How an Exeter, Rhode Island Girl Inspired a Vampire Film Turning 100 Years Old
Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential horror films of all time, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Although this silent classic was filmed in Germany, you may not be aware that the film has a bit of a connection to Exeter, Rhode Island.
Nosferatu is based on the novel Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker, considered one of the greatest novels of all time. Although the vampire in Nosferatu is named Count Orlock and not Count Dracula, the movie makes it very clear that it is based on Stoker’s novel.
OK, so we’ve connected this German film to this Irish author, but how do we connect it back to Rhode Island? Well, that comes by way of London.
Stoker was the stage manager of the Lyceum Theater in London in 1892 when Rhode Island’s most famous vampire story, that of Mercy Lena Brown, was making headlines around the world.
Mercy – or Lena, as the family called her – had the misfortune of being part of an Exeter, Rhode Island family that was ravaged by tuberculosis, known in those days as “consumption” or “wasting disease.” First, her mother Mary Eliza died of the disease, followed by eldest daughter Mary Olive. Mercy Lena was next to succumb to consumption at the young age of 19, while her brother Edwin continued to battle the effects of the horrific disease.
Being a superstitious lot, there were residents of Exeter who speculated that one of the women was returning in the form of a vampire to suck the very life out of Edwin, and with no real evidence, they persuaded family patriarch George Brown to allow them to exhume the bodies. Because Mercy Lena had only been dead a few months at that time and it was winter, her body was rather well preserved.
Townsfolk pointed to her nails and hair having grown after death (in reality, the skin around them receding with decomposition), her body position having shifted in her casket (likely due to rigor mortis and bloating) and a drop of blood on the corner of her mouth as a sign that she was, indeed, a vampire. Her heart and liver were removed and turned into a paste that was fed to Edwin in an attempt to rid him of his cursed affliction, but it was to no avail and he himself died two months later. Yet that hasn’t stopped more than a century of people sharing the legend of the “vampire” known as Mercy Brown.
So how do we know for sure that Stoker was aware of Brown’s story?
According to an article from Smithsonian Magazine, “one 1896 New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year. His gothic masterpiece, Dracula, was published in 1897. Some scholars have said that there wasn’t enough time for the news accounts to have influenced the Dracula manuscript. Yet others see Lena in the character of Lucy (her very name a tempting amalgam of ‘Lena’ and ‘Mercy’), a consumptive-seeming teenage girl turned vampire, who is exhumed in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes.”
While the New York World clipping may have been from 1896, there’s a good possibility that Stoker would have also heard about Brown shortly after the 1892 incident in Exeter. Certainly, there was enough time over the four years in between for him to become aware of that situation. One clipping from one year doesn’t mean it was his only exposure to the Mercy Lena Brown story.
Another interesting connection between Nosferatu and Rhode Island: the television series NOS4A2, based on the novel by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), dealt with a vampire-like killer and was filmed partly in Rhode Island.