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Most people associate Romania, especially Transylvania, primarily with one thing: vampires. However, the standard vampire as we know and love him has only been around for little over a century. He is an entirely Western European construct, and has little to do with the vampire of Romanian folklore. The classical vampire is a hackneyed cliché, a pale gentleman in evening dress who lives in a draughty castle, can turn into a bat at will, and fills his nights with the pursuit of young women in underwire nighties until a brave vampire hunter does him in with the aid of a wooden stake or a shower of holy water.
The Origin of the Modern Standard Vampire
This vampire's cradle lies far from Romania, in England. John William Polidori invented the aristocratic vampire in his 1819 novel 'The Vampyre' and the vampire's preference for young women was established in 1871 by Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire heroine, Carmilla. The best known and most copied, however, is without doubt Bram Stoker's1 Dracula, from the novel first published in 1897. Western Europe, and especially England, became quite obsessed with vampires in the late 19th Century. For one thing, vampires were wonderfully suited to starring in 'penny dreadfuls' – for another, vampire stories were an enciphered outlet for the prudish Victorians' erotic fantasies. The climax of the story is usually the moment when the strong, young, handsome vampire hunter drives a long wooden stake through the recumbent vampire's heart…
Dracula as a Historical Figure
The vampire in general, and especially the vampire 'Dracula', is a difficult subject for most Romanians. There is a sizeable tourist industry centred around this literary character, but it has little to do with Romanian culture. In Romania, the name 'Dracula' refers primarily to Prince Vlad III Dracula, commonly known as Vlad Tepes, 'Vlad the Impaler'. This 15th-Century prince ruled Wallachia, one of the three provinces that make up modern-day Romania (the others being Transylvania and Moldavia). 'Dracula' means 'Son of the Dragon', and refers to his father, Vlad II Dracu2, who was a member of the Order of the Dragon. Today, the name is often mistranslated as 'Son of the Devil', as the word 'dracul' means 'demon' or 'devil' in modern Romanian.
Vlad Tepes is a rather controversial character. In much of Romania, he is seen as a hero, because he successfully freed Wallachia from the Turkish conquerors and subsequently prevented further raids. He also established peace within his principality, ousted the Saxon3 merchants, who were considered parasites, reformed the corrupt feudal system by brutally eliminating most of the Bojard class, and defended Wallachia's interests against the mighty Hungarian empire.
His methods, however, were infamously cruel. The name 'the Impaler' refers to his preferred method of execution, a method which was perfected by his henchmen; victims were said to take as long as three days to die. The tops of the stakes were rounded off and well oiled to prevent the victim from dying from shock. Allegedly, tens of thousands of victims were impaled at once, including women and children. This served as a deterrent – it is reported that the Ottoman army turned back on finding the rotting corpses of 20,000 Turkish prisoners of war impaled at the border, and that one could safely leave a bag of gold in the middle of the street and collect it the next day, the fear of punishment was so great.
Of course, many of these stories are freely fabricated or at least greatly exaggerated, be it by the Wallachians themselves or by the Saxon and Ottoman historians, who reported these 'eyewitness accounts' as part of the propaganda against the Romanians. Prince Vlad Dracula's legendary cruelty is said to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker's fictional character, though he was only named late in the editing process4. In any case, the connection between Vlad Tepes and the vampire Dracula is tenuous at best, though not as tenuous as the connection between the vampire and the alleged 'Dracula's Castle', whose claim to fame derives from the fact that Prince Vlad stayed there for one night sometime in the middle of the 15th Century5.
Vampires in Romanian Folklore
This is not to say that Romania doesn't have its own vampire stories – Romanian vampires are merely more primal and down-to-earth than the highly polished literary characters, and are influenced by the traditions of many nations. The ancient Romans6 had stories about vampire-like creatures, and the Romanian word for an undead demon, 'stirgoi', is derived from the ancient Greek 'strix' – the owl as a nocturnal creature has always been associated with witches and demons. Slavic vampire stories play an important role, as do the medieval European tales of revenants7 and the stories of the Roma, and thus, indirectly, Indian mythology.
