On screen, there were three seats. He was seated on the far left and in each of the chairs next to him were two women dressed all in black wearing capes. He was clearly enjoying this opportunity, as shown through his persistent wry smile and occasional laugh at the ridiculousness of the entire charade. It was a daytime talk show, probably Maury Povich or some mainstay like it, and Raymond was in the spotlight. When the camera switched to him, the text on the screen under his name, Professor Raymond T. McNally read not ‘distinguished professor of history at Boston College’ but ‘Vampire Expert.’ He had been invited to the show not because of the decades of work and accomplishment as a historian but rather, he had been called into duty to determine whether these two women were, as they claimed to be, actual vampires. His determination: they were not vampires, and the requisite arguments and drama unfolded on screen from there.
Professor McNally showed our class the video because he was proud and intrigued by the direction his career, now in its final years, was going – directions he likely never anticipated. This was one of a handful of television appearances he had made, and he had recently released a CD-ROM, Dracula: Truth and Terror, which featured Bram Stoker’s Dracula complete with his personal annotations, narrated overview of the 1922 film Nosferatu, and a comprehensive list of vampire legends and art from around the world. He was excited, and I was glad that he didn’t make us purchase the package for class.
Still, there was a tension inherent in all of it: the allure of publicity and money perhaps overshadowing decades of hard work and research as a historian. Being recognized as a vampire expert did not acknowledge for him what he really was: a dedicated historian who, along with professor Radu Florescu, spent decades on the ground in Romania and digging into the past of author Bram Stoker to uncover the historical connection between Dracula, the Fifteenth century Romanian prince, and Dracula, the wildly successful character from the nineteenth century gothic novel. The legacy of both the historical and fictional Dracula continues to shape Romania to this day.
I first encountered Professor McNally in 1996 when, in my first semester at Boston College, I signed up to take his course on Russian History. I knew nothing of the man or his research; I was an undergrad looking to take a 3 pm history course that taught me something new. What struck me was how Professor McNally found those moments, as all great teachers do, to share with us the stories and insights illuminated both history and his passion for it. It was when he took opportunities to tell us stories of Dracula and his historical counterpart, Vlad Tepes of Romania, that I could feel the energy rise in that late afternoon classroom, and I could see Professor McNally become more animated. For the power and magic of history teachers is in the stories they tell, and no one understood that more than McNally. It was the curiosity and energy of those moments that helped inspire me to go into education and has shaped my work as a history teacher. By sharing his passion and opening a window into his life’s work, he sparked my curiosity about the mystery and complexity of history and our relationship with it.
For Romanians, the subject of much of his research, their relationship with Dracula is a rich and complicated one.
On the one hand there is Vlad Tepes, 15th Century prince of Wallachia. Known also as Dracula, Vlad took his name from an inherited honor of his father’s membership in the Order of the Dragon, a religious and military organization of knights. In Romania his father, who wore the symbol of his order, became known as Dracul (literally, “the Dragon”). “Dracula,” thus, is “Son of the Dragon.” Both Dracula and his father wore the colors of the order which included a red and black cape. Vlad Tepes was given responsibility for defense of Transylvania and Wallachia at the moment in history when their defense was most critical: the rapidly expanding and very powerful Ottoman Empire had just taken Constantinople in 1453 and was perched to expand into Western Europe. Romania was on the front line of the battle between Christendom and Islam, and when Pope Pius II put out a call for another crusade, Vlad Tepes was one of the first to respond. During his brief six year stint as leader of the Romanian territories, Dracula succeeded, despite overwhelming odds, in halting the Turkish advance. He rallied the Romanian people to the defense of their homelands and turned back one of the greatest conquerors of the time, Sultan Mehmed II. For that achievement, Vlad Tepes became a national hero in Romania whose image and name adorns buildings, statues, and streets. In 1976, for the 500th anniversary of Vlad’s death, nationalist megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu issued a commemorative stamp for Vlad Tepes and heralded him a national hero who protected Romania’s independence from external threat.
What was the key to Vlad’s success? Terror, primarily in the form of impalement of his enemies and countrymen. Dracula’s reign of terror, in fact, was so vicious and violent that it would leave its mark on history and his legacy. His name, Vlad Tepes, translates literally as “Vlad the Impaler,” and he acquired the interest in impalement during his years of childhood imprisonment by the Turks. Some Romanians say that Vlad was sexually abused during his imprisonment and so he spent the rest of his life seeking revenge on the Turks – only he used a sharpened wooden stake to do it. Vlad’s unpredictable and indiscriminate cruelty and widespread use of both horizontal (through the torso) and vertical (up the anus, the pole dulled so that it did not travel too quickly nor pierce anything on its way through the body; it took some of the victims of impalement nearly three days to die) impalement created an environment of fear so intense that Vlad’s reputation for horror spread throughout the Turkish Empire and Europe. The transmission of stories about Dracula dining in the presence of impaled corpses or drinking the blood of his victims were facilitated by the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Bram Stoker’s Dracula character, thus, as Professor McNally’s research proved, had its origins in the short-lived but widely-known leadership of Vlad Tepes, historical Dracula.
