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07 October 2011 @ 03:11 am
Telepathy Before 1928 -- Nosferatu  
Last night, I had the pleasure of watching one of the all time classics of film, Nosferatu (1922).

If you have not seen it, the movie is in the public domain in the US and can be found in its entirety here. The Wikipedia summary can be found here.

I decided to watch this movie with an eye towards the treatment of psi because it is mentioned in Cinema of the Psychic Realm by Paul Meehan. Meehan says of the film,

"Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula lensed by the esteemed director F.W. Murnau, featured Max Schreck as the gnome-like "Count Orloc.' Like the many vampires who would follow him, the Count possessed hypno-telepathic abilities that enable him to impose his will on his victims from a distance."

Wikipedia is written by committee -- it is not too much of a shock when something is missing from a Wikipedia page or written in an incorrect fashion. I would expect however, perhaps unreasonably, that someone who is watching the movie with an eye for presenting how psi is depicted in the film to be more observant.

What both Wikipedia and Meehan decline to make mention of is that what distinguishes the vampire telepathically is not that he is telepathic, but what he does with telepathy.

In this movie, it's not just the vampire who is telepathic: Both of our "normal human" protagonists are telepathic as well. Telepathy is presented as a normal human faculty -- what makes the vampire sinister is that he uses this normal human faculty to have control over (one) victim from afar. Actually what makes him sinister is that he KILLS A LOT OF PEOPLE and he DRINKS THEIR BLOOD and then he KILLS A LOT MORE PEOPLE -- but there is also the part about using telepathy to take over the mind of Harker's employer, who sends Harker off to Transylvania to find the vampire, and then goes totally insane.

Let me show you that our two normal human protagonists are also telepathic.

Start watching about 30 minutes in.

At 30:00, Harker closes the door in his chamber, realizing that the Count is the vampire. He looks out the window, and then crawls into bed.

The door opens on its own (if there's any implication that psi is sinister in this movie, it's that PK is sinister!).

Harker freaks out and looks away. The vampire comes through the door. Harker freaks out and hides under the covers. The vampire approaches.

Back in Harker's hometown of Bremen, his wife, Nina (who is living with Harker's friend and his sister) wakes up in bed, in a trance state. She sleep walks over to the balcony and starts walking on the stonework railing. Harker's friend sees this, runs over, and catches her, then asks a servant to fetch the doctor. Meanwhile, the vampire slowly approaches Harker.

The next scene shows the doctor by Nina's bedside (I guess he got there super quick, like in the last ten seconds...). Nina sits up in bed, still in a trance, and puts her arms out and yells, "Jonathon! Jonathon! Hear me!"

The vampire, meanwhile, stops creeping towards Harker and turns around to look over his shoulder, almost in fear. Nina is still sitting in bed with her arms outstretched. The vampire changes his mind and leaves Harker's room. Nina collapses back to sleep in the doctor's arms. Harker's friend asks what came over her, and the doctor replies, "A sudden fever."

Then, this text comes on the screen (at 34:19):

"The doctor laid Nina's trances to some unknown disease. Since then I have learned that she had sensed the menace of Nosferatu that very night. And Harker, far away, had heard her cry of warning."

So very clearly, she, Harker, and the vampire are all telepathic, not just the vampire.

At 44:35, it says, "Nina was often seen among the dunes, waiting for her husband's return." She is receiving his letters, and is worried about him.

At 53:27, it says, "Despite all sorts of obstacles, Harker pushed on towards Bremen. Meanwhile, driven by the fatal breath of the vampire, the vessel moved rapidly towards the Baltic." Then we see the vessel, sailing. At 53:49, Nina is in another trance and sleep walking. Another shot of the vessel, and then more waves. Then the sister of Harker's friend gets up from bed and goes to Nina, who is sleepwalking. Nina has a glad expression on her face and says, "He's coming, I must go to meet him..." She runs in from the balcony. Cut to a scene of Harker stepping out of a stagecoach.

I interpret this as meaning, she is psychically aware of her husband's return.

