Afterlives of the Rich and Famous

Bela Lugosi

The strange, tragic life of Bela Lugosi, known to the world as the man who brought Count Dracula to life on film, began on October 20, 1882, in Lugos, Hungary, near the border of Transylvania. His banker father, Istvan Blasko, and his mother, Paula, named their fourth child Bela Ferenc Dezso and raised him in a Roman Catholic household. At the age of twelve he quit school, studied at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, performed in provincial theaters beginning in approximately 1903, and went on to join the National Theater of Hungary (1913–19). He also served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I and, in 1917, began a three-year marriage to his first of five wives, Ilona Szmick.

After appearing in a number of silent films in Hungary and Germany, Bela immigrated to the United States, settled in New York City, and began touring the East Coast with a small stock company of other Hungarian actors. His first appearance on Broadway was in a 1922 production of The Red Poppy. More Broadway shows followed, as well as his first film appearance in a 1923 melodrama called The Silent Command.

It was in 1927 that Bela was cast to star in the successful Broadway production of Dracula, and he was promptly summoned to Hollywood, where he worked in the new medium of “talkies” and married wife number two, a wealthy widow named Beatrice Weeks, who filed for divorce after four months and named actress Clara Bow as the correspondent.

Universal Pictures released Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, in 1931, and both a major box-office hit and an icon were born. Bela was immediately signed to a contract with Universal, and marriage number three came along, this one in 1933, to a young Hungarian woman named Lillian Arch. Their child, Bela G. Lugosi, was born in 1938, and this marriage lasted until 1953.

Between his remarkable performance as the world’s most famous vampire and his thick eastern European accent, which served him well for roles as a horror villain, Bela found it difficult to expand his acting career into a wider variety of roles. The titles alone of his next six films, in which he costarred with fellow thriller movie king Boris Karloff, both exemplified and exacerbated the typecasting that stood in the way of more traditional parts: The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Son of Frankenstein, Black Friday, and The Body Snatcher.

In 1936 Universal’s new management dropped horror films from its production slate, which reduced Bela to a string of low-budget nonhorror roles and lead roles in some equally low-budget independent thrillers as well as whatever stage roles he could find. His career and earning power predictably declined, as did his own financial stability. He did land and succeed in the coveted role of the hunchback Ygor in Son of Frankenstein in 1939 as well as a “normal” and prestigious role in Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka. But the stardom he’d achieved in Dracula seemed to be gone forever.

Adding to Bela’s troubles, beginning in at least the late 1930s, was the onset of severe sciatica—compression of the sciatic nerve that causes often extreme, radiating back, pelvic, and leg pain. He became dependent on morphine and methadone and, by the end of the 1940s, when he made the last “A” movie of his career, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, word of his drug dependence had spread throughout the film industry. Work was sparse and undistinguished through the early 1950s, and in 1953 his twenty-year marriage to Lillian Arch ended in divorce. By 1955 his life had declined into obscurity, virtual poverty, and addiction. He voluntarily committed himself to a treatment center in Norwalk, California, and was released later that year.

Hope, such as it was, had arrived in about 1952, though, in the form of a filmmaker named Ed Wood Jr., generally considered to be one of the most artless, incompetent directors in the history of motion pictures. Ed Wood was a Bela Lugosi fan; he tracked him down and offered him parts in upcoming films. Bela was in no mental, professional, or financial position to say no, and the Wood-Lugosi collaboration resulted in a brief series of films so inadvertently ridiculous that they’ve developed cult followings:
Glen or Glenda? in 1953, Bride of the Monster in 1956, and the impossibly bad Plan Nine from Outer Space, released in 1958 after Bela’s death.

Bela did find a fifth wife, Hope Linninger, whom he married in 1955, and that same year, after he’d been released from drug treatment, he made one last non–Ed Wood film, The Black Sheep, released in 1956. Bela made several personal appearances to promote the film, despite the fact that in the last legitimate movie of his life, he played the part of a mute, without a single line of dialogue.

On August 16, 1956, Bela Lugosi died quietly of a heart attack in his home in Los Angeles. Out of love and respect, Bela Jr. and his mother, Lillian, insisted that he be buried in his Dracula cloak as they believed he would have wanted. His body was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, and his grave remains a popular site on some of the more cult-oriented Hollywood tours.

From Sylvia

In the early 1980s I was invited by the late, great paranormal investigator Nick Nocerino and a paranormal photographer to accompany them on a trip to explore the Bela Lugosi house. I admit it, I accepted the invitation for one reason: I leapt at every possible opportunity to work with Nick. As for Bela Lugosi, the truth is, I neither knew nor cared much about him. Not only was he a little before my time—Dracula was a hit five years before I was born—but I’ve never made it all the way through any vampire movie without either falling asleep or involuntarily snickering, probably because it’s hard to be frightened of something I don’t believe exists. My loss, I’m sure, and no fault of Mr. Lugosi’s performance. But when Nick, Chuck, and I arrived at the house, I can’t stress enough how underwhelmed I was expecting to be, touring the home of a long-dead actor who was best known for a film I didn’t enjoy, especially when I was in the midst of a crushing schedule and had a million other things I’d rather have been doing.

