Locked In the Coffin: Bela Lugosi and the Paradox of the Picture Personality

“The man whose features that raised the blood pressure and lowered the sleeping average of millions across the nation” (Barry 29), these are the words splattered across several fanzines, describing the infamous Bela Lugosi.


Born Be’la Ferenc Dezso Blasko (“Bela Lugosi”), the Hungarian native terrified audiences with his breakout performance as the undead count in Dracula (Todd Browning 1931). After Dracula, Lugosi’s filmography is littered with one spine-tingling performance after another. Yet, interviews with Lugosi reveal that the actor reviled the horror genre; he wanted “sympathetic roles” (Sinclair 44). During the actor’s theater career, Lugosi played romantic leads and off-beat, comedic roles before playing the enigmatic Dracula on the stage. Lugosi donned the cape and theatrical makeup for three years as Dracula before being offered the screen role by Universal Studios.

The role of Dracula signaled the birth of Lugosi’s fame on the silver screen; however, this role trapped the actor into repeating the same performance. Lugosi’s film career lacked the diversity that punctuated his run in the theater. Indeed, the actor simply took the form of one monster after another, each fiendish reincarnation resembling the role that came before. Lugosi’s screen fate is intimately tied to his portrayal in the media, a portrayal that fails to separate actor and character. By highlighting the actor’s foreignness and associating him with the supernatural, Bela Lugosi’s star-persona reinforced the image of his onscreen-counterpart. Thus, the success of Dracula both launched and limited Lugosi’s career, demonstrating that, for an actor, publicity is a double-edged sword.



History of Stardom


Before delving into Lugosi’s star persona, the origins of stardom must first be discussed. Stardom is the direct result of two crucial developments in film history: the advent of the close-up and the emergence of the Classic Studio Era. During the fledgling days of American cinema (Staiger 6), film stars were seen as little more than set pieces, fleshy stage props whose names were not even credited. Early cinema emphasized the spectacle of the performance, such as those found in vaudeville productions and small skits, and not the role of the actor (Jenkins 114; Musser 54). Even with the introduction of narrative elements and the increase in film length, actors remained interchangeable “players” (Musser 54). In addition, close-ups shifted in the relationship between the actor and the viewer (Hollinger 6). With the distance between the audience and the player bridged, the actor finally began to garner audience attention. Actors’ Increased visibility allowed charismatic screen personas to cultivate fame (Hollinger 6; Marshal 119).

Once the medium’s eroded and narrative cohesion became the central focus of entertainment, the role of the actor transformed drastically. The studio era shifted away from ostensive performances in favor of a more naturalistic acting style (Musser 56-58). The actor became an agent of narrative, disappearing behind the character portrayed upon the silver screen. Thus, the desire to know more about the actor increased amongst the viewing audience. To accommodate the public’s fascination with the film star, the studios converted the actor into a commercial entity (Eckert 32-35). The classic Hollywood formula (Ellis 45) revolved around films designed to showcase new talent; these star vehicles featured an entire narrative whose sole purpose was to introduce new actors to the viewing audience and to ensure a source of revenue for the studios (Ellis 45-46; Stacey 156). After the star’s debut, the studios used popular media to construct an ideal image, or social stereotype, of the film star for the purpose of promoting films and other commercial goods; this image further heightened the difference between stars and viewers, making celebrity status a rare and alluring quality (Eckert 32-35; Stacey 156).


Gossip magazines and newspaper interviews, dedicated to disseminating the actor’s personal life, reinforced the actor’s film star persona–creating a “picture-personality” (De Cordova 51-56; Hollinger 40; Marshal 119). The actor’s star-persona encourages the audience to fuse actor and character into one entity. The actor is represented as trendy, sophisticated, or sexually alluring as their on-screen counterparts; this media manipulation served to perpetuate the illusion that the viewer could glimpse the actor’s ‘true self.’ Once viewers believe they know the film star, fans can then emulate their favorite stars by consuming the latest trends in fashion, automobiles, and cosmetics (Eckert 38-39) associated with those stars (Stacey 153-156); this process of imitation allows fans to incorporate the star’s perceived identity with their own (Stacey 156). The more fans participate with the star’s image, the more successful the star becomes and, by extension, the more revenue the star generates (Ellis 48). Thus, the phenomenon of stardom is, to quote a popular phrase, born.

