COUNT VON COUNT & HIS PURPOSE IN CHILDREN’S TELEVISION

My final paper for my Vampire Narratives course.

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I. INTRODUCTION

Count von Count was officially introduced to the cast of Sesame Street in Season 4 on November 27, 1972. While the Watergate scandal was plaguing the American nation and race riots were breaking out post the Civil Rights Movement, Sesame Street became a production of Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization, and expanded to international co-productions. Supposedly, the show was originally aired on November 10, 1969 as an “American experiment,” but it quickly became one of the most successful “international institutions” telecasted on public television (Gettas).

Geared at preparing children from low-income areas with early numeracy and literacy skills that often fell through the gaps of the public education system, Sesame Street now reaches approximately 8 million viewers a week on average, and has since advanced to an additional 20 international editions. For the past 44 years, Sesame Street has been viewed by millions of children in approximately 115 countries, and the numbers continue to rise as the program enriches the minds of children with valuable academic and pro-social content.

Voiced by Jerry Nelson from 1972 until 2012 and Matt Vogel in 2013, Count von Count is described as “a Dracula type who had no interest whatever in things vampirish, but who was fixated on counting things, and if he had counted it before that was O.K., he would count it again” (Lahey). “They call me The Count because I love to count things,” he always says when introducing himself on the show. Of all the creatures that make appearances on Sesame Street, it is extremely random that The Count is the only mythical monster with a historical background in pop culture and folklore. This convinced me that the inclusion of a vampire in a popular children’s television show had to have a significant purpose for the past, present and future generations of youth.

II. VAMPIRE TRADITIONS & MYTHS

Count von Count is considered to be one of the single most traditional vampires in television history. Along with the fangs, cape and monocle, The Count also has a flawless Transylvanian accent that sounds exactly like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula from 1931. Additionally, The Count lives in a creepy, gothic castle infested with cobwebs, bats, and mirrors that don’t show his reflection.

Similar to the aristocratic vampires that came before him, The Count attracts his fair share of common love interests—Countess von Backwards, Countess Dahling von Dahling, and Lady Two— that he affectionately sings many a charming Central European themed song to. (“Baby, You Can Count On Me,” “The Transylvania Love Call,” “I Remember It Well,” “Count Up To Nina,” etc.) Evidently, The Count is never lonely because he can always count on something or someone. Oddly enough, Count von Count is the only character on Sesame Street that is involved in any romantic relationships. One could conclude that the passion for romance is in the blood.

In an excerpt from Becca Wilcot’s book, “Truly, Madly, Deadly: The Unofficial True Blood Companion,” she points out a key traditional vampire trait that arises in many tales of vampire folklore: Count von Count is a notorious counter. This characteristic is a specific type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) known as arithromania, a mental disorder that compels someone to obsessively and meticulously count things in their surroundings (Nuzum). (Whether or not The Count also suffers from schizophrenia is another debate.) This disorder is also a traditional vampire myth associated with Eastern European vampires who were often characterized as obsessive-compulsive creatures. “Vampires are compelled to count the seeds or the holes in the net, delaying them until the sun comes up” (Wilcot).

This method of distraction supposedly allowed victims to escape from their vampire attacker. A few times throughout the series, The Count has been guilty of pursuing his neighbors like Cookie Monster and Oscar on Sesame Street, but his surroundings always distracted him before he could complete his mission of attacking them. The Count gets caught up counting literally anything that catches his attention, almost against his own free will. Scholars and critics alike believe that The Count was designed this way for the purpose of serving as children’s introduction to vampire mythology along with basic mathematics.

In “Living in Death: The Evolution of Modern Vampires,” Cheryl Atwater states that the myth of vampirism is romanticized and has transformed from a fear to something that is desired. After the 19th century, vampires have “since been adapted for the purpose of entertainment” (Atwater). The Count has a personality and through his choices, it is clear that he activates his own agency. He is an intellectual with worldly mathematical knowledge that he is ready to dispose to the citizens that live amongst him. “Vampires were now teachers as well as product salesman. Although they still featured scary settings— crumbling castles and dark, stormy nights— the vampire was out of any context that might link him to death or bloodletting” (Palmer). Sesame Street is framed around commercial television entertainment, but the content is built on children’s education. In order for the young target audience to achieve, the show needed to include “talent, music, and use of commercial entertainment features such as cartoons, puppets, [and] slapstick humor” (Tierney).

