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Shadows, Reflections, Mirrors and Vampires

Like having fangs, transforming into bats, or turning to dust in the rays of the sun, not showing up in mirrors is a trait of the vampire that most people take as gospel. Whether it’s Bela Lugosi slapping a the small, mirrored-lid cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hands in Universal’s DRACULA (1931), or the Count casting no reflection in an enormous ballroom mirror — in both DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995) and VAN HELSING (2004) — pop culture has cemented the belief / trope that vampires just don’t show up in mirrors.

First edition of Dracula, 1897
Dracula, by Bram Stoker. First Edition cloth cover, 1897. From British Literary Board (public domain photo).

The publication of DRACULA in 1897 is perhaps the best and first known instance of a vampire not appearing in a mirror. It occurs early on, in Chapter 2, on the 8th of May, when Jonathan Harker doesn’t see Dracula’s reflection in his shaving mirror. No vampire of folklore ever seemed to have this problem. Various creatures over many cultures and centuries appeared from and disappeared to the shadows, but none had particular issue with a looking glass. Until Dracula.


Lord Byron, the infamous poet on whom his personal physician John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven — arguably, the first true literary vampire — was based curiously had no mirrors in his residence on the isle of Lesbos (see “Extract Of A Letter, Containing An Account Of Lord Byron’s Residence In The Island Of Mitylene,” published along with THE VAMPYRE in 1819). But this was Byron, and one residence otherwise sparsely furnished. And despite what his physician may have thought, Byron was no vampire (OK, maybe a psychic one).

There’s no mention of mirrors or reflections in VARNEY THE VAMPIRE (pubished as “penny dreadfulls” 1845-1847). Neither does Le Fanu Carmilla seem to have a problem with them (1872). They are stealthy, shadowy figures, but reflections aren’t a problem.

There’s an interesting us of shadows in Alexander Dumas’ “Vampire of the Carpathian Mountains” (also known as “The Pale Lady”) — a short story from 1848 that is easily overlooked by fans (and critics) of Gothic tales. This last section of his collected THE THOUSAND AND ONE GHOSTS (1849), does include a vampire, but one that oddly shows ONLY its shadow.

Nosferatu casts shadow
Nosferatu’s Count Orlok cast a shadow. And eagle-eyed watchers of the 1922 film have spotted him reflected in a mirror during his death scene.

Upon Hedwig, the narrator’s encounter with the vampire of Dumas’ tale, she writes: “Je regardai dans la direction de sa main, et je vis en effet l’ombre d’un cheval et d’un cavalier. Mais je cherchai inutilement les corps auxquels les ombres appartenaient,” which translates as “I looked in the direction of his hand, and I did indeed see the shadow of a horse and rider. But I searched in vain for the bodies to which the shadows belonged.”

A shadow is cast. But no figure is seen. And still, no mirror.

None before Stoker.

Not in Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s BLACK VAMPYRE: A LEGEND OF ST. DOMINGO (1819). Nor in Ernst Raupach’s WAKE NOT THE DEAD (1823). Not the case with the wurdulak of Alexander Pushin’s MARKO YACUBOVICH (1835). Nor in THE FAMILY OF THE VOURDALAK from Tolstoy (1839). Throw in the aforementioned Varney and Carmilla, and you find nary an undead figure with a problem with mirrors.


One wonders, then, where Stoker got the idea from? And like much of the supernatural in DRACULA, some find that the answer lies in folklore and superstition. The Japanese Kitsune, for example, shun mirrors as they fear being exposed by their reflections. But it’s almost certain that Kitsune were not something known to Stoker. They show up nowhere in his notes for the novel or other writings.

Victorian Covered Mirror
In the late 19th century, mirrors were often covered at funerals (and a window left open) so the soul of the deceased would not be trapped.