According to scholars, Hollywood stardom is organized into a pyramid-type structure (King 196) with three distinct stages: the character actor, the picture-personality, and the professional actor (De Cordova 54; Hollinger 40; Marshal 119). Historically, an actor’s procured star-status following a fairly straightforward climb up the proverbial ladder: the actor must, first, catch the public’s eye through a breakout performance; as the actor acquires greater visibility, the actor receives more publicity dedicated to branding the actor as a sex symbol, an ideal romantic companion, the rebel, or just the average person next door (Booth). If the actor’s image resonates favorably with the viewing audience, the actor’s fan-base increases (Hills 30). Once established, the actor must transcend the limitations of the star-persona (Marshal 119) via shedding the roles that defined him or her; this evolution violates audience expectations and propels the actor to the highest, stage of stardom–the professional actor (Hollinger 40, Marshal 119). However, the final stage of stardom remains the most difficult to reach because a star persona both fuels and hinders an actor’s development.



Bela Lugosi and Universal Studios

Take Bela Lugosi–the role of Dracula catapulted the Hungarian native to fame. Despite the romantic and comedic performances that characterized Lugosi’s stage career (Mackey 29; Sinclair 44), only the actor’s screen portrayal of the infamous vampire made Lugosi a household name. The actor reportedly “hypnotized audiences” (Moen 146) with his shadowy movements and eerie features. Indeed, Lugosi’s compelling performance resulted in several fans asking the studios if “he had actually gone mad” during the making of the film (Albert 69). Estimated to have grossed more than 2.5 million, Dracula both initiated the horror cycle of classic Hollywood and cemented Lugosi’s association with everything that is “strange and unusual” (Chrisman 44). Fan letters arrived from across the nation; one reporter estimated that Lugosi received more fan-mail than any romantic screen hero of his time (Walker 33). Children asked Lugosi for more details about his supernatural adventures (33) while women begged the actor to bite them (33). Interviewers highlighted Lugosi’s accent, his sleek movements, and his hypnotic eyes–all traits shared by the actor’s cinematic double, Dracula. Thus, viewers and critics alike fused actor and character into one entity, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Following Dracula’s release, fanzines praised Lugosi as the master of horror (44). Although Lugosi expressed distaste for the genre (Barry 40; Coulter 17; Mackey 29), his filmography suggests otherwise. Lugosi starred as an “attractive foreign devil” (Whitaker 25) in role after role throughout the 1930s (“Bela Lugosi”). Lugosi’s recurring presence in the horror genre can, in part, be explained by the studio that produced the film that launched his career. Dracula resulted from Universal maximizing its resources; the film utilized B-unit production values, interchangeable set pieces, and European aesthetics to create a house style that was imitated again and again (Schatz 85-90). Furthermore, since Universal lacked the revenue to attract major film stars, the studio chose to showcase colorful character actors, such as Lugosi (Schatz 85-90). With the success of Dracula, horror became Universal’s signature genre (Schatz 85-90). In order to satiate the public’s desire for supernatural thrills, the studio ran its money-making formula into the ground (Schatz). Lugosi’s name became synonymous with terror with each role that was handed to him (“Rising Star in the West”). Bela Lugosi’s performance in Dracula made him a sensation; however, his success came at a price. For an actor who craved more diverse roles, Universal was simply the wrong studio to call home.