III. VAMPIRES & THE MEDIA

In “An Adolescent Vampire Cult in Rural America: Clinical Issues and Case Study,” Thomas W. Miller, Lane J. Veltkamp, Robert F. Kraus, Tina Lane, and Tag Heister argue that Sesame Street is brought up as a connection to the media’s interests in vampires. “For the young and vulnerable child or adolescent in search of bonding with peers, the mystery of vampirism permits a bonding opportunity with peers in search of their identity as adolescents” (Miller). The use of slang and antisocial behavior in a city environment on Sesame Street was also necessary in order to reach their viewers because of urbanization during the 1960s thru 1990s (Tierney). In relation to The Count, the setting of vampire narratives switched from the countryside to the city, a more pleasurable environment for the vampire to roam freely and indulge in stalking its victims (Atwater). At a time when the American culture was more interested in psychoanalysis and self-help in forging the identity of an individual, a character like Count von Count seemed like the ideal model for educating children.

IV. VAMPIRES & THE 1970S

In the 1970s, there was a big shift in the structure of vampire narratives. Instead of emphasizing the notion of vampires as foreign invaders, the narrative began to forge a connection between the creature and the audience, removing the vampire from its historical myth and origins. In other words, this was the beginning of the humanization of the vampire and observation of their internal selves. In previous narratives, vampires were solely defined based on external judgments about them. “Over time, the traditional cultures and imaginations of various writers have brought new (and sometimes contradictory) dimensions to the legend” of the vampire (Ladouceur). With a strategy to soften the horror part of the vampire, these writers resurrected the vampire in popular culture as a means to observing its origins by giving it human characteristics.

Like most of the vampires that came out of the 1970s time period, Count von Count displayed his own thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams. The Count acknowledges his feelings— when he can’t find anything to count, he feels frustrated. When he succeeds in his counting task, he is happy. He loves counting so much and is proud of himself when he gets others to participate in it. By presenting The Count in this nature, it erases the negative connotations that are often associated with vampires such as eroticism, violence, and pedophilia. Count von Count challenges children’s concept of what is theoretically good and evil. Instead, they realize that characters like The Count are often misunderstood and are worthy of our forgiveness and mercy. At an early stage, children are taught the root of human compassion.

Louis H. Palmer III proposed that the introduction of characters like Count von Count and Count Chocula as camp figures in the 1970s changed the way in which vampires were viewed in children’s television. In an article from the St. Petersburg Times written by Jay Cridlin, he argues that the best time to be a vampire was during the mid-70s. “From 1971 to 1976, America bore witness to the unholy rise of Count Chocula; Sesame Street’s Count von Count; Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot; and, of course, Blacula. For some reason, swarthy Euro dudes in capes really had the run of the place during the swinging ’70s” (Cridlin).

Nina Auerbach, author of “In Our Vampires, Ourselves,” suggested that the 1970s also brought on a more progressive, sensitive approach to masculinity, and vampires fit that mold because they were masters of the night (Cridlin). Heidi Louis Cooper believes that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy a decade prior, a program like Sesame Street was exactly what society needed. And after Watergate, the American people found themselves desperately in need of a new leader in government that they could fully trust quite literally with their lives. “In the 1970s, humans and vampires seem to cry together for a leader, a master-vampire who will guide them beyond the corrupt morass of muttering voices that supposedly constitutes authority,” stated Auerbach (Cridlin). For children, The Count could be that leader who helped them battle the big, bad numbers of their nightmares.

In 2011, BBC published an article in which the majority of mothers who were tested for a report revealed that they thought the 1970s and 1980s were the best time to raise children. With less demands in the workplace and more time for families to spend together at home, these women also believed that it was necessary to rely on “support networks for help in bringing up their children, with some 68% using technology” (BBC). A program like Sesame Street probably eased the burden of childbearing for mothers in American households.

V. PERCEPTIONS OF THE MODERN VAMPIRE

By viewing the vampire as a comedic character, vampires are not perceived as threatening. This diminishes the horror reputation, therefore making children less afraid of this superstition. The vampire is harmless because it is educating the masses. The more The Count makes children laugh, the more they trust him. In the article “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse,” Ralph Blumenthal insists that vampires are necessary in order to help children confront their fears. “Children like Sesame Street’s humor, tempo, characters, stories and songs” (Gettas). Although The Count alienates himself at times, the friendly faces of Sesame Street never ostracize him.

