Transylvania

In Search of the Real Dracula

 

Such is the enduring power of Bram Stoker's classic horror story, first published in 1897 and never out of print, that modern-day Transylvania in Northern Romania has become a tourist Mecca.

 

Though the novel was first published in English in 1893, Romania's most famous fictional resident, Count Dracula, was almost unknown there until 1992. Only with the fall of communism was Bram Stoker's classic finally translated and published in Romania.

 

What is known of Vlad the Impaler comes from a series of lurid stories dating back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They depict a man surrounded in corpses, a tyrant and madman, who literally drank the blood of his enemies. There are good reasons to think that Stoker was struck by this evil character and borrowed his surname, "Dracula," because he thought it meant "son of the devil," to create his own vampire.

 

In fact, it meant "son of the dragon," and this was because Vlad's father had joined an order of knighthood called the Order of the Dragon. Dragon is written dracul in Romanian, and so Dracula literally means "son of Dracul."

 

 

But to many Romanians, Vlad is a national hero, a saviour. They reject the tales of a psychopathic tyrant as vicious propaganda promoted by Vlad's enemies. They honour him as the legendary king who, like Britain's King Arthur, will one day return to save his country.

 

Part of the reason for this lies in places like Sigihisoara, a town built by Germans, or better, Saxons, who had moved to Transylvania to become merchants. They took hold of the region and didn't even let Romanians enter the town-they had to pay a toll first. Vlad resented this and sided with the Romanians. In his lifetime, he also fought bravely against the Turks, who had conquered parts of Europe already, and this spread panic among the Christian kings. So Vlad was considered a crusader. Europe, then, first knew him as a hero.

 

However, Vlad lost his battles and was defeated by the Turks, and his legacy was set by the victors. There are still many pamphlets surviving, printed by the Germans soon after his death, in which his exploits are recounted in gory detail and he is portrayed as a devil-like figure.


It's ironic that the man whose name helped inspire one of the most famous fictional horror stories of all time, written in the nineteenth century, was also the subject of some of the very first printed horror stories in the fifteenth century. And this also shows the power of propaganda: for a brief moment, he'd been the hero of
Europe; then, after his death, his enemies destroyed his reputation.

 

During the reign of communist dictator Nicholae Ceausescu, Vlad Dracula was again venerated as a hero. They portrayed him as a nationalist icon, a man who united and protected Romanians from their enemies, imperialist Turks and capitalist German merchants.


 

His brutal methods were either dismissed as enemy propaganda or, when they couldn't be explained away, as a necessary evil. In fact, Ceausescu was so enamoured of Vlad that he is even reported to have once said: "A man like me comes along only every 500 years."

 

Stories of vampires are, in fact, very old in Romania; however, they prefer to call these creatures strigoi. They are seen as ghosts, undead, immaterial things; they are usually a recently buried member of the family, who returns to haunt his relatives and drain their life forces, sometimes in dreams. In order to bring peace to the family and to the undead itself, some "rituals" need to be performed.

 

These are very secret practices that, I was surprised to learn, still continue today. In January 2004, one such episode became public and created a scandal.

 

These beliefs are very different from those held by people who are Dracula fans; with them, it's all about image, the immortality, and sexiness of vampires. But for the people in Romania, these are deeply held views, as strongly held as religious faiths. Whether that means customs such as digging up a body and removing its heart should somehow be preserved, I'm not so sure…

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)

 

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