1897), and they’re still elegant aristocrats, but moved back to Eastern Europe, sexy and deadly, outwardly beautiful yet disguising an inner corruption. Thus, horror turned to fetish, and pop culture… ahem… the world was never the same again. And we all know what happened since.
In the early 1920s, F.W. Murnau had a great idea. Since the German Expressionist movement was all about stylization, why not apply this to vampires? Why not create a vampire that looks exactly like what he is: a parasitic bloodsucker?
In the ninety-odd years since “Nosferatu”, Orlok’s appearance has influenced dozens of characters, vampire or otherwise. From The Master in “The Strain” and the Elder Vampire in “Dracula: Untold” (yes, Orlok has now ‘officially’ crossed over into a Dracula tale!), to Voldemort.
The one thing that’s been missing for all these nine decades is why the Orlok-type vampires look the way they do. We can’t undo three centuries’ worth of humanizing vampires, after all, so there must be reasons as to why the Orlok-type vampires look different from vampires of basic human appearance. This is where most vampire novels and movies drop the ball, usually not explaining this in any detail, or using the “old master” mythos where vampires will eventually age to an Orlok-like appearance.
Until now, the best explanation for Orlok-type vampires comes from the Role-Playing Game “Vampire: The Masquerade”, wherein the Nosferatu are the most ‘vampiric’ of the seven playable vampire subspecies.
The Nosferatu are one of seven playable clans in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The damnedest of the damned, the Nosferatu are disfigured and have a frightening appearance. This means that they can only use sewers, and should they be seen by humans, they will violate the Masquerade. Due to this however, the Nosferatu have become very gifted at sneaking and hacking, which means they have information on almost everything and everyone. They gather information not only as a means of survival, but out of pure pleasure as well. The Nosferatu are ostracized by other vampires due to their appearance, but also their ability to dig up dirt on everyone. This doesn’t stop the leaders of other vampire clans to come to them when they need information, however.
When I set about creating the universe for my Vampire Syndrome Saga, I found many of the classic folkloric abilities attributed to vampires (ie. clinging to walls and ceilings, aversion to acidic plants such as onions and garlic, harmed/weakened by ultraviolet radiation/sunlight) would not make scientific sense for my living human Vampires. The human genome has millions of years worth of evolved tolerance of sunlight or garlic, and to undo these would require (basically) a ground-up total DNA rewrite to where the being would no longer be “human”.
So I created planet Sek’Met, and its race of humanoid alien carnivores. With aliens, the folkloric attributes I could not (personally) justify for human vampires became easy to rationalize scientifically for the Sek’Metian race, who evolved on a different planet, under different conditions.
And it follows that alien carnivore humanoids who evolved on a different planet would also have distinct appearance traits of their own. Which gave me the best explanation ever as to why Orlok-type vampires appear they way they do: They’re aliens!