Queer coding is given no better a center stage in a Universal Monster film than in Dracula’s Daughter, the exceptional yet supremely under-appreciated 1936 sequel to Dracula.
In the early days of cinema, the heavily enforced Hays Code prohibited significant screen representation of homosexuality and queerness. While films before the code never majorly discussed homosexuality, playful pre-code moments such as Marlene Dietrich’s cross-dressing cabaret kiss in Morocco or the flamboyant tailor who praises James Cagney’s buff arms in The Public Enemy became totally taboo and strictly forbidden under the code, which compared queerness to criminality and sexual perversion.
Even after the Hayes Code came into being, coding and subtext remained, allowing Hollywood to present queer characters and tell queer stories from time to time, though these depictions could never be lighthearted. This subtext was used, instead, to portray these coded characters as either ugly villains on society’s fringes who needed to be punished, or tragic, pathetic figures who needed to be eliminated for their weaknesses. The negative depiction of these coded characters was because the Hays Code demanded such fates for characters deemed so unsavory.
Queer coding had already been prevalent in horror films since the genre’s inception, but the preoccupation with otherness and tragic monsters in the Universal Horror cycle of films truly gave teeth to the darker element of gay subtext under the Code. As much as the Universal Monsters were villains and menaces to be dealt with, there was a tragedy to nearly all of them, whether that tragedy is something innate or pursued for reasons recognizable and relatable to all of us.
So, the Universal Monsters were misfits who were only monsters because of the worlds they inhabited: a feeling every LGBTQ+ youth has felt at some point in their lives.
While most fans and scholars dissect Bride of Frankenstein in this regard, queer coding is given no better a center stage in a Universal Monster film than in Dracula’s Daughter, the exceptional yet supremely under-appreciated 1936 sequel to Dracula, which concerns Countess Marya Zaleska’s struggle with – and eventual surrender to – her vampirism, an easy parallel to the stereotypical calamity assumed of lesbian women and their lifestyle.
Evil Shadows and the Wings of Bats
Dracula’s Daughter begins right at the end of the previous film and sees Van Helsing (the returning Edward Van Sloan) arrested for the murder of the count. While the good doctor is defending his sanity and debating the existence of vampires, Count Dracula’s corpse is stolen from the police by Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who believes her father’s death and her subsequent burning of his body will free her from her unnatural bloodlust. However, the darkness calls out to Countess Zaleska—no matter how much she wishes it wouldn’t.
In the scene following Zaleska’s funeral pyre for Dracula, she returns home with her servant, Sandor (Irving Pichell). She spouts optimism and rejoices her new freedom from her afflictions, ready to live the “normal” life she has always desired, emphasized by a sweet lullaby she plays on a piano. Sandor disregards her hope, though, and instead sees the truth beneath her melody and behind her eyes.
It’s one of the film’s most effective sequences. Sandor eyes Dracula’s Daughter with a cruel, playful gaze as she plays her tune and refutes the soft, sanguine comfort the song inspires in her. For Zaleska, the song brings to mind natural things, like shadows at twilight, the fluttering of wings, and dogs barking, but Sandor twists each of these in deliciously spooky and gothic fashion.
“Evil shadows,” “the wing of bats,” and “barking because there are wolves about,” Sandor prods, heartlessly breaking Zaleska’s illusions of being “cured” until her playing grows erratic and ugly.
“That music doesn’t speak of release,” Sandor gloats. “That music speaks of the dark, evil things. Shadowy places.”
Zaleska’s pain overcomes her. Sandor sees death in her eyes. The Countess believes him and goes out into the night to hunt again, using a spellbinding ring to charm her victim into submission of her murderous will.
The idea that Sandor is also queer coded and in a relationship with Zaleska, each using the other as a way to drift in and out of respectable society undetected (what you’d use to call a “beard” or “Lavender Marriage”) comes up often in critical analyses of Dracula’s Daughter, likely originating in Harry M. Benshoff’s seminal work, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Certainly, there is merit to this theory, but a less involved metaphor also applies rather easily. Sandor is the devil on Countess Zaleska’s shoulders. He is her conscience, exhuming the truth that Zaleska desperately seeks to bury beneath the soils of her shame.
