I remember with vivid detail the first time I saw the bloodthirsty Count Dracula appear on screen at Cinema Sahel near Karun River in my hometown Ahvaz in southern Iran.
I remember the engulfing darkness of the movie theatre and how I had come forward to the edge of my seat, leaning forward with a combination of fear and excitement, and when I could no longer take it, I dropped my head not to see the screen.
What terror! It was at this very moment I realised that more than what I was watching, it was the sound, the frightening music, those screeching violins, that heightened the fear.
I cupped my hands over my ears and tightly closed my eyes and mouth, trying not to hear, see or scream. But curiosity took over: did he bite her? Ever so gently, I lifted my head and dared to open one of my eyes – my mouth opened all by itself. The horrid thing was there, in the light and shadow of the room, by the window, his black frock ominous, his bloodshot eyes staring at me, his canine teeth ready to bite.
There was a moment when I wished I would just disappear into thin air – except for one last look to see if he showed he bit her.
Delightfully fearful years
The passing of the legendary British actor Christopher Lee on June 7 at the age of 93 was a reminder of those delightfully fearful years when he was the towering vampire for the world at large.
Tall, imposing, weirdly menacing in his gentility and yet deliciously ominous when he showed his canine teeth, Sir Christopher was the definitive Dracula of our time. He played a number of other utterly brilliant roles – from Scaramanga in James Bond and the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings – but for me and my generation of cineastes, he was the definition of Count Dracula.
Years later when I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s version – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with Gary Oldman as Count Dracula and Winona Ryder as Mina Harker – I loved the film for its technical virtuosity, plot unfolding, and mesmerising cinematography, but it did nothing to me viscerally the way Christopher Lee did decades earlier. Scary as he was, Gary Oldman was a pussycat next to Christopher Lee’s Dracula of my childhood.
Like millions of others in my generation, I discovered fear with Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), the first in the series of Hammer Horror films inspired by the Bram Stoker novel. The raw, unnerving, naked sensation of fear was discovered and instilled in us by those films.
What was unsettling was the fact that the terror was not only occasioned by what I was watching, it came from inside me, from somewhere within. Where was the seat of this fear, where did it come from? What primordial terror had caused it so a child would now tap into it?
Before Dracula ascended on our horizons in Iran, like a bat out of nowhere (no one knew where this scary place “Transylvania” actually was), the mysterious supernatural creatures called “Jinn” were all we worried about.
Jinns were supposed to come out of thin air and steal children, or creep into them and occupy their bodies. Jinns were as scared of the word “bismellah” (in the name of God) as Dracula was from the sight of a cross. But that was where the similarities ended. Jinns were harmless pets compared to Count Dracula.
From fear and fantasy
From the moment I saw Dracula, any time I came across a dark room, a dark alley, a dark nightmare, Christopher Lee and his bloody eyes and canine teeth were there waiting for me.
My childhood fear evolved into a teenage fascination with Count Dracula. I remember how badly I wanted to see Dracula again and again. Perhaps it was to conquer my fear, perhaps to examine it more closely. Whatever the case, there was something in the combined terror of sound and sight that drew me back every time.
It was in the third or fourth viewing (going to movies was inexpensive in those days) that a miracle happened. I suddenly remembered my parents, older brother Majid and cousins Amir and Abbas telling me “Don’t be afraid it’s just a movie.”
Suddenly, the behind-the-scenes pictures I had seen in film magazines flashed before my mind’s eye and instead of the terrifying scenes, I began to see the set, the cameraman, the sound engineer, the director, the whole crew, the coffee cups, left over food, etc. I smiled, and even laughed. Frightened friends around me looked at me like I had gone mad.
“What the hell is the matter with you,” my buddies Amir and Abdollah asked me in disbelief.
“Nothing,” I said, “nothing,” and continued to pretend I was scared.
Different angle on reality
Watching Melissa Stribling as Mina Holmwood walk away from the camera, when even an innocuous table lamp seemed scary, the very medium of my fear, cinema itself, began to assume a different angle on reality.
The medium itself became the magic lantern in and through which we saw our inner soul. It is right at this moment that for Iranians of my generation, from Forough Farrokhzad “The House is Black” (1963) to Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees” (1994), the specific nature of Iranian neorealism began to take shape.
I have written countless books and articles on the nature of this specific take on realism in world cinema, trying to determine the porous borderline between fact and fantasy – what I have called “factasy” – and how films and our frightful fantasies begin to teach us hidden truths.
But the edge of that seat in Cinema Sahel in Ahvaz remains the most delightful spot that continues to delight and terrorise the heart of a frightened child growing up to become a fearsome cineaste and a film and art theorist.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.