Thing!

thingSPOILERS AHOY FOR A 1982 FILM, WHICH YOU SHOULD JUST WATCH ALREADY

With Halloween upon us, last night I finally unwrapped my long-shelved Blu-Ray of John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror alien shapeshifter film, The Thing. Not having seen it in many, many years, I was curious about whether it would hold up.

Short answer: yes, with some caveats.

The tense atmosphere of paranoia and claustrophobia, owing to the remote Antarctic location and whiteout snowstorm, and the plot which means that anyone could be a malevolent alien, holds up beautifully; as do the groundbreaking practical effects from Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (weirdly, the least-realistic special effect was a character getting a minor bullet wound to their leg stitched up – that leg did NOT look real). There is some serious “GAAAAHHHH!!” in this film.

As to the caveats: the characterization is fairly thin, even for this type of movie; part of that could be due to the fairly large cast (12) – one of the movie’s closest relatives, 1979’s Alien, has fewer characters (7) and they feel better-drawn.

I also wish that they would have made the alien parasite arrive on Earth via meteor or comet, instead of spaceship. Seeing the monster as a mindless irruptive biological process instead of sentient not only makes it scarier to me, it would fix or eliminate a couple plot elements that I don’t think work so well – such as Wilford Brimley building a flying saucer from helicopter parts, and the question of why the beast, when it is in one of its several large forms, runs instead of simply taking the men out while it has such a huge size advantage over them.

Also, MacReady (Kurt Russell)’s hat is just plain ridiculous.

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One thing that struck me from the vantage point of 2015, was how much the movie looks like an AIDS-paranoia metaphor.

Before I go any further, let me state that I am not presenting this reading as definitive by a long shot; for one, it was only in 1982 that the CDC first used the term “AIDS”, and released a case definition of it; while the phenomenon had been bubbling up in some media reports slightly prior, it’s not certain that the disease was yet a well-enough-known issue to have made it into the movie while it was being written or filmed.

However, Hollywood is historically fairly gay-friendly, and also runs on rumors; so I don’t think it’s impossible that word of AIDS was making the rounds there, before it hit the mainstream public consciousness.

Another strike against the AIDS reading is that this movie, like 1951’s The Thing From Another World, is based on an even older story, 1938’s Who Goes There?; and AIDS was obviously unknown at that time.

Last, “contagion-as-monster” is a very, very old horror trope. Werewolves and vampires infect their victims via fluid transfer (and may have been inspired by real-life diseases such as rabies and porphyria); and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead not only posits a disease-like transmission vector for his monsters, but a geometric spread of the plague. And Alien certainly runs on some potent “sex and infection” imagery.

Still, a few things stood out to me.

One is that the base is staffed only by men. This might be argued to be simply “realism”, but women were wintering at McMurdo Station by 1974, and Alien, from 3 years prior, featured two women on the Nostromo‘s crew, one of whom would go on to be an all-time classic protagonist. And even The Thing From Another World had a female character. So the all-male crew here seems unusual in 1982.

Another is that MacReady keeps erroneously referring to the dead Norwegians (who indirectly, inadvertently infect the camp at the start of the film) as “Swedes” – while this might be meant as simple humor, it’s perhaps noteworthy that Sweden has long been associated with progressive values on LGBT rights. Not sure if Sweden was popularly-seen as a gay mecca in 1982? Finland is next door, and Tom of Finland was an inspiration to the Village People…plus, ABBA.

And why make them Norse at all? The Thing From Another World , like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is popularly seen as a Communism metaphor; in the early eighties, the Cold War was in danger of going hot. So why not make the Norwegians Soviet, unless a different metaphor is being reached for here?

Last, there is a very simple scene that raised my eyebrows a little. Palmer (an inveterate stoner) and Childs (played by Keith David) are relaxing in their room (I believe that every other character we see is shown to have their own private quarters; and in fact, he-man protagonist MacReady has his own standalone shack, separate from the main building) and watching videotapes of game shows.

Palmer fires up a fat joint; and Childs, wordlessly, beckons for a hit, which Palmer passes him without looking. This casual interaction mostly seems like simple bored companionship: people who work together and know each other well and are stuck in close quarters, just passing the time (and, the dutchie).

BUT, when a commotion in the kennel causes MacReady to pull the fire alarm, Childs comes running – and he is fumbling to get on his pants.

Now, it’s possible that he had them off because he was sleeping or getting ready to, but I believe he (and everyone else) is wearing longjohns, and the kennel is in the same building (that is, Childs does not need to go outside, so why does he need anything more than longjohns?).

