Mention Transylvania to anyone outside of Romania, and it’s likely to conjure images of blood sucking fiends, creepy castles, men turning into a flock of bats, and…well, you get the rest. Why has this storied and picturesque region (that you should really visit!) developed such a fascinating and sinister reputation over the years? We’ll look at the myth, history, and creation that have led to the modern ‘vampire’ as well as Transylvania’s place in it all.
The ‘Vampire’ in History and Myth
Stories featuring powerful and dark creatures that suck the blood of humans are not a new concept. Even in ancient civilization (Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, among others), stories and superstitions told of spirits and demons that exhibited ‘vampiric’ characteristics. Even the gods got in on the action, especially the Egyptian Sekhmet.
Medieval Vampires and Beyond
Throughout the European Middle Ages (a fairly superstitious time, shall we say), many countries and cultures had stories of these creatures. From Slavic tales of immoral people becoming vampires to the ghostly draugur’s of Iceland. Belief in vampire-like creatures can be traced all around the world, from Africa to 18th century New England, and beyond.
Where does the term vampire come from?
It was in Europe where the term ‘vampire’ first came into use during the 18th century. The legends of the East made their way West where the superstition really took hold. In scenes reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, many were accused of vampirism while hysterical crowds took it upon themselves to stake fresh corpses.
Thank Count Dracula
But how does this all relate to Transylvania? Well, I think you already know the answer…Count Dracula. The horror novel Dracula was released in 1897, written by Irishman Bram Stoker. It told the story of the eponymous vampire travelling from his remote abode in Transylvania to England, in an effort to spread the curse of vampirism. While not initially successful, this work of fiction irreversibly linked Transylvania with the most famous of all vampires.
Vlad the Impaler
Of course, there is thought to be a reason for Transylvania’s inclusion in the novel. While not confirmed, the popular opinion is that Dracula was based upon the 15th century noble Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (also known as Vlad Dracula…see the connection?). While he ruled in nearby Wallachia (hence the title), he is believed to have been born in Sighișoara – one of the quintessential Transylvanian towns.
So what does this noble have to do with vampires?? Well, that mostly comes from his lovely nickname – Vlad the Impaler. He got the name as you would probably suspect; by impaling his enemies upon spears, stakes, or sticks (here’s a more in-depth explanation of the practice if you don’t plan on eating in the near future).
Vlad the Impaler’s deeds earned him a sufficiently brutal reputation in Western Europe. Tales of mass murder and forced cannibalism are only scraping the surface. Was he really a sadistic monster? Well it’s hard to say. To many Romanians Vlad the Impaler is a national hero for resisting the Ottoman Empire but in the West, the myth and legend of his cruelty and the fear he inspired is what lives on.
Visiting Vampires in Transylvania
So vampires and the associated folklore might have been around for centuries, but we can pretty much thank the Count for lumping Transylvania in with it all. While Dracula remains the enduring representative of the region, it has brought with it a general association with gothic horror and other such works of fiction. For outsiders, Transylvania is viewed as a mystical and mysterious land – something that doesn’t always mesh with the increasingly modern and vibrant reality of present day Romania.
Still, the region is happy to play up its association with vampires. The famous Bran Castle is often referred to as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, though it doesn’t appear to have much of a concrete connection with the story (but we’ll grant that it is quite spooky looking). The ruined Poenari Castle and the impressive Corvin Castle are also associated with the real Vlad (the Impaler).
Vampires in Popular Culture
*Note: Some of the linked content might be frightening. Discretion advised.
Before Dracula, and especially since, vampires have been a fixture in popular culture. The 1922 German silent film Nosferatu first brought the Count to the big screen, followed by the 1931 Dracula starring Béla Lugosi. Since then, vampires have invaded our books, films, TV shows, video games, and so much more.
Sometimes, they’re portrayed as solitary hunters – intent on infecting as many as possible (as is the case with most early representations). In many of these, the vampire will exhibit all the necessary clichés and traits, including (but not limited to); inability to see their own reflection, turning into a vampire bat, being repelled by garlic, crosses, and holy water, sleeping in a coffin, getting harmed by sunlight, and so on and so forth.
The New Breed of Vampires
More recently, vampires have come to be viewed as charismatic villains or even anti-heroes. They exude charisma and sexuality (looking at you True Blood), and are often a fixture in complicated romances. That’s not to say they can’t be used as an antagonistic force, whether it’s attacking a north Alaskan town in 30 Days of Night, starting a plague more commonly associated with zombies in The Strain, or as both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Franchises like Twilight and the Underworld films both have their own takes on the beings while the television show Being Human (UK and US) presents a vampire just trying to find flatmates. What We Do in the Shadows allows a documentary crew to uncover the lives of Wellington New Zealand’s own vampires and even video games such as The Witcher III: Blood and Wine present a different interpretation (with a healthy mix of Slavic and Eastern European folklore). Some have even attempted to mix the classic story and the real history – as seen in Dracula Untold. The point is, since ‘vampires’ have entered the public consciousness, they have been dealt with in a variety of unique and incredibly nuanced ways – often throwing the established ‘rules’ out the window.
While vampires are fictional creatures, rendering us unable to be turned by and/or fall in love with them (for better or worse), there is no denying the effect they have had on myth, folklore, and pop culture. To thank for it all, we head back once again to Transylvania – and that mysterious Count who captured our collective imagination so long ago.
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