Red Velvet Lines the Black Box: Bela Lugosi's Grave

October 19, 2010 — Vampires are all the rage these days, just like they were in the 00s, just like they were in the 90s, just like they were in the 80s, just like they were in the 70s, just like they were in the 60s. I could keep going all the way past cinema to medieval Europe, I think. Here’s a good Slate piece from 2009 that charts the modern vampire “trend.”

Why are vampires perennially popular? I don’t know. I went to a Christian college, and they didn’t offer degrees in monsterology. But I have seen my share of Count Chocula boxes, as well as just about every interpretation of the fiend, from the wild-haired punks of The Lost Boys to the dirty rednecks of Near Dark to the tortured soul of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, everything from the imposing Christopher Lee to the melancholy Martin to the Twilight effetes to the oddball portrayals of Thirst and Habit and the screwball portrayals of Once Bitten and My Best Friend is a Vampire. But superficial differences, those. Yoda talk, this.

And while vampires come in every cut of cape, there is a fundamental aspect of the creature that defines it more than fangs, blood-drinking, and its inability to appreciate a sunrise. That defining quality is that a vampire is both a monster and a seducer.

More often than not, portrayals of vampires in cinema over-emphasize one or the other of these parts of a vampire’s essence, swinging from the ghoulish, rat-faced creature of Nosferatu to the attractive, human creatures of Interview with the Vampire.

Vampires, at their most potent as a story device, are physical incarnations of evil, people who have inhuman’d themselves and chosen damnation in return for power, immortality, and the opportunity to wear neck medallions without looking like a jerk. That’s why the cadaverous vampire portrayal in Nosferatu is still an effective one, even when used in more mediocre fare like in Salem’s Lot. However, if you go too far with that and minimize the seducer, you end up with every other undifferentiated monster in horror cinema. And if you go the other way and minimize the monster, well, that’s why stuff like Twilight gets made fun of.

Balancing the monster and the seducer in a single character is difficult. I know this not because I’ve ever tried it, but because I’ve only see one actor really pull it off. And he pulled it off like it was burning him. His name was Bela Lugosi, and his final resting place kind of sucks. I’ll get to that latter in a second. Like the man himself, let’s start with his life and end with his grave.

Bela Lugosi was born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko (give or take a diacritic or two) in Hungary, and acted in a range of Universal horror movies, including White Zombie, Son of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. Having those kinds of monsters for colleagues and peers will make any horror fan dig you for the rest of their lives, but his overall legacy is based solely on his portrayal of Dracula in the 1931 Universal film of the same name.

In many ways, Lugosi’s Dracula is the ideal vampire. At a quick glance, one might say that Bela belongs more in the seducer category than the monster. After all, Bela’s Dracula is genteel, elegant, and handsome. However, the film never once portrays the Count in an appealing light, to the audience at least. We are shown from the start that his charismatic veneer is merely a façade that hides a damnable creature. Without any glamorization, the audience is able to see how Dracula is able to allure its victims, while not being allured ourselves by him.

For instance, our first view of the Count is in a crypt, with death and coffins and vermin surrounding him in the dank and creepy vault. He is a creature of death and darkness, and belongs among these horrors. From that point on, the movie continues to emphasize that Dracula is not human, despite his looks and manners. For instance, Professor Van Helsing, in explaining to Harker and the doctor the true nature of the Count, always refers to Dracula as “it,” as well as calling him a “thing” (or fiend or being, I can’t really tell with his accent, but whichever of the three cases, the point still stands).

My favorite observation, though, and the one I always whip out when I’m drunk at parties regardless of the conversation topic, regards the ending of Dracula. The audience isn’t allowed to empathize with the Count even to the end, where we see the elegance of the Count degenerate as he foresees defeat. His bestial nature takes over and he kills a remorseful Renfield before slinking away to the shelter of his coffin. The last we hear of him is a ghastly death scream as Van Helsing crudely hammers a stake into his heart. No last words, no cool death scene. Just done. Evil is defeated, hooray for good, and can we take all this garlic down now?

Anyway, if you’re going to be the best movie vampire ever and rock the theater screen so hard the reverberations are still felt eight decades later, you deserve to have your grave visited. So on my first and so far only visit to southern California, I made sure Bela’s grave was on my list in permanent marker.

Bela died in 1956 at the age of 73 and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA, a horrible place to molder since it’s one of those bland cemeteries without gravestones or mausoleums or statuary, only bronze or stone plaques that are flush to the ground and are near-invisible unless you’re standing above them. It's a somewhat sad place for an ex-vampire to be, actually. For some reasons cemeteries like these don’t want you to think you’re in a cemetery when you visit. Something about not breaking up the natural beauty of the landscape with reminders that there are thousands of dead beneath your feet. Heck, that’s the whole reason I visit cemeteries.

So if you’re going to go see his grave, driving around randomly for his tombstone won’t help. You need to know in advance where his plaque is, unless you’re more okay talking with cemetery staff than I am. His plot is officially located in the Grotto section of the cemetery at plot 120. It’s been over a year since I visited, so I’m not sure how helpful having that number is. I do remember the grotto, though, a giant manmade rocky outcropping with trees and Catholic-flavored statues. His grave was right in front of that. The plaque says little more than, “Beloved Father,” though, but I assume the cross adorning it is to keep him down.

Anyway, the downside to his grave is the cemetery itself, but there are some cool things about his grave, too. First, is the knowledge that six feet below you, Bela was buried in one of his Dracula capes. That’s 10 out of 10 for style. Although at this point in time it’s probably more like the remains of Bela are wearing the remains of a cape. Or a pile of dust is covered by more dust. The other salvageable bit of interest is that Bela’s grave is just two human-width slots over from Bing Crosby's grave. So we have an icon of Halloween reposing beside an icon of Christmas. At Christmas time, I should invert this article.

That's his wrong DOB...should be 1903.

Of even more morbid interest than going to see a man famous for playing the murderous undead, a few rows away in plot 152 of the Grotto section is the grave of Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski who was killed by the Charles Manson clan.

Awkward silence. Finish article.

Bauhaus has for decades been insistent that Bela Lugosi’s dead. Now that I’ve seen his grave, I believe them. But, then again, he’s not altogether dead. Not as long as his black and silver presence is still revered as a classic horror icon. And certainly not as long as we keep throwing whiny, overly human, inwardly turmoiling vampires up on our theater screens as a basis of comparison. It’s altogether suitable then, that Bela Lugosi, the definitive vampire, has in that way become immortal himself.