So the fact that he’s fumbling to get his pants on, seems a weird unnecessary detail: unless it’s meant to subtly-suggest to the audience that Palmer and Childs may be slightly-more than friends and co-workers.

Which adds another layer of potential distrust between white, manly-man MacReady and black, possibly-coded-as-gay Childs, who spend much of the film circling each other warily.

Anyway, like I said, I don’t think that’s the only way to read it; but it’s an interesting lens to look through. The Thing From Another World specifies the plant-like biology of its monster, but The Thing‘s monster is said (hilariously, via Asteroids-like computer graphics and a highly-specific-yet-round worldwide infection estimate of “27,000 hours”) to be disease-pandemic-like in its aggressive attack of living cells.

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What this movie without question DOES have, and what will stick with you, is one of the all-time great bleak endings – having blown up their base camp in hopes of killing the monster before it can reach civilization (and with it, blowing up any hope of their own survival, in the -100 degree temps), an exhausted MacReady and Childs eye each other distrustfully and share a bottle of scotch while waiting to “see what happens”.

The Thing (10/10) Movie CLIP – Why Don't We Wait Here, See What Happens (1982) HD

Is one of them The Thing, or both of them, or neither of them? Internet theories abound, but of course the point is that it doesn’t matter – neither man can take the chance of trusting the other.

(There are two alternate endings: in one, subsequent to the above scene a sled dog is shown running away from the smoldering base the next day, mirroring the Thing-dog that escapes the Norwegian base and infects the American one at the beginning of the film and thereby implying the men’s failure to destroy The Thing. In the other, filmed but never shown, a small time-jump shows that MacReady has been rescued and confirmed to be human.)

Image from Drew Struzan’s The Thing movie poster.


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Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.

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61 thoughts on “Thing!

  1. I can place 1982 pretty firmly in my mind. Being a military brat, I place the chronology of my youth by where I lived at the time. I started college in 1981, where sexually transmitted disease was a frequent topic of discussion. The disease du jour, however, was herpes. We were starting to hear some rumblings about AIDS, but did not yet associate it with gay men: rather, oddly enough, it was Haitians. I assume that this was due to the early transmission vector into the United States. The full-blown AIDS epidemic, and public awareness of it, came a bit later.

    I suppose that it is possible that we were behind the curve in Santa Barbara, and that down in Hollywood things were already to the point of their producing cinematic metaphors about AIDS. But my money is on coincidence.

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    • RE: Haitians; interestingly, before “AIDS”, one of the terms being used for the disease was “4H”, because it had been observed in homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians.

      And it may well be coincidence; but more than many, horror films often seem weirdly-reflective of the fear of the day.

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  2. The version of Tainted Love by Soft Cell was released in 1981 rather straightforwardly, so to speak, as an AIDS metaphor. So it’s certainly possible for there to be avant garde knowledge of the disease among what people would call the creative class.

    It might have been my age at the time, but in my estimation, the widespread knowledge of what AIDS was and is – even the negative stereotypes – didn’t become established until Ryan White and Rock Hudson.

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      • You’re right. I misremembered a music post about covers that included Tainted Love. It’s Coil’s cover, released in 1985 (when knowledge of AIDS had permeated the mainstream) that was explicit about its connection with AIDS, including a portion of the proceeds from sales going to AIDS charities per wikipedia.

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    • Yeah, that timeline I linked above notes:

      On June 5 [1981], the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publish a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), describing cases of a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles. All the men have other unusual infections as well, indicating that their immune systems are not working; two have already died by the time the report is published. This edition of the MMWR marks the first official reporting of what will become known as the AIDS epidemic.
      On June 5, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times report on the MMWR. On June 6, the San Francisco Chronicle covers the story. Within days, doctors from across the U.S. flood CDC with reports of similar cases.

      I think it’s possible that amongst the creative class there was word that something was happening, even before June of ’81.

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      • Still, June ’82 (the release date) is too early, adding the time for filming, script development, and so on. Really we need to be thinking more about ’81 than ’82. From Wikipedia:

        The final screenplay was written in 1981 by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt Lancaster. Carpenter later recalled that he did not meet or collaborate with any of the screenwriters.

        There was some buzz around AIDS, and the gay community in NY and SF knew something was happening, but not what, nor how widespread. In fact, according to this site, the death toll in ’81 was a shade over 200. However, those are the total numbers that we now know about. At the time any particular person probably had only heard of a few deaths. Some friends were sick and very afraid. But it was just a few friends. Nothing big.

        The fact is, people were very, very, very, very slow to accept what was happening. A few people in public health were making noise, but most were ignoring it.

