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Vampire Is Lucrative : Dracula-- ‘Can’t Kill a Good Myth’

Times Staff Writer

Cold autumn mist wreathed the gloomy towers of this 14th-Century stronghold and the gray limestone crag beneath its walls.

Among the branches of gnarled beech trees clinging to the bare rock, a small wren flitted enchantingly, beckoning two lone visitors up steep, mossy steps toward the iron-studded door of Dracula’s castle.

“So,” the guide said with an ominous hiss. “Now you are in Transylvania.” So are a good many other foreign travelers these days, and not only at Halloween time, as they follow the trail of the fabled vampire count.

Try as it might, and it certainly has tried, Romania has been unable to dispel the myth of Dracula.

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Image of Gothic Evil

The “undead” count’s nocturnal prowlings for life-sustaining blood--fictional as they were--seem to have forever stamped this picturesque and little-known corner of Europe, nestled in an elbow of the Carpathian Mountains, with an undeserved image of Gothic evil.

Dracula the vampire was born in the mind of 19th-Century Irish author Bram Stoker, whose classic tale of horror won him instant popularity in 1897. With the advent of motion pictures, Stoker’s novel inspired an endless stream of films, of which the best known starred Bela Lugosi as the long-toothed count in 1931. Mingling age-old superstitions with subliminal sexual themes, Dracula, for better or worse, has become an indelible part of Western culture.

For 20th-Century Romanians, however, Dracula poses something of a dilemma.

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On the one hand, Romanian historians protest that Stoker’s novel and the films it inspired have sullied the reputation of a proud land and a heroic Romanian prince of the 15th Century. The real Dracula, though he was a bloody tyrant, is now officially venerated as a founder of the capital city of Bucharest and an early defender of Romanian autonomy, a theme that looms large in the political language of the present-day Communist leadership under President Nicolae Ceausescu.

Tourist Dollars

On the other hand, the Romanian Ministry of Tourism has quite pragmatically succumbed to the spell of Dracula the vampire and turned it into a profitable lure for tourist dollars.

“You can’t kill a good myth,” a ministry official, Nicolae Paduraru, said philosophically. “Besides, you know the Americans. One has to indulge them.”

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Romania, a Balkan country the area of New York and Pennsylvania combined with a population of 23 million, now plays host to 1.3 million Western tourists a year, including 20,000 Americans.

They come to ski, or bask on the beaches of the Black Sea, or tour the frescoed monasteries of Bucovina near the Soviet border. Sooner or later, 80% of them ask about Dracula. While trying to set the record straight, Romanian guides have learned not to disappoint their charges.

“It’s very hard to tell them it isn’t true,” one guide observed, “especially the Americans. They’ve come so far, and you should see their faces when I say it’s just fiction. It’s like taking a toy away from a child.”

To indulge the faithful, the Romanians run trips from Bucharest to the superbly preserved Castle Bran three hours to the north--even though its links with the real Dracula are tenuous.

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For serious Dracula buffs, there is a new but appropriately Gothic hotel farther north in the Borgo Pass of the Carpathians, where Bram Stoker’s fictional Dracula lived--in a manner of speaking--in a ruined castle.

Until recently, off-duty hotel staffers obligingly reposed in a coffin that guests were invited to open in a dank, candle-lit basement. The practice was suspended, however, when an elderly Spanish tourist complained to the government of heart palpitations.

The fictional Count Dracula is said to have sustained himself in an “undead” state for centuries by feasting on the blood of his countrymen, who themselves become vampires. In Stoker’s novel, set in the late 19th Century, Dracula conspires to transport himself to London to multiply his vampire legions but is foiled and ultimately destroyed by Jonathan Harker, a young English lawyer, and his friends.

Prototype a Bit Odd

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Separating truth from fiction in the matter of Dracula has not been easy, partly because the historical figure that Stoker borrowed is, at least by modern standards, scarcely more appealing than the vampire version. Contemporary drawings of the real Dracula also bear a striking resemblance to Stoker’s description of his blood-sucking nobleman: The hatchet face, the hard eyes, the flowing mustache and the long, aquiline nose are the same.

Only the dental work is different. In place of the sharp white fangs protruding over the count’s lower lip, the real Dracula had a noticeable underbite.

A prince of Wallachia, the Romanian province that lies immediately south of Transylvania between the Carpathians and the Danube, Vlad Dracula inherited his name (which means Vlad of the Dragon) from his father. The name he earned was Vlad Tepes--Vlad the Impaler.

“A tyrant of tyrants,” as a 16th-Century Austrian chronicle branded him, Vlad made a reputation over the whole of Europe by skewering his opponents, domestic and foreign, real and imagined, alive on long wooden staves and leaving them on display for general public reflection. Impaling was not a unique form of execution for the time, but Vlad seems to have carried it to extremes.

