John Turner, OHS '65
Sir John de Berkeley -- Order of Transylvanian Knights -- Brasov Romainia
In Search of Dracula
By John Turner
In the Fall of 2002, I had the pleasure of attending a Saturday salon/tour at the Los Angeles Karloffornia estate of noted horror film buff, collector, and sci-fi writer Forrest Ackerman. After an hour of stories about his friends Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Fritz Lang, and before he announced he was adjourning to the local Sizzler Steak House, Forest showed me the cape and crested ring worn by Bela Lugosi in his most famous film, Dracula.
Seeing these pieces of movie memorabilia jogged my memory of an article I had read a year earlier about a proposed Dracula theme park to be built on the Count’s own stalking grounds in Romania. Wondering if the park had ever materialized, I went online. I found a Dracula club in Newfoundland, which informed me not only that the park plan was very much alive, but also that there was to be a scholars’ colloquium in Romania entitled “Beyond Our Understanding,” which was to be followed by a tour of Draculian sites throughout the country. This was more than enough to pique my interest, and before you could say “count me in,” I was picked up in the dead of night at the Bucharest airport and whisked to the town of Sinaia, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains.
Since I got there two days into the colloquium, I had missed papers on “Vampires from Outer Space: An Exploration of Common Ground Shared by Vampires and Extraterrestrials Concerning Death and Immortality,” “Music from Beyond the Grave,” and “Vampires and Magic in Comics from Dracula to Harry Potter.” However, I did hear presentations on “Electronic Voice Phenomenon and Trans-communications,” “Britain’s First Ghost Hunters: Shamanism in Ancient British Culture,” and “The Curse Has Not Passed Away: The Fear of Woman and Desire in Dracula by Bram Stoker.”
The presentations were followed by a round-table discussion of the upcoming 2003 Third World Dracula Congress. The talk went down easy with some excellent high-octane Transylvanian plum brandy.
I learned from the spirited conversation that there were basically three camps of Draculian interest. The first centered on studies of the book written by Irishman Bram Stoker in 1897, originally considered to be titled “The Un-Dead” or “The Dead Undead” and later changed to “Dracula.” Over 1,000 books have been written on Dracula. Scholars and enthusiasts have scoured libraries and museums in search of historical evidence confirming and reinforcing the Stoker novel.
The second, and smaller group was fascinated with facts and legends based on the 15th-century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, Many people wrongly believe Stoker based his main character on Vlad, who ruled 1456-1462 and 1476 in the Wallachian principality (not the Transylvanian province) of Romania.
He was best remembered for the brutal punishments he dispensed to his enemies and dishonest merchants. Vlad favored impalement of wrong-doers on a wooden stake, a practice he learned from the Germans, He was reputed to have killed thousands of people in this manner. It was an agonizing ordeal that often took three days to accomplish.
I believe the final group of participants was basically interested in blending and exploiting the other two camps to the obvious benefit of the almost-nonexistent Romanian tourist industry. Nicolae Paduraru, owner of the Company of Mysterious Journeys Tours and president of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula (with over 2,000 members worldwide), made every effort to keep Count Dracula out of his coffin and very much alive in all the participants’ minds.
The following morning, I awoke with a slight hangover. But I still got an early start with five others – Elizabeth Miller, the top Dracula scholar in the world; Tom Wright and his travelling companion Rosemary Guiley, the author of over 30 books on everything from saints to Dracula; Alan Murdie, chairman of the UK Ghost Club; and Elizabeth Smith, a recent graduate of Davidison College who did her honors paper on Dracula. We visited the remains of a palace complex, once used by Vlad, in the town of Targoviste.
Rumor has it that on one occasion Vlad invited all the local movers and shakers to his palace digs for a great feast. After dinner, he excused himself, left the great banquet hall, locked the door, and set fire to the building, torching all his enemies and potential competitors. Needless to say, his legacy does not include any kudos for hospitality.
Then we journeyed by minibus to an imposing, crumbling fortress in Poienari, built to protect a mountain pass. We climbed up 1,456 steps (corresponding to the first year Vlad ruled) to a magnificent view. Vlad had used this spot to retreat from the advancing Turks and from his brother, both of whom were looking to eliminate him. Legend has it that Vlad’s wife, fearing her beloved husband had already met his fate, hastened her own death by jumping from the fortress into the river below.
This story was retold later that evening by a group of villagers from Aref, descendants of peasants who had helped Vlad escape from the Poienari. Wearing folk costumes and singing traditional songs as they danced around a fire, they gave us visitors, along with an excellent meal, a feeling of welcome and warmth.
After a well-earned, deep and dark sleep, we pushed on through the mountains to visit the much-photographed Bran Castle. Built in 1377 and wonderfully restored, it is the castle most associated with the fictional and nonfictional Dracula, primarily because of the efforts of tour guides hoping to fulfill their client’s fantasies. My favorite room in the castle was the trophy room, decorated with deer racks and bearskin rugs.
According to the castle guide, many bears still roam in the surrounding forest, at risk of being made into rugs by rich American game hunters who are lucky enough to obtain hunting permits. Near the castle parking lot there were numerous gift shops, many offering a rather good assortment of Dracula “kitsch” for sale, from dolls to plaques to T-shirts.
