I've always been fascinated with Eastern Europe. Perhaps it stems from my heritage (my great grandfather lived in an apartment in Bratislava, Slovakia before coming to America). Or it could be the result of the countless images of werewolves, old crumbling castles, and vampires haunting my nightmares at an early age. I even dated a Romanian named Dani during my college years (yes, he was from the region known as Transylvania... his hair, voice, and sense of humor were all dark... but he wasn't a vampire, sorry).
Often, our most iconic images are not so much based in reality but a blend of fact and fiction.
Dracula, as we are familiar with him in our culture, never actually existed. His image stems from three sources: superstition, Vlad Dracul, and Elizabeth Báthory.
A strigoi, in Romanian mythology, is the evil soul of the dead capable of transforming itself into an animal or specter to haunt and terrorize the countryside.There were a few different forms: Strigoi vii were living vampire witches, while Strigoi morţi were their undead counterparts. Both fed off the life force (be it the soul or blood) of their victims and could only be destroyed during their feast.
Vlad Ţepeş ("Vlad the Impaler", Vladislav III Dracula , or "son of Dracul", Prince of Wallachia) was a fair and well-loved ruler in Romania during the 15th Century. His nickname stems from his preferred method of punishment. Tales of Vlad drinking the blood of his victims circulated around Europe, though these words came from the lips of his enemies. After escaping Poienari Castle ("Dracula's Castle" as it is now known, where his first wife leaped to her death in the Argeş River below), he returned in 1475 with Stefan Báthory to reclaim the throne, only to be killed in battle during the winter of 1476. His body has never been found.
Speaking of the Báthory family, there's yet another possible origin for the vampires of legend: Báthory Erzsébet, better known as Countess Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary. Elizabeth was a lesbian and always surrounded herself with beautiful, young women. As age and fading beauty began consuming her thoughts, she devised a plan to keep herself young.
She would bathe in the blood of young women. Well, torture and mutilate them first... just for fun.
Everything seemed to go quite well, under the guise of schooling young peasant girls from the countryside. But soon, the rumors of her misdeeds reached government officials. To avoid a public scandal, she was sentenced to house arrest. Čachtice Castle in modern-day Slovakia became her prison for the remainder of her life. She passed away on August 21, 1614 while still bricked into the single room.
Over the many centuries, these and many other tales became twisted and molded into the character we know today as Count Dracula. Transylvania and much of Eastern Europe still retain their superstitious beliefs, but most of the negative reputation is unwarranted.
But who knows... if you ever find yourself wandering the Bohemian countryside after dark, you just might encounter a spook or two... or even a lesbian vampire...