So how do you embrace a national hero whose name and reputation and home were co-opted by Bram Stoker and have evolved into a globally-recognized figure of literature, film, cartoons, and cheap Halloween costumes? It’s an awkward and tense embrace, at best, for one of Europe’s poorest countries whose global reputation has become inextricably linked to Dracula the vampire. It’s like a relationship with a rich partner who you don’t truly love and is actually probably bad for you (at least, that’s what your friends all tell you). And while this relationship is holding you back in many ways, it’s hard to resist the free dinners, expensive vacations, and introduction to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet that comes with the relationship. The siren call of commercialization is wrestling with protection of the integrity of a national hero – which side is winning in present-day Romania? Dusting off copies of Professor McNally’s work I had not looked at in twenty years, I set off for Romania to explore the country’s relationship with Dracula and to pay tribute to the work of a professor and storyteller who had a profound impact on my own life.
And, yes, I packed garlic, just in case.
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Romanians have a complicated relationship with Dracula. Vlad Tepes is a national hero, heralded by Nicolae Ceausescu as a George Washington of Romania, a 15th Century prince who fought to preserve the independence of Romania and the West from the assaults of the Turks. But as a the globally-recognized inspiration for Dracula, creature of the night and subject of countless works of film and fiction, Vlad Tepes’s legacy has been transformed by 20th and 21st century commercialization. Regardless of his cruelty, Vlad Tepes remains an important figure in Romanian history, and regardless of commercialization, or perhaps because of it, Dracula the vampire draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Romania every year. Without the vampire, many of those tourists would not visit Transylvania. So, what is an embattled Romania to do?
In 2002, the answer, at least to Dan Agathon, minister of tourism, was to build a theme park. Recognizing that the bulk of Romania’s tourists were coming to see something not Romanian at all, Dan proposed building a Dracula Theme Park on the well-traveled tourist circuit. If Disney had cornered the market on princesses and anthropomorphized mice, Romania’s niche could be vampires and bloodlust. Romania would dedicate 150 acres of land outside of World Heritage city and birthplace of Vlad Tepes, Sighisoara, to development of the park. The grounds would include a castle with torture chamber, a tower with a workshop for teeth-sharpening, and the opportunity for tourists to feast on brains, blood-pudding, and other Dracula-inspired dishes. At the center of the park was to be Dracula Lake, and to add legitimacy to the park, the International Institute of Vampirology would be housed on the park grounds. These attractions, coupled with a golf course, high-end hotels, and plenty of souvenir shops would not only be the answer to the Romanian tourist’s quest for Dracula-inspired destinations, but would draw thousands more to Transylvania each year.
But opposition to the project was fierce. Environmentalists complained that the park would destroy hundreds of acres of old-growth forest. Others were concerned about the juxtaposition to and effect of Dracula Park’s location so close to a World Heritage site. The Eastern Orthodox Church argued that Dracula Park was a celebration of the occult. Nationalist-minded Romanians expressed concerns that building Dracula Park would only further confuse Vlad Tepes and Dracula the literary figure. Dracula theme park was an act of “cultural vandalism,” some complained, that would cause irreparable damage to the real history and historical sites of Romania. As opposition grew from domestic dissent to international opposition (Both Greenpeace and Prince Charles, a descendant of Vlad Tepes and vigorous promoter of Romanian wildflowers, led the way), the project wobbled, and then collapsed entirely. Romania, it seemed, was not ready to sell its history for hard currency. At least, not yet.
Without a Dracula Theme Park to kickoff my trip, I headed instead to the most popular Dracula destination in Romania: Dracula’s Castle. Dracula’s Castle, or Bran Castle, as it’s officially known, is one of the most important castles in Romania. Built sometime during the 13th Century, its strategic location in a mountain pass into Transylvania made it a position of military significance for centuries. In the early 20th Century, Bran Castle became a royal residence, and after the disaster of Romanian communism, the castle became a museum. In 2014, media outlets from Fox News to Travel & Leisure reported that Bran Castle, Dracula’s Castle, was for sale. Romania was selling its history – would there be any buyers? Hollywood moguls? Bram Stoker’s descendants? Perhaps the Temple of the Vampire, an international organization dedicated to vampire religion, is in the market for a new, authentic headquarters? (They meet only at night, which can make them problematic neighbors in urban settings, but perfect inhabitants for a remote mountain pass. And, yes, that’s a functional hyperlink). Well, news of the sale turned out to be a hoax, a misunderstanding, or something in between. Those looking for a Dracula domicile or just the opportunity to throw really badass Halloween parties would have to wait.
