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We're in Transylvania, and I Can't Stop Thinking About Vampires
This part of Romania is known for one thing, and one thing only. But the people here might have a lesson for us all.
For about five minutes in college, I considered becoming an actor — before I realized I’m actually a terrible actor, and I also can’t stand being the center of attention.
But before I gave up my career on the stage, I learned how other people saw me from the roles I was encouraged to play.
The straight-laced young Republican. The clean-cut workaholic lawyer. The boring suburban guy.
Wait, I thought at the time. That’s not me at all! Is this really how people see me?
I can’t help thinking back on this now that Michael and are living in Romania — specifically, the geographic region long known as Transylvania.
Transylvania is famous for vampires and, well, that’s about it.
Living here, I now know the area has many other wonderful features — ridiculously charming towns, the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, the stunning Transfăgărășan highway, some truly fantastic castles and fortresses — but most non-Romanians don’t know about any of that.
But everyone has heard about Transylvania and vampires.
Here’s the thing. Irish author Bram Stoker, who published his novel Dracula in 1897, never set foot in Transylvania — much the way Stephenie Meyer had never been to Forks, Washington, when she started writing the Twilight books. She just looked for an American town that didn’t get much vampire-destroying sunlight and started writing.
Stoker did borrow from Transylvanian folklore, which included vampire-like strigoi and strigoaică: evil sorcerers and witches who, after death, sometimes returned to torment their families — punishment for letting them stray so far outside the bounds of normal morality.
Meanwhile, a moroi was another undead creature that sucked the “life,” or blood, from unwilling victims.
But before Bram Stoker, Transylvania was not considered an especially spooky or “evil” place. Most ancient cultures had some kind of “vampire” myth, which was probably a superstitious way to explain basic facts of decomposition: bodies that seem to swell with blood, and teeth and fingernails that seem to “grow” as the skin peels away. Let’s also not discount the possibility of — gulp! — people occasionally being buried alive and seeming to “return” from the dead.
And I hasten to point out that vampires, like most folklore, were considered cautionary tales, at least according to the morality of the time. Bad things happened when people did bad things.
Still, it’s true that the word “vampire” (or “vampyre”), and our general sense of modern vampires, does come from Transylvania. In the 18th century, there was even a mass hysteria throughout Southeastern Europe, with people claiming to be vampire hunters, and corpses exhumed to be beheaded and staked. But like most such hysterias, it eventually burned itself out.
Enter Bram Stoker, who drew on this existing history and the lingering European fascination with vampires, to write his novel.
Much of what we now think about vampires does come directly from Stoker. Vampire bats were called that before the story of Dracula, but the author was responsible for inventing the ability of a vampire to transform into a bat.
And Stoker was probably gay, which is as good an explanation as any for how vampires have become metaphors for so many different sexual themes, like the “dangers” of depravity and unrestrained female sexuality. But Dracula is such a rich character that he also embodies more timely themes, like consent, seduction, repression, and the importance of exposing corruption to the light.
Some have suggested the novel also trades on the “scariness” of foreigners from Eastern Europe — that it deliberately invokes the fear that Western Europeans have long had for this part of the world, from invasion to, more recently, mass immigration.
Most people think that Stoker based Dracula on Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Romanian ruler — in part, because so many movies have made this exact connection.
Except it’s probably not true.
More likely, Stoker knew little or nothing about Vlad and simply came across the family name, Dracul, in a public library and liked how it sounded. Dracula literally means “son of Dracul.”
It’s also possible Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula was the Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a Hungarian (then-Romanian) noblewoman who also happened to be an incredibly vicious serial killer of hundreds of young girls. Yes, she was fascinated by blood, but no, there’s no evidence that she actually bathed in the blood of young virgins in order to stay younger.
So it’s Bram Stoker’s fault that non-Romanians think “vampire” whenever they hear the word “Transylvania,” right?
Actually, it’s probably much more Hollywood’s fault. If not for the movies, Bram Stoker’s novel probably would have faded away— and Europe’s second flirtation with the “vampire” phenomenon would have burned itself out again.
Stoker may have punctured the vein, but it was American cinema that truly began sucking the blood out of the vampire legend. Dracula is filmdom’s second most popular character, after Sherlock Holmes, and he — and vampires in general — have been reinvented for generation after generation, always with a different thematic emphasis.
Remember how I said one of the themes of Dracula is exposing corruption to the light? Actually, in the original novel, sunlight merely weakens Dracula. The idea that sunlight destroys vampires comes from the very first Dracula movie, 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
(Interesting side-note: Bram Stoker registered his novel at the U.S. copyright office, but he screwed up the process, submitting one copy of the book, not two, which was required at the time. This mistake would bedevil Stoker’s descendants for decades to come. In fact, Stoker’s widow went to the British courts to stop the distribution of Nosferatu, the movie, since it was a thinly veiled dramatization of Dracula, and the filmmakers had not secured the rights. The English courts decided in Stoker’s widow’s favor, ruling that all copies of the movie be destroyed — but a single copy made its way to America, where the rights issue was more confused, and the movie found an enthusiastic audience.)
