sexta-feira, 8 de junho de 2012

From Fact to Fiction to Film: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Werewolf and, of course, King Kong

More than ever we live in an age of images, pictures and videos in particular. Television and the movies reign supreme. But the written word is still of huge importance to us. Without an ability to read, write and speak clearly you would be lost and incapable of success in today’s complex societies. In this class we have talked about some of the greatest mysteries and mystery stories of our western (or euro-American) culture. In many cases the best of these mysteries have been made into movies of one kind or another, haven’t they? And no doubt some of you may only know of these stories from their film adaptations. You may never have read the original novel or short story. To wrap up our course today I thought I’d take you on a magical mystery tour “from fact to fiction to film”.


Everyone’s favorite vampire is Count Dracula of Transylvania. And everyone knows the character personified by the actor Bela Lugosi with the slicked-back hair, piercing eyes, majestic sweeping cape and blah-blah-blah foreign accent. But where does the story come from? Who wrote it and upon what was it based?

Eastern Europe is a place of mystery and legend. The gypsies, for example, call the land of Transylvania home. The Carpathian and Dolomite Mountains are some of the world’s most remote and dramatic. The land now divided into Bosnia and Serbia and other Slavic communities, formally Yugoslavia, is a place of war, bloodshed and tragedy. A particularly gruesome figure from the dark ages of this land was known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century prince from Hungary. Vlad was a great warrior, a Christian hero, who repeatedly repelled the Islamic Turkish invaders who threatened central Europe. But he is remembered most for his brutality. His nickname was The Impaler because he used to execute his captured enemies by impaling them upon tall lances around his castle. He was also known as Vla-cula, or Dracula, the son of the dragon.

The Irish writer Bram Stoker was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard and other popular writers of the late 19th century. In the years leading up to Word War 1 the theme of invasion from Europe was a popular one and many of these writers wrote of monsters, spies and other threats from abroad. Bram Stoker also had a great interest in the folk tales and superstitions from Eastern Europe, places like Hungary, Turkey and of course Transylvania. Other writers had written about vampires before him but Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was to be the supreme invader-monster, a blood-drinking, night-stalking beast who flees the destruction of his homeland and seeks further life (and blood) in England. In Stoker’s novel Count Dracula’s plans are challenged -and he is ultimately defeated- by the powers of good represented by Professor Van Helsing and a brave team of “extraordinary gentlemen”.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 and one thing that makes it such a powerful story- besides the captivating imagery of abandoned castles, moonlit murders and graveyard bones- is that it is written as a series of letters giving it the feel of a true account of horror and madness. It is considered a classic of Gothic Literature.

At the end of the 19th century moviemaking was in its infancy and Dracula’s fantastic imagery seemed particularly well suited to the silver screen. The most interesting early version of the Dracula story is Nosferatu, which means “the undead”. This German Expressionist, black & white, silent movie was directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922 and starred the bizarre-looking Max Schrek as Count Orlok.

The most famous actor to play the part of Dracula was of course Bela Lugosi, a Romanian actor chosen by Universal Studios in Hollywood to play the part in the 1931 film directed by Todd Browning, already known for his 1927 film London After Midnight and later for a film called Freaks made in 1932. Originally Universal had wanted the super-star Lon Chaney to be Dracula. Chaney was famous for his starring roles in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However the great actor, known as “the man of a thousand faces”, had died of throat cancer in 1928 and Universal had to look elsewhere for a new star. In New York they found Bela Lugosi playing the leading role of Dracula in a stage version on Broadway.

Dracula made Lugosi famous and though he appeared in numerous other films-usually horror films- he was forever condemned to be recognized and associated with his role as Dracula and was rarely given larger film roles in non-horror films. Basil Rathbone suffered the same fate of typecasting for his iconic role as Sherlock Holmes. Boris Karloff, on the other hand- because of the extreme makeup necessary for the parts of Frankenstein and The Mummy- avoided this sad fate.

Other important versions of Dracula include the 1979 film with Frank Langella and the more recent production in 1992 by Francis Ford Coppola which mixes the dramatic history of Vlad the Impaler with the narrative story as created Bram Stoker.