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          • There is, in short, dear Glyph, zero reason to think that AIDS, which was hardly known at all in any form even by the time the movie was released, was even subliminally on or in the minds of the The Thing’s creators when the script was being written and finished, and the movie cast, from ca. 1975 – 1980, except as a template of horror that precedes both horror fiction and real life-and-death disease.

            I suspect, but do not know, that the characters in the original novella were also all male, in keeping with its most frequently cited passage:

            The group tensed abruptly. An air of crushing menace entered into every man’s body. Sharply they looked at each other, more keenly than ever before – is that man next to me an inhuman monster?

            So THE THING seems to anticipate AIDS, but, I think clearly, we retroactively read certain patterns of the AIDS plague retroactively into THE THING, magnified by the underlying question or issue of homosexual eros in any all-male “society.” To go much further investigating the movie as uncanny premonition, the ideas burbling up in the unconscious in synchrony with the virus spreading in the population, Struzan’s poster art as in effect a first artist’s rendering of HIV, that will be too much for most people, or spell a different kind of horror (Jung!, Hegel!, theology!) for the empirical rationalist mind.

            For those who could use a re-cap of the film, there’s also this.

            ALSO: there is actually one female “character” in the film – the voice of the computer, by Adrienne Barbeau, the director’s wife at the time (was noted in the “Making of” material I was skimming this AM, during pre-production on this comment…)

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              • Glyph: What about the poster appears emblematic of the virus?

                The image is an “everyman” or “anyman” as angel of death – “that man next to me an inhuman monster.” Interesting that the landscape and the imagery suggesting lethality or “alien terror” have the same color.

                So, AIDS converts “the person next to you,” via acts of intimacy, from source of fulfillment to source of lethal danger. Of course, AIDS is not unique in this respect. In some ways that’s always been “the story of love.” So that’s part of the “horror template” that precedes both the narrative and the disease.

                In this light also interesting the role that “man’s best friend” plays.

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                • Or, the ultimate in alien terror is the alienation of identity, which ought to be a paradox – see “the mirror stage” and the recognition of the other as self, self as also other. Struzan’s art also evokes a shattered mirror, suggestively.

                  Incidentally, Struzan is probably the most revered, and very likely the highest paid, movie poster artist of our era. For me, he was an acquired taste. He did the poster art for all of the Star Wars films, many of the Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, and many other films. I don’t think you can call him influential, however, since few artists attempt to imitate his portraiture. So, what’s especially interesting here to me is that the poster specifically lacks a character portrait or at least a human face, and instead replaces it with the orgasmic explosive refractory white Thingism of Death by Destruction of Identity. So it’s in some ways the least Drewish piece of “Drew Art” I know of – so my favorite.

                  More typical Drew Art:https://www.google.com/search?q=Drew+Struzan+posters&safe=off&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAWoVChMI8ri37qPtyAIVV9xjCh1IwQt3&biw=1823&bih=784

                  It’s a google search, so a couple of those posters aren’t Struzan. One or two down the list – like the Brando portrait APOCALYPSE NOW! – were done by some of the few movie poster artists approaching his stature.

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                  • Consider also the main contender for ultimacy in “alien terror.” This is the much more highly valued – though partly as an effect of its rarity – ALIEN advance poster:

                    The ALIEN of Alien is also a shapeshifter, of course, and also carries features of contagious disease. A somewhat notorious critique of the movie, and of the Ripley character, centers around pregnancy and fractured relationship to maternal roles. Ripley is a “strong woman” who, especially, in the sequels, herself shapeshifts through a series of tragic or grotesque “mother” roles (she’s even her own mother, and she eventually finds a kind of satisfaction as mother of an android(. Notably, the disembodied voice of the original Nostromo is referred to as “mother,” which makes the characters “children.” The movie’s most famous and emblematic scene of alien terror is like a nightmare vision of a “new life within” hatching-and-ejecting explosively from an otherwise normal person’s abdomen: psychodrama of the girl confronting the facts of life: blood and danger and alien beings inside her… The underrated Prometheus sustains and expands upon the same theme very effectively, in my view.

                    One could go on. Point for this discussion is the intimacy-horror dialectic, in relation to sex, as also in Sam’s recent Hellraiser piece. Some would call it a cliche of the horror genre, though I’d say that in this case cliche is another word for universal and inescapable.

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                  • It never occurred to me that the same guy was doing all that art – it seemed like a generic poster “style” (though seeing them all together now, it’s certainly a distinctive one).

                    I agree that The Thing‘s relative minimalism makes it one of, if not the, best/most-appealing-to-me ones.

