Greetings from Dracula Land

I've traveled a long way to talk vampires with Dan Matei Agathon, Romania's minister of tourism. As I wait in his cramped anteroom with its tattered wood trim and 1960s-era vertical blinds, assistants flutter to and fro, one of them bearing boxes that look like gifts for some visiting dignitary.

Vlad DraculaAs it turns out, the gifts are for an underwhelming guest: me. They include a plaque based on a woodcut of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), the cruel 15th-century prince considered to be the historical Count Dracula, and a plexiglass paperweight inscribed with an image of "Dracula's Castle," a fortress in the Transylvanian village of Bran where Vlad Tepes is said to have slept once.

"Dracula, Dracula, Dracula!" Agathon announces jovially when I enter his office. He has prepared a show-and-tell of vampire products: plastic fangs, Dracula family crests, a watch with a bat on its face. "Made in Hong Kong, made in Switzerland," Agathon says disapprovingly. Everyone has profited from Dracula except Romanians, he complains, because the local people are too proud to seize the terrific commercial opportunity Dracula's Transylvanian connection provides.

That's changing, Agathon notes brightly, plopping a bag of Vampire-brand coffee, packaged here in Romania, onto his desk. In this poverty-stricken country, young people, if not their elders, can smell the potential of a homegrown Dracula industry.

The ministry of tourism sits just across the street from Bucharest's monstrous Palace of the Parliament, the world's second-largest building, and one the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu razed a quarter of the old city to build. With a history of fierce repression and a political establishment that inspires little confidence, Romania is one of Eastern Europe's least promising new democracies. Poverty, sanitation, and infant mortality are big problems here. In Bucharest, a city few Romanians seem to love, the sidewalks are full of holes, the holes are full of garbage, and packs of mangy stray dogs prowl. Journalists complain of death threats when they criticize the ex-communist-led government, of which Agathon is a part.

Romania, to put it politely, has an image problem. Westerners associate it above all with cruel dictatorship and Halloween stories. In response, Agathon's ministry has adopted the optimistic slogan "Romania: Simply Surprising." But it has also adopted the attitude that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"Dracula exists whether I want him to or not," says Agathon. "So I say, let's put him to work for Romania."

And so it is that Agathon has pushed to build an American-style theme park around the legacy of an Irish novel based on German accounts of Transylvanian folklore. Call it "Dracula Park." You'd have to, because two days after Agathon first announced it as the more felicitous "Draculaland" in 2001, enterprising Romanian teenagers registered the name and offered to sell it to Agathon for half a million dollars.

"My children," he says now with a twinkle. "They are fantastic."

Agathon predicts that 80 percent of the theme park's visitors will be Romanians. But opposition to the project is widespread, and most Romanians I spoke to winced at the very idea. As one local journalist, Eliade Balan, wrote in 2001, "It's a macabre project with nothing Romanian in it." A group of prominent intellectuals signed a petition denouncing the project as an embarrassing pastiche of Romanian history. "Why bring people to Romania to show them vampires?" demanded one signatory, the historian Neagu Djuvara, in an interview with a Romanian news agency. And environmentalists recently succeeded in banning the park from Agathon's favored Transylvania location.

Agathon, meanwhile, has become one of Romania's most controversial public figures, renowned for his tireless Dracula boosterism as well as his ill-fated attempt to grow tropical palm trees on the frigid Black Sea coast. When Prime Minister Adrian Nastase reorganized his government last month, Agathon was one of four ministers conspicuously removed from their posts. Nonetheless, over the objections of the new tourism chief, the prime minister has announced his unwavering commitment to building Dracula Park.

Bram Stoker, the author of the 1897 novel "Dracula" that has inspired some 250 movies, never set foot in Transylvania. Like one of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker, the Irish-born Stoker learned about southeastern Europe from library research. Reports Harker in the novel, "I learned that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool."

Stoker was not the first to make Romania the worldly setting for dark otherworldly spirits, and he was certainly not the last. The Harry Potter books make Romania the natural habitat of dragons; evil wizards populate nearby Bulgaria and Albania. The bestselling apocalyptic, evangelical Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, names its evil world ruler Lord Carpathia, after the Romanian mountain range. The mythology runs so thick that many Westerners do not know that Transylvania-the name means "the land beyond the forest"-is a real place.

Not surprisingly, an academic literature has sprung up around such dark portrayals of the Balkans. Largely inspired by Edward Said's 1979 book "Orientalism," which examined exoticized portrayals of the Islamic east, scholars have analyzed the Balkan region's depiction as Europe's "near other": a borderland between Christianity and Islam, neither wholly exotic nor quite familiar; a preserve where Europe's own repressed pagan history and medieval backwardness are still roiling.