One of the most famous gatherings in the history of Romantic and Gothic Literature took place in a castle in Switzerland above legendary Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816. Present were John Polidori, Lord Bryon, Percy Blythe Shelley and Mary Wollstencraft (later Mrs. Shelley). For entertainment during stormy evenings the group held a competition to write horror stories for each other. Shelley and Byron’s contributions are largely forgotten today. Polidori’s contribution, a story called The Vampyre, is now considered the first English language tale written about the blood-sucking undead. What Mary Shelley wrote that summer eventually became the sensational novel, Frankenstein, written when she was only 19 years old.

One thing that people always get wrong is the name of the monster in the novel. It is not named Frankenstein. Doctor Frankenstein is the scientist who creates a new man from parts collected in graveyards and put together in his laboratory. In the novel his creation is referred to as "creature", "monster", "fiend", "wretch", "vile insect", "demon", and even "it". Tellingly the monster refers to himself as “Adam” and “the fallen angel” and pleads with his creator for an explanation of his origins and reason for his being.

The novel is also an early example of science fiction. Science takes center stage in the story after all. Besides the experiments of Doctor Frankenstein there are scenes involving the use of kites and electricity, dissections in medical schools, and of expeditions sent to the Arctic in the name of scientific discovery. The opening and final scenes of Shelley’s novel, and Capolla’s film, are of Doctor Frankenstein pursuing his creation across the polar ice intent upon destroying it. At this point the monster is only seeking peace and a refuge away from the rejections and deceptions of Mankind. Above all his maker, Doctor Frankenstein, has forsaken him for his ugliness and brutish nature. This betrayal is the reason for his violence against Doctor Frankenstein.

 The most famous Frankenstein monster is the one portrayed by tall Boris Karloff with a square head, bolts in his neck, visible stitching from his attached limbs and massive miner’s boots. This first 1931 film was based upon a stage play in turn based upon Shelley’s novel. Its sequel Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 featured the bizarre “electrocuted” hair-doo of actress Elsa Lancaster. Both films were directed by James Whale. The monster’s makeup was by Jack Pierce who also did Karloff’s makeup for The Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr.’s for The Wolfman. Bride of Frankenstein is arguably the better of the two Whale films if for no other reason than it begins with a charming scene of Mary Shelley, Byron and Polidori in the Swiss castle planning their entertainment of stories.

These early Frankenstein films inspired all sorts of spin-offs including comedies by Abbott & Costello and Mel Brooks, and the 1960’s television series The Munsters which features the Frankenstein monster married to Dracula’s daughter. As he did in Dracula Francis Ford Coppola’s blends the best elements of the books and classic films with superb acting, drama, action and costumes in his 1994 Frankenstein film starring Kenneth Branagh as the doctor and Robert de Niro as the monster. The newest Frankenstein-inspired film is Tim Burton’s soon-to-be-released Frankenweenie about a boy (with Johnny Depp’s voice) who brings his dead dog back to life and then suffers the consequences of his vanity.

The Mummy

The classic 1932 film The Mummy also featured the superb “monster” actor Boris Karloff and the makeup talents of Jack Pierce. And though not based upon any specific 19th century novel it was certainly inspired by the discovery of King Tutankamen’s crypt by Howard Carter in 1922 and the supposed curse associated with that discovery. It may also have been inspired by a little known story by Arthur Conan Doyle called The Ring of Thoth written in 1890. In 1999 The Mummy was made into an action film starring Brendan Fraser of which there have been two further sequels. And I recently heard that Universal is planning a new remake of the classic original…though I’m not sure about Coppola’s participation as director or producer 

The Wolfman

The classic Wolfman film was made in 1941 and starred Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney of Phantom and Hunchback fame. Like The Mummy The Wolf Man is another classic Universal Studios monster movie without a direct literary source. Nevertheless the film surely takes inspiration from the same Eastern European legends about vampires and full moons that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. As well there is a long association between the sickness rabies and the condition of being a werewolf. A fascinating tale from 17th century France describes The Beast of Gevaudan, a wolf-like monster that terrorized the French countryside for years. The beast was never killed or captured and some theorize that it was a murderer suffering from rabies and not a wolf at all. Today medical science recognizes a condition called Lycanthropic Disorder, a mental illness which causes the victim to believe that they are actually a werewolf. The story of the beast of Gevaudan was made into a fantastic action film called The Brotherhood of the Wolf in 2001.

