“Velcome to Transylvania. How do you do? I am Count Dracula.” These words have been uttered countless times by comedians, by mock actors, and in casual banter between friends for decades. They symbolize the whole Dracula syndrome and capsulate a morbid fascination and even affection for the most successful man-monster ever conceived in fantasy and created in fiction.
The character of Dracula has been portrayed in film, in print, on the stage, in song (there is a Dracula musical), in comic books, on the radio, on television (The Munsters and The Addams Family, and Saturday cartoons), in toys, games, and in breakfast cereals (Chocula and Frankenberry). The Dracula syndrome is part of the contemporary history of the United States.
Therefore, within the context of ethnic heritage studies, there are three questions which ought to be analyzed:
1. Why is this legend so famous and what caused its universal spread — almost to the point of saturation?
2. What has it to do with a study which relates to Romania and Romanian immigrants to the United States?
3. Have there been any side effects which are harmful to the good name or reputation of a minority group, namely, the Romanians?
To answer the first question, one must go back to the creation of the Dracula character by the resourceful imagination of Bram Stoker in Count Dracula, analyze the historical streams of data about the “Impaler” Vlad Tsepes (Count Dracula), and find the reasons why this story has become so universally known and respected as the greatest horror story of all time.
Perhaps the one most significant cause for its success is the morbid preoccupation of mankind with the macabre, with the supernatural, and the unknown. This, coupled with the eternal interest in cannibalism, creates the irresistable urge to hear more, and more… and more.
Vampirism is a kind of cannibalism. There is also a strong current of sensuality or eroticism in the Dracula masterpiece. The sensational, the macabre, the mysterious; all these beckon to us in Dracula.
To answer the second question, Dracula relates to Romania and Romanian Americans. The terms of Dracula, Romania, and Transylvania have become almost synonomous. This is not entirely fair because Transylvania is a land of beauty and is really quite innocent of the aspersion that it harbors monsters. It is “the land beyond the forest.” While the Dracula story is placed there, the placing was almost accidental. Unfortunately, it has become very convenient for writers to use a mental short circuit and place all sorts of monsters in Transylvania; including the Sun Demon, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.
As an example, the original Frankenstein story was set in Ingelstadt, Bavaria and in many other places, but never in Romania or Transylvania. When the book was made into a movie film, the village name was changed from Ingelstadt to Frankenstein, the country site from Bavaria to Transylvania. Why? Because, by that time, the Dracula films were so popular that it was easier for the writers to create mood and atmosphere by using a stereotype. The stereotype has been expanded without limit in America, and now there is a kind of universal association of Transylvania with monsters.
This process is demonstrated by the large number of books on the subject. The list, which is included at the end of this essay, while not complete, covers the subject from a scholarly point of view. So, to you who read this now, welcome to the Legend of Dracula.
The dedicated “Dracula team,” Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, did a remarkable job of on the scene, personal exploration and writing about the origins of the Dracula legend, the historical prototype who served as Bram Stoker’s model for Count Dracula, Vlad Tsepes, and many of the artistic ramifications of the legend.
Florescu and McNally write of the historical King of Wallachia, Vlad Tsepes, who became known as the Impaler, and also as Dracula. They point out that the word “dracul” became “dracula” and that dracul, in Romanian, means “devil.” Florescu, a Romanian, had known of the historical Vlad Tsepes, The Impaler. He combined this knowledge with the curiousity of McNally (originally a Clevelander from Ohio), who went to Transylvania to personally inspect the sites of Dracula lore. From childhood, McNally spent hours studying vampire and monster movies.
The King of Wallachia (not of Transylvania) used impalement in order to terrify his enemies, criminals, looters, and others who opposed his will. He used terrorism to restore law and order to an area in which a political vacuum was created by the withdrawal of the Turks who, for centuries, had been the lords and overseers by virtue of Balkan conquests.
