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Welcome to Transylvania

Did you know that?

            Transylvania is a real place

            Bram Stoker, author of Dracula,  never visited Transylvania

            Transylvania was not Stoker’s original choice of homeland for his vampire

            Even in folklore, Transylvania is not “vampire central”


The following article should answer many of your questions about this region, both the real and the imaginary.


Vampire Hunting in Transylvania

Elizabeth Miller

“And then away for home! away to the quickest and nearest train! away from this cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet!” (Bram Stoker, Dracula, 54)

The “cursed land” is Transylvania, one of three former principalities (the others being Moldavia and Wallachia) which form the modern state of Romania. The name “Transylvania,” from the Latin for “the land beyond the forest,” dates back to documents in the ninth and tenth centuries. Encompassing today an area of some 39,000 square miles with a population of 7,000,000, this region, which ethnic Romanians consider the cradle of their modern nation, has had a turbulent history. At the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it would be joined after World War I with the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia to form the modern state of Romania.

            But this is not the Transylvania that most of us know. Because of Irish author Bram Stoker’s decision to select it as the homeland of his fictional Count Dracula, it is invariably represented in fiction and film as a mysterious realm where the supernatural rules supreme. Its inhabitants are still depicted as backward peasants who hold fast to their primitive and superstitious past, who still hang garlic on their windows to keep vampires away, and who would never venture out at night without a crucifix in hand.

Contrary to popular assumption, this stereotyping did not begin with Stoker. The first reference to a Transylvanian in Western literature, in Shakespeare’s Pericles, is none too flattering: “The poor Transylvanian is dead that lay with the little baggage” (IV, ii).  But it was not until the nineteenth century and the rise of Gothic fiction that the region was selected as a suitable locale for supernatural creatures. A collection of tales by Alexandre Dumas (père), Les Mille et un Fantomes (1849), includes a story about a vampire who haunts the Carpathians; in “The Mysterious Stranger” (anonymous, 1860), a vampire Count terrorizes a family in this area. Best-known may be Jules Verne’s romantic adventure, The Castle of the Carpathians (1892), in which the narrator cites the prevalence of beliefs in a host of supernatural creatures, including vampires that quench their thirst on human blood. But it was Stoker’s Dracula that firmly established Transylvania as a land of superstition and horror.

In its representation of Transylvania, Dracula encodes the negative stereotypes that dominated much of nineteenth-century British travel literature, some of which Stoker consulted. Indicative of an increased interest in the more remote parts of Europe, these accounts reveal and perpetuate an attitude that weaves its way insidiously through the pages of Stoker’s novel, and from there into twentieth-century popular culture. Victorian travellers habitually presented their readers with invidious comparisons between Western science and Eastern superstition, between Western civilization and Eastern barbarism. Various sources that Stoker (who never visited the region) consulted refer to Transylvania with a variety of derogatory labels: a “hotch-potch of races,” the “odd corner of Europe,” “beyond the pale of Western civilization,”  a “fearful place, grim and phantom-haunted.” Little wonder that the author settled on Transylvania and even less that some of the same attitudes permeate Dracula.

Stoker’s original intention was to use Styria (in Austria) as Count Dracula’s homeland, but as a result of his research, he made the change to Transylvania. One of his chief sources was “Transylvanian Superstitions” published in July 1885 in The Nineteenth Century and written by Emily Gerard, the Scottish wife of a Hungarian cavalryman. “Nowhere else,” Gerard writes, “does this crooked plant of delusion flourish as persistently and in such bewildering variety.” In Dracula, Jonathan Harker notes with a similar smugness, “I read 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.” Gerard’s article also provided Stoker with some of the folklore surrounding Dracula and his castle: St. George’s Day, “the eve of which is still frequently kept by occult meetings taking place at night in lonely caverns or within ruined walls”; hidden treasures and “the light they give forth, described as a bluish flame”; and the wolf that “continues to haunt the Transylvanian forests.” Also from Gerard came the term “nosferatu,” as well as the use of garlic and the wooden stake.

            Dracula depicts Transylvania as a backward region inhabited by wild animals and superstitious peasants -- an appropriate residence for a monster who emerges from his lair to threaten Victorian England! The novel opens and closes in Transylvania. In spite of the fact that only Chapters 1-4 and part of Chapter 27 take place in Transylvania, it leaves an indelible impression on the reader. As a world of dark and dreadful things, it assumes the dimensions of myth and metaphor: a land beyond scientific understanding, a part of the “primitive” East, Europe’s dark unconscious, a descent into wildness. But most significantly, from Transylvania comes Count Dracula, who embodies late-Victorian England’s worst fears about degeneration, atavism, and devolution. This Transylvanian, who poses a threat to the pure bloodlines of England, must be first driven back to his homeland and then destroyed on his native soil.