King Kong

As we have seen, in the world of popular culture every generation reinterprets the classics. The finest tales of horror, mystery, romance and science fiction were mostly written in the 19th century long before the age of movies and television. The medium of the day back then was the weekly newspaper where Defoe, Dickens and Doyle all marked their first successes. The turn of the century brought with it a new sensation, the moving pictures. The first classic films were silent productions. Between the wars sound was added to film and bigger, bolder versions of the classics were presented to the public. The first sound movie was Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, which introduced Mickey Mouse. 

The 1933 film King Kong was a monster movie like no one had ever seen before. It featured a monster of truly monstrous proportions, a gigantic gorilla. It was one of the first films to use stop motion animation. And it was a true story of sorts. Though King Kong has no specific literary roots the film has several interesting sources.

King Kong was written and directed by the adventurer and filmmaker Merian C. Cooper, known for his documentary films set in exotic locations and featuring action shots of wild animals and a study of local indigenous peoples. The main character of the King Kong film, Carl Denham, is Cooper himself, an obsessed filmmaker always on the lookout for something sensational to film and show the public. A remote island, a damsel in distress and a monster-villain unlike any ever see before provide the thrilling elements of a film that is still today an exciting movie to watch.

King Kong was also inspired by the great explorers of Africa such as Livingstone, Burton and in particular a Frenchmen named Paul du Chaillu who was the first European to see a Mountain Gorilla. Cooper had always been fascinated by primitive tribes and wild animals and it didn’t take much for him to combine the two into a memorable Hollywood version of Beauty of the Beast.

A second version of King Kong was made in 1976 starring Beau Bridges, and Jessica Lange in her first film role. In this film the objective was not to find and capture Kong but to discover oil on a remote island. Only when the oil turns out to be worthless is the existence of Kong revealed and the struggle between Kong and Jack Prescott for Beauty’s love reenacted once again.

In 2005 Peter Jackson (who made the Lord of the Rings trilogy) produced the most ambitious version of King Kong to date. And like the Dracula and Frankenstein films of the 1990s this King Kong follows the original source, the 1933 film, almost scene for scene.  Acknowledged for its impressive computerized animation it is also noteworthy for presenting Kong at last as a real animal, an oversized Mountain Gorilla. The original King Kong film suffers today for the incorrect anatomy and jerky, bigfoot-type movements of its Kong. Jackson’s version brings a believable Kong to the screen and this sets it apart from all other versions.

As Carl Denham’s assistant, Preston, says in the 2005 version of King Kong.

There is still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.

segunda-feira, 4 de junho de 2012

Unexplained Wonders

The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle (or Devil’s Triangle) is an area of sea between the islands of Bermuda and Puerto Rico and South Florida where an unusual number of planes, boats and people have gone missing over the years. Many associate the Bermuda Triangle with some sort of extra-terrestrial force, in other words aliens kidnapping earthlings from the area using some sort of black hole technology. While many disappearances have been proven false, incorrect or exaggerated there still remain a number of unexplained missing persons cases in this area. The most famous Bermuda Triangle case, and what really started the whole mystery, involved the disappearance of five Navy planes in 1950. This is known as the strange case of Flight # 19. Recently however the wrecks of these planes were apparently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. It would seem they lost their bearings, ran out of gas and crash-landed in the sea- much like how perhaps Amelia Earhart died- though not in the Bermuda Triangle.

You might remember the appearance of the Flight 19 crewmen in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, showing that they, along with a number of other people, had been kidnapped by aliens. But this is just fiction. Or is it?

Researchers have determined that the number of crashes or disappearances in the so-called Bermuda Triangle is no greater than any other area of sea. As well the Bermuda Triangle is located in a part of the Atlantic with a large volume of sea and air travel, and known for its bad weather (tropical storms, hurricane etc). In fact a lesser percentage of ships have encountered difficulties in this area precisely because it is a difficult transit route and pilots take extra precautions when traveling there.

The Nazca Lines

The Nazca lines are a group of immense carved drawings or geoglyphs found in the Nazca desert of Southern Peru. The hundreds of geometric (or non-realistic) drawings represent birds, animals and people and are best, though not only, seen from the air. They cover an area of some 195 square miles of desert, and the largest is almost 900 feet wide. The mystery of them is, why were they produced almost 1500 years ago at a time when there were no planes or even balloons to see them? Many people believe they were created as messages to the gods or visiting aliens, and even as runways for alien ships to land on. Others believe they are large geometric patterns used by disciples in religious ceremonies to celebrate water or a good harvest or similar. And others say they are huge time-pieces used to calculate the seasons or to map the constellations of stars in the nighttime sky.