Sandor knows that performing a superficial mystic ceremony cannot change his mistress’ vampiric nature any more than praying the gay away or conversion therapy can rid one of their queerness. The struggle Countess Valeska endures in this scene echoes internalized homophobia that many LGBTQ+ individuals sadly experience in their journeys to accepting themselves. The truth of who they are cannot be ignored or denied for long, no matter how much one tries, because our truths always find ways to face us, just as Sandor forces Zaleska to face hers.
The theme of internalized homophobia remains a focal point throughout Dracula’s Daughter in the form of Zaleska’s relationship with Dr. Jeffery Garth (Otto Kruger), to whom the Countess turns for psychological help in battling her predilections.
Dr. Garth is a perfect heteronormative horror movie archetype—handsome, brilliant, and strong-willed. He represents the decency and virtue of the proper, patriarchal gender dynamic that Zaleska defies in her dominance over Sandor (who, deviousness aside, ultimately exists to serve her) and her victims. Because the Countess suffers and is ashamed of herself, she turns to this self-assured figure as the best chance of conquering her nature. She gives herself to this moral man so she can stop taking for herself what she truly wants.
Handing herself over as the only option of salvation would seemingly be in line with the Code. The presence of so-called perversion puts normalcy at risk, and to show moviegoing audiences how important it is to resist these agents of evil, Dracula’s Daughter seeks to reaffirm at every turn that the only way for someone as dark and damaged as Zaleska to attain true happiness is to seek refuge in that threatened normalcy. The rigid rules of the Code, though, make the success of Zaleska’s plight fundamentally impossible.
Dracula’s Daughter GIVES YOU THAT WEIRD FEELING AND YOU SHOULDN’T LIKE IT!
If Dracula’s Daughter were made more recently with modern sensibilities, not only would the subtext of the film come to the forefront (or at least centered enough to firmly place the film in the modern queer horror canon), but Countess Zaleska’s narrative and the outcome would be handled much differently. However, given the fact that Dracula’s Daughter was released in 1936, the character’s fate under the Hays Code is the only outcome she could have had.
Regardless of any depth given to villains in films from this period, the Code demanded that they meet an end that sees them punished. Redemption was unobtainable. The audience must also never feel sympathy for the villain. Evil must disgust.
The tragic thing about the Universal Monsters in regards to this is how often their villainy is outside of their control. Frankenstein’s Monster must meet his end simply because he was born a monster, and yet, his creator is allowed to survive.
The same is true for Dracula’s daughter, who is unable to refuse a nature handed to her at the time of her vampiric birth, and since she has already acted upon her unhealthy urges, her tragedy lacks any empathy. Her tragedy is moral retribution that contemporary audiences were supposed to feel she deserved and could not avoid because she had already damaged herself.
Her monstrosity is why she is tortured throughout the film by Sandor and, also, by her inability to fully put herself in the care of Dr. Garth and perform a natural heterosexual relationship.
Dr. Garth encourages Zaleska to believe in him, to believe he can help her, but the way in which the scenes between the two are composed is telling—always brightly lit, with Garth standing beneath the brightest spots and Zaleska just outside those spots, cloaked in black so that she stands out, unable to hide as she is surrounded by all this light. Other than the audience’s knowledge of her vampirism, these scenes are supposed to encourage us to plead with Dr. Garth, to ask him to see the obvious. He cannot fix her. No one can.
Because the Countess cannot control her nature or her urges, she indulges in her ugliness, such as when she sends Sandor out to find her a model to paint in what is easily the most famous scene in Dracula’s Daughter.
After Dr. Garth suggests Zaleska confront her cravings, Sandor secures her a model to “paint”—a woman from the streets named Lili (Nan Grey) who is young and naive, making her a perfect target for the charms of the Countess, one that Zaleska weakly resists exploiting at the start of the scene until she surrenders to her dark desires.