            Since the publication of Dracula, the myth of Transylvania has been reinforced through films and fiction. To begin with, there are the movie renditions of the novel. The first, Nosferatu (1922), refers to Transylvania as “the land of phantoms.” This theme is developed further in Universal’s Dracula of 1931 which established the paradigm for decades to come: a land of eerie shadows, superstitious peasants and craggy mountains with a castle, enshrouded in fog, perched on a steep precipice. In this film, Count Dracula is even portrayed by a Transylvanian-Hungarian actor -- Bela Lugosi. Transylvania features prominently in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) as part of that film’s fusion of the fictional and historical Draculas. Transylvania has been prime real estate for other vampire fiction ands film ever since. A voice-over in Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960) intones: “Transylvania -- land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry.” In the comedy Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), the mayor wants to turn a Transylvanian town into a Dracula theme park for tourists. Daughter of Darkness (1989) concerns a woman who travels to Transylvania in search of her lost father (who, of course, turns out to be a vampire). Subspecies (1991) and its sequels were shot on location in Romania, as was Dracula Rising (1993). And who can forget The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) with its “Transylvanian Convention” and “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania”? Even Grandpa Dracula of “The Munsters” refers nostalgically to the “old country.” Dracula documentaries have also forged this link with shots of gloomy castles, while sepulchral voices make these statements: “many would prefer to feel that he [Count Dracula] can still be lurking somewhere in the mist-shrouded mountains of Transylvania” (In Search of Dracula, A&E, 1978); or “The misty mountains and dark ruined castles of Transylvania are an ideal location to set tales of Gothic horror” (Origin of the Vampire, A&E, 1994). The very word “Transylvania” can be counted on to arouse a chill of anticipation.

            But is there any actual connection between Transylvania and vampires? To begin with, the word “vampire” is not of Romanian origin. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is Slavic, akin to the Serb “vampir” and Russian “upyr.” The Romanian word “strigoi” (sometimes loosely translated as “vampire”)  is used more often for “ghost,” “witch,” “wizard” or “reanimated dead.” The territories that now comprise Romania are mentioned only briefly in early accounts of vampires; Hungary, Poland, Moravia, Silesia and Serbia appear more frequently. During the nineteenth century, the connections became somewhat more pronounced. Joseph Ennemoser referred in The History of Magic (1854) to Wallachia as the land “where the blood sucking vampire hovered the longest, a superstition of the most revolting kind.”

            There is a widespread tendency among Romanians to deny the existence of vampire figures in their folk beliefs. This is due, in part, to a problem with semantics. To the modern Romanian, the word “vampire” refers to a supernatural figure that originates in Western culture and may be extended to describe bloodthirsty murderers. During the Communist regime (up to 1989), vampire fiction (including Dracula) was banned in Romania, as representative of the “decadent” West. In addition, there has a determination to counteract the notion that Romania is the home of the vampire and that the world’s most notorious vampire (Dracula) bears the nickname of one of Romania’s national heroes. This has created a significant dilemma for Romanian tourism officials who are eager to capitalize on Dracula as a drawing card for foreign visitors, but who face strong opposition at home to presenting Stoker’s Count as a Romanian icon. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the current dispute in Romania over the proposed Dracula theme park.

            For most people today, Transylvania is still perceived as a mysterious, mountainous, mist-shrouded region, a kind of “never-never-land” deep in the forbidding Carpathian Mountains. Travel writers and Dracula enthusiasts help to perpetuate this stereotype by waxing eloquent when they describe this region. For example, in the November 1994 issue of Life, Marilyn Johnson writes:

Once upon a time, the mysterious and creepy realm of Dracula seemed like a figment of Bram Stoker’s imagination. But it turns out that the inspiration for this dark kingdom is real, found in a Romanian province. The mist-covered mountains are real, the crumbling castles are real, the howling wolves, swooping bats, peasants making the sign of the cross, all real.

A similar tendency is evident in media coverage. Writing in 1995 of the World Dracula Congress, Julius Strauss of The Guardian noted that “Even today, Eastern Transylvania is a land of misty mountains, superstitious, rural peasants, growling bears and howling wolves.” Not surprisingly, Romanians (especially Transylvanians) today are somewhat confused, and even bemused, by such responses.

            Even though Transylvania had already been associated with the far-away and the mysterious, it was Bram Stoker’s fortuitous decision to change the locale of his vampire’s abode that assured the name a permanent place in twentieth-century popular culture. So predictable to this very day is the response to the name “Transylvania” that it is questionable whether the “real” place can ever be represented.

[This article appeared in the Newfoundland Quarterly (December 2002).

The subject of Transylvania is also dealt with at considerable detail in my other books, including:

A Dracula Handbook (XLibris, 2005)

Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (Westcliff-on-Sea: Desert Island Books, 2000)

Reflections on Dracula (White Rock BC: Transylvania  Press, 1997)

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COPYRIGHT©2005 Dr. Elizabeth Miller