MAXWELL:  On Dracula’s trail

9/27/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


BRAN, Romania, Sept. 14

This morning, I stood in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. In front of me was Bran Castle. With non-menacing turrets and pure-white walls, the fairy-tale building stood atop the tallest tree-lined hill in Bran. To attract tourists, travel guides claim that the castle was the abode of Count Dracula, Bram Stoker’s exquisite vampire and gothic literature’s most horrifying character.

Standing on the clean street bordering the 14th century castle, I took in the hazy mountains in the distance and imagined full moons, howling wolves, the transmutations of werewolves, the swishing wings of bats and the flapping of a vampire’s cloak.

Emerging from my reverie, I realized that I was fulfilling a childhood dream, that I was walking where Dracula had walked. I recalled those many sleepless nights in my tiny bedroom in Crescent City, where I read Jonathan Harker’s journal, his depictions of this foul creature with hair growing on his palms, his pointy ears, fiery red eyes and swollen red lips.

I, along with other vacationers from every part of the globe, walked up and down every step in the castle, through every room and the courtyard. Indeed, the rooms _ their stone walls protecting evil secrets and tales of repression _ made me feel the awesome power of Dracula, the 1897 novel. I recalled the narrator’s description of his first night of terror in the castle:

“When I found that I was a prisoner a sort of wild feeling came over me. I rushed up and down the stairs, trying every door and peering out of every window I could find; but after a little the conviction of my helplessness overpowered all other feelings. When I look back after a few hours I think I must have been mad for the time, for I behaved much as a rat does in a trap.”

On this day, even though I felt hemmed in, not unlike a rat does in a trap, I, along with a group of Americans on tour, had a great time.

Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire, is fictitious, but a real Dracula haunted the Carpathians. As far as we know, the real Dracula _ Vlad Tepes Dracula, born in 1431 _ did not bite his victims and suck their blood. He cut off ears, noses, limbs and sexual organs.

There is more. Vlad Tepes, who succeeded his father to the throne of Wallachia, also ordered subjects to be skinned alive, boiled, blinded, strangled, decapitated, hanged, burned, roasted, nailed to trees and boards, hacked, stabbed, buried alive.

Believe it or not, Vlad Tepes _ seeking revenge for the Ottomans’ murder of his father, mistreatment of other relatives and his own abuses at the hands of the Turks _ committed even more atrocities that earned him the name Vlad the Impaler.

“Impalement was Dracula’s preferred method of torture and execution,” writes Ray Porter, a Dracula expert. “Dracula usually had a horse attached to each of the victim’s legs and a sharpened stake was gradually forced into the body. The end of the stake was usually oiled and care was taken that the stake not be too sharp; else the victim might die too rapidly from shock.

“Normally the stake was inserted into the body through the buttocks and was often forced through the body until it emerged from the mouth. However, there were many instances where victims were impaled through other bodily orifices or through the abdomen or chest. Infants were sometimes impaled on the stake (that was) forced through their mother’s chests. . . . Death by impalement was slow and painful. Victims sometimes endured for hours or days.”

No wonder Bram Stoker chose Vlad the Impaler as the model for literature’s scariest blood sucker. Tomorrow, I travel to Bucharest, where the Turks killed Dracula in battle. No wooden stake was driven through his heart. He was run through like an ordinary man.