I recently watched—for perhaps the hundredth time—the mother of all classic horror movies, the original 1931 Dracula starring the incomparable Bela Lugosi. The movie is always a pleasure, but something in particular about it struck me this time around.
It was not the spooky and creative black and white cinematography. It was not the brilliant re-working of Bram Stoker’s amazing novel. It was not even the amazing performance of Lugosi that defined the archetypal movie vampire for all time to come.
It was the silence.
A generation of movie viewers raised on thumping movie scores, frequent explosions, and never-ending car chases would perhaps be befuddled by the idea, but a great deal of the power of Dracula lies in the extended scenes where neither music nor dialogue interferes with the quiet intensity of the action.
Dracula dismisses his vampire brides and silently steals the blood and the soul of the hapless Renfield. We see Dracula glide into a dim bedroom to claim Lucy—in total silence. Dracula and his nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing, have a long—and completely silent—duel of wills. Today each of these scenes and so many others in the film would be intruded upon by a grinding musical score designed to frazzle our nerves and raise our blood pressure in order to intensify the moment; however, this modern foolishness is wholly unnecessary. In fact, a 1999 attempt to retro-fit the film with music by the composer Philip Glass demonstrates—even more clearly than noisy and noisome words ever could—the intrinsic power of the wonderful stillness of Dracula.
I wonder if our modern world can take a useful lesson from the cinematic silences of this incredible film. Too often we now live our lives like nerve endings that cannot tolerate even a single unstimulated moment, and I believe this has resulted in unforeseen and dire consequences.
I first began to think about our need for noise, noise, noise when I switched careers into teaching high school English and designated every other Friday as a quiet reading day on which my students were to immerse themselves in a book of their choice for the entire 50 minute class period. I was amazed to discover that one of the biggest challenges I faced with this learning activity was simply this: Many of my adolescent students found this amount of extended silence almost unbearably painful.
Having grown up in a world that features almost constant noise from televisions, home entertainment systems, and personal electronic devices, their ability to handle the quiet, sustained focus necessary to sit down and read a book was almost non-existent. This class activity turned out to be less about teaching them to find a personal reading focus and more about learning of the contemplative possibilities that can only be found in silence. It was quite worrisome to watch so many of them wrestle mightily with this seemingly innocuous challenge. It was only then that I realized just how damaged so many of our children are from growing up bombarded by the blaring background noise of our modern society.
We have allowed far too many of our children to be relentlessly wired to crave aural stimulation and become nervous and upset when it is withdrawn—much like a generation of drug addicts. I realize I might sound like some old fusspot who will soon be shouting at children to get off my lawn, but I worry about what we are doing to generation after generation of our children by feeding their destructive habits with the newest iPhones or by allowing classroom conversations to be replaced with YouTube videos.
One characteristic of youth has always been a lack of attention span, but I am astounded at how many college students I meet today who are unable to focus long enough to read an entire book or study a math problem for even a few moments before throwing up their hands in surrender.
Those who cannot concentrate are impossible to educate—and all the Ritalin and Adderall in the world cannot change this. We have created a national epidemic of the digitally distracted who cannot survive without a Wi-Fi connection to provide their next fix. Is it any wonder our schools and society are in the shape they’re in today?
All of this past damage, by the way, might now be playing out in our adult world. Do you know people who are unable to sustain interest in the important social, political, or economic issues facing our nation or world? Is our public discourse being further and further compressed to accommodate those with shortened attention spans? Is more and more of the debate that will determine our futures being reduced to mere sloganeering?
Perhaps we all need to rediscover that quiet spot in our souls so that we can renew our ability to think about our lives, our families, our friends, our communities, our nation, and our planet—before it is too late.
And who knows? A deep dive into Dracula might be a good place to start….
Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) September 14, 2016