By Joan Pons
Even though this week’s protagonist is Count Orlok, the highlighted GIF up here hasn’t been taken from Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film, but from the end of Spongebob Squarepants Nosferatu episode. In this, let’s say, slasher parody, the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom spend the episode scared by different horror movie clichés that they dismantle little by little to prove that nothing is exactly what it seemed, like in Scooby-Doo. Right at the end of the story, they realise that the restless fluorescent flickering that turned Krusty Krab into a sinister place was in fact Nosferatu playing around with the switch, like the typical funny friend. The joke has several meta and cultured connotations thanks to one of the recurrent (and more effective) resources used by Stephen Hillenburg: introducing, all of a sudden, a change of register marked by the appearance of real images with adult reference; in this case, a cheeky series of stolen frames from Murnau’s film, with a slight animation (arm, hand, switch, flashes) that alters the original image. This final punch-line couldn’t be more postmodern: the change of context of this image of the vampire changes its meaning with an ironic purpose. The terrifying symphony of shadows becomes a stroboscopic light gag.
There are millions of GIFs created with images taken from Nosferatu. Probably because the film maintains its unfading condition (despite the fact that watching silent films is becoming each day more and more like reading books in Old English), or maybe because the iconic character created by Murnau and actor Max Schreck taking as their inspiration Bram Stoker’s Dracula is no longer just an expressionistic totem, but a pop figure that accepts both admiration and respect as mockery and remix. It may be possible as well that, as happens with Buster Keaton‘s films, from silent atomised images taken from Nosferatu one can produce very good GIFs. In fact, you can almost reconstruct, frame by frame, the whole Murnau film.
However, even if all this common material exposes very well the current validity of Murnau’s work and defends the ideas that Nosferatu is global reference now in the public domain (in fact, it’s one of those liberated film works that anybody can appropriate and use at their will), the most interesting GIFs made using images from the film are those in which the anonymous creator exercise their sovereignty and manipulate the original piece: they reinvent the vampire as a sort of Tim Burton adult toy; as an animated walker that could appear in Ren & Stimpy; in a joke about the ill-timed singing of a cock, or in a crowd of Counts Orlok at the stairs of the Hutters house, as if they were running away from a police raid at a secret basement party.
Applying this animus jocandi to nosferatian GIFs implies doing a parallel reading: the collective unconscious also needs, sometimes, to deprive the great terror icons of their terrifying meaning. It’s a trick to get rid of fear. Transforming the UN-dead into a protagonist of funny and not scenes to give us nightmares is our way to say goodbye to our innocence as passive spectators (although maybe then becoming active teenagers, not unbelieving adults: there’s a lot of healthy humour in this GIFs). Deep down, this creative and cheery role is much better than our cynicism as part of a knowing audience that mocked Klaus Kinski’s make-up in Herzog’ Nosferatu, who frowned at the blue-ish tone of the creature of Tobe Hooper’s series The Salem’s Lot Mystery or compared Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck in The Shadow of the Vampire by E. Elias Merhige with Chiquito de la Calzada, all of them bald with fangs inspired on the before terrifying aspect of Murnau’s character. These GIFs are closer to childish Joann Sfar’s Vampir or of the oldest tenant of the vampire shared flat in What We Do in the Shadows: they are a tender revisitation of the Nosferatu myth as pop fetish that bring an involuntary smile to our lips. Exactly what happens with the Squarepants SpongeBob GIF.