“Most of Dracula’s atrocities occurred between 1459 and 1461. The decomposed bodies of impaled prisoners frightened the Turks. Even the stout-hearted conqueror of Constantinople, Mohammed II, was sicked when he saw the remains of 20,000 prisoners, taken several months before, rotting outside of Dracula’s Wallachian capital of Targoviste.” (Florescu and McNally op. cit.)
However, Florescu and McNally also point out that there are two sides to Dracula’s personality: “One is that of the demented psychopath, the torturer and inquisitor who turns to piety to liberate his conscience. The other reveals the disciple of Machiavelli, the premature nationalist, the amazingly modern statesman, who can always justify his actions in accordance with superior state reasons, with raison d’etat.”
The people of Romania have traditionally treated Vlad Tsepes as a national hero and champion against the invading Turks, and assert that the impalement tactic used by Dracula was actually modeled after the Turks’ own treatment of the subjugated peoples of that area.
Dracula, the Impaler, hero, warrior, statesman, tactician of war and terror, is also an alleged sadist and monster. It is said that he killed between 40,000 and 100,000 people during his short, but action-filled lifetime. The disparity of 60,000 depends on the sources you use and, one supposes, on whether the chronicler is a friend and admirer or a critic.
One revealing anecdote about the Impaler tells of the time he ordered nails to be driven into the turbanned skulls of emissaries of the Turkish Sultan because they had refused to remove their hats before sitting down in his presence, at dinner. They had been sent on a good will mission, and their refusal to remove their hats was based on their own custom. The Impaler saw things differently, and a classic case of non-communication about mores and customs ensued.
While on one hand he was impaling his adversaries, on the other hand, he was kind to beggars, the lame, the sick and the poor. To some he was a kind of Robin Hood, and to others a tyrant and a monster on the level of Ivan the Terrible.
Cruel or not, he was selected by Bram Stoker and immortalized, not so much for his own deeds as for the fictional accounts of a Count Dracula created out of the imagination of a writer of fantasy. However, the two have somehow become intertwined and it would be well for the student of this fascinating subject to delineate the reality from the fantasy. Florescu and McNally have done this in their works.
For many of the answers as to why and how Bram Stoker chose Vlad Tsepes, and came to write the most famous Vampire story of all time, one must read A Biography of Dracula — The Life Story of Bram Stoker, written by Harry Ludlam. It is noteworthy that so famous had the character become, that its name outweighted the author’s own name in choosing a title for the biography of the creator of the character.
Bram Stoker was a civil servant, a theater critic, newspaper editor, business manager for a famous actor, Henry Irving, and a writer of “cliff hangers.” He had a dual life and wrote a whole range of stories from romances to horror tales. It is claimed, in Ludlam’s book, that Dracula was born of a nightmare and the irony is that Stoker never lived to see the remarkable success of his creation.
Ludlam describes Stoker’s visit to the Continent, particularly Paris, and makes a point of it that Stoker never went to Transylvania. Evidently, Stoker chose the name because of the interesting lilt it had, and because of Vambery’s assertions that vampirism and superstition were rampant there.
It is rather interesting to note that Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein because of a bet with her famous husband-poet as to who could produce the best ghost or horror story within a year, also conceived her character in a nightmare, according to Ludlam.
Despite all the publicity given to Dracula horror stories all over the world, many Romanians never heard of Dracula in their homeland. In fact, Stoker’s book was little known in Romania prior to 1958 because of the war years which prevented dissemination of English and American books and films. Furthermore, Romanian superstitions are not founded in blood. This is well documented in Kurt Brokaw’s book, A Night in Transylvania, pages 83 and 85.
In any case, many Romanians are still unaware of this legend and only in recent years have become apprised of it due to the efforts of the government of Romania to capitalize on the syndrome through tourism. Tours are available to “Dracula’s Castle,” the theory being, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The big problem for the government was that of maintaining respect for an authentic folk hero, Vlad, and yet encouraging tourism by providing a mecca for Dracula fans, the site of Dracula’s castle. This presented difficulties because Prince Vlad was a Wallachian King, not Transylvanian. How then was the problem solved of finding a castle in one province which really belonged to another?