This suggests the predatory character that was stereotypical of depictions of the LGBTQ+ community, but perhaps especially of lesbians at the time, who, like Valeska, were seen as man-haters luring decent women to the dark side. Under the guise of artistic expression, Zaleska pressures Lili into posing provocatively, seducing the young woman into submission with her dark arts.
The evil of Zaleska’s otherness is further affirmed when Lili momentarily breaks the spell of the Countess. She pleads to be allowed to leave because she is scared and does not want “this” anymore. Like a carnivore, though, Zaleska advances anyway and enfolds her feminine prey, wolfishly devouring the young woman’s life force and virtue.
This memorable sequence ensures that there is no audience sympathy for Dracula’s daughter. This loss of sympathy as a result of murder is obvious, but since it comes after a scene between Zaleska and Dr. Garth, it especially reinforces the character’s treacherous duplexity. Queer people in America during this time lived double-lives as a means of survival because detection meant ruin, but society and films bent beneath the bigotry of the Hays Code would interpret this duality as a shadowy means of operating without detection while harming “victims” and subverting society as Zaleska harms Lili in the film.
The film’s foil to Zaleska’s subversion is certainly Janet (Marguerite Churchill), Dr. Garth’s girlfriend/secretary. The audience is meant to root for Janet because she embodies acceptably normative womanhood through her youthful enthusiasm and headstrong personality – though only headstrong enough to cause a bit of flirtatious trouble for her man, and never enough to resist him.
Given the narrative of Dracula’s Daughter and how the film has painted the Countess as a creature too corrupt to contain the cravings that destroy the lives of her victims, it makes sense that Zaleska would eventually target Janet, who is able to engage in the heteronormative life and pursue the “normal” relationships that Zaleska will never be able to.
So, once Zaleska abandons her dreams of Dr. Garth and a cure, she reconciles with her identity, fully embracing her monstrosity, and abducts Janet, literally dragging her into the darkness of her “world” in Transylvania and Castle Dracula.
Good (and the Hays Code) Triumph Over Evil
Like the straight and narrow hero that he is, Dr. Garth pursues Countess Zaleska to Transylvania and agrees to trade Janet’s life for his own submission to vampirism. It’s meant to be shocking, of course; a decent man willing to ruin himself with vulgar inhumanity for the sake of the woman he loves.
Through a queer lens, it doesn’t make much sense why this would be a punishment for Garth, or even why Zaleska wants him in the first place but instead delivers on the audience’s expectations on what has come before this climax.
Zaleska does not care for Dr. Garth—she only wishes to recruit him, which has always been a critical, homophobic talking point in the opposition’s discourse on the LGBTQ+ community. A queer horror narrative today telling a story similar to Dracula’s Daughter may touch on love or even lust motivating the vampire, but under the Hays Code, the prevailing representation is that of insurrection and the mental disease with which Zaleska is burdened.
This burden is lifted when Zaleska is punished for her transgressions and she is struck with an arrow by Sandor. It seems only fitting that the teasing, prodding embodiment of the Countess’ conscience would be the one to deliver her final blow. She is literally destroyed by the very force pushing her to embrace the abhorrent nature that led her to this moment.
The tragedy of Countess Zaleska’s death in Dracula’s Daughter is that it isn’t presented as a tragedy.
Her death makes way for Dr. Garth and Janet to finally be together in a loving and “normal” relationship, the strength of which has been reaffirmed by the weakness of Zaleska and her inability to perform her role as well as Janet has and presumably will.
Countess Zaleska’s death satisfies the audience’s expectations and those of the Hays Code that her otherness has been punished and expunged.
In many ways, what Countess Zaleska’s represents as a lesbian woman mortally punished for her identity and her truth is, perhaps, the most chilling aspect of Dracula’s Daughter in retrospect, and offers a window into Hollywood’s homophobic past under the Code.
Horror fans today, especially queer horror fans, of course, celebrate the film as being integral in the queer horror canon but recognize how the fate of the Countess represents the ways in which Hollywood failed and demonized the LGBTQ+ community. Her death may not have been tragic in the 1930s, but the demise of Dracula’s daughter is certainly a tragedy for fans watching the film today.