[24 October 2001]
Dracula lives! At least, this is what many Romanians who also live in Transylvania hope for. And may he live on for a long, long time. Most Americans know little about this southern Balkan nation. But, thanks to a never-ending stream of Dracula movies, they are familiar with Transylvania. They may not know that Transylvania has any connection at all with Romania. But they know that Dracula hails from that dark, mountainous, and spooky region which they have seen time after time on the screen: Transylvania. Lightening flashes illuminate pointy-spire castles on forbidding mountains. Wolves howl in the distance over a rumbling storm. And Dracula, as incarnated by the classic Bela Lugosi, or the modern Gary Oldman, cape swishing behind him, slowly descends a huge staircase to greet an unsuspecting visitor: “Welcome to my humble castle”. Yes, we’re in Transylvania all right.
During a two week trip to Romania, which included a visit to Transylvania, I discovered there are indeed in the country many legends and tales of vampires, werewolves, and supernatural happenings. Bram Stoker drew upon those tales, and upon the stark majesty of the Transylvanian Carpathian Mountains in his novel, Dracula, although he himself never actually visited Transylvania or any part of Romania.
But for Romanians today there are actually two “Draculas”. One is the former dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu. He and his wife Elena ruled Romania as a communist dictatorship, part of the Soviet Union’s eastern European bloc of nations. They had ruled with increasing brutality, destroying medieval villages in the countryside and old neighborhoods in the capitol city of Bucharest in order to build huge palatial buildings. They kept the populace in submission with their private police, the Securitate. In 1989 when communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, mostly peacefully, the Ceausescus clung to power and forced a violent and bloody revolution.
As I stood looking up at Ceausescu’s “Palace of the People” in Bucharest, an enormous and ugly edifice, I vividly remembered the fierce battles I had seen on TV during December of 1989. And I remembered the picture of the Ceausescus after their capture, trial, and execution. They lay in a bloody heap against the wall where they had been shot.
I was traveling with a former student of mine, who is Romanian, and her father. When I told them I remembered the death of the Ceausescus they said, “Yes, ‘Dracula’ was finally killed.” In the privacy of their homes during the dictatorship, Romanians had more and more begun to liken Ceausescu to Dracula who, vampire-like, had sucked the life from their country. Since the revolution, the view of Ceausescu as Dracula was openly expressed, and I heard it often when I asked about Romania’s time under his rule. And when my hosts asked me if I would like to go with them on a visit to their family in Sibiu, a city in Transylvania just north of the Carpathian Mountains, and see something of the “other” Dracula, the real Dracula and his hometown-how could I refuse? Those old movie images of dark castles and howling wolves came back to me. I asked my former student if I should bring some garlic, to ward off the vampires. She replied, and I think that she was being facetious but I wasn’t sure, that she had a cross that could also protect us.
This second Dracula, the historical Dracula, lived in the fifteenth century and is known, even now in the west thanks to history shows on cable TV, as Vlad the Impaler. He was, and is still seen as a hero in the struggle with the Ottoman Turks who were at the time sweeping across southern Europe. He earned his name from his unique way of dealing with his captives—namely, impaling them on long, sharp poles. And his name was Vlad Dracul. Over the centuries his idiosyncratic treatment of prisoners, his name, and the tales of supernatural doings in the wilds of the Carpathians of Transylvania were all mixed together and eventually emerged as Bela Lugosi in the form of Dracula.
As we bounced at incredible speeds over ever climbing, winding two lane roads in an old Russian Lada, my thoughts of vampires gave way to fears of plummeting down a gorge. But I was soon transfixed by the stunning vistas of the thickly forested Carpathian Mountains, cut by rushing rivers and stretching ever higher even as we rose through them. Despite my awe at the beauty, my professorial mind couldn’t help but dwell upon the improved but still poor state of the Romanian economy. As I took in the view, I also noticed two other sights as we drove up the mountain: the remains, I was told, of a failed ski resort; and, a glimpse of the castle at the city of Brasov. In fact, this castle is quite well known to Americans from several horror films; Young Frankenstein for example. Skiing, picturesque beauty, and Dracula-tourism: these things meant money toward salvaging the Romanian economy! Of course many Romanians were way ahead of my speculations. At many other locations besides Brasov, other towns with other castles were all beginning to put out the word that theirs was Vlad/Dracula’s “real” castle. Or at least, he had stayed there. So, instead of, as in America, where we joke about the many claims that “Washington slept here”, it is in Romania that “Dracula slept at this castle”.
After a night in Sibiu on the northern flank of the Carpathians we headed for Dracula’s real hometown. It was less mountainous, but still a countryside of beautiful rolling hills. I kept looking around each turn for the dramatic appearance of Castle Dracula, my hosts calmly turning aside my “Where is ‘it’?” questions. When we arrived in a small town called Sighisoara they said, “Here we are. Dracula’s hometown!” No castle. But it was a perfectly preserved medieval town, with small winding streets and an ancient fortress, not a castle, at the top of the town’s highest point. As the travel guide would say, “Charming”. Probably, as it was so far north, it had escaped the degradations visited on so many Romanian towns and villages by the other “Dracula”, Ceausescu. We headed towards a nondescript house on the edge of a pretty plaza. The house had a mounted plaque on one side. This was it. Vlad Dracul was born and lived in this house from 1431 to 1435.
In the sparkling sunlight, and even in the dark shadows of night, it didn’t look very spooky. In fact, there were tables, chairs, and white-and-blue umbrellas of a typical European café just outside of the house. And inside, at the top of the stairs that the young Vlad himself must have descended many times, was a restaurant. Excellent food; but, was I eating on the spot where the impaler was born? Now that struck me as spooky.
And in shop after shop around the plaza and the surrounding streets: Dracula pictures, plates, jewelry boxes, pencils, key chains. Just like in Disneyworld with the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse, Vlad/Dracula could be seen everywhere in Sighisoara. And in fact, since my visit, several towns in the area, including Sighisoara, have united to build on nearby land, as the Financial Times.comw of August 22, 2001 reports, an “international theme park called Dracula Land”.
So there it is, the triumph of capitalism. Pizza Hut in Bucharest, Dracula Land in Transylvania. There are Romanians who fear that what Ceausescu as “Dracula” could not accomplish—the total destruction of Romanian culture—will come as a result of the commercialization of the country, with Vlad the Impaler as “Dracula” leading the way. Following Dracula Land into Transylvania will, no doubt be Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and the other accoutrements of western capitalism that have flooded Russia and eastern Europe since communism’s collapse. Some people will get very rich. And many will be left behind.
Still, after years of having to endure Ceausescu’s attacks upon Romania’s culture, politics and economy, Romanians, after a difficult decade since his death, are moving decisively towards an open political and economic system. They can now make their own choices about their country. In traveling through Romania, Russia, and other countries of the former communist bloc I have seen the same struggles over similar concerns. The battles among those who favor a rapid move to westernization, those who prefer the order of the past to the turmoil of the present, and those who support free politics and economics yet fear the impact on indigenous culture, are often intense. Ultimately, who are we outsiders to say that Romania shouldn’t fully exploit the Dracula story, both real and imagined? I have to admit I’ve done my part. My car now sports a genuine, bought-in-Dracula’s-home-town, “I Love Dracula” bumper sticker.
It’s getting dark, anybody have any garlic?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/thompson011024/