Brokaw describes the years of research of McNally and Florescu, and the efforts of the cooperative Romanian government, to find an authentic site of the Dracula castle, the historic castle at Tigoriste, and yet satisfy the appetite of Dracula fans.
Stoker, who never went to Romania, on the other hand, had no trouble in carefully placing the castle of Count Dracula (the fictional chatacter) as opposed to Prince Vlad Dracul, or Vlad Tsepes, or the Impaler, on the borders of three states; Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, far from the actual site. “Restoring Dracula to a natural home in Transylvania in a vast ruined castle perched on the edge of a great precipice, took Bram Stoker many hours of research among books and maps in the British Museum. Most of his information was gleaned from an old guide book; but when, after the publication of Dracula, he was congratulated by all sorts of people on his first hand knowledge of Transylvania and the setting so eerily true, he found it prudent not to spoil the illusion.” (that he had been there; Editor’s addition — Ludlam, page 101.)
Stoker may well have been influenced by the work, Castle of Carpathia, written by Jules Verne, the Grand Master of science fiction. The book was published in 1893 while Stoker’s work was published in 1891. There are many notions in common, but this is not unusual since the era of around 1816 to 1897, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, was replete with penny dreadfuls of all sorts, and horror novels galore which undoubtedly served as a fertile source of inspiration for Verne, Shelley and Stoker.
Brokaw relates the story of how Stoker sought the advice of Professor Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian expert in Oriental languages at the University of Budapest, who reported to him that Vlad the Impaler was a soldier, statesman, warrior, alchemist and that he was the most clever, cunning and brave of the sons of the “land beyond the forest.” It is remarkable that a Hungarian professor from Budapest (the capital of Hungary) was the source of information for Stoker, rather than a Romanian professor from Bucuresti, the capital of Romania. Perhaps the existence of the Austro-Hungarian empire was the reason and, in that respect, Transylvania belonged to Hungary at that time.
The imagination of Stoker ran wild, however, in clothing the Vlad image with fantastic capabilities. The fictional character of Count Dracula was able to change into a wolf, or fox, or bat. He could become a mist and flyaway like an owl. He was 400 years old, lived on blood (not food), and could compel obedience of persons through sheer will power, at a distance. He could direct the elements, cause thunder and wind, storm, fog, and lightning; he could command rats and beasts, but his power ceased at sunrise. He cast no shadow and had no reflection in a mirror. He could be thwarted by garlic (but then who isn’t thwarted by garlic), the use of sunlight, or the Christian cross, and could be killed by a wooden stake while in his coffin during the day. He had to rest only in Transylvanian earth.
The reader is undoubtedly cognizant of the immense and saturating impact the Dracula story has had, not only in fiction and the arts, but in the field of human relations itself. Fact and fiction merge, and from time to time, fantasy conquers reality. The facts are; Vlad was not a vampire, Transylvania is not the home of vampires or of any monsters for that matter, nor is it the repository of superstitions relating to blood vampirism, and some effort ought to be made to put things into perspective.
Two side effects of the Dracula syndrome which are of concern are: firstly, as mentioned, the denigration of Transylvania and, secondly, the accentuation upon violence and terror, particulary and proliferated by the media. Television is especially responsible for this role.
The Dracula and Frankenstein toys, the cartoons, the comic books and the situation comedies such as the Munsters and the Addams family, riveted the association of violence and terror with Transylvania, hence Romania, so firmly that a snicker shall always accompany the mention of the word “Transylvania.”
While acknowledging appreciation for the art of Stoker, more needs to be done in the area of delineation between history and fantasy, and to this end, research material on ethnic heritages and culture is vital. This will help to balance the scales, not only about Romanians, but of many other ethnic groups such as the Jews, the Italians, the Poles, and the Blacks who have borne the burden of combatting defamation.