There was a belief among people of both Christian and Jewish faith — as well as spiritualists of the time (of which Stoker was ostensibly one, having been a member of the Society for Psychical Research) —that mirrors captured souls and/or acted as portals to other worlds. Why else cover them in homes or at funerals where the deceased are present. Fear of the spirits of the recently dead getting trapped in a mirror was at the root of this prctice, and, if true, would certainly put a damper on getting to the promised after-life. But the undead? What would they care? They are already dead. And their spirits don’t get sucked in by mirrors so much as their corporeal bodies simply do not show.

Others have posited a theory that silver backed (and silver-gilt) mirrors of the day may be the reason vampires are repelled by the “foul bauble of man’s vanity” (as Dracula puts it). But nowhere else in Stoker’s novel are vampires afraid of silver. There’s a silver-plated brass candle-holder Van Helsing takes with him to Lucy’s grave. But it’s just the better to see her with. There’s a silver whistle, but it’s for Van Helsing to scare aware rats. And yes, while there’s a silver crucifix among the weapons the heroes take into battle at the end of the novel, it’s the crucifix, and not the silver, that seems to work on vampires. The silver itself is never explicitly mentioned as having any power. In folklore, though, silver is associated with the moon and as having purifying qualities, so perhaps it can kill a supernatural creature? The Brother Grimm did have a silver bullet kill a witch in one of their tales (“The Two Brothers” [1812]). And it was reputed that the eighteenth century Beast of Gévaudan was felled by a silver bullet. But, as it turns out, this was an addition made by an author writing in 1946 (Henri Pourrat’s Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévauda). That’s four years after Universal’s THE WOLF MAN, where screenwriter Curt Siodmak invented the notion that silver kills werewolves.

Why then does Stoker have Dracula not show up in a mirror?

Plain and simple: having Dracula not appear in Harker’s shaving mirror is a great plot device.

There are many ways Stoker could have introduced Dracula as a vampire lusting after blood. And many ways that Harker could have been startled by the vampire’s presence in his room in Dracula’s castle. But the mirror provides the author with a way to dramatically shock Harker, and the reader, with Dracula’s ability to move stealthily, and strike, should he choose — without setting off (at least two) normal human sensory means of detection.


Here is the whole passage:

I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me. In starting I had cut myself slightly, but did not notice it at the moment. Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. This was startling, and, coming on the top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near; but at the instant I saw that the cut had bled a little, and the blood was trickling over my chin. I laid down the razor, turning as I did so half round to look for some sticking plaster. When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.

“Take care,” he said, “take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below. Then he withdrew without a word. It is very annoying, for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving-pot, which is fortunately of metal.

And that’s the world’s introduction to a vampire not showing in a mirror. If anyone could show a literary or folkloric precedent, it would have been put forth in the 125+ years since the novel’s publication as critics and scholars have painstakenly poured over every aspect of the work and the vampire of folklore that inspired it for at least fifty years (there was a time when studying vampires in the halls of academia was scoffed at).


In his seminal vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954), Richard Matheson counts not appearing in mirror among aspects of vampires that even those infected with the “vampire plague,” themselves believe because of peopular culture. But they do. Cast reflections, that is. As do Anne Rice’s vampires, Nosferatu, even the vampires of the Twilight books and movies.

Why? Because writers and filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have fun playing with the trope. It makes vampires more flesh and blood, so to speak, to show up like the rest of us do in mirrors. All the better, they can admire how they haven’t aged if they can see their reflection, and who among us would at least hope that immortality comes with forever looking good to one’s self. Personally, I hate mirrors.

In the end, it’s clear that some aspects of vampire lore were picked up by Stoker to play to an audience familiar with tropes and lore. Others simply served his story, and oddly, retroactively, became associated with the undead as a given. Something ancient. Something born of old Translyvanian beliefs. But even then, it might surprise some to know that that the inventive Irishman behind DRACULA never set foot in Transylvania, and originally thought of setting his novel in Styria (in southeast Austria).

But that’s a blog entry for another time.