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According to a German chronicle, in 1460 he impaled 30,000 men, women and children of the town of Brasov, not far from Castle Bran, when the town refused to submit to his rule. Romanian historians now contend that the Germans exaggerated this figure centuries ago for political reasons.

Rare Anti-Poverty Program

During two brief periods of rule, from 1456 to 1462 and again in 1476, the year the Turks caught and beheaded him, Dracula also had hundreds of noblemen and their families impaled on suspicion of disloyalty. He eliminated poverty in his land by eliminating the impoverished, and he imposed a regimen of law and order so terrifying that no one, it was said, dared to steal a large golden drinking cup he left by a public fountain.

Modern Romanian historians, however, prefer to dwell on Dracula’s audacious treatment of the Turks, from whom he won a brief respite in a long period of subjugation by the Ottoman Empire. When Turkish envoys, in keeping with Muslim custom, refused to remove their turbans in his presence, he had the turbans nailed to their heads.

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Dracula’s most memorable military exploit came in June, 1462, with a daring nighttime raid on the camp of the superior forces of invading Turks. Leaving havoc in his wake, he proceeded to demoralize the survivors by “preparing a special sight” for Sultan Mohammed II along the Turkish line of march, according to a 1978 treatise published by the Romanian Academy in Bucharest.

The sight consisted of 20,000 Turkish soldiers impaled on tall poles in a field two miles wide and a half-mile deep. The Turks are said to have retreated in disarray back across the Danube, only to return when Dracula’s appeasement-minded brother, Radu the Handsome, conspired to overthrow him.

Whatever else Dracula was, modern Romanians insist with some indignation, he was not a vampire. The correct image of the prince, historian Nicolae Stoicescu argued in a 1978 book, is that of a “valiant defender of his country’s independence . . . a harsh but just ruler (who) protected the forebears of the present Romanian nation.”

Paraphrasing Sen. Barry Goldwater’s famous epigram, Stoicescu argued that “excess in defense of freedom . . . is a virtue, not a sin.”

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Hero Only at Home

But because the Dracula novel and films are little-known in Romania, the Romanians were slow to discover that the rest of the world does not immediately associate Dracula with the image of a freedom fighter. Awareness dawned in the early 1970s as the authorities noticed that, along with their Japanese cameras, some Western tourists, especially the Americans, were carrying vampire repellents.

“It was very odd. Some of them wore strings of garlic and crucifixes,” said Paduraru, of the Tourist Ministry.

“We were taken by surprise. We didn’t know who this Dracula was. Then we realized--hey, they’re talking about our Vlad the Impaler, whose real name was Dracula.”

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Torn between setting the record straight and disappointing foreign tourists, the ministry carried out a series of experiments on foreign visitors.

At first, tour guides were instructed to stress geography and history and to play down superstitions and ghost stories.

These, as it happens, abound in Transylvania, where a thousand years of Romanian, Hungarian and German folklore converge. Even today, most of the horse-drawn carts in the countryside are decorated with tassels of red yarn to ward off evil spirits.

Tourists reacted to the scholastic approach “enthusiastically, but with a sense that something was missing,” Paduraru said. “So we went the other way with the second group. We beat superstition into them three times a day. But it had what you might call negative effects. We found that it didn’t take much to scratch through the rational mind and create real fear. Very quickly, we saw our tourists brooding. They wouldn’t come out of their hotel rooms at night.”

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Extraneous Ghastly Sounds

Their mood was not helped by the eerie din that sometimes resounds through the Transylvanian countryside on autumn nights. It was not the howling of wolves, as some jittery foreigners believed, and assuredly not ghosts. It was only farmers in the sugar beet fields blowing horns and banging on drums to frighten away the wild boars that come down from the forest.

The inevitable conclusion was that tour guides should strike a balance between fact and folklore and gauge carefully each group’s threshold between fun and fear.

The realization that much of the world views Romania not only as the home of gymnast Nadia Comaneci and tennis star Ilie Nastase but also of a certain vampire has stimulated research into the country’s own rich folklore. The Dracula Society, a London group that explores the roots of Stoker’s novel and leads tours here, has aided this research.

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Romanian officials here note with satisfaction that vampires have been found to figure prominently in Irish and Slavic folklore, but not in Romanian.

On the other hand, an old woman in a village near Castle Bran offered researchers a recipe for rendering oneself invisible in a mirror--coincidentally, perhaps, one of Count Dracula’s distinguishing traits. It involves boiling a black cat for three days.

As Stoker’s Count Dracula himself observes to Harker, his young and increasingly nervous guest at the gloomy castle in the Borgo Pass: “We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways. And there shall be to you many strange things.”


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