He lived down the street from me, and we weren't really friends. We were merely familiar faces on the bus ride to school and in the classroom, the two kids who periodically discovered each other at the local jungle gym. Perhaps he lived too close for comfort for me as I navigated the 5th grade â€“ he was a bully at school who hadn't yet targeted me, and I sensed it was always a matter of time â€“ but Bryan (is what we'll call him) announced to no one in particular as we played at the playground that Friday afternoon that Bela Lugosi's Dracula would air on a local network at midnight that night. I didn't know what Bela Lugosi's Dracula was any more than I knew what TV looked like at midnight. As we took that cyclical ride on the merry-go-round, he asked me if I would be tuning in.
My vocabulary with horror was, then, very limited. I knew Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Wolf Man, and I felt sorry for him. Despite his appearance, Talbot was a victim of circumstance, hardly the monster that would inspire nightmares. But Dracula â€“ even with no knowledge of the character, the novel, or the film â€“ was intrinsically haunting. Had you never seen the 1931 film, you were at least familiar with the cloaked figure bidding you welcome into his castle, eerily celebrating the howling wolves in the distance. None of us have seen the Devil in person either, but we still fear him. I felt the same way about Dracula.
I told Bryan I would be watching, and as I headed for home, I heard him yell that I was probably too scared to see it. I also heard him yell to me that my parents probably wouldn't let me stay up that late anyway. Mind you: we weren't friends. And he was wrong on both counts. I wasn't too scared to tune in; I was, however, incapable of staying awake in front of the TV. I'd fallen asleep before the movie aired that night; luckily, the same station would air the movie again at 11 a.m. on Saturday. I was relieved that I could return to school on Monday, ready to tell Bryan that I'd faced those fears, even if I'd done so in broad daylight. But a family event would keep me away from the television that day, so my dad's solution was to commit the screening to a VHS tape â€“ that way, I could watch it whenever, even with him. And, consequently, after the sun had gone down. And, as everyone knows, you're only the potential victim of a vampire once the sun has gone down.
But again I went to bed that night without having seen the movie. I claimed to be too tired, despite my dad's insistence that we stay up and watch it. Like a silver bullet, the screening was dodged once more. I knew I couldn't avoid it forever. Bryan was certain to quiz me on Monday morning, so I couldn't run from the film forever.
Instead, I watched Dracula a little after noon that Sunday. I didn't procrastinate, wanting to see the picture as early as possible so that it was as far removed from my bedtime as it could be, so I didn't wait for the company of my father. I was on a mortal mission for my soul, and I couldn't have this film following me into my dreams. Unfortunately, I'd find that the matinee screening wouldn't help. It turns out that Lugosi's Dracula isn't dependent upon trivialities such as darkness or ambient night sounds to inspire fear. As the Count, Dracula is far more menacing, staring back in silence than we sometimes recall, and director Tod Browning isn't frightened of allowing the film to take shape in absolute quiet, whether for a few seconds or for entire minutes. Raised on the films of Lucas and Spielberg and Saturday morning cartoons, I knew the value of color: the bright lights and the darkest blacks, but Dracula seemed reared on a different palette altogether, robbing its black and white scenes of any color, of any possibility for hope. There was only dark and "darker." Tonally, Dracula possesses two moods: "dangerous" and "deadly," and if the "dangerous" doesn't terrify you, the "deadly" is in close pursuit at all times. The film, economically paced at a little more than an hour, engorges the production with more atmosphere than one sees in most horror films today, and a day with Dracula was turning into a precarious venture at the very least. But it was Dracula's unrelenting stare â€“ coupled with that silence and those shadows from before â€“ that I would need to shove into the catacombs of my mind before bedtime, no later than nine that night. His stare seemed to discover me, watching from the safety of my home, in those cinematic close-ups. His stares promised that Dracula knew where to find me at all times.
And yet I felt pretty good as I brushed my teeth that night, ready to share with Bryan how I'd stared into the face of the Prince of Darkness and returned to school on Monday anyway, no worse for the wear. I'd filled the rest of my day with Fleischer Superman cartoons and some G.I. Joe battles on my bedroom floor to erase Dracula from my memory, and I would have enjoyed a peaceful rest that night had it not been for my dad's fateful reminder.
"Did you watch Dracula today?" he'd asked me. "What did you think of it?"
I can't really recall the nature of my review before I went to bed â€“ alone, in the dark â€“ that night. All I could think about was Dracula's ominous stare, its ability to find me in the family TV room, its assurance that it knew where to find me at any time from behind the television set glass.
And perhaps that was still a little too close for comfort for me.