Modern scholars describe Stoker's "Dracula" as a novel about the British fear of "reverse colonization": Just as the Transylvanian count sailed to England to suck the blood of British women and turn them into undead monsters, the Balkans, newly freed from Ottoman domination and convulsed with nationalist wars, threatened to return Western Europe to a premodern state of violence.

The literary incarnations of that violence are based on real historical figures of exceptional brutality. Stoker's Count Dracula was modeled on the medieval Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad Draculea, literally "Vlad the son of the devil." According to legend, the historical Dracula enjoyed dining in a courtyard surrounded by foes impaled on stakes, and even soaked his bread in his victims' blood. Stoker also consulted the lushly perverse legend of the 16th-century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory, who allegedly murdered some 650 young maidens for her sadistic sexual delectation and because she believed that bathing in their blood would preserve her youth.

Recent attempts to rehabilitate these figures in Romania and elsewhere have turned on the idea that medieval Balkan violence was exaggerated in the contemporaneous accounts of Westerners, primarily Germans. Just as Balkan writers floridly mythologized Turkish cruelty, German writers often embroidered their accounts of Balkan cruelty. But whether or not these tales were embellished, they became richly symbolic of arbitrary power and unchecked, sensualized violence, wherever they might be found. In "Dracula," and in more recent novels like Andrei Codrescu's 1995 bestseller "The Blood Countess" (about Bathory), the real horror is the notion that bloody medieval European history can't be confined to the grave.

According to Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, the Boston College scholars who initially linked Stoker's Dracula and the historical Vlad Tepes in 1972, vampire legends are nearly universal across cultures. But the particular vampire mythology that crept westward by Stoker's time probably originated in the supernatural beliefs common to Transylvania and the Banat, a region at the intersection of Romania, Hungary, and Serbia. (The Banat also happens to be the birthplace of Bela Lugosi, perhaps Hollywood's most celebrated Count Dracula.)

Otilia Hedesan, a professor of folklore at the University of Timisoara, is perhaps the world's leading expert on Romania's vampire mythology. Sitting in the littered courtyard of the concrete university building in Timisoara, she informs me that hers is practically a taboo subject in Romania: No one wants to admit that they believe in the undead, but the folklore is rich and unmistakable. The Romanian word for the undead, though, is not "vampire." It's "strigoi."

There are several categories of strigois, Hedesan explains, but only one is truly malevolent. He is normally a man, and he may have been born under special circumstances-with swollen feet, for instance, or the seventh son of a seventh son. More often than not, however, the trouble comes much later, resulting from his loved ones' failure to respect all the necessary funerary traditions.

In parts of Romania, these requirements can be quite extensive. For instance, according to the University of Texas folklorist Gail Kligman, if a person of marriageable age dies single in certain Transylvanian villages, his or her funeral must also be a wedding. A woman is buried in a wedding dress and married to Jesus; a man is attired as a groom, but wedded to a divine female spirit represented by any unmarried village girl. If this ritual is not performed, the unmarried dead could become a strigoi.

The strigoi is sort of like a poltergeist who prowls the village at night, or moves household objects around in annoying ways. If he died married, he may return to demand things of his wife-new clothes, cigarettes, sex. He can father children, but these children are very weak and rarely survive. According to Hedesan, Serb children born to vampires must adopt the last name "Vampirovic." One is not to speak to them.

Strigois don't suck their victims' blood. Nonetheless, the loved ones of a strigoi over time become pale and sick, like the victims in "Dracula"; and it is said that the corpse of the undead grows ruddy, like the corpse of Stoker's evil count. In Romanian folklore, the sucking of blood, or the draining away of the life force from the living by the dead, is metaphorical rather than literal. But the solution is the same as in Stoker's novel: The undead must be exhumed, impaled, beheaded, and possibly even burned.

So is the vampire myth we know through Stoker a product of Eastern or Western European imagination? The answer is that it's both, with a dash of Hollywood besides.

"I don't think the vampire is just an image constructed by the West," says Hedesan with some annoyance. "These rituals exist."

But they have also been interpreted. At the turn of the 19th century, she explains, about 100 years before Stoker's time, the Austro-Hungarian empire acquired the Banat and sent soldiers to tame the Ottoman frontier. Lonely and far from home, some soldiers got spooked by the local folklore. "They sent for Viennese specialists," Hedesan says, "doctors who dissected cadavers and met with those who claimed to be troubled by strigoi. They looked for medical explanations."

