Thomas Hutter from the propserus German city of Wisborg. His employer, Mr Knock, sends Hutter to Transylvania to visit a new client named Orlock. Hutter tells his wife Ellen to stay with his good friend Harding and Harding's sister Annie, before embarking on his long journey. Nearing his destination in the Carpathian mountains, Hutter stops at an inn for dinner. The locals become frightened by the mere mention of Orlock's name and discourage him from traveling to his castle at night, warning of a werewolf on the prowl. The next morning, Hutter fids a book about the myths of Germany but laughs and throws it away. Later, Hutter takes a coach to a high mountain pass, but the coachmen decline to take him any further than the bridge as nightfall is approaching. A black clad coach appears after Hutter crosses the bridge and the coachman gestures for him to climb aboard. Hutter is welcomed at a large castle by Count Orlock. When Hutter is eating dinner and accidentally cuts his thumb, Orlock freezes then tries to suck the blood out, but his repulsed guest pulls his hand away.
Hutter wakes up to a deserted castle the morning after and notices fresh punctures on his neck, which he attributes to mosquitoes. That night, Orlock signs the documents to purchase the house across from Hutter's own home. Hutter writes a letter to his wife and gets a coachman to send it. Reading a book about vampires that he took from the local inn, Hutter starts to suspect that Orlock is Nosferatu, the "Bird of Death." He cowers in his room as midnight approaches, but there is no way to bar the door. in the following moments the famous shadow along the stairs scene happens, coincidentally becoming one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. The door opens by itself and Orlock enters. His true nature was finally revealed, and Hutter falls unconscious. The next day, Hutter explores the castle. In its crypt, he finds the coffin in which Orlock is resting dormant. Hutter becomes horrified and dashes back to his room. From the window, he sees Orlock piling up coffins on a coach and climbing into the last one before the coach departs. Hutter escapes the castle through the window, but is knocked unconscious by the fall, and awakes in a hospital.
When he is sufficiently recovered, he hurries home. Meanwhile, the coffins are shipped down river on a raft. They are transferred to a schooner, but not before one is opened by the crew. The sailors on the ship get sick one by one; soon all but the captain and first mate are dead. Suspecting the truth, the first mate goes below to destroy the coffins. However, Orlock awakens and the horrified sailor jumps into the sea. Unaware of his danger, the captain becomes Orlock's latest victim when he ties himself to the wheel. When the ship arrives in Wisborg, Orlock leaves unobserved, carrying one of his coffins, and moves into the house he purchased. The next morning, when the ship is inspected, the captain is found dead. After examining the logbook, the doctors assume they are dealing with the plague. The town is stricken with panic, and people are warned to stay inside.
There are many deaths in the town. Because of this, the fearful residents chase Knock, who had been committed to a psychiatric ward but escaped after murdering the warden. He eludes them by climbing a roof, then using a scarecrow. Meanwhile, Orlock stares from his window at the sleeping Ellen. Against her husband's wishes, Ellen had read the book he found. The book claims that the way to defeat a vampire is for a woman who is pure in heart to distract the vampire with her beauty all through the night. She opens her window to invite him in, but faints. When Hutter revives her, she sends him to fetch Professor Bulwer. After he leaves, Orlock comes in. He slowly sucks her blood, but Ellen has a sharp wooden stake and stabs Orlock through the heart causing him to die in the sunlight. Ellen lives just long enough to be embraced by her grief-stricken husband.