Despite the doubts as to their significance there is nothing unusual about their formation. They were produced by scraping away a top layer of reddish-brown earth and pebbles to reveal a white ground below. Whatever they truly signify the images created are beautiful works of art in most cases and must have required a great understanding of measurements and angles, not to mention artistic sensibility, in order to produce their final exquisite forms.
The Sphinx and Pyramids

The Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza form a group of large sculptures and burial tombs constructed outside the city of Cairo in Egypt by the Pharaohs, or ancient kings of Egypt, around 2500 B.C. They are the number one tourist attraction of the middle east. The largest pyramid, Pharaoh Khafu’s, covers an area larger than 13 acres, is about 450 feet high and was constructed by the hands of 100,000 slaves with over 1milliion300thousand blocks of stone weighing between 2.5 and 15 tons each. The Sphinx is a sculpture carved from a single block of limestone over 200 feet long and 65 feet high. It represents the harmony between Man, the thinker, which is the head and the body of the lion which was the strongest animal known to the ancient Egyptians. Some say the missing nose and customary beard were shot off by the French Emperor Napoleon’s artillery in the early 1800s but they were actually destroyed in 1837 by an Islamic ruler, Sai Al-suada, who was outraged his people were still worshipping the ancient gods and not the Muslim god, Mohammed.

Hollywood had made much of the mummified bodies of the Pharaohs and the curses attached to them. Anyone who robbed a tomb of its treasure would be cursed, it was said. Yet despite the curses most of the tombs of Egypt’s kings have been looted and destroyed over the centuries. In many cases only the mummies themselves have remained untouched. The most famous mummy’s curse surrounds that of King Tutankhamen, the boy-king. His is one of the few tombs found undamaged and has been judged the richest archaeological discovery of all time. The archaeologist Howard Carter discovered this tomb in 1922. After that a number of persons associated with the curse died under supposed mysterious circumstances beginning with Lord Carnarvon, who paid for Carter’s expeditions. He died six weeks after the discovery though the cause of death in the end was really just malaria. Of the 58 persons present when the tomb was opened only eight actually died from anything other than natural causes.

Machu Picchu

Another famous discovery by a classic explorer is the lost city of the Incas known as Machu Picchu found high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, South America, in 1911 by the National Geographic explorer- and inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones- Hiram Bingham. Like the Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth and is usually always listed with the pyramids as one of the seven existing wonders of the world. Also included in this list are Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.

Machu Picchu Is located in a spectacular location high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Because of its isolated location it was never found by the Spanish conquistadors who defeated the Inca Empire in the middle 1500s after discovering the Americas. When Hiram Bingham found the city it was almost entirely covered with jungle. Bingham spent five years uncovering most of the city and today only 30% has been restored and is open for the public to visit.

The mystery of Machu Picchu is who built it and why. Some say it was built as an Inca fortress to hide away from the Spanish conquerors, others that it was a religious temple for sacrifices to the sun god. Most recently it is claimed to have been a sort of summer resort of an Incan king, high in the mountains where the temperatures were always cooler than in the historical Incan capital, Cuzco. Below Machu Picchu flows the Urubamba River, a tributary of the mighty Amazon.

Easter Island

Another South American mystery is the origins of the 887 massive stone statues called Moai found on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile, South America. The ancient people of Easter Island, the Rapanui, were Polynesians like the people of Hawaii, who arrived by boat. Easter Island is located 2180 miles from the coast of Chile and is known as the most remote inhabited island on earth. The island is only 24 x 12 miles in area and is formed from the top of a great undersea volcano. Today less than 200 people live on Easter Island, which is part of the Republic of Chile. The island is a popular tourist destination, particularly for surfers.

Archaeologists have shown that when the island became too heavily populated the inhabitants began fighting amongst themselves for the few resources that remained. Eventually most were forced to leave. The giant statues built by these people were meant to represent their ancestors and to protect the people from the violence of the sea around them and invaders from other lands. To determine who would rule the people of Easter Island a yearly competition was held to collect bird’s eggs from the towering cliffs of the island. Petroglyphs, or cave drawings, depict these bird gods. Like the pyramids numerous slaves were made to cut the giant stones that form the statues of Easter Island and transport them over great distances before they were raised to face the sea.