A Sane Man Fighting for His Soul? Renfield in Film

With the release of RENFIELD this week, Dracula’s devoted familiar has his own movie — a horror comedy starring Nicolas Cage as the Count (in what is sure to be an over-the-top performance), and Nicholas Hoult as the titular character. If the trailer is any indication, there appears to be quite a level of co-dependency going on between the two characters.  And that’s a big departure for the Renfield of Bram Stoker’s novel, as well as his filmic counterparts over what is now a century of film.

Appearing in some form or another at least a dozen times in movies (as early as 1922, if the character of Knock in NOSFERATU is thought of as a proto-Renfield) the zoophagous lunatic has been most notably played by Dwight Frye (in 1931’s DRACULA), Klaus Kinski (in 1970’s COUNT DRACULA), and Tom Waits (in 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA). All three play the madman effectively, though some imbue Renfield with more moments of clarity than others. What really separates the performances, however, is how the character of Renfield is written. And much of that depends upon how close to the novel script writers tend to be.

Stoker’s book as source material for the character is rich with mannerisms, behaviors, and memorable words spoken by this most famous patient of Dr. Jack Seward’s asylum. Arguably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in the novel as much as the influence of the Count*, R.M. Renfield is more than his malady; he is seminal to the novel’s plot: promised eternal life, Renfield assists Dracula in gaining entry to Seward’s sanitarium, and thus get access to Mina’s room. As a character, however, he is much more than mere plot device. Though his bouts with mania make him more disturbing as the novel progresses, escalating as Dracula gets closer to the protagonists (acting as a sort of barometer), Renfield is ultimately a sympathetic character. He struggles with sanity, and experiences moments of great clarity, eventually warning Mina to leave the asylum (though he doesn’t tell her why).

“Don’t you know…that I am no lunatic in a mad fit, but a sane man fighting for his soul?” he tells Dr. Seward (Seward’s Diary, October 1 (Chapter 18). Indeed, he is a man battling both inner and outer demons. But it remains to be seen just how seriously RENFIELD (2023) will take this conflict. And will the character resemble any previous incarnations.

Dwight Frye as Renfield in 1931's DRACULA
Dwight Frye as Renfield in 1931’s DRACULA

There is a delightful dementia to Dwight Frye’s performance in 1931’s DRACULA.

Though a much modified character from the novel (thanks to being based n the Balderston / Deane stageplay), the Renfield of Tod Browning’s film is almost as iconic as Bela Lugosi’s Count— although here, he is an amalgam of Renfield and Jonathan Harker: a solicitor that goes to Transylvania to ink the deal that brings Dracula to England. And Harker? He’s Seward’s daughter Mina’s fiancé (confusing if one knows the novel well). But with these changes, Balderston / Deane and Browning are able to simplify and speed along the plot. Ironically, in the process of combining characters, Renfield is actually given more motivation for his mental illness than in the novel (though many scholars, and even Stoker’s greatgrandnephew Dacre Stoker, think Renfield preceded Harker as the first solicitor sent to work with Dracula [and for him]**).

Regardless, Frye makes the role his own. Though the New York Times’ review from 1931 simply mentions that Frye “does fairly well as Renfield,” it is Frye’s performance that sticks most in people’s minds when the name Renfield is mentioned. Bombastic, belligerant, and barmy, he is the most animated of the actors ever to play the role.

From his unforgettable laughter to his skulking about the carpet like one of the spiders he collects (pursuing his own [microcosmic] lust for blood), Frye’s Renfield is not only depicted as Dracula’s toadie, but almost as a vampire-in-training. When Van Helsing presents him with wolfsbane, Renfield reacts violently, as if he were already transforming. Until his end at the hands of Dracula, he claims devotion to Count, despite showing sympathy for Mina’s plight. In this regard, he is sympathetic — a man at war with his desire to serve evil, or try desperately to do good.

Most telling as to how Frye plays the character is his delivery of one single line: to vampire-hunter Van Helsing, he says “God will not damn a poor lunatic’s soul. He knows that the powers of evil are too great for those with weak minds.”

In the end, there is great pathos in Frye’s Renfield. He ends up unintentionally leading Van Helsing and Harker to Carfax Abbey where Van Helsing will find and kill Dracula. It is an accidental betrayal, but enough for the Count to strangle Renfield, sending the poor man tumbling down a massive staircase, putting an end to his misery.