Bela Lugosi and the Supernatural

Universal’s penchant for imitation only provides one piece of the puzzle. The second half of the puzzle revolves around the actor’s portrayal in the media – namely fanzines. During the studio era, fan magazines proved pivotal in constructing a star’s off-screen persona, allowing viewers to recognize the actor as more than a two-dimensional image on the screen (Hills 31). In the case of Bela Lugosi, fanzines encouraged viewers’ fusion between actor and character, keeping the actor trapped in the horror genre. In conducting a survey of articles surrounding Lugosi, two dimensions of his persona can be identified: the actor’s association with the supernatural and the actor’s designation as the foreign other. Lugosi’s link to “all things that go bump in the night” (“Rising Star in the West”) stems not only from his role as Dracula but also from the media. In article after article, interviewers capitalize on viewer expectations of Lugosi, invoking horrific imagery when describing the man behind the monster. Consider the opening passage from Barbra Barry’s “Meet the Vampire:”

Although Lugosi’s residence in Manhattan was a modern apartment house, not even remotely resembling his castle Dracula. I was certain that the interior would shame a sorcerer’s chambers. With a vision in my mind of Bela, the master of terror who has chilled millions with his screen demons, I pictured rooms with heavy black hangings, skulls perched atop the piano, and a host barely able to restrain himself from leaping at my throat (Barry 29).

Barry’s language implicitly ties Lugosi to the horror genre; the author’s expectation of macabre decorations in Lugosi’s apartment harkens back to the gothic mise-en-scène found in Dracula’s lair. Of course, the idea of discovering skulls or coffins in Lugosi’s home is not intended to be taken seriously. The opening passage simply hooks the reader’s interest, relying on Lugosi’s infamous double to provide entertainment before dispelling the rumors surrounding the actor (Barry 29). The whole of Barry’s article attempts to normalize Lugosi, depicting him as an ordinary man with an extraordinary occupation (Barry 29). However, the author’s effort to realign the public’s perception of Lugosi is undercut by the article’s reliance on gothic imagery and allusions to the paranormal. Choosing to highlight the actor’s hypnotic eyes and his brooding disposition, Barry’s message remains lost; the reader’s perception of Lugosi remains unchanged.

Barry’s article is not alone. Perhaps the most glaring example of a fan magazine trying and failing to alter Lugosi’s persona can be found in Gladys Hall’s Do you believe this Believe this Story. Like Barry, Hall recounts her first meeting with Bela Lugosi, expecting to find coffins hidden in the floor of Lugosi’s home and cobwebs hanging from an “antique chandelier (Hall 30).” Unlike Barry’s article, the language the author uses possesses a mocking tone. Hall knows what the audience expects from an interview with Lugosi and almost shames them for it (30). Hall’s tone drips with sarcasm, exposing the absurdity of connecting the actor with his Dracula persona (30). After the article’s introduction, the language changes into a more formal interview. Hall describes Lugosi as a perfect gentleman who loves dogs and is deeply respectful of his homeland (30). As the interview continues and the actor reveals the origins of this theater career, all traces of teasing vanish. Hall seeks to debunk the mystic rumors surrounding the actor, to “reveal the man behind the monster” (30). However, like Barry’s article, Hall’s use of Dracula-esque imagery to hook the reader diminishes the value of the interview; the separation of actor and character remains incomplete.


Themes of mysticism and the unnatural saturate all articles about Bela Lugosi. Helen Walker’s article, Three Live Ghosts, opens with an eerie tale about Lugosi being haunted by a woman with yellow eyes; she writes that his youthful encounter with a demonic female presence left him forever scarred and that the return of this woman with yellow eyes signals the death of all the actor’s romantic relationships. Consistently, fan magazines depict Lugosi as a loner, a man of mystery, and a believer in the supernatural. Even Harry Coulter’s Cold Chills and Cold Cash resorts to the same literary tactics when discussing the Lugosi’s rise to stardom. Although Colter takes an objective look at the appeal of the horror genre, he still describes Lugosi as having features “like no man from this world” (Coulter 17) Whether they highlighted the actor’s unusual features or his superstitious beliefs, each article strived to separate Lugosi from both the ordinary viewer and other stars; this separation only reinforces Lugosi’s cinematic image, leaving the reader to believe that actor and character are two sides of the same coin.

