CST Transylvania - ESSAY
The Dracula-myth in Transylvania

by Françoise Boissel (F)



Etymologically Transylvania means "The Land beyond the Forest" and, at first glance, it has nothing in common with vampires. However, since Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula", one of the greatest horror stories in English literature, the name Transylvania has acquired something of a mythical aura in the mind of the average. Both names, Transylvania and Dracula, are very often automatically associated with each other. At the beginning of Bram Stoker's novel, we find the following description, which creates an impression of intimidating and dark landscape, very appropriate to vampires and all kinds of ghosts:

"As the evening fell it began to get very cold, and the growing twilight seemed to merge into one dark mistiness the gloom of the trees, oak, beech, and pine, though in the valleys which ran deep between the spurs of the hills (...). Sometimes (...) great masses of greyness, which here and there bestrewed the trees, produced a peculiarly weird and solemn effect, which carried on the thoughts and grim fancies engendered earlier in the evening, when the falling sunset threw into strange relief the ghost-like clouds which amongst the Carpathians seem to wind ceaselessly through the valleys."

Nowadays plenty of stereotypes on Transylvania are still prevalent abroad, especially in the Western world: vampires, cemeteries, a mysterious, gloomy, and fog-covered countryside, cowed and terrorized peasants who wear worn clothes and who are overshadowed by the eerie personality of Count Dracula and by his castle perched precipitously on craggy, forested mountain cliffs.

Because of such imagery many Westerners think that Transylvania exists only in the minds of fiction writers and film makers. That is absolutely untrue. But what is real Transylvania? Does it somehow correspond to these "exotic" images of fiction? Actually one trip to Transylvania is enough to make one's sure that this imagery in the popular mind is faked, a perversion of the reality.

The purpose of this essay is to enlighten how a historical local figure of the 15th century, Vlad Tepes , turned to a fictive figure - the worldwide well-known vampire Dracula -, how it became a kind of myth in literature and cinema, and how and why it influenced so much Transylvania's image.
Dracula's origin: Vlad Tepes - From history to myth.

One outstanding figure in the history of Transylvania is Vlad Tepes . He was born in Sighis oara approximately in 1431 and he died in 1476. He led a less than peaceful life. His father became Woiwode of Wallachia in 1436 and was a knight of the so-called Dracul Order- in Romanian Dracul means devil as well as dragon -, and his son inherited the title, becoming therefore through adding of the vowel a Dracula. After spending his youth as a Turkish hostage and an exile in Moldovia, Vlad became ruler of Wallachia when János Hunyadi, prince of Transylvania, murdered his father.

In those days the region was full of beggars, thieves and bands of brigands whom Vlad got rid of in a very short time. The legend even tells that you could put some gold coins on the street and find them a week after exactly at the same place. Vlad developed rapidly a reputation for brutality among his enemies. His method of law enforcement was simple: all crimes were punished by death and his favourite means of doing it was impalement; the victims were impaled on a sharp wooden stake and their agony could take hours. Vlad used to dine in a garden amongst the impaled bodies. Because of this habit of punishment Vlad earned the name Tepes, which means the Impaler. Not only criminals did he impale, but also many Saxons (Germans settled in Transylvania) and Ottomans. Wallachia was a kind of buffer state between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and, tired of paying tributes to the Turks who occupied the territory, Vlad fought against them. After a victory over the Turkish army, some Wallachian peasants witnessed a forest of stakes 1 km by 3 km wide, upon which 20000 Turkish and Bulgarian captives were impaled.

In November 1462 Vlad was arrested and imprisoned by Hungarian King Mátyás Corvin. He was detained at Visegrad castle, north of Budapest for 16 years. King Mátyás was largely responsible for launching the Dracula-myth. He enjoyed introducing his "house guest" at state dinners as an implied threat. Besides Vlad Tepes was said to play in his cell in Visegrad with bats, which are, as everybody knows, one of the animals Dracula can metamorphose into. When eventually released, Vlad returned home, and he was betrayed by the boyars and killed. His head disappeared - reputedly sent to the Ottoman sultan as a present - while his decapitated body was buried inside a church near Bucharest.
Dracula and Vlad Tepes are both famous for their cruelty and savagery. History actually is full of cruel figures likely to inspire legends and myths. But why does Dracula's origin go back precisely to Vlad Tepes? Why did Transylvania became in the popular mind at the turn of century a region haunted by vampires?

