A century ago, Nosferatu’s vile villain Count Orlok became an icon when he walked through a doorway, eyes frenzied and claws menacing, to drain his victim’s blood. But just 20 years ago, the same character was revealed as the little scamp scaring SpongeBob SquarePants and Squidward by flicking the lights of the Krusty Krab on and off.
It’s a great SpongeBob joke, but the non sequitur, which removes the vampire from his original movie and any semblance of context, also illustrates Nosferatu’s role as a pop-culture reference. SpongeBob helped keep the 1922 film alive (or undead) in the public eye. As SpongeBob writer and storyboard director Jay Lender tells Polygon, that random visual gag in the season 2 episode “Graveyard Shift” was probably the first encounter most of its viewers had with the silent classic.
“Graveyard Shift,” which regularly places in the top 5 in ranked lists of SpongeBob’s best episodes, first aired on September 6, 2002. The 11-minute installment sees SpongeBob and Squidward working the night shift at the Krusty Krab, to the former’s delight and the latter’s dismay. Squidward entertains himself by frightening SpongeBob with a scary story about a “hash-slinging slasher,” but then the mysterious omens he made up about the killer start actually happening, terrifying them both. Fortunately, it turns out that all the signs of his impending arrival have a mundane explanation — except for the flickering lights. In the episode’s final seconds, it’s revealed that the titular vampire from Nosferatu — depicted using a slightly altered and crudely animated still from F.W. Murnau’s 1922 live-action horror classic film, has been turning off the lights as a joke. “Nos-fer-a-tu!” SpongeBob and Squidward say, affectionately, as if they hang out with him all the time. “Nosferatu” smiles. The episode ends. No further explanation.
Count Orlok wasn’t originally supposed to be the culprit. Lender says that in an earlier draft of the episode, after SpongeBob excitedly lists work tasks he can now do at night (flipping patties, swabbing the bathroom, and burning his hand), there was going to be a fourth joke, where he delivered the mail to Floorboard Harry — a previously unseen, unmentioned creature that apparently just lives underneath the Krusty Krab. Then at the end of the episode, it was going to be Floorboard Harry flipping the light switch. (Lender shared a few Post-It Note sketches of Floorboard Harry with Polygon.) But the “at night” joke already fulfilled the comedy rule of threes, so the fourth bit with Floorboard Harry got cut. This meant his appearance at the end wouldn’t be a callback, just a totally random image. It wasn’t quite good enough. Luckily, another, better idea popped into Lender’s head.
Lender says that when he was a kid, he was a big fan of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. This was before there were hundreds of TV channels, before the internet, and well before there were vast libraries of streamable horror movies. Kids like Lender didn’t really have much opportunity to see old horror movies, but the magazine, which had a fun, tongue-in-cheek tone, could expose them to these films with articles and pictures.
“Stuff would appear in this magazine that I couldn’t track down, but I could be aware of it,” Lender says. “So I could see that [old genre films like] This Island Earth existed, but I couldn’t actually see them unless it showed up on TV.
“They would show a still from Nosferatu. And it was always that still of him standing in the doorway,” Lender recalls. “So my first experience with Orlok and with that image is as this disjointed non sequitur. When the moment came that I needed to come up with a replacement horror non sequitur, that image was already in that slot in my brain. What’s interesting is that because of SpongeBob, for 20 years, everyone else’s first experience with Orlok came as a weird disjointed non sequitur horror image too.”
That’s the thing about Nosferatu. It’s an innovative, powerful film, but over the past century, it’s become as much a pop-culture artifact as a work of art itself. People who haven’t seen Nosferatu might still know of its existence, or at the very least, be vaguely aware of the gross, rat-looking vampire from that silent film that isn’t Dracula. The 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries looked to Nosferatu for its vampire design. Blue Öyster Cult wrote a song about him. Queen and David Bowie used footage from the film in the video for “Under Pressure.” Dungeons & Dragons has a whole type of vampire called a “Nosferatu” in the Monster Manual. And Shadow of the Vampire fictionalized the making of the movie. Nosferatu is a reference as much as it’s a movie itself.
But even though the movie has an 80-year advantage on SpongeBob, it’s entirely possible that more people have seen Count Orlok in that episode of SpongeBob than have seen Nosferatu. That’s how these things go. Nosferatu is a landmark film full of striking images, but the power of those images (and the decades where it was difficult or even impossible to watch the movie) has ensured that the basic visual idea of “Nosferatu” has become more culturally dominant than the film’s full context is today.
“If it weren’t for the unbelievable reach of SpongeBob as a platform, no one under the age of 30 would ever wanna watch this movie,” Lender says. He explains that it wasn’t until recently that he felt comfortable admitting his part in referencing Nosferatu in SpongeBob, but 20 years later, he can’t deny that the gag had an impact.
“I know that this show has a bigger reach than any silent film,” Lender says. In case that sounds arrogant, he emphasizes what a sensation SpongeBob SquarePants was when it premiered. Some 15 million viewers were watching weekly, a number that’s hard to fathom in today’s media landscape, with its splintered audience taking in an overabundance of niche options. “Nothing [today] can have the cultural impact that SpongeBob had when it first came out,” Lender says.
He also feels that the size of that audience means he probably peaked with this one brief reference. “I have to accept that this is it, this is my legacy. It’s almost impossible to imagine anything I could do that would be more noteworthy later on,” Lender says. “I could go out and kill the president right now, and the headline would say ‘Nosferatu Gag Man and Presidential Assassin Jay Lender Died.’”
Now that streaming and YouTube have made it easy to watch so many movies — especially ones in the public domain, like Nosferatu — it’s not a surprise that it’s more seen and appreciated as a film. On its 100-year anniversary, Nosferatu is arguably more widely appreciated in its original context than ever before. Technology and a renewed interest in old movies, perhaps partially inspired by people who want to track down the references they grew up with, have made Count Orlok more than just a memorable, memeable image.
Amusingly, though, Orlok is no longer a non sequitur in SpongeBob SquarePants. The vampire made a couple of additional appearances in later episodes, and in the prequel series Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years, Kidferatu is a camp counselor. “Graveyard Shift’s” random ending is retroactively a continuity joke, which Lender thinks is neat, though he does feel the later returns to the gag “cut the legs out” from the original just a little.
And for those wondering: SpongeBob’s switch-flicking vampire is called “Nosferatu” and not Count Orlok because Lender thought the film title was more recognizable, and more importantly, that it sounded better in the sing-songy tone we hear it in at the episode’s end. Probably the correct call for the joke, and for Nosferatu’s ongoing PR, but it has its downsides.
“I have to deal with the trolls who come to me and say, ‘Actually, the name is Orlok.’” Lender says, laughing. “Like, OK. I know. I knew that 20 years before you were born. But thank you for the thought.”
“Graveyard Shift” and much of the SpongeBob Squarepants library is streaming on Peacock and Amazon Prime Video. Nosferatu is streaming free (with ads) on Tubi, and for subscribers on Shudder, Hoopla, and Kanopy. It’s widely available for rental on digital platforms like Amazon and Vudu.