If Jonathan Harker, the character
in Bram Stoker’s famous
novel “Dracula,” had set out for Castle Dracula in
the late 1980s, his journey might have looked a lot like the one
Dr. Thomas Garza undertook at the time. Garza boarded a rickety
bus out of Budapest headed for the area known as Transylvania near
the Hungarian/Romanian border. After the bus began its climb into
the Carpathian Mountains, it deposited Garza and his companions
on a narrow road. They then climbed onto donkeys to complete the
trip up the steep incline.
Thomas Garza has found that the study of vampire legend provides
the perfect tool for introducing students to Slavic culture
“The landscape is gorgeous there,” says Garza, who
directs the Center for Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies
The University of Texas at Austin, “and the mountains are
steep and high. Suddenly it appears—the ruins of Castle
Dracula. It’s an amazingly stunning area, and when I actually
stood on the castle grounds I got a real feeling of not just history,
but of significant historical events that took place there. I was
Thus began Garza’s fascination with vampire
stories, a fascination he shares each fall with more than 100 students
in his popular
class Introduction to Slavic Civilizations: The Vampire in Slavic
Cultures. Students flock to the class—there is always a
waiting list—with images of the vampire from popular culture
unspooling in their heads.
America’s ongoing captivation with vampires is clear
from television shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Anne
and the popularity of movies from “Nosferatu” to the
recent “Underworld.” And vampire lore abounds: vampires
have fangs, go for the neck, morph into bats. They can be repelled
by garlic, halted by sunlight, fended off with a cross and killed
with a stake in the heart. Garza’s class teaches students
that most of such lore is a relatively recent invention and that
the real story of the vampire is inseparable from the history of
“For Slavs, the vampire and the stories around the vampire
are part of their cultural heritage,” says Garza.
Garza approaches the class as a cultural anthropologist might.
Students read travelogues, religious texts and literary
texts by masters such as Pushkin and Alexey Tolstoy. They learn
how the migration of the Greeks and the Romanis from India
both influenced the Balkans and enriched their vampire stories.
1931 movie “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi and
Helen Chandler, is the source for much of the vampire lore
in American culture.
Photo: © Universal Pictures
And they study vampire films. Films inspire the vampire images
most common to Americans. When trick-or-treaters don black capes
and fake fangs they are offering a send-up to Bela Lugosi’s
1931 Dracula—but vampire legends predate celluloid by a
If fangs do not a vampire make, what does it mean to
be a vampire?
“There are about as many definitions of the vampire as there
are stories associated with him/her/it,” says Garza. “The
core definition that unifies all the stories is that the vampire
is a reanimated corpse that draws its sustenance from a living
Vampire legends exist the world over, though much
of what has made it to our culture comes from the Slavic region.
Belief in vampires is part of the fabric of life there. There
are many things that can cause one to become a vampire, some that
a breach of community ideals (heresy, divorce, suicide in the
family), some that are more folkloric in nature (being born the
child of the same sex, having a cat jump over your dead body).
There are tests to determine whether any
man is a vampire. And
the fear of the undead necessitates taking precautions such as
putting garlic in the mouth of a corpse and binding coffins
with trailers of wild roses.
historical Dracula’s real castle, the ruins at Poenari, is
perched in the Carpathian Mountains.
Garza points out that historical events
only fueled the belief. For example, during periods of both the
15th and 17th centuries,
minor plagues moved through Europe that caused their victims to
seem to be dead when they weren’t. There are many documented
cases of people being buried alive. When they came back to life
underground, people walking near or in a cemetery would swear they
heard howls and yells.
“This, of course, became part of the lore of cemeteries
being haunted,” says
Garza. “You’d hear these howls. Then we move from the
horrible to the really horrible. People began digging up coffins
because of the conviction that howls were being heard, and sure
enough, upon opening the coffin—the person would by this
time be dead—they would find fingernail marks on the lid
of the coffin, showing that the person did indeed come back to
bloodthirsty Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory is believed
to have bathed in the blood of her young victims in an effort
to retain her youthful appearance.