Dracula in literature and cinematography

Think of Romania and literature together, and what may come to mind is the story of the famous vampire Count Dracula. Vampirism, in some form or another, has appeared in all times, in all cultures. Very often it has emerged during periods of spreading epidemics, of social changes and anxiety over the future or at the end of millennia. In 19th century England the mythology of vampires was quite popular. In 1819 Polidori published the fist vampire-novel in English "The Vampyre - a Tale". In 1872 Rymer wrote "Varney the Vampire". But undoubtedly the most famous is "Dracula", a masterpiece of the Irish writer Bram Stoker and published in 1897. The end of the 19th century was propitious to a profusion of horror stories and while writing the novel Stoker lived for a time in Whitechapell, the London neighbourhood where Jack the Ripper murdered many girls in 1888.

Though the tale may have Romanian roots, Bram Stoker never set foot in Romania. The truth is he never came closer to Transylvania than the reading room of the British Museum. Stoker worked for seven years on his novel, spending many hours in libraries documenting himself on the Balkan. As a result from his research the final Dracula incorporates many influences. Stoker mixed East European folklore with factual elements of Hungarian history and culture.

In the 19th century the West was fascinated by the East in a kind of negative way. The Habsburg Kingdom was seen as the limit of the so-called "civilised" world in opposition to the Orient, this mysterious world of sultans, where people were easily decapitated. From Vienna many coaches went to Western Europe, a single one went to Eastern Europe. The last stop was Sibiu, and the further territories were said to be "the land of the orthodox heretics". And seen from England, Transylvania was part of this enigmatic world. Besides many horror stories were going about and Bram Stoker read reports from Austrian servants on vampire epidemics in Romania and Serbia.

Stoker also mixed in elements of Hungarian countess Elisabeth Bathory (1560 - 1610), a Transylvanian woman who murdered hundred of serving girls and bathed in their blood in the belief that she could keep her eternally young.

And the strongest influence was Vlad Tepes . Stoker's friend Arminius Vamberey, a specialist of oriental matters, had explored the kingdoms of Central Asia and Mongolia, and witnessed human cruelty. As he was enthousiastic about these tales, Stoker immersed himself in research at the British Museum library and he discovered the historical figure Vlad Tepes , who suited perfectly to his project considering his cruelty and his nickname Dracula (devil/dragon). Beyond some elements borrowed from the original, historical Dracula - great strength, cruelty and savagery - Count Dracula has not so much in common with Vlad Tepes . The rest is literature, pure fiction. Count Dracula is an undead being, a being, who is never alive or dead, but who exists somewhere indefinably between the two states. He casts no shadow and reflects no image in a mirror, he hates garlic, cannot bear the view of a cross and sleeps in a coffin on good Transylvanian earth. He is completely plastic, able to change himself into several shapes, most familiarly those of bats and wolves.

Late Victorian audiences loved vampire stories, and almost immediately the novel sold successfully, both in England and on the continent and Stoker became suddenly famous. Since then for the Western world Transylvania has been the best place for horror scenes and symbolises a gloomy, dark land, a country of macabre beauty with baying wolves and bloodsuckers. The novel has never been out of print and its impact on the 20th century popular culture has proved phenomenal. Stoker's neck-biting, blood-sucking count has been the most widely popularised anti-hero in the whole Western culture. This masterpiece has inspired a century of horror writers and scores of films (about 400). The most famous among them are the silent movie "Nosferatu" by F.W. Murnau (1922), "Dracula" by Tod Browning (1931), "Dracula, Prince of Darkness" by Terence Fisher (1965), "Dance of Vampires" by R. Polanski (1967), "Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night" by Werner Herzog (1979), "Dracula" by F.F Coppola (1992) and "Interview with the Vampire" (1994).

In summer 1997, exactly a hundred years after the issue of Stoker's novel, a convention in Los Angeles even declared 1997 "The Year of the Vampires". First published in 1897, Dracula has been a best-seller around the world, including Hungary. But it wasn't published in Romania until 1990 and till recently the movie "Dance of Vampires" was forbidden in Hungary. This censorship was probably due to the negative image of Transylvania this book and this film conveyed in the eyes of the authorities. On the other hand Romanian tourism-managers rapidly understood how to take advantage of the popularity of the famous neck-biting Count.

