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The unerring influence of Bela Lugosi on establishing the goth subculture

In the latest edition of the Far Out Fear Club, we’re taking a look at how one man inspired an entirely new subculture. Never before has one person, a singular being, influenced the development of a whole movement in the way that Hollywood actor Bela Lugosi did. The irony of this fact is that Lugosi died aged 73 all the way back in 1953, some 26 years before he would be canonised by the burgeoning punk offshoot we all now recognise as ‘goth’.

Lugosi remains a prominent figure in popular culture for two reasons. One is the fact that he helped to establish goth, and the other is how he did it. He is best known for his sinister portrayal of the dastardly yet emotionally complex Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula. This role was so iconic that it became known as one of Universal Pictures ‘Big Three’ horror monsters, with the other two being Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man. 

The atmospheric, monochrome scene of him languidly coming down the stairs to greet Jonathan Harker is one of the most recognisable ever put to film. The devilish smirk on his face as he says, “I bid you welcome”, has been etched into the collective mind forevermore. 

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His overtly gothic take on Count Dracula stands out as the finest adaptation of Bram Stoker’s character as it is the closest to the source material. Owing to his Romanian origin, Lugosi’s accent makes the Count’s dialogue feel natural, and in tandem with his wicked smirk, he creates one of the most chilling characters the movie industry has ever seen. In short, he was the perfect choice to play the dastardly yet emotionally complex Count.

Since its release, Lugosi’s portrayal has inspired countless works across the spectrum of popular culture. His image continues to endure through other people’s works of art. Even the pop art mastermind, Andy Warhol, was touched by Lugosi. The American artist’s 1963 silkscreen print, ‘The Kiss’, depicts the scene from Dracula where the Count is about to bite into the neck of the film’s leading lady, Helen Chandler, portraying the Count’s chosen love interest, Mina Harker. 

However, the most definitive example of Lugosi’s influence arrived on August 6th, 1979. Legendary British post-punk outfit Bauhaus released their debut single, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, and helped change the face of culture forever. Widely hailed as the first true goth-rock record, it has been a staple of our death discos since its release.

The gloomy, atmospheric piece is unmatched in its sonic embodiment of the Count. Frontman Pete Murphy’s lyrics are unforgettable. The first verse openly references the star’s death, and the darkness inherent to his most famous character: “Bela Lugosi’s dead / The bats have left the bell tower / The victims have been bled / Red velvet lines the black box”. In fact, the discussion of red velvet can be taken as Murphy acknowledging the sexual undercurrent of Dracula.

Bauhaus pushed new boundaries during the emergence of goth. (Credit: Alamy)

This was the first time that horror literature, film and music had properly converged. The darkness went further than earlier Black Sabbath did. The confluence that Pete Murphy made in his lyrics was akin to an explosion, and out of the smoke left by this great bang, emerged goth. Murphy poured reggae, punk, literature and film into a Lugosi shaped cauldron, and the result was massive. Without it, you could say goodbye to genres such as black metal.

For the purists who are getting their knickers in a twist while reading this, grunting and moaning that I haven’t mentioned what both Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure were doing at this time, calm yourself down and realise that neither of those groups were truly goth at this point, rather darker outliers in the punk scene. While those two outfits might have contained significant flecks of goth, but the release of Bauhaus’ record, under the explicit spectre of Lugosi, marked the definitive dawn of goth as a unified force and subculture. 

In 2011, Alex Petridis hailed this sentiment in the Guardian: “‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ would have been just another piece of post-punk experimentation had it not been for the lyrics, which depicted the funeral of the Dracula star, with bats swooping and virgin brides marching past his coffin. The effect was so irresistibly theatrical that dozens of bands formed in its wake. So many, in fact, that goth quickly became a very codified musical genre.”

Since Bauhaus released the song, Lugosi and goth have been intrinsically linked. Additionally, the song has been covered by everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Massive Attack, showing just how pervasive this symbiosis is. The arguments stating that it was actually the book that inspired goth remain misguided. Lugosi’s very real portrayal of the Count created a bridge between the fiction of Stoker’s novel and the creation of the goth subculture, and without it, Bauhaus would not have been able to codify the movement, and in a way, not had a career at all. In the end, it all comes back to Lugosi.

To demonstrate this last point clearly, we have to turn our attention to the British seaside town of Whitby. It is where Dracula was written, and part of it was set. Every year the location welcomes black-clad hordes in celebration of the Count, but without Lugosi and the song he inspired, this trend would not have become a thing, and the town wouldn’t have become the spiritual home of goth that it is today. It could say goodbye to its ‘Dracula Experience’ as well.

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