Bela Lugosi and the Foreign Other

Intricately tied to the actor’s association with the supernatural, the second half of Lugosi’s star-persona rests with his designation as the foreign other. Fanzines emphasized the actor’s foreign status, never allowing the audience to forget that Lugosi was not born an American citizen. Colin Reynolds in his overview of foreign stars lists Lugosi as one of the many foreign actors who “knew not one word of English” when they began working in the entertainment industry (Reynolds 55). Every article intent on the revealing the actor’s true self-detailed Lugosi’s origins to the reader, tracing his lineage back to the founding of the town of Lugos (Sinclair 44; Walker 33).


Some authors claimed the town itself was the birthplace of the vampire mythos while others suggested that Lugosi’s upbringing exposed the actor to mysticism at a young age, providing the inspiration for his performance in Dracula (Reynolds 55; Sinclair 44; Walker 33). Lugosi’s belief in the supernatural supposedly stems from his childhood home, a home that the actor dearly missed. Sinclair’s Master of Horrors demonstrated Lugosi’s reverence by noting the actor’s display of the Lugos coat of arm, hanging in his apartment (Sinclair 44). After the initial teasing, Gladys Hall’s article even remarked that the actor became weepy at the familiar sound of his wife’s piano melodies (Hall 30) that reminded him of his native country. Much like the authors who highlighted Lugosi’s unique physical features, the articles focusing on his homeland reinforced the difference between Lugosi and the ordinary viewer. Though Lugosi expressed in interviews his wish to be seen as an American, several interviewers stressed the actor’s inability to leave behind his foreign roots (Reynolds 55; Whitaker 25). Many cited Lugosi as melancholic at the loss of his Hungarian heritage (Reynolds 25; Sinclair 44; Walker 33). Lugosi remained a man divided–torn between American culture and the traditions of his homeland.


The division between Hungarian native and Hollywood star did not go unnoticed by the media; many articles about Lugosi centered on the tensions of being both a part of the Hollywood glamour whilst still being an outsider. Coulter referred to Lugosi as “the most misunderstood in Hollywood; he simply didn’t belong here” (17). Yet, Coulter’s statement reinforces the paradox of being a foreign actor in Hollywood. Foreign actors, particularly those with heavy accents, possess an exotic allure, allowing the viewers to look upon that which they do not see every day (Whitaker 25). However, if the actor cannot shed his or her accent, only roles featuring a foreign character will be offered to them (Reynolds 55). An actor’s accent can improve an actor’s performance; for instance, Lugosi’s accent, according to several interviews, aided the actor’s procurement of Dracula both on the stage and the screen. Like the infamous count himself, Lugosi was a foreigner from Eastern Europe; thus, his accent added a sense of realism to the role (Reynolds 55). Lugosi’s distinct voice and his campy delivery of dialogue set allowed his performance as Dracula to outshine his co-stars. However, Lugosi’s accent marked him as different, and this difference further reinforced the viewer’s perception of Lugosi as someone who was not fully “Americanized” (55). Therefore, studios and viewers alike believed Lugosi was only capable of providing one type of performance: the role of the foreign other.


Lugosi’s filmography is intimately tied to his portrayal in the media. Fanzines associate the actor with the supernatural. Some articles attempt to normalize Lugosi, but these articles still designate Lugosi as the foreign other. The interviewers’ depiction of Lugosi is deliberate. The magazines pandered to their readers. Audiences associated the actor with the horror film. Therefore, the reader expected that any information on Lugosi’s private life would reflect the horror roles he personified. The actor, in turn, was deemed only capable of providing the “fiendish performance” (Hall 30) that characterized the role of the infamous count. Unable to escape the horror genre, Lugosi never managed to play the romantic roles he desired. The actor remained fixed in the picture-personality stage of stardom; he remained, so to speak, trapped in the coffin.

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