Dracula's impact on today's tourism in Transylvania

People in Eastern Europe are not as fond of Dracula as Westerners are. When Transylvanian writer Andrei Codrescu emigrated to the USA, he was shocked to find a Romanian national hero miraculously transformed into an anti-hero, a blood-sucking vampire:

"You would be just as surprised to find yourself in the Carpathians confronted with a thriving film and comic book industry centred around the figure of George Washington, the necrophiliac sheep go."
Bram Stoker and Hollywood have succeeded in relegating a real place, with real people and real problems into a fiction, a land for movies. For a while, even the Romanian government encouraged the confusion, to promote its tourist trade. It published tourist brochures and run advertisements - picturing a mysterious-looking castle - in the New York Times and elsewhere headlined "Yes, there is a Transylvania". A castle? How did it come to that Dracula-castle?

After President Richard Nixon came to Romania on official state visit in 1969, many American tourists followed him to Transylvania. Actually Dracula's story was far more famous in the USA than behind the Iron Curtain. Since the American tourists asked many questions and were so eager to learn some more about bats, coffins, sharp long teeth and bloodsucking vampires, the Romanian Minister for Culture decided to find a castle corresponding to the description Jonathan Harker gives of the castle in Stoker's novel:

"(...) I did a little exploring in the castle. I went out on the stairs and found a room looking towards to the south. The view was magnificent, and from where I stood there was every opportunity of seeing it. The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone faking from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree-tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests."

The question arose where to find a suitable castle which looked "draculistic" enough and which was, if possible, close to a big city and a ski resort. Finally the castle of Bran, 23 km southwest of Bras ov, proved to be perfect. It is situated in the surroundings of Bras ov, the second biggest city in Romania, and of Poiana Bras ov, the most famous ski resort of the country. It stands majestically, though not mysteriously, on a hill. Built in 1377, the castle housed princes, kings and queens through the centuries, and guarded a commercial route between Wallachia and Transylvania. Between 1930 and 1947 it was used as a royal residence. Opened in the earlier seventies it was overrun by tourists. Everything here is based on a myth: in 1996 Dracula tee-shirts were on sale for five US dollars, "Vampirella squeeze bottles" appeared in 1997. Though Count Dracula never went there it looks as if everything would remember of his supernatural presence. The so-called "Dracula-Tours" at Bran are animations with macabre effects, though these effects were toned down after a tourist died of a heart attack when one staff member loomed out of a coffin. During one tour 11 Englishmen paid 8000 dollars each for the right to stand on the roof of Bran castle at night and howl. In summer lots of busses stop in Bran and there a hotel was built especially to host foreign tourists.

However Count Dracula had nothing to do with this edifice. Bran castle is simply an invention. First because Stoker's description is based on the Stains Castle in Cruden Bay, a small fishers' village in Scotland, where the novelist used to spend his holiday from 1893 to 1910. Second because geographically it is impossible, since Stoker located Dracula's castle close to Bistrit a, "just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina", that means about 300 kilometres away from the Bran-castle. The historical figure Vlad Tepes never went to Bran and his real castle stands 20 kilometres away from Curtea de Arges , that is to say approximately 100 kilometres away from Bran. In the 15th century it was almost completely destroyed and now we can only see some hilltop ruins overlooking the Arges River. In Sighis oara, a medieval Transylvanian town, the house where Vlad Tepes was born is still there and was turned out into a restaurant.

For sure, though Dracula is only a myth, it keeps influencing a lot the image of Transylvania which is still full of prejudices. Dracula and generally speaking all kind of vampires, ghosts and eerie beings are of course part of the popular culture but it is important to pass beyond stereotypes: you will not meet any vampire in Transylvania!


  • Dracula - Bram Stoker - 1897 - Wordsworth classics - Hertfordshire
  • Budapest Week October 30 / November 5, 97, "Wham, bam, thank you Bram: the origins of Dracula" - Michael J. Kovrig
  • Conflict and Chaos in Eastern Europe - Dennis P. Hupchick - St. Martin's Press - New York
  • Geo June 1987, "Im Reich des Dracula" - Roger Anderson
  • Let's go Eastern Europe 1996 - St. Martin's Press - London
  • Die Zeit, 31.10.97, "Auf der Suche nach Schloß Dracula" - Ralf-Peter Märtin
  • Zeitmagazin 30.05.97, "100 Jahre untot" - Ralph Kendlbacher
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last update: 11 JUL 2002 by Ralph