It was late evening when our van parked in front of the vacant, sadly rundown property. Nick had done his homework on Bela Lugosi and volunteered to tell me about him while he strapped a lot of incomprehensible equipment on me. I stopped him from saying a word—I prefer to walk into a paranormal investigation “clean,” with as little information and as few predispositions as possible.

Once I was fully wired and Nick and Chuck were ready with their amazing battery of devices, we headed toward the main house of the oddly configured compound. The buildings formed a square around a courtyard with a fountain in its center that I imagined might once have been attractive. To the left of the courtyard were stairs that led to a row of rooms accessed by a narrow balcony, creating the effect of a sad motel that had long since gone out of business. The main house was to the right, completely separate from those drab abandoned rooms.

The moment we stepped through the massive doors of the house I felt almost choked by the oppressive distress that still hung in the dead air, some thick aftertaste of depression and hysteria left behind like a force field by someone dark who’d lived there. Nick, Chuck, and I explored every square inch of that house, and while all three of us were resisting an impulse to head back to the car and race to the nearest place we could find where there might be happiness or where it seemed as if someone might have at least laughed once or twice in the last century, we didn’t sense a trace of anything paranormal within those walls. There were no ghosts in the house, no spirits, nothing at all to alert the gauges and sensors we were lugging along with us. After a half hour or so we returned to the courtyard, and as we pulled those huge wooden doors closed behind us, I remember taking long deep breaths of fresh air to try to wash that darkness out of my system.

Next we climbed the stairs to those oddly separate rooms across the courtyard. We didn’t speak a word to each other, but my guess was that after finding the main house so ghost- and spirit-free, Nick and Chuck were expecting as much as I was that we were about to explore nothing but the same musty gloom we’d just trudged through.

ever was waiting at the top of those stairs, and at my insistence we stopped long enough for me to say a prayer and put a circle of the white light of the Holy Spirit around the three of us to protect us before we stepped onto the narrow balcony and opened the first door.

I was instantly transfixed by the nightmare of horrifying images inside that small room. There seemed to be people everywhere, all of them in black, Goth before it became fashionable. They all had blank, chalk-white faces with hollow eyes and the darkest red lips. They were talking to each other unintelligibly, in a hushed, droning monotone. Three of them were flailing around the room, arms waving wildly, insanely falling into everyone in their path. Four others were lying limp and crumpled on the floor. One of them was slowly and deliberately cutting his arm, letting his blood drain into the glass he was holding, and then passing the glass around the room for everyone to drink from. As each of them took a sip, they swooned into a mirthless euphoria as if they’d just shared some kind of grotesque Communion.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t hear, until finally Nick’s voice penetrated what felt like a frozen trance, yelling, “Sylvia! Listen to me! Get the hell out of there! Now!” Apparently, according to the gauges strapped all over me, my temperature was spiking in that ice-cold room, I was being assaulted with so much electromagnetic energy that I was on overload, and my pulse was racing out of control. I knew what had held me so psychically captive was my certainty that I’d just witnessed a crowd of earthbound spirits, dark and futile, trapped in a perpetual rite of drugs, despair, and death.

Nick pulled me out of the room and slammed the door, and he and Chuck bolted toward the stairs. My impulse was to bolt right along with them, but I couldn’t ignore the energy that was pulling me to a second door just a few feet away. My hand was already on the doorknob when Nick yelled from the bottom of the stairs, “Where are you going?”

“We have to look in here before we go,” I called back.

He and Chuck were with me in seconds, protective and concerned for my safety as always, and they were right behind me as I opened the second door and stepped into the pitch-black room. Once my eyes had adjusted I could make out a large horizontal shape that looked as if it might have been an oversized couch against the far wall, but I caught my breath when I realized that no, what I was looking at was a gleaming wooden casket, open to reveal the earthbound spirit of Bela Lugosi himself, wrapped in his signature cape, lying in the satin lining of his coffin, eyes open and empty.

He slowly sat up, and he looked directly into my eyes, as cold and godless as any ghost I’ve ever seen. “You weren’t invited,” he said in a hollow voice.

“No, I wasn’t,” I whispered back. “I’m sorry for the intrusion.”

We stepped back out onto the balcony and closed the door. Nick and Chuck were visibly shaken—they hadn’t seen or heard what I had, but they’d heard my reply to the lifeless life in that room and felt the dark hopelessness of the energy we’d just confronted. We didn’t say a word as we walked back down the stairs to the courtyard. We were all thoroughly depleted, and we sat by the dry fountain for a long time before I finally turned to Nick and said, “Okay. Now you can tell me about Bela Lugosi.” He told me the story you’ve just read, and we held hands and prayed for those poor lost souls before we left.

From Francine

Bela is no longer earthbound. A very short while ago, maybe twenty years in your time, he freed himself, but he turned away from the Other Side and went to the Holding Place instead. He hasn’t yet reincarnated.

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