Motoring on to Brasov, we rested up before three of us were to assume knighthood in the Order of Transylvanian Knights.
Held at the citadel overlooking the town, the event was hosted by local actors who led us through a series of “chivalry tests.” Those included archery, strength of arm, walking a beam, jumping a fire, answering a riddle and dancing a minuet. All three of us were deemed qualified and received a tap of the blade on the shoulder after pledging to defend the town in times of trouble. After the ceremony, we adjourned to the fortress restaurant, where we celebrated with some great wine, chateaubriand steak, and a floorshow of opera and dance routines from the communist ‘50s.
The next morning, we toured Sighisora, the best-preserved 13th-century walled city in Europe, and the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula (his father was Vlad Dracul). Sighisora is also where a “witch trial” was staged for us and where we had drinks at the Dracula Restaurant.
Later, we journeyed four miles to a magnificent forest reserve overlooking the city. It was there, in 2001, that the Minister of Tourism announced plans to build a 150-acre Dracula park as a tourist magnet. According to an expensively produced stock prospectus and numerous press accounts, the park will house a ghost castle with torture chamber and restaurants selling such monstrosities as fried brains, horror jelly and blood-red cocktails.
Also on the drawing boards are sports grounds, bars and discos. Park investors project over a million visitors a year to the site and also foresee the creation of over 4,000 new jobs and a potential escalation in local real estate prices.
When Coca-Cola signed on as the exclusive soft-drink distributor and Best Western expressed an interest in a park franchise in May of 2002, it looked like the 31-million-dollar project was getting closer to realization. However, as the media happily spread the word about the impending “horror park,” the hype eventually reached the doors of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which, along with Prince Charles and Greenpeace, led opposition to the park on the grounds that it would endanger the medieval charm of Sighisora as a designated World Heritage site.
Throughout the trip, local newspapers featured daily headlines heralding the opposition action as a “stake being driven through the heart of the project.” At the same time newspapers were reporting dire accounts of the rapidly dwindling cash reserves that were needed to keep the plan afloat.
The main players in the conflict appear to be the president of Romania (against the project) and the minister of tourism, who, with his shifting positions, seems to have found his own personal pool of quicksand. Essentially, it is a Beauty (the city of Sighisora) and the Beast (Dracula Park) argument that has really doomed the project from the onset, along with the country’s lack of a solid tourist infrastructure to support hotels and efficient transportation.
The park project seems to have taken on a post-communist surreal air, with Capitalist dreams being foisted inappropriately on a blood-sucking character who is seventh on list of the 10 most famous modern legends, in a country where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the average monthly salary is 95 dollars.
But I digress. Our next destination was the town of Bristrita, mentioned in the Stoker novel as a stagecoach stop for Jonathan Harker. We lunched at the Golden Krone Restaurant, also mentioned in the novel. Seated in a private dining room replete with Dracula paintings, we were hosted by the former tourist minister of the town. He was also one of the two “barons” of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula and, not coincidentally, the owner of the restaurant.
Alexandru Misiuga, a pleasant man in his 80s who seemed to speak every language except English, was an accomplished poet, and had done some acting in his time, He was quite comfortable “in character,” wearing a Dracula cape and answering our questions about the Count. After lunch we visited Misiuga’s workshop, which contained hundreds of folk art dolls and masks he had crafted. He assured us some of the dolls came to life in the late evening hours.
Back on the bus, we traveled through the beautiful Borgo Pass, described incorrectly by Stoker (who had never visited Transylvania) as “rocky crags (that) towered range on range.”
The hotel, Castle Dracula, came into view 45 minutes before a spectacular sunset. Baron Misiuga, the poet-actor-restauranteur owned 51 percent of the hotel which just did not pass muster as fantasy environment. Only its magnificent setting redeems its architectural compromise between an actual 15th-century castle and the look and feel of a rundown university dorm,
The lobby décor pays homage to Dracula with a stuffed crow and a stuffed wolf, but the “advice card” placed in each room was a bit of a stretch. It admonishes occupants, “You can go anywhere in the castle except for the places with locked doors where, of course, you wouldn’t want to enter” and “Avoid, especially at night, the woods in the surroundings, the private cemetery, and the haunted houses.”
The only saving grace of the “horror” resort, other than the ski run right next door, was the basement’s Dracula Coffin Room. A candle carrying guide led our group down into the chamber.
The room was painted with carnival “scare ride” murals depicting the Count and his harem. In the center of the room was a wooden coffin. When the candle was snuffed, the coffin’s occupant jumped out yelling, thus getting the desired reaction from the spectators. The electric lights then came on, and we all were invited to have our pictures taken lying inside the coffin, Of course, we all complied, had the lid closed, and briefly turned the lights off.
Later that night, Lady Guiley and I joined the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, adding a few more of our coins to the Count’s coffer. We were supposed to have a “cleaning fire” but the hotel staff in charge had already gone to bed, so we settled for some extra rounds of beer, putting on capes and receiving pins and membership cards.
To confirm our new status, we exchanged “secret” Dracula information that, to this day I am not at liberty to divulge.
Photo by : Marco Cristofori
Bran Castle Bran Transylvania Romania
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