Perhaps the most famous actor to have ever played Renfield, Klaus Kinski stars in Jesús Franco’s COUNT DRACULA (1970), a film which was billed at the time as the most-faithful adaptation of the novel ever made. Though the New York Times called it “a doggedly faithful adaptation [that] is plodding and dull,” the presence of Christopher Lee as Dracula (happily embracing the role more than in any of his Hammer performances) makes for a memorable, if flawed movie.

Silly rubber bats aside, there are some truly atmospheric moments, and Kinski — though in the film very little and mute for most of the time he is on screen — has a certain magnetic quality that draws the audience in.

Italian 2 panel poster for Franco’s IL CONTE DRACULA (1970) shows Renfield strangling Mina

If Frye’s performance is the pinnacle of mania, Kinski’s is the exact opposite: an almost catatonic Renfield that — in a wild departure from the novel (and any other film) — only shows true signs of life as he attacks Mina, strangling her for his master (as depicted in the Italian poster for the film where he seems more sinister than Dracula himself!).

In the end, Kinski is underused (as is Renfield), and the actor’s great talent, wasted. But scenes of Kinski in an all-white padded cell, with food smeared all over the walls, does make the viewer uncomfortable, as if the mental illness on screen is a little too real. This Renfield seems lost, and not only a pawn for Dracula, but truly a tortured soul trapped behind bars.


In Francis Ford Coppolla’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), musician/actor Tom Waits embodies what is probably the most faithful interpretation of Renfield in all of cinema (despite being outrageously dressed in Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning costumes [including a contraption on the actor’s hands that presumably kept Renfield from chewing his own fingers, plus an impossibly long-armed straight jacket that allows Waits to gesticulate with what may as well be wings of black and white stripes]).

Waits as Renfield playing opposite Richard E. Grant’s Dr. Jack Seward. Note the contraptions restricting his hands.

Calling it “witty and self-mocking and in places almost hokey,” a critic from The Washington Post gave the film an overall glowing review, and referred to Waits’ performance in a way that could well sum up Renfield’s behavior: “grungy, insect acting.”

Indeed, Waits looks grimy, speaks gravelly, and leaves the audience feeling dirty as he and the other lunatics of the asylum sundown into horrible shrieks and fits of hysteria. Waits is particularly off-putting, and therein the nature of Renfield truly comes to the fore. For Renfield as a character is supposed to make us uncomfortable. He is the all-too-human manifestation of the vampire infestation that juxtaposes one poor man’s degradation with the unholy (and attractive) ascension that is the increasing power and influence of Dracula.

That Waits also delivers lines directly from the novel — including the crystalization of the character as Renfield insists he is not a lunatic, but “a sane man fighting for his soul” — adds a depth to the character that few other actors who have played Renfield are ever given the opportunity to explore.


Perhaps Nicholas Hoult will get that opportunity.  To figure out who Renfield really is, and who he could be. Sure, it’s going to be played for laughs in RENFIELD. That doesn’t mean Hoult can’t grow the character beyond the pages of the novel — or any previous film — and further explore just how much this lunatic servant of Dracula can also look to restore not only his sanity, but also his humanity.

RENFIELD comes to theaters in the USA on Friday, April 14.


*See the excellent “All in The Family: A Retrospective Diagnosis of R.M. Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Elizabeth Winter in The Journal of Dracula Studies for more on the character, mental illness (specifically, dementia praecox, a diagnosis coined in the late nineteenth century), and how familiar Bram Stoker was with issues of mental illness. Curiously, it is from Renfield that we get the modern diagnosis of Renfield’s Syndrome, or clinical vampirism.

 ** Coppola’s take on Renfield in fact makes it very clear that Renfield is the agent who preceded Harker in working with Dracula. If Stoker intended that connection be made, it is unclear. Were Renfield not the first solicitor, then his madness becomes all the more interesting.