Despite his success on the show, it was reported that The Count had to alter his appearance. Originally, he would emerge in a spooky manner— as thunder and lightning boomed loudly behind the creepy organ music, he would count and cackle manically. In fact, in the first episode that Count von Count appears in, he makes it very clear that nothing will get in the way of him and his counting. When Ernie and Bert build a pyramid out of blocks, The Count knocks them all over without even asking permission from the other characters or considering their feelings. “Ernie wanted to say that you should leave those blocks alone. Leave things where you find them,” Bert says to him. The Count doesn’t apologize for the mess that he’s made and keeps on counting the blocks. In another episode, The Count says “I will never give up” in response to a desperate Susan Sarandon when she pleads for him to stop knocking on the door of what turns out to be his gothic castle on a rainy night.

The angry and aggressive Count von Count upset children and after enough parents sent in complaints, he became increasingly less scary. After all, what parent wants their child exposed to hyper-violent behavior? Instead of forcing the counting on to everyone, The Count started to be more polite and use manners like “please” and “thank you” to proceed in his approach. Now, Count von Count is also noticeably less sinister since he can walk in the daylight, and his hypnotic powers and the ability to transform were stripped away as well. In a way, The Count was domesticated and toned down for viewer satisfaction and comfort, but this does not mean that he was turned into a metaphorical puppet.

VI. VAMPIRES & SOCIETY

When the other characters on Sesame Street interact with The Count, they soon learn that they need to make compromises with him in order to continue participating in the activity they were engaged in while he continues to count out the digits of his objects. This is an example of a concept known as social determination in which “social interactions and constructs alone determine individual behavior (as opposed to biological or objective factors” (Flanagan). Confronting monsters teaches children coping skills for dealing with the real world, and Count von Count guides them in this valuable life lesson (Nuzum). Formerly an invader of the mind, this vampire influences children to count and gets pure satisfaction out of them completing the task. The Count does not need to feed, but merely complete the mathematical deed.

VII. VAMPIRES, OTHERNESS & RACE RELATIONS

From narrative to narrative, it is evident that vampires represent otherness in the current society. With that being said, it is not farfetched to assume that Count von Count and all of the monsters that live on Sesame Street are a universal metaphor for otherness within the neighborhood. Through these fictional characters, the viewer examines racial politics and ethics. “The vampire serves as a disruptive detail that destabilizes the sanitized, conventional and standardized world” (Palmer). In vampire narratives of the past, minorities usually played the role of the mythical monsters. As Heidi Louis Cooper states, “Sesame Street seeks to re-craft the meaning of monstrosity,” but characters like Count von Count also serve as a “cautionary function” because they teach tolerance and demonstrate disadvantageous behavior.

Sesame Street embodies a multicultural community of people with assorted racial and ethnic backgrounds that are all brought together in one common place. All of these colorful characters intentionally demonstrate diversity. Heidi Louise Cooper argues that their presence teaches children not to be frightened by these differences and that equality for everyone is essential. They learn to sympathize for the monstrous outsider and treat him as a playmate that they shower with their premature love and affection.

Although discrimination seemed like a demon from the past as segregation gradually came to an end, race relations were still tense in America during the 1970s. The amount of violence on the streets of cities in response to prejudice was absolutely horrific. However, “the daily impact of television helped make blacks, seen in shows and commercial advertisements, seem an integral part of a pluralistic nation” (Scholastic). Sesame Street was actually one of the first shows on U.S. television to include African-American actors in positive, leading roles (Cooper).

Though the show steers away from racial representation in order to avoid the controversy of portraying stereotypes, it still offers a diverse cast. Sesame Street has always advocated for interracial harmony and “the social responsibility to provide equitable, high-quality education for all children” (Cooper). This is probably the first time that a public television program has ever been over-inclusive in terms of race in the history of American television.

Exposure to a program like Sesame Street raised children’s awareness of self-conception and boosted their self-esteem so they could take pride in who they were no matter the color of their skin. “Sesame Street helps [children] learn their alphabets and numbers, practice good health habits, and appreciate the richness and diversity of their local cultures and traditions” (Gettas). Count von Count may be a monster, but the rest of the residents on Sesame Street treat him no differently than anyone else that lives on the block because they are loyal to their beloved friend.