One such doctor hypothesized that Romanians had been weakened by poor nutrition. Another claimed that certain patches of Romanian land had special properties that preserved cadavers. The Austrian soldiers and doctors wrote extensive letters and travelers' accounts about the local spirits, and these, combined with accounts of the lives of Vlad Tepes and Elizabeth Bathory, helped inspire Stoker's vampire.

Dracula Park does not promise a subtle exploration of this history. It will include a replica of a medieval Romanian village, but it will also include hotels, casinos, and an amusement park complete with a roller coaster, a cinema showing all 250 Dracula films, and attractions with names like the Bloodride, the Bat Flyer, Interviews with Vampires, and the Haunted Wood.

Agathon proudly remarks that he has consulted with firms that have worked on Western European and American theme parks. "It will be built to Western standards," he informs me several times.

The site Agathon first proposed for the theme park was the Breite Plateau, a park in Transylvania that abuts the perfectly preserved, fortified medieval citadel of Sighisoara, where Vlad Tepes may have been born. Agathon envisioned something like a chairlift that would transport tourists from the citadel to the park.

Not long after announcing the park's location, the Romanian government made a public offering related to the project. Stock sold fast. Property values in Sighisoara skyrocketed. Agathon spoke grandly of major foreign investors like Coca-Cola.

Even as ordinary residents started to find themselves priced out of Sighisoara, City Hall expected that the park would bring tourists and jobs to the depressed city. Agathon received a heroic welcome when he visited Sighisoara, where he was dubbed a chevalier in the Order of Dracula.

Not everyone was thrilled, however. Both the Breite Plateau and Sighisoara itself are UNESCO protected sites-Breite because it houses a preserve of 500-year-old flowering oak trees, and Sighisoara because it is Europe's least inhabited walled medieval city. The stampede of tourists, not to mention the onslaught of kitsch, would be devastating to Sighisoara, argued the architect Herman Fabini, who traces his family's roots there back to the 17th century, and who helped organize a group to oppose the park on cultural grounds. As for the oaks, their cause was taken up by a dentist and firebrand named Alexandru Gota, who founded a group called Sustainable Sighisoara expressly for the purpose of blocking Dracula Park.

Gota circulated petitions, only to have the signatories personally harassed by the mayor's office, he alleges. Ioan F. Pavcu, editor of the local newspaper, Sighisoara Journal, also claims to have been directly threatened by a local official on account of his association with Gota. Meanwhile, the tourism ministry pointed to the endorsement of Greenpeace Romania-but that turned out to be a Bucharest organization with no ties whatever to the international environmental group.

Finally, in 2002 UNESCO sent a delegation to Sighisoara to assess the situation. Concerned primarily about the impact on the town of Sighisoara and its crumbling fortifications, UNESCO recommended against the project.

Bowing to pressure from local and international activists, Agathon commissioned a feasibility study from Price Waterhouse Coopers that was to assess three alternate locations. To no one's surprise, the study favored Snagov, a site just outside of Bucharest where Vlad Tepes is thought to be buried. Snagov is the new projected location for the park.

In Sighisoara, some small business owners express relief that at least real estate prices will return to normal. Others, like a woman working in a quiet souvenir shop on the edge of the town, say they would have welcomed the park. "It would have brought us tourists," the shopkeeper said sadly. "I think the majority of locals thought it was a pity they didn't go through with it."

The ending is a happy one, however, for the activists involved. This is, after all, beaten-down Romania-a place where political activism has scarcely been possible for the better part of a century.

"This was a very exciting story for us," says Gota, "because it was the first victory for civil society in Romania."

And so the oak trees of Sighisoara have been granted a stay of execution. The project's relocation is a victory of sorts. But it is also a drop in the bucket. Romania's environmental problems are dire and visible. Litter cascades down hillsides. Giant, rusting industrial installations stretch across the Banat as far as the eye can see. Cyanide gold mining has poisoned the Danube once and threatens to do so again. Even in the country, the air doesn't smell clean.

One thing, however, is blooming under Romania's acrid skies, and that's the Dracula industry Agathon promoted.

Just this year, while researching a strigoi sighting in a village outside Hunedoara, Otilia Hedesan asked a young woman if she knew who Dracula was.

"Yes, I know," said the woman.

"I got so excited," says Hedesan. "It was the first time I'd met a peasant who knew. But then she said, 'It's a brand of vodka."'

Written by Laura Secor / The Boston Globe

Fanged Films

Korea, 1969

Mexico, 1972
Ángeles y Querubines

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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