Once movies entered the scene, that’s when Transylvania really became known as the Land of Vampires.
For what it’s worth, the image is inaccurate: we’ve been living here three weeks, and I have yet to hear a single howling wolf at midnight — and while I have seen a number of secret passageways, they’ve all been on tours in castles and fortresses.
What do actual Transylvanians think about all this?
“Oh, we hate it,” Ana, a new Transylvanian friend, told me. “We’re just so sick of it! All anyone outside of Romania knows about us is vampires — or maybe the tennis player Simona Halep. It’s all outsiders ever think about! What’s frustrating is that it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
She’s not wrong that’s what everyone thinks. Even I’m guilty. Ana is dark and beautiful, and at one point during the first afternoon we spent together, I became aware that she had a “Transylvanian” accent — or at least a version of the accent that has been so wildly exaggerated in so many movies.
For five minutes, until I put it out of my head, all I heard was that accent.
Romanians may be sick of the Dracula association, but they’re not stupid. Some people have chosen to capitalize on the infamy. There are a number of landmarks associated with Vlad the Impaler that are now tourist attractions — his castle, his birthplace, and so on.
But this is complicated too, because Vlad Țepeș — Țepeș means “the Impaler” in Romanian — isn’t necessarily considered an evil guy here.
No one disputes the famous story about how, in a vicious battle with the Ottoman Empire, Vlad impaled “23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers,” he wrote in a letter.
Word is, the Sultan was both horrified and impressed by Vlad’s ruthlessness.
A tour guide here recently insisted to me that while Vlad did commit vicious acts, he was no worse than any other military leader at the time — and that much of his reputation was the result of propaganda by his enemies.
In fact, my tour guide was wrong. There’s lots of evidence that Vlad’s extreme cruelty and sadism were renowned even in his lifetime — although it’s probably not true that he dined among the bodies of his victims, soaking his bread in their blood.
But regardless of what he did or didn’t do, Vlad brought peace and prosperity to the area then known as Wallachia. And all these years later, that’s still celebrated.
Transylvania’s most famous “vampire” attraction is now Bran Castle, located in the town of Bran, but Vlad probably never set foot inside.
So why is it called Dracula’s Castle?
Because it truly looks like it would be a vampire’s castle, even if it doesn’t match any description in Stoker’s novel. More importantly, the courtyard was briefly featured in Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski’s 1967 movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers.
The movies again!
With the popularity of that movie, Bran Castle went viral back in the old-fashioned way, and the castle’s connection with Dracula was sealed.
In 1995, the Romanian government proposed building Dracula Park, an amusement park complete with vampire-themed roller coasters, but an outcry from locals tired of the vampire connection eventually nixed the project.
Back when I tried to be an actor in college, I didn’t like what my fellow thespians said about how they perceived me — that I come across as clean-cut and boring. But I came to see there was a kernel of truth to their impression: I am a measured person — not conservative in my politics but in my sensibility. I have an infuriating tendency to try to see all sides of an issue.
Is there also a kernel of truth to Transylvania’s vampiric reputation?
Many locals would insist that the impression the rest of the world has about their home is a little like how Dracula appears in a mirror: no reflection whatsoever. It would be like people judging all of America by the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
But, well, there really are those old folk legends about vampires. And there’s also the Vlad-wasn’t-necessarily-a-bad-guy vibe.
The greater issue may be that when most people hear the word “Transylvania” or “Romania,” at least they think something. Do you think of anything specific when you hear references to neighboring countries like Bulgaria or Moldova? Before I began living in this part of the world, all I had in my head were silly Soviet-era stereotypes.
For better or for worse, we can’t control how others see us. But increasingly, we’re not letting others have the last word. Technology is letting us reinvent ourselves — helping us pivot and rebrand.
The other thespians back in college who thought I come across as so boring? Well, hey, look at me now — I’m a digital nomad indefinitely traveling the world!
But Michael’s and my newsletter — the one you’re reading right now — still has less than a thousand subscribers. That’s not bad after only three months, but still. How in the world do we get attention for ourselves in an era of overwhelming media clutter?
Hmm, a little notoriety probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Meanwhile, Romania has returned to their old idea for a Dracula-themed park. Like a vampire rising from the dead, there’s now a new project in the works, Țepeș Park, named after Vlad himself.
Times have changed, and the prevailing attitude might now be: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
And I honestly think they’re right that this park could be huge, especially in the Instagram Era.
In short, Transylvania may finally be accepting what the more Machiavellian among us have been saying all along: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.