But, overlooked by the entire Dracula’s-Castle-for-Sale media buzzfest was the fact that Dracula’s Castle has no actual connection to Dracula – real or imagined. Vlad Tepes built his castle on a different mountain pass, and there is no evidence that Bram Stoker used or was inspired by Bran Castle for his work. Bram Stoker never even visited Romania, for what it’s worth, but some claim that he used an image of Bran in the imagining of his own Transylvanian castle. Though the official website of Bran castle acknowledges the relationship between the castle and character of Dracula, it encourages its visitors to “make the distinction between the historic reality of Bran and the character of the Count in Bram Stoker’s novel.” Because, as it concludes, “Dracula exists [only] in the imagination.” Despite the reminder and lack of authentic or real connection to Dracula, Bran Castle remains the third-most visited site in all of Romania. Some tourists flock here to see a spectacular castle. Many more visit because it is “Dracula’s Castle.”
Per advice from others, we arrived at Bran Castle early, before the day-trippers from Bucharest or organized tour groups mobilized for visits. For the first hour, we had Bran Castle and the audiotour all to ourselves. The castle is outfitted as it was in the 1920s, when it was occupied by the Romanian royal family, and we had plenty of time to listen to soundbites about Romanian royal family members and antique furniture. And then, when the clock struck midni… er, 10 am, the tourbuses arrived. The narrow and labyrinthian corridors of the old castle quickly became overrun with European tourists snapping photos of just about everything (when are you going to look at that photo of a 19th Century bureau again?), and pushing one another in their frenzied investigations of Bran Castle. If they were looking for evidence of any Dracula, real or imagined, there was not much to be had. This was a castle apparently dedicated to holding the line on Dracula commercialization. Or so it seemed.
At the very end of the tour, tucked into an outpost corner of the massive castle, was recognition that hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the castle annually in search of some sign of the Dracula they know from film and fiction. And, despite its seeming irrelevance to the rest of the tour (it is stop 26 of 26 on the audiotour), it provides an opportunity to craft and navigate an uncomfortable narrative. A national hero known for his impalements should not be viewed as “a wicked criminal but rather as a Robin Hood, merciless with the rich ones that were violating the law, but, at the same time, a reliable friend of the poor…For the peasants of Wallachia [Vlad Tepes] was ‘the national hero’ that served their cause,” the wall posters read. Following that statement on Tepes’s national honor is the following statement on vampirism: “The term ‘vampirism’ has its origins in the darkness of the time. Since prehistory, the hunter discovered that when an animal is killed the blood drains from it, and so does life. The humans associated blood with the source of life.” The panel ends there, an odd juxaposition of Vlad the Robin Hood with an incomplete description of vampirism. Perhaps it was hastily constructed to meet the demands and interests of Bran Castle’s many visitors; an acknowledgement that even though the castle played no role in the historical narrative of Vlad Tepes, it had been appropriated, somehow, by the legacy of Dracula the literary figure.
So what was one to take from this castle? Was it the home of Romanian royalty or a tangential storypoint for the figure that inspired Dracula? The gift shop had not figured it out; it sold copies of Bram Stoker’s classic alongside books of Romanian countryside photography. We bought a copy of Stoker’s book. It seemed an appropriate place to do so.
Further confusion awaited us in the stalls outside the castle. There, traditional Romanian folk music competed with nightmarish screams, monstrous growls, and creepy organ music emanating from a campy haunted house set up in the innermost quarters of the shop stalls. The women working the stalls acted as if they could not hear the screams of pain, and they intently encouraged us to shop for souvenirs. They also paid no attention to the man in a ghoulish costume that periodically wandered out from the ‘House of Screams’. Perhaps it’s because he was on stilts, and they didn’t see him, or perhaps they recognized that they are all involved in the same great game: the acquisition of the tourist dollar. So, while the ten foot peg-legged ghoul man took photos with children and snuck up on old ladies shopping for birdfeeders and cheap jewelry, the women whose livelihood is connected to the stall economy encouraged passersby to focus on the folk music, traditional gifts, and postcards. However, if you look closely at the corner of the stalls, beyond the postcards, jewelry, and Romanian trinkets, small plastic packages glimmer in the bright mid-day light. There, just out of reach, are packs of plastic vampire teeth. Cheaply made and likely imported from China (read: leaching chemicals), but a reflection of what really sells in the Bran Castle tourist market.