Romanian Defamation in General
Everyone is, or ought to be, proud of his and her heritage. The longing to belong; to be a member of a family, of a community, or of a nation has been demonstrated in all kinds of ways; family pride, patriotism, nationalism, chauvinism, school rivalry, and even war.
Good natured rivalry, like humor, is not only natural but welcome in an unsettled and restless world. On the other hand, these forces can be directed into destructive channels rather than constructive. A Supreme Court Judge once said, “Obscenity? I know it when I see it.” Perhaps a similar test can be applied to ethnic defamation. Where is the line between mockery and humor? Between twitting and cutting? The Poles, the Italians, the Jews, and the Blacks knew the difference when they heard or saw defamation. It was not as easy for the Romanians.
Yes, there existed for a time an indirect, not clearly defined, and not easily recognized campaign of consistent and unrelentlng vilefication of the Romanian name.
Eva Bartok, in the “Youngstown Vindicator,” of Ohio, on April 1, 1957, delivered herself of a joke: “What is the difference between a Czechoslovakian and a Romanian? The answer is that each of them would agree to sell his mother, but only the Romanian would make delivery.”
John Guenther, in his “Inside Europe,” calls Romania, without cause, rhyme or reason, “a land of monstrous licentiousness” and asserts that Romania’s name ought to be “Kleptomania.”
All of these tactless gibes have no basis in substance, nor in anything for that matter! There is simply no connection between the jokes and the Romanian name, character or disposition.
The foregoing suffice to illustrate the point. Of course, all of this tends to prove that there is a serious problem to be faced and somehow resolved, namely, what kind of ethnic humor is acceptable? Protests by the Polish and the Italian groups have been effective regarding radio, television and other media, and ethnic slurs have generally ceased in those categories.
The proliferation of Polish jokes has slowed down and ethnic humor has come to the point that a nationality joke is published and the reader inserts the race or nationality of his choice in the blank areas. As with the Dracula syndrome, ethnic humor got to the extreme when it was too much and too debasing, and adjustments were inevitable.
Whatever solution is adopted, it will depend on at least the following elements: enlightenment, good will and patience. Education will help one group understand the other; good will will blunt the shape of the pointed slur, and patience with oneself and others will encourage the process of “laughing with,” rather than “at.” In a word, humor which is delicious and in good taste is the spice of life. Mean and demeaning “humor” is venom.
The recent film “Roots” was the best presentation television has yet made in the field of human relations. This story, by Alex Haley, of the origins of his family was sensitive, accurate, and very moving to the audience in the general consensus of opinions of critics and viewers. Praise was instant and universal. There is no reason why this technique cannot be extended to education and applied to other racial and minority groups… to all ethnic groups. If this is done, it will appear to everyone that there is no monopoly on human suffering or on human hope.
If this is done, humor will have evolved into a new and wonderful phase. Humor, which is based upon the appreciation of the inconsistent and the contradictory, the absurd, will become a new buttress in the bridge of understanding between humankind.
Books and Short Stories:
Brokaw, Kurt. A Night in Transylvania (The Dracula Scrapbook), Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1976.
Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula (a Biography of Vlad the Impaler, 1431-1476), Hawthorn Books; Inc., New York, 1973.
Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T. In Search of Dracula, Galahad Books, 1972.
Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein, Warner Books, Inc., New York, 1975.
Lory, Robert. Dracula’s Disciple. Pinnacle Books, Inc., New York, 1975.
Ludlam, Harry. A Biography of Dracula (the Life Story of Bram Stoker), The Fireside Press, England, 1962.
McNally, Raymond T. A Clutch of Vampires, Belle Publishing Co., New York, 1974.
Wolf, Leonard. The Annotated Dracula, Ballantine Books, New York, 1975.