How to Become a Vampire
Becoming a vampire is quite easy, though the transformation only takes place after death. Any child who is born with a tail, a caul, teeth, or more than two nipples is at risk, as is any child that has red hair, is conceived on certain unlucky days, dies unchristened, or is the seventh son or seventh daughter in succession. If the mother sees a black cat during her pregnancy, fails to eat enough salt, or is looked at by a vampire or witch, the unborn child is also at risk of becoming a vampire. The bite of a vampire can, of course, cause vampirism, as can a violent or otherwise unusual death or excommunication. If one half of an engaged couple dies, the marriage has to take place anyway, to prevent the deceased from returning as a revenant.
The traditions of the Roma further complicate matters, as the blood-drinking Indian goddess Kali is still revered as Sara, or 'Black Cally'. Roma folklore says that animals and objects can become vampires quite as easily as humans. For instance, any tools left outdoors under a full moon or not used for three years become animated and attack their owners to drink their blood. Even pumpkins and watermelons can be affected, if they are touched by the light of the full moon or kept after Christmas. However, they do not have teeth and are thus more a nuisance than a danger, being restricted to rolling around the house, growling at its inhabitants. They can be got rid of by boiling in holy water and then scrubbing with a broom, which must subsequently be burned.
Protecting Yourself from Vampires
Not all vampires are this harmless and easy to eliminate, so it is important to know good methods of dealing with vampires. Though it doesn't make much of a film, most of these methods centre on defence rather than spectacular vampire hunts. On the nights before the Feasts of St George and St Andrew, when vampires and other demons are most active, the house is especially protected, with thorns on the thresholds, thistles in the windows, crosses on the doors and lots and lots of garlic.
The most important precautions, however, are those taken at funerals. Cremation would be the most effective method of preventing the deceased from returning as a vampire, but is forbidden by the church, so other measures have to be taken. The corpse's mouth is tied shut with the chin secured with a block, and the shroud is nailed to the interior of the coffin so the corpse cannot eat it - that would certainly turn it into a vampire. The coffin is filled with sawdust or poppy seeds, which a vampire would have to count compulsively8 and thus be busy until morning. If the deceased is deemed to be particularly at risk, a scythe blade is buried over the body, so he would decapitate himself on rising, or the corpse is turned face-down with the tendons at the back of the knees severed. A wooden stake is additionally used to pin it down, or a shot fired through the coffin. The Roma go even further, requiring an iron needle through the heart, pieces of steel between the fingers and toes, in the mouth, and on the ears and eyes, and a hawthorn stake driven through both legs, as well as the burning of all the material possessions9 of the dead, so he has nothing to come back to.
Every grave was opened, three years after death if a child's, five for a young person's, and seven for that of an adult. If there are signs that a vampire is around, sightings of unusual beings in the night, epidemics, or livestock being found dead, for example, the newest or 'at-risk' graves are opened as well. The corpse is then examined for signs of being a vampire – blood on the face or hands, growing hair or fingernails, a foot in the corner of the coffin, or a ruddy, 'healthy' complexion and weight gain, quite the opposite of our aristocratically pale literary vampire. Holes in the earth over the grave or scratches on the coffin lid10 are also an (un)dead giveaway. Ironically, these are all 'symptoms' that occur naturally as the corpse decays. Any corpse showing such signs is decapitated, the heart is cut out and burned, and boiling water is poured over the grave.