On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in the U.S., granting legal equality of the sexes. Whether or not the timing was coincidental or planned on purpose, this is all certainly relevant to the way in which Count von Count is presented and presents himself. And while the affirmative action program is designed to serve the privileged population, Sesame Street serves all of society’s underdogs. This is a program that continues to show positive role models to children across the nation and all over the world.

VIII. CONCLUSION

Children are ultimately influenced by what they see on television, and engaging programs like Sesame Street affect their behavior as well as their social and cognitive development. Sesame Street presents positive images with valuable lessons that children can apply to their daily lives. Count von Count reinforces the power of knowledge and the importance of learning these fundamental mathematical and life skills.

Although our society continues to change, The Count continues to mirror those changes. Rather than scare his neighborhoods, he welcomes them into his home with open arms and a two-fanged smile. Even though he lives alone, The Count has his darling bat children, whom he gives names, and his countless string of lady lovers. Contrary to popular belief, this vampire is extremely family-friendly. More than anything, The Count wants to bite into knowledge, something no human should ever be afraid of.

Formerly a victim of discrimination, this vampire never retaliates against anyone because he is literally a problem solver. The representation of race on this show is slightly complicated, but overall it does a solid job of encouraging inclusiveness within an integrated urban environment. Multiculturalism remains a huge part of American society as we know it today, and is an important factor to feature in all forms of entertainment and the media.

The Count paves a path towards equality and acceptance of everyone. Count von Count is a reaction to the culture that he originated from in a multitude of ways as his character continues to evolve over time in front of the camera and on the television screen. The Count serves as a conductor in exploring the introduction of vampire mythology, a romantic filled with intense feelings, a minority that is never diminished because of his otherness, and a scholarly educator in the field of mathematics. If children are searching for a positive role model, they need look no further than The Count. No doubt, he has some issues locked away in that castle of his, but this is a dependable character that viewers know they can always count on. From the beginning, The Count was created to lead his human peers in the right direction. Evidently, there is so much more to this vampire than merely counting off numbers.

 

Works Cited

Atwater, Cheryl. “Living in Death: The Evolution of Modern Vampires”. Western

Washington University. Department of Anthropology. Online Library. Web.

 

Blumenthal, Ralph. “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse”. New York Times. December 29 2002.

 

Cooper, Heidi Louise. “A Usefully Messy Approach: Racializing the Sesame Street Muppets”. Youth Theatre Journal (July 8, 2010), pp. 33-46.

 

Cridlin, Jay. “‘TWILIGHT’ FAN? SINK YOUR TEETH INTO THIS.”

St. Petersburg Times: 24. Aug 01 2008. ProQuest. Web.

 

Flanagan, Matt. “Vampires: A Social Problem”. University of Southern Alabama.

 

Gettas, Gregory J. Gettas. “The Globalization of Sesame Street: A Producer’s

Perspective”, Educational Technology Research and Development , Vol. 38, No. 4, Children’s Learning from Television: Research and Development at the Children’s Television Workshop (1990), pp. 55-63.

 

Ladouceur, Liisa. “How to Kill a Vampire: Fangs in Folklore, Film and Fiction”.

ECW Press (Sept. 1, 2013).

 

Nuzum, Eric. “The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count

Chocula”. St. Martin’s Griffin, First Edition Edition (Sept. 30, 2008).

 

Miller, Thomas W., Veltkamp, Lane J., Kraus, Robert F., Lane, Tina and Heister,

Tag. “An Adolescent Vampire Cult in Rural America: Clinical Issues and Case Study.” Child Psychiatry and Human Development (March 1999), Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 209-219.

 

Palmer, Louis H. III. “Vampires in the New World”. Library of Congress. 2013.

 

Tierney, Joan D. “The Miracle on Sesame Street”. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol.

52, No. 5 (Jan., 1971), Phi Delta Kappa International, pp. 296-298. JSTOR. Web.

 

Wilcot, Becca. “Truly, Madly, Deadly: The Unofficial True Blood Companion”.

ECW Press (June 1, 2010).

 

Race Relations during the 1960s and 1970s”.

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