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Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Three Fates. Three witches in MACBETH. Three brides in DRACULA. Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole. The primary colors. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Three little pigs. Of course, celebrity deaths also come in threes. Christ was tempted three times in the desert. And in WWI, lighting three men’s cigarettes on one match meant death for the third man, as it would likely draw the fire of an enemy sniper. Then in rhetoric, there’s a rule of three. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll. Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to them.

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Storker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors (Holmwood, Morris, and Seward) in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the truth behind Stoker’s choice to have three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: Stoker worked in the theater.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known — but are never mentioned in the novel as such — are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishment writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited. And they are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sex is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls.”

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

STOKER, THE STAGE AND MYTHOLOGY

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who some suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It might be as simple as that. Borrowing from the Bard, Stoker may have been intentionally drawing comparisons of his vampire women to the witches of Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

BACK TO THE POWER OF THREE

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard, or Stoker didn’t subconsciouly make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Across cultures, the number three is of undeniable importance. That it is applied to a group of vampire women is thus no great surprise. Literary critics have noted numerous supposed subconscious drives that led to Stoker to his choices — including the three vampire women. Whether it is us that only see the connections to the power of three, or Stoker (knowingly or not) who found significance in numbering his “sisters” as such, is immaterial in the end.

It would seem that putting anything together in sets of three is only natural — or supernatural — as the case may be.

Left Your Window Silver White: Jack Frost & Winter Wonder

While many of us often refer to Old Man Winter this time of year — and can picture him as an older man’s face imposed on a cloud, blowing in the cold air of the season — few know much about Jack Frost. At least much beyond him “nipping at your nose” in Robert Wells’ and Mel Tormé’s classic “Christmas Song” of 1945. As a personification of winter, he shares with the “Old Man” control over ice, snow, sleet and the like, yet he is often depicted as younger, spritely, and more playful than other harbingers of cold weather. Indeed, he seems to enjoy using his powers to delight children most, and represents a more magical view of winter than his curmudgeonly elderly counterpart.

His origins are sketchy. Whereas the “Old Man” can be traced to various deities — most notable the Greek god Boreas, or even the Celtic Oak King— not much is written about Jack before the early eighteenth century. Though traceable in some form to Scandinavian folktales, he seems to have, at least partially, originated in Britain where “Jack” was a common slang word for “man.”

Jack Frost by Thomas Nast

The first illustrated cartoon of Jack Frost is thought to be a political cartoon published in 1861 in Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast depicts a “General” Jack Frost freezing out the malaria that was spreading during the American Civil War. Curiously enough, Nast was also famous for creating the image of Santa Claus that we’re familiar with today.

Hannah Flagg Gould’s mid nineteenth century poem “The Frost” is perhaps the first to feature a mischievous being who leaves beautiful ice paintings on windows, although Jack is never named.

Not long thereafter, late nineteenth / early twentieth-century Scots writer  Gabriel Setoun (a pseudonym of Thomas Nicoll Hepburn) pens what it perhaps the first poem explicitly about Jack, appropriate entitled “Jack Frost.” It is here that much of the folklore seems to coalesce, presenting facets of the character that would become associated with him long thereafter. Ice painting on windows, yes. But more.

“The door was shut, as doors should be,” begins Setoun. “Before you went to bed last night.” Yet mischievously, “Jack Frost has got in…
and left your window silver white.”

In some of the earliest oral traditions, Jack is a painter who not only colors windows white, but paints frost on grass, even fall colors on autumn leaves. What Setoun does is expound and expand upon the magical qualities of Jack’s work, as the frost he paints on panes transforms into wondrous things.

The window pane of the poem shows “castles towering high” and “knights in armor riding by.” There are boats, palm trees, butterflies, and even cows and sheep.

For, creeping softly underneath
The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
And knows the things you think about.

He paints them on the window-pane
In fairy lines with frozen steam;
And when you wake you see again
The lovely things you saw in dream.

Here there’s a clear contrast between the “Old Man” who seems little more than a stern bringer or storms, and Jack, a painter of sorts whose frosty art is transformative — the stuff of dreams.

Other writers would add to the legend, including Margaret Canby’s “Birdie and His Fairy Friends” (1874) where Jack leads  winter spirits to help children as King Winter, like the “Old Man,” is nothing but cruel. Even Helen Keller made her own version of this story, in 1891, entitled “The Frost King.”

It’s in Charles Sangster’s “Little Jack Frost,” however,  published in 1875, that Jack Frost is first seen running around playing pranks and nose-biting. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), takes the nipping further (attacking “scores on noses and ears and toes.” Santas Claus seems to like Jack, but isn’t particularly happy that the mischievous sprite teases children.

Dozens of writers follow and build upon the tradition over the next hundred years. With each iteration, his character serves a particular theme, and, as would be expected, tone follows.

Jack Frost by Stan Lee in Timely Comics

None other than Stan Lee brought him to the comics in 1941. Early in his career with Timely Comics, Lee created a Jack Frost who was more villain than prankster — or at least an anti-hero much like the Hulk which Lee would go on to create year’s later when Timely became Marvel Comics. Lee’s Frost was a young man who mysteriously wandered out of the Arctic with no memory, and the ability to wield wintry precipitation. “Because of a misunderstanding with police, he is accused of murder and becomes a wanted criminal.” The rest pretty much writes itself!

From comically dark to outright depressing, Jack serves many masters in twentieth century art.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking “First Death in Nova Scotia” (1965), for example, the death of a small cousin leads the poet to imagining how Jack Frost might dress the body. Laid out on a table in a makeshift funeral following what would appear to have been a hunting accident, a boy “all white, like a doll that hadn’t been painted yet” would be the perfect canvas for Jack. He is evoked by the poet as quasi-savior — if only he could bring color (and life) back to the boy. “He had just begun on his hair, / a few red strokes, and then / Jack Frost had dropped the brush / and left him white, forever.”

Here, Jack cannot work his magic. Like an open hand, Bishop’s words slap us into the reality of cold, cold death.

William Joyce’s Jack Frost

On a much light note, Rankin Bass did a take on the character in a 1979 Christmas Special, but (with the exception of a really bad horror film from 1997 and a handful of other terrible “family” movies) it’s with the recent and popular Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce that Jack Frost as a character has really come back into popular culture. Tailor-made for a pre-teen audience that craves adventure from characters that were once only folktales that parents told their children, Joyce’s Jack Frost was even the subject of a change.org petition to be included in Frozen 2.  Far from folktale, Jack has the potential to become a film franchise.

Like most characters who come to us from ancient oral traditions and varied cultures, Jack Frost can, and does, take on many forms. But stories of him never stray far from stressing his youth and colorful nature during a time of year that is otherwise cold and grey. He is the antithesis of “Old Man Winter,” and in that contrast is the heart of his nature — a cold hand but a warm heart wrapped in a positive spirit that should be shared this time of year when winter blues can get to even the best of us.

Waking to ice on the window, snow on the car, and rock salt on the streets, we should stop to appreciate the delicate beauty of something as simple as oft-overlooked ice crystals. For Jack Frost’s brush put them there, making the otherwise stark reality of winter a more magical time of year.