One of the Easter Island Moais named Dum Dum appears in the first Night in a Museum film with Ben Stiller. You can see him at the Museum of natural History in New York City.

The Great Wall of China

It is said that the Great Wall of China is so big you can see it from space. Actually you can see it only from low earth orbit or 100 miles or so above earth, and not from outer space. Nevertheless it is one of the greatest constructions on earth. It is 5500 miles long and stretches across China’s entire northern border. Construction of the wall and numerous fortresses began in the 7th century in order to protect the Chinese people from the Mongolian invaders of northern Asia. The most frequently visited parts of the wall are those near the city of Beijing.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is a famous palace and burial tomb found in the state of Angra in Northern India 120 miles from the city of New Delhi on the banks of the river Yamuna. It was built by the Hindustan ruler Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child! The shah and his wife are buried below the building in a special crypt.

The Taj Mahal was constructed between 1632 and 1652. It is made entirely of white marble, gold and precious stones, and is considered one of the most beautiful and expensive buildings ever created. The total cost has been estimated to be about 32 million Rupees at the time of construction. The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia and over 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet and the Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, while the sapphire came from Sri Lanka and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, twenty eight types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble.

A labour force of twenty thousand workers was recruited from across northern India. Sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern India, stonecutters from Baluchistan, a specialist in building turrets, and another who carved only marble flowers were part of a thirty-seven men who formed the main group of designers.

Maybe you saw the Taj Mahal in the film Slumdog Millionaire?


Stonehenge is a Bronze Age circle of standing stones located in southern England and said to be a religious site of the neolithic Druid faith. It is also said to be an ancient time-clock used to calculate the comings and goings of the seasons for the purposes of religious ceremonies. The oldest stones have been dated to 2400 B.C. and it is said the site may first have been used as a cemetery as long ago as 3000 B.C. The name Stonehenge mans “hanging or suspended rocks”, henge being the old English word for hang or hanging. A legend from the 12th century suggests that Stonehenge was built by King Arthur’s magician, Merlin, as a place of healing and as a memorial to English soldiers who had died fighting against the Saxons from northern Europe.

Noah’s Ark

Our bible contains many fantastic stories, and is a great source for mysteries. Some stories are, of course, more believable than others. Some people believe in every word the bible says but they have trouble proving some of the more fantastic parts even to themselves. But remember that one of the most interesting things about a mystery is that it must have some basis in fact. If we are to solve a mystery we need to strip away the impossible and reveal the possible. That is what Sherlock Holmes taught us, remember? Remove the impossible and you are left with only what may be considered the possible. We can do the same with the bible. We can strip away the fantasy and reveal the truth.
For example, it may be difficult to believe God created the world in 6 days…science now tells us the universe may be 12 billion years old. But what if we divided those 12 billion years into six 2 billion year long days, wouldn’t that work? Moses is said to have parted the Red Sea so he could exodus Palestine and flee to Egypt with the Jews. But how, you ask? Archaeologists have actually found evidence of an earthquake during Moses’ time that may really have dried up the Red Sea temporarily. Perhaps this is where the story Moses and the Red Sea comes from?

What I am suggesting is that it is possible to understand God and his creation in terms of Science. We don’t have to solve or understand the mystery 100%. Do you really want someone to prove to you that Nessie really doesn’t exist, or that Unicorns really are not to be found in nature? Of course not. But scientific investigation can help us to better understand the things around us, and appreciate them more. Myths were originally created as a way to explain the mysteries of life to people. This is the basis of all religion. Today science helps us in a similar way. It also helps us understand the mysteries of life.

To finish today’s class I want to tell you the story of Noah and his ark. Noah was instructed by an angry God that he should gather up his family and two of every animal and construct for them a great boat, an ark that would survive a mighty flood God was going to cause and do away with all the sinners and unbelievers on earth. After 40 days of rain and 40 days of drought a dove brought a, olive branch to Noah in the ark and Noah knew the flood was over and man could begin his life anew on earth.

Science had found proof of floods and earthquakes in the Mediterranean region where the stories of the bible take place. But what about something as specific as Noah’s ark? Well it just so happens that on the very mountain in the bible where Noah was said to have lived, on Mount Ararat in Turkey, there is evidence of a huge boat-shaped construction preserved in the mountainside. Actual evidence of petrified wood has been found inside this form. But is this Noah’s Ark or something else? And if not, what is it?