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                • In this light also interesting the role that “man’s best friend” plays.

                  In that MBF plays Judas, sealing the men’s fate with a slobbery “kiss”?

                  The missing face in the poster seems more Lovecraft-y to me – suggesting such a blinding incomprehensibility that to behold it drives one mad (as it apparently does Wilford Brimley’s character; there’s a couple other Lovecraftian aspects to the story as well).

                  Of course, “a blinding incomprehensibility to behold” describes Old Testament YHWH and some of His peeps as well.

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                  • Yes! It’s clearly “the Creator”‘s fault that our re-creation/recreation/reproduction/replication goes this way – thus the quest of Prometheus’ stubbornly faithful main character, made possible after she’s seen the simple-normal idea of love and sex set aflame before her eyes, and seen other false versions of the quest destroyed, and has also, very crucially, conducted a desperate but successful self-induced very late term abortion…

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                    • I just watched it, in response to Glyph’s recommendation in this post, and the first thing I thought was that it came close to an adaptation of “In the Mountains of Madness”. Same location, and the shapeshifting powers of the Thing are equivalent to the shapeshifting powers the Shoggoths are suggested to possess. And in both cases, the aliens are found by teams conducting scientific research.

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                        • For a horror movie (a genre which I generally don’t enjoy), yes, I liked it fairly well. Watching it and “Thirty Days of Night” in the same weekend made it striking how effective snow, cold, and isolation are as elements in a horror movie; landscapes of ice and snow also add a lot visually. There’s a kind of stark, horrifying beauty to violence against a backdrop of snow (the finale of Kill Bill Vol. 1 being possibly the pinnacle of this).

                          Still, neither The Thing or 30 Days have the visual power of Crimson Peak. Whatever you think of the plot (I enjoyed it, although any “surprises” were extremely telegraphed), nobody does visuals quite like Guillermo del Toro. That one I’d class more as fantasy gothic than horror, though.

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  3. Love The Thing, one of my favorite movies. My son and I watched it not long ago and we felt it held up fine. But to your points. It is a plague tale. A very old, very common trope, that might indeed have given rise to the concept of vampires… As far as no women, I feel that it hightens the sense of being alone, which to me is the central facet of the tale. And in that vein, I don’t feel that Childs and Palmer are in a relationship. At that period of filming, haveing gay charactors wouldn’t really come up in a film like this, as it wasn’t seen as we see it it today. Gay depictions tended towards films like Cruising, as it was not considered normal sexual behavior by the majority of people at that time and it also would distract from that sense of loneliness I mentioned.

    Calling Norwegians Swedes might just be more along the lines of McMurtry not knowing there is a difference…

    And finally, “I know you have a lot on your mind, and important things to do, but I would rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!!”

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    • The couch bit that had me laughing wasn’t just that line, but when three of them are still tied to it while McReady is fighting the monster, and they are all screaming and trying to escape while still tied to the couch.

      If Simpsons has never parodied that scene at the start of their show, they should.

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      • There are so many great lines in that movie, that it really boggles the imagination

        “Whatever it is, its weird and pissed off”

        Then when the head pulls itself off of the body, tounges itself away and then grows spider legs “You have got to be fuckin’ kidding…”

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    • Also, it’s interesting that The Thing, somewhat like The Shining and Blade Runner, was not that critically-well-received upon its initial release, but over the years has gained a much better reputation. The common pattern I see is: huge downer ending (see also: A.I., which I think is amazing).

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    • aarondavid: haveing gay charactors wouldn’t really come up in a film like this, as it wasn’t seen as we see it it today

      Well, having (non-villainous) characters explicitly or obviously depicted as gay would be pretty unusual, but the Hollywood tradition of getting crap past the Radar via subtle implications had been well established by this point. Remember that in Hollywood in the 80s, you’re basically dealing with a population of creators for whom homosexuality is normalized and accepted making films for a population for whom it isn’t.

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      • All of that is true, but Carpenter tended to be fairly deliberate in his movies at this point. Meaning that its not something that would be in there casually, there would be a point to it, much like Chekovs gun. As there is no point to them being LGBT aluded to in the script or on screen, I am going to stick to my initial thoughts on this.

        In much the same way as the African American actors are played against convention I feel that having the charactors be gay, when the movie was filmed, would be to make a specific point, or to play against our expectations. Just not seeing it.

        Carpenter could be very subversive, but he always had a reason for it.

        Then again, Doc Copper has his nose pierced in the movie to which I have never figured out why and most people don’t notice it, so I am open to any good line of thought.