Fearless Vampire Hunters
In the rare case that a vampire manages to get past all these obstacles, only a vampire hunter can eliminate it, though in the case of less pesky vampires, one should simply wait seven years – the vampire can then move away and live a quite normal life in another town, though he will have to spend Sundays in a coffin. Unfortunately, Eastern European vampires are usually invisible, so they can't simply be chased down by a local youth with a garlic necklace and a copy of Vampire Hunting For Beginners. The town has to hire a Dhampir, a travelling vampire hunter who is the son of a vampire and his widow. He can see vampires, and show them to others by taking off his shirt and letting them look through the sleeve. The vampire can be destroyed by the good old 'wooden stake through the heart' method, or through special graveside rituals, in which the coffin is touched with protective amulets. The most popular, and most humane method, however, is to dye a bottle of vodka or other strong spirits blood-red using berries, and then feed it to the vampire. He will be too drunk to find his grave in the morning, and the sunlight will make him crumble into dust.
The Dhampir's job is very attractive, as his fee is never negotiated, though he is often paid in clothing, food, or livestock. The last known Dhampir was operating in Kosovo as late as 1959. Poorer towns that cannot afford the often exorbitant fees luckily have another option open to them. They merely need twins, a boy and a girl, who were born on a Saturday and are wearing their underclothes inside-out. If they hold hands, they can recognise vampires outdoors at night, and if they spot one, are compelled to flee head-over-heels – but so is the vampire.
Of course, there must be some event or creature that triggered the creation of these stories, which were then simply exaggerated more and more over the centuries. The poor vampire bat is a seemingly obvious scapegoat, but of all the bats worldwide - there are over 1,100 known species, accounting for over 20% of mammal species - only three feed on blood, and all three are strictly New World animals11. They were named after the Old World monster, and are not its namegiver. In the Balkans, bats were even considered a good omen, and bat-bone amulets were used as protection against evil spirits.
It is more likely that vampires were simply used to explain certain phenomena. They were made responsible for epidemics, especially tuberculosis and cholera, as the traditional Romanian vampire tends to feed on its old family, and mostly remains in its village. Rabies, too, was associated with vampires: victims are very sensitive to stimuli such as light, can often not sleep at night or drink water, leading to rumours that they use blood to quench their thirst, and even feel the strong urge to bite others. Further symptoms include hypersexuality and bloody foam at the mouth.
There is also some speculation that the symptoms of porphyria may have been misinterpreted as vampirism. This rare disease causes faulty synthesis of hemes, with the abnormal hemes showing uncontrolled reactions to electron stimulation. Symptoms include hypersensitive reaction to light – even the visible spectrum can cause severe burns – and the deterioration of certain tissues, including the gums, which make the teeth of the sufferer seem longer. Acute bouts of porphyria may manifest through mental disturbances such as hallucinations, psychosis, and extreme paranoia, and the bodily fluids may turn reddish-purple when exposed to sunlight. The sufferer is usually also severely anaemic, a condition historically treated by drinking (animal) blood. Garlic is said to make the symptoms worse. Porphyria is extremely rare, but inbreeding in the small, isolated villages may have caused it to occur more often.
Present-Day Belief in Vampires
Despite the best efforts of science and reason, there is still a strong belief in vampires in many parts of the world – not the indisputable popularity of the vampire as a character in films, television, role-playing games, and literature, but a true fear of the monster. In 2002, one victim of mass vampire hysteria was stoned to death in Malawi. Romania saw the case of Toma Petre in 2004, when his relatives exhumed his corpse, cut out his heart, burned it, and drank the ashes mixed with water. In March, 2007, self-proclaimed vampire hunters broke into Slobodan Milošević's tomb and drove a stake through his heart, though this may well have been a political act.
What You Can Do
Dracula's poor relations may not be as glamorous as that well-known Count, and they'll certainly not be able to offer you a four-poster bed in a remote castle, but they can be a lot of fun. Next time you just happen to be passing through Romania – no longer a problem, since it is now part of the EU – just shun the 'Dracula'-themed attractions, which are mere tourist traps. Instead, find a bar, or just a village square, buy those present a round of beer or wine12 and inquire nicely, and you will be rewarded with some truly blood-chilling tales. Now you know why that hostel next to the graveyard was so empty despite being so cheap, and is that a full moon? Better take a taxi home; you won't want to walk the dark streets alone…