Then we see waves, and then a shot of Nina running through a park. Then we see the ship (with the vampire), then Harker's employer, who is locked up, climbing to a window. Another shot of the ship, now pulling into the dock. Harker's employer looks out the window and exclaims, "The Master is coming!... The Master is here!"

I interpret this as Harker's employer being psychically aware that the vampire is coming. This is juxtaposed with Nina's awareness that her husband is en route. The vampire has not "made" Nina psychic (and was also warded off her husband by her psychic cries!).

These scenes show the distance telepathy of the protagonists being juxtaposed with the distance telepathy of the antagonists.

Harker and the vampire happen to arrive in town at nearly the same moment.

The vampire comes out of the ship. At 59:07, we see Harker hurrying home through Breman. The vampire walks across town, too. Harker reaches home, and pauses, and Nina runs out to embrace him. Inside the house, Nina is still in a trance, while the vampire shows up at their house, and looks around out front. Harker kisses Nina, and the vampire runs off.

The trance aspect for psi is consistent with the tradition of Spiritualist mediums, so it is completely understandable to a period audience that someone would have to be in a trance states to be psychically aware. Here, Nina seems to go into trance states on her own, without any effort on her part or intention to do so. The comment that Harker had heard her cry of warning is interesting, since it appears he is awake at the time.

Anyway, it seems there is a sort of revisionist history going on here, specifically erasing older psi narratives and describing older works only in terms of the newer, more problematic narratives, or even going so far as erasing the presence of psi in the story completely when the narrative does not conform to the modern master-narrative. (I've seen this before, FYI, and so will you if you keep reading this blog.) The elements I have just described above, though completely consistent with a 1922 view of psi, are not consistent with an early 21st century view of psi, which dictates (here) that telepathy is a "scary special vampire power" and that the "ordinary" protagonists cannot not also experience it (unless the vampire was responsible). The vampire's mind control of Harker's employer is more visible than the very explicit depiction of the psychic experiences of Nina and Harker.

The Wikipedia plot summary (otherwise very thorough) completely omits the scene where Nina telepathically cries out for her husband's safety, even though this is what makes the vampire stop and leave her husband alone, and even though there is a panel of text explaining what occurred. And then Meehan, who is supposedly including this movie in his book because of its psychic content, and then reviewing it for that very content, also completely omits this and instead pulls out the master-narrative, that the vampire has hypno-telepathic abilities because that's a special vampire power, "like the many vampires who would follow him," and for whom it clearly is a "special vampire power." (See, for example, White Wolf's Auspex power.)

The vampire in this movie is no doubt psi, but so are a few other people. Telepathy is not a "special vampire power" in this movie. If anything, psychokinesis is! (But Meehan, puzzlingly, makes no reference to psychokinesis in this movie at all!)

The ending:

I personally found the ending ambiguous as to whether Nina dies, but Wikipedia seems to say that she does. Harker has survived two blood suckings in this movie and lived, so it didn't seem obvious to me that her fainting means she died. If that is what is intended in the movie, then it is an early example of the "psi woman dies to save others/the world" trope, although her reasons for sacrificing herself and the manner of her death have nothing to do with psi. (I was more surprised that in 1922 it was a woman who figures out the solution to the vampire problem and is responsible for killing the vampire, while Van Helsing does pretty much nothing but give some exposition in the middle of the movie, and then get there after the vampire's already dead! He only showed up at all because Nina sent her husband to fetch him, so that she could finish off the vampire without him stopping her.)
Current Mood: accomplished
ada_hoffmann on October 7th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
This is kind of amazing.
Dash: Agendaspacehawk on October 7th, 2011 08:24 pm (UTC)

What specifically do you find amazing? The omission/revision? Because that (sadly) happens way too often.
ada_hoffmann on October 8th, 2011 05:48 pm (UTC)
Not the omission/revision per se, but the way psi was put in the original story, in 1922, and just accepted and not commented on.
Dash: Agendaspacehawk on October 9th, 2011 05:56 am (UTC)
Ah, yes! That is common in early works.