These events only added to the conviction that vampires
exist, Garza explains. And they led to bizarre innovations in burial
People created contraptions, like ones that can still be found
in some villages around the former Yugoslavia. In some cases, when
you were buried, there was a tube inserted down into the coffin
with a string that ran up above the surface with a bell attached
to it. That way, if you came back to life and realized you were
buried, you could ring the bell to alert people you were still
The first written record of the word vampire—in Russian
in 1047—was used to describe a particularly bloodthirsty
military leader. Vampirism has long been linked to those who
do particularly bloody things. There are historical figures who
became vampires by legend.
“We get these unusual, cruel people who make us think about
what it is in human nature that makes us behave that way against
human beings,” Garza says.
stories of Vlad the Impaler’s cruelty were known all over
Europe and inspired the Bram Stoker novel “Dracula.”
One such person is Elizabeth Bathory,
a Hungarian countess who tortured and murdered more than 600 young
women. Her sadistic acts—which
included executing victims by having them stripped, led out into
the snow and doused with water until they were frozen—caused
her to be known as one of the true vampires in history.
was fueled by testimony at her 1611 trial that said that on occasion
she bit the flesh of the girls while torturing
them. It became legend that Bathory believed that she could retain
her youthful beauty by bathing in the blood of her young victims.
The court records at the time were sealed because her activities
were so scandalous for the Hungarian ruling community, so the truth
will never be known. But Bathory entered vampire legend.
wooden cross resembling the cross on which Vlad Tepes renounced
of vampire legends is, however, built around Vlad the Impaler,
also known as Vlad Tepes Dracula. The real Dracula
was a Christian crusader who ruled Wallachia, now southern Romania,
in the 15th century. Tales of the ruler’s cruelty were legion.
He had the bodies of his enemies impaled on stakes across the countryside,
and legend is he liked to dine among the impaled bodies. And he
didn’t discriminate when choosing whom to torture—he
burned noblemen alive and when a group of orthodox priests came
to his house and didn’t remove their caps, he had the caps
nailed to their heads.
Dracula is said to be responsible for the
deaths of more than 40,000 people, though he ruled for just six
years in an area with a population
of only half a million, making him responsible for the largest
number of deaths of a single ruler until modern times.
He was believed
to be a vampire because of one famous statement. In an act of psychological
warfare, a letter saying that Dracula
had been captured was sent to Dracula’s wife while Dracula
himself was off fighting the Turks. Believing her husband dead,
she killed herself. When the church refused her a Christian burial,
Dracula denounced the church.
from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The
20th century vampire is portrayed as suave and sophisticated
and inhabits a lush, sumptuous world.
Scribes recorded that Dracula drew
a sword, stabbed it into a crucifix and renounced God. He said, “I
will live my life for blood because the blood is the life.”
“That line has been interpreted, reinterpreted and misinterpreted,” says
Garza. “It’s where we get the notion of Dracula as
blood lust. There’s no historical proof that Dracula actually
consumed blood. We know he did a lot of bloody things. He killed
a lot of people in horrible, gruesome ways. But that he ever drank
blood, we don’t know.”
Dracula’s story made its
way to the Anglo-Irish writer Stoker through travelogues, and his
imaginative novel “Dracula” was published
in 1897. It has never gone out of print. The image of the vampire
in popular culture grows from it, and it has spawned everything
from rock operas to Sesame Street’s Count von Count.
stories are perhaps more popular in our culture today than they
have ever been. This might seem surprising, given that we
have autopsies that confirm death, live in a secular society where
charges of heresy aren’t possible and are more likely to
cruise cyberspace than cemeteries. But vampires tap into the most
primary elements of human experience: life, death, blood, hunger,
immortality. They are connected to the questions that will always
“The reason we live out our lives the way we do is that there is
supposed to be something after it. Isn’t there? That ‘isn’t
there?’ is never really answered for us,” says Garza. “One
of the biggest gambles we all take in life is the assumption, or
presumption, that something’s coming afterwards. The vampire
story allows the option, the possibility, of answering that question
for certain. Because if I were a vampire, I wouldn’t worry
about the afterlife, because I won’t get there. I’m
Image of Bela Lugosi as Dracula on banner: © Universal