The Biology of Blood-Lust: Medieval Medicine, Theology, and the Vampire Jew

By Gardenour, Brenda | Film & History, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Biology of Blood-Lust: Medieval Medicine, Theology, and the Vampire Jew


Gardenour, Brenda, Film & History


Released in 1967, Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires (also known as The Fearless Vampire Killers) tells the tale of two intrepid vampire hunters, Professor Abronsius and his assistant, Alfred, who take up residence at a small village inn near the dreaded vampire Count von Krolock's castle. The inn is owned and occupied by the Jew Shagal, along with his wife Rebecca,4 his beautiful daughter, Sarah, and the blond-haired, blue-eyed, buxom Christian maid, Magda,5 who is the focus of Shagal's sexual obsessions. Despite his unceasing efforts to possess her, Magda remains intact, safe within her bedroom, where she works and sleeps within sight of her crucifix. One night, having been bitten by Krolock and now a vampire himself, Shagal returns to the inn for another chance at the lovely Magda. He appears at her window and breaks through the glass, creeping forward through the shadows as vampires are wont to do. Seeing him, she recoils in horror, reaches above her head for the crucifix hanging on the wall, and holds it out against him, convinced that he will shrink back. Instead, Shagal narrows his eyes as he gazes upon the crucifix, turns his head coyly to one side and, waving one hand in playful dismissal of Magda's foolishness, chortles in a stereotypical Jewish brogue, "Oy, for you've got the wrong vampire!"

The character of the Jewish vampire is used for comic effect in Polanski's satirical Dance of the Vampires. Beneath the audience's laughter, however, the vampire Jew reflects a long history of anti-Judaism in European culture that began in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries with the systematic application of Aristotelian natural philosophy to issues of theology.6 Scholars working in the academic milieu of the medieval university combined the authority of Aristotelian discourse with that of learned medicine to construct the paradigmatic Christian and male body, which was both pure and perfect; against this perfect male body, they created its inverted "other," the un-Christian female body, which was impure, corrupt, and even poisonous. Cast into this latter category, the imaginary body of the male Jew became cold and feminine, evil and calculating, sexually rapacious and starving for warm, moist blood: the paradigm of the heretical mother - the witch - who cannibalizes her young.

The anatomy and physiology of the vampire in F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu: Ein Symphonie des Grauens (1922) depicts Count Orlock as a strange creature who first appears, in a medium-long-distance shot, emerging from the dark recesses of his castle through a shadowy archway, clasping his hands to his chest as if chilled.7 His facial features are not discernible. As H utter8 approaches, however, the creature is suddenly revealed. Protruding from layers of dusty black woolen clothing and tucked beneath a black, brimless, Cantor's hat,9 Nosferatu's gaunt and pallid face, shot in three-quarter profile, seems to float. While the vampire's pallor evokes that of John Polidori's Lord Ruthven, whose otherwise handsome face has a "deadly hue" that "never gained a warmer tint."10 Nosferatu's distinct physiognomy owes more to Bram Stoker's vision of Count Dracula, with whom he shares kohl-rimmed eyes, impossibly shaggy eyebrows with wiry "hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion," an exaggerated hooked nose with "peculiarly arched nostrils," and enormous, pale, "extremely pointed" ears.11

Exaggerating these already groteseque features of Stoker's Count Dracula, Murnau sculpts a sinister creature whose anatomical traits and physiological drives are grounded in the imaginary body not just of the vampire but of the monstrous, blood-thirsty, rapacious Jew.12 The vampire turns his head slowly to full profile, visually elongating his beaked face and his bent frame. Later, at the dinner table, Nosferatu crouches behind an enormous parchment, his black, close-set eyes only inches away from the legal documents that will bring him to London. …

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