Thursday, June 9, 2016

Folklore Thursday: We really need to talk about the "Female Drakula"

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This weekend we went on a family trip to Slovakia to do what we enjoy doing best: Visit medieval castles. We do this periodically, once or twice a year, and since every hill and mountain sports a jaw-dropping view and a ruin on top, we can hit three or four of them in a day trip.

This weekend the first stop on our journey was the castle of Csejte (Cachtice), a scenic ruin in the Vág valley that was made (in)famous by Erzsébet (Elisabeth) Báthory - most commonly known in legend and pop culture as "the Monster of Csejte" or simply "the Blood Countess." Many foreign books, movies, websites, and other sources tag her as the "female Drakula," or, in more reasonable cases, one of the most vicious female serial killers in history.
Legend says that Báthory, a wealthy widow at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, believed that the blood of virgins could make her eternally youthful - and therefore started murdering young women, and bathing in their blood. According to historical sources, she killed about 80 of them before the Palatine and the King brought her and her accomplices to trial. Her name today is synonymous with torture and blood.

Which is sad, because the story is bullshit.

I'll let you do the historical math: 16th century, wealthy woman with no husband, a king who owes a ridiculous debt to her family and can't pay, while the entire country is in a political and religious turmoil that makes Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies. Oh, and by the way, it is biologically impossible to bathe in blood, in case you were wondering.
Yup, Báthory Erzsébet's trial was a political one. She got imprisoned without a sentence in her castle, walled in until she died alone 4 years later; her two female servants were tortured, maimed, and then burned alive (they confessed under torture), her male servant beheaded and then burned, and her female doctor also burned alive for witchcraft.
And somehow this story is not bloody enough for people.
Go figure.


Here is what pisses me off: People want this story to be true. They want it to be true so bad that even in the face of facts they try to salvage it. In the castle's own museum exhibit (generously supplied with fake Halloween spiderwebs), the sign read "While it is impossible to bathe in blood since it congeals too fast, medieval books could have had secret herbs and knowledge that we know longer know about."

This was, however, not the only thing that made me want to scream in Csejte. In the doorway of the castle someone was selling "Báthory energy drinks," some kind of a canned concoction dyed blood red with cherries. The castle (gorgeous, by the way) was peppered with Halloween-style decorations such as spiderwebs, plastic skeletons, and pictures of the "Iron Maiden," a torture device that Báthory is claimed to have used. In addition, there was an archery contest happening in the castle at the time, and one of the targets set up in a dimly lit hall was in the shape of a white-skinned woman with blood-red lips, and a large red heart which you had to shoot.
And in the entire, ENTIRE exhibit (or the touristic websites I browsed before traveling) not a single word about how the story might not be true.

Now, it makes sense that a tourist destination would want to bring in people by whatever means necessary - and clearly if anyone even finds their way to Cachtice, Slovakia, they will be here specifically to be titillated by legends of torture and gore. This allure is only elevated by a much beloved patriarchal trope: The sad, middle-aged woman jealous of the beauty of younger women, and turning violent out of vanity.
But would it really be so hard to make a footnote of history? Say something like "Here is the legend in all its gory glory, but be advised that the historical events were put into motion by politics and greed." I think the real story of women being dragged through the mud, humiliated, tortured, starved to death or burned alive, for the sake of asserting dominance, is way more chilling and emotionally intense than the fancy story of Once Upon a Female Vampire.
Just, you know. Less sexy.


In order to do some justice to Báthory Erzsébet as a storyteller, a couple of years ago I have created a full-hour storytelling performance that presents both sides. It is titled "Requiem for the Blood Countess;" in the first half, I tell the classic legend of blood and jealousy, and in the second half, I tell the historical story of the trial. People can decide in the end which one is worth talking more about.


  1. Fascinating! You'd think the king could have married her off to a favourite, wouldn't you? In exchange for cancelling the debt?

  2. I'm not surprised the myth is just that. Men didn't like independent wealthy women back then.

  3. Oh wow, I've heard of the legend (even posted on it before!) and never heard anything about the fact that it might not be true! I think the truth is probably more horrifying than the legend...

    1. I think it is too. Which is why I think it is important to circulate the historical facts outside of Hungarian academia...

  4. I've known the "bullshit" version of the story for years. Fascinating truth behind it. Thanks for setting me straight.

    1. Yes, I think the BS survived this long because even if people didn't believe "witch" and "vampire" anymore, "serial killer" still had a nice chilling ring to it

  5. Reminds me of Lohr am Main, whose tourist ffice has been claiming for decades that Snow White (and in cosequence her evil stepmother) is a historical figure who lived in the local castle until she was expelled.

    If it helps: I don't believe it is the latent sexism that makes people cling to this stories, just plain old sensationalism and greed for money.

    1. Probably. The story was born from a mix of politics, religion, and sexism, but nowadays it is mostly perpetuated by people trying to make money.