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  4. Great callback; I remember enjoying the crap out of this movie. I was a bit young to get the sex analogy, and would likely still have dismissed the “Why is the guy putting on his pants” thing as a continuity error rather than a subtle indication of a “more than just friends” relationship.

    There were other STD’s well-known in 1982, of course, and linking sex and death is as old a motif as art itself.

    But my favorite John Carpenter film will always be Dark Star.

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    • I admit I may be reading way too much into it.

      There are a couple of spots where they really make the “infection” motif blatant – one is when Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair is performing an alien autopsy, and pointing out features on the corpse with a pencil – then absentmindedly touching the eraser of the pencil to his mouth as he thinks.

      When Thing-dog first meets the men, it jumps up and licks one’s face.

      And before it becomes clear that they are well and truly screwed, they decide that all the men should each prepare their own food, and eat canned goods only.

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    • Well, we never find out who ripped/planted McReady’s jacket outside…if it was planted at all, and he’s not a Thing.

      And one question implied by the film is, does a Thing always KNOW it’s a Thing (when McReady tests Nauls’ blood sample and it’s negative, Nauls is visibly relieved, suggesting that up until then he wasn’t sure if he was a Thing or not).

      So it’s at least possible they both are, and just haven’t figured it out yet.

      Waiting to see what happens.

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      • Also, after Nauls cuts McReady loose outside (because Nauls found the ripped “McReady” jacket, and so thinks McR must be a Thing), Childs claims that no human could have found their way back without a guideline, as McReady (or “McReady”) does.

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    • As far as the “Childs is a Thing” theories go, they mainly revolve around:

      In the final scene, we see McReady’s breath, but not Childs’. Pretty sure this is just a lighting quirk, since earlier, we see Bennings-Thing breathe, so there’s no indication that Things don’t breathe.

      I watched an analysis that claimed that since Childs’ coat is dark blue earlier in the film, but appears lighter in the final scene, that this apparent costume change is meant to indicate Thing-ness.

      While I think it’s possible Childs is a Thing (his “went out alone after Blair, got lost” story seems implausible given what we know of him), to me the coat looks lighter just because it’s dusted with snow/frost.

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  5. There’s an old rule in Hollywood that “there’s gotta be a woman in there somewhere”. A film without any female characters whatsoever is supposedly box office poison. Carpenter might have been purposely violating the rule to show he could and as a sort of provocation to the audience, as when he has the child get killed early into Assault on Precinct 13- another age old rule that is still rarely violated.

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  6. Great piece , I always like these posts about science fiction movies/novels. This was a film I loved in my teenage years but have not seen in some time; maybe my wife will want to watch it later tonight.

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    • It had probably been that long since I had seen it; I bought the Blu-Ray a couple years ago because it was super-cheap, but no one ever wanted to watch it with me (my wife doesn’t care too much for scary/gory films, though every once in a while she caves). So on the shelf it sat, shrink-wrapped, until last night.

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  7. The Thing was based on a short science fiction story called “Who Goes There?”, which I think is a much spookier title than The Thing, by Joseph W. Campbell that was originally published in 1938. According to Wikipedia, it sticks closely to the story so I doubt that it was an intentional reference to the moral panic around AIDS.

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  8. Speaking of “contagion as a monster”, Dracula wasn’t supposed to be a sex symbol in the original story. Bram Stoker intended him to be a walking and talking symbol for STDs, which nobody really finds that fun. If you read the actual book Dracula, you’ll notice that he is never described as an attractive figure. Book Dracula is an old, decrepit man with a bushy mustache and hair all over his body.

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    • I would be very surprised if Dracula was an STD metaphor. I think Dracula is very much a sex symbol, but in the sense that a 19th century heterosexual man would view male (hetero)sexuality. And, of course, women’s response to it.

      Dracula doesn’t actually spend the whole book looking like an old man. After he feeds on Lucy (if I’m remembering my timing correctly), he regains a vigorous youthful look. Now, mind you, the description of that more youthful look isn’t something I as a gay man would classify as attractive, and I think the same would be generally true of heterosexual women. But again, it could very well be the sort of thing that a 19th century heterosexual man might assume would be attractive to his female contemporaries.

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      • Mustaches were quite the thing in the late 19th century as I understand.

        I’ve always read Dracula as being a personified form of syphilis rather than a sex symbol. Bram Stoker was a theater person with the body of a football hooligan so it’s really difficult to determine what he was thinking.

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        • Possible, but it seems to go against the stereotypical Victorian narrative of syphilis, wherein the disease was given to men by loose women. A transylvanian nobleman as its face doesn’t jibe with that, though of course it could just be Stoker working against a stereotypical view.

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