Nosferatu and the Uncanny


So it took me an inappropriately long time to write this blog post, probably because I spent far too much time trying to figure out how I could reference one of my favourite SpongeBob episodes without revealing that I am secretly a twelve year old boy. Here’s the best that I could come up with:

First off, I know a lot of people weren’t thrilled at the idea of watching silent films but I was one of those weird people who was actually kind of excited. Sure, they had a tendency to get a little slow sometimes when you had to stop and read all the intertitles, but all in all I thought they were like watching a really cool piece of history unfolding before your eyes.

In seminar we talked a little bit about the uncanny elements of the films, why they were uncanny at the time, and why audiences today may not see them as uncanny in the same way. (Also, Bruno already wrote a great blog post about this topic last week, so I won’t go into it too much here). What I am interested in discussing further however is the elements of the films that can still be seen in modern films, and what it is that makes them worthy of being repeated.

Again, we discussed in seminar certain elements of the films that we noticed in modern films, such as the parallels between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and many of Tim Burton’s films, especially Edward Scissorhands. One scene where this particularly stood out to me was the scene where Cesare the Somnambulist is kidnapping Jane; the contrast between Cesare all in black with eerie makeup and Jane in her white nightgown reminded me instantly of the image of Edward Scissorhands (played by Johnny Depp), all in black with eerie makeup, hugging Kim (played by Winona Ryder), also dressed all in white. (I couldn’t find the exact picture I was looking for, but look it up and hopefully you’ll see what I mean).

However, the film that I most wanted to talk about was Nosferatu. While watching this film I felt an uncanny sense of déjà vu. I knew that this film was essentially the first film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it wasn’t until the lecture that I found out that it was unauthorized. This made the film make a lot more sense to me, because I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula many times and was thrown off by the details that were changed in the film for what I thought had been no reason. I also found it really interesting how there were so many classic horror film clichés exhibited in Nosferatu, because at this time these techniques were brand new. The door to the castle opening and closing for the victim as if of its own accord, the dramatic organ music being played and the monster in the black cloak are all elements that would have been new and uncanny at the time, but now have become almost comical.

One place where this example can be found is in this clip from one of my favourite episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants, called “Graveyard Shift”, which is probably one of the reasons that I was excited to watch Nosferatu in the first place. (I told you my inner twelve year old boy would come out).


2 responses to “Nosferatu and the Uncanny

  1. I really liked the SpongeBob reference! I can’t say that SpongeBob hasn’t been a part of my childhood! 🙂 I also didn’t realize it was unauthorized until I read your blog post!

  2. You’re right that many of what now seem to be iconographic horror film elements must have been new and strange at the time. It’s perhaps sometimes difficult to keep that in mind when watching something from the 1920s, from the perspective of nearly 100 years later! It’s so interesting how what now seems not at all scary (because it’s almost a cliche) probably was more so in the past, like that sequence of Nosferatu’s shadow climbing the stair, or the slow, mechanical movements he has when he’s coming into Hutter’s room.

    Some of these things have become comical cliches, but others, as you note, are still alive and well (like the scene from Edward Scissorhands. Perhaps some things still work on a more subtle level, like colours of clothing, while other things are too direct or obvious and have now been so overused they seem dull or silly. Trying to think about this more, I realized that though the particular sort of “scary organ music” no longer seems scary, the practice of using music to set the mood in films hasn’t dropped off at all. Even though now there is more than music in films (also dialogue and other sound), music still plays a very important part. And scary music, even if the kind of music that now seems “scary” has changed, is still crucial to horror films!

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