The Undead Travel

The Fantasy of Eastern Innocence, The Order of the Dragon, Dracula, Transylvania, Tripe Soup, Strange Metaphors and Violent Declarations, Aubergistes, Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Count Dracula Fan Club, Savile Row Suits, Béla Lugosi, Crumbling Ruins, Tourists

The Undead Travel

Avi Davis
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

In April 2006, after suffering for months from a feeling of exhaustion that often attacks me when I have spent too long in one of those ­cities immortalized in ­novels and films, I boarded a train departing from the Paris Est station with the hope that a trip would revitalize me. I could not help but reflect as I lay down in the narrow frame of my sleeper cabin that I was headed for a place I knew nothing about, seduced by some fantasy of Eastern innocence derived from an out-of-date guidebook. After a short stay in Vienna, I arrived in Sighisoara, Romania, a tiny town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. My first impression was of reaching a place that had dropped out of the stream of history some decades back, forgotten by Europe’s progress and ­decay. The platform I descended to from the train was little more than a few cement blocks strewn alongside the track, while an unattended wooden booth nearby constituted what I supposed to be the station. Before leaving Paris I had made a reservation with the Elen Villa Hostel on Libertatii Street—a simple house a few blocks from the station—but I was profoundly relieved to find that the old couple who ran the establishment not only spoke virtually no French or English, but were unaware of my reservation, though the hostel’s complete vacancy made this point irrelevant. In any case, I was prepared for this kind of deficiency. An article in a guidebook to Eastern Europe from 1998—the source of my original attraction to Sighisoara—had warned that the area would lack the usual trappings of tourist destinations. Transylvania, it read, that region in Romania of which Sighisoara is a principal attraction, offers the traveler dark, mist-shrouded hills and startlingly preserved medieval towns, but is also characterized by unreliable transportation, rampant inflation, and occasional danger from rabid dogs. As I walked on that first morning through the town, whose cobblestone streets were lined by low, squat houses with tiled roofs, while horse-drawn carts creaked by me as often as coughing Soviet-era cars, and crowds of youths lounged against the lower walls of the citadel at the heart of the town, sporting spiked hair and tracksuits emblazoned with the insignias of exotic sports teams, while the dark spires of a medieval clock tower loomed above us all, awaiting the turning of the hour, when its miniature, painted wooden figurines would execute a tiny, lifeless dance, it was easy to imagine that I was the only foreigner in Sighisoara. At least those were my thoughts as I climbed the winding stone steps into the heights of the citadel. Looking down from a window of the clock tower at the comings and goings of the town, which seemed so free of the unnatural animation common to more famous cities, I found it almost impossible to comprehend that just three days earlier I had been in Paris, driven almost to distraction by swarms of foreigners, whom I had begun to imagine lurked with burning eyes and strange appetites in the shadows of every street corner.


Indeed, gazing from that height, at which cars disappeared and only the outlines of the streets and houses and the curve of the Târnava River remained, it was easy to imagine I was seeing Sighisoara much as it must have appeared when its most famous inhabitant, Vlad Tepes, was born, sometime in the 1430s, in a house that still stands in the citadel today (though it has since been rebuilt). Vlad’s father, also named Vlad, was stationed in Sighisoara as a military commander assigned to police the border between Transylvania, at the time a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and Wallachia, its neighboring principality and a permanent battle zone between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It was most likely in Sighisoara that young Vlad received an education that was common to the son of an army officer—Italian, some French, and Romanian, the language of the army; the Cyrillic alphabet; Latin, the language of diplomacy; and the current political theory, which prepared him for his later career. In 1436, the elder Vlad, who a few years earlier had been invested into the chivalric Order of the Dragon by King Sigismund of Hungary and, as a result, had adopted the surname Dracul, expelled Wallachia’s former prince and was appointed prince by the country’s landowning boyars. Perhaps as a guarantee of subservience from their father, in 1444 Vlad the younger and his brother Radu were taken hostage by the Turkish sultan, who viewed Dracul as a threat to the Turkish empire’s expanding power in the region. Young Vlad could not have been older than thirteen at the time. For years after their capture, the Wallachian prince assumed his sons had been killed. So when he was finally informed by the sultan that his sons had been spared, it must have appeared to Dracul that young Vlad had returned from the dead. Vlad the younger took the Wallachian throne in 1448 following his father’s murder. It may have been around this time that he began to occasionally use the name Dracula, meaning “son of Dracul.”

Stepping out of the clock tower, I was surprised to find a small crowd of vendors had assembled at its foot, selling T-shirts and pictures and postcards; a nearby poster advertised, in English, pony rides into the surrounding hills. Avoiding these offers, I made my way among the citadel’s narrow, cobblestoned arteries, and soon wandered into a building on the Piata Cetatii called the Café International, where a group of Spaniards was arguing with the girl behind the counter about a drink. They had no obligation to speak any language other than Spanish, they told her threateningly, since their country was the first to colonize other ­nations. I hurried away from the coffee shop and tried to find my way out of the citadel. ­Every block of perfectly preserved, palely painted buildings seemed to host a small hotel or Internet café, and each one had an English name like Culture Club, Burg ­Hotel, ­Hotel Rex, or Club B. Returning to my own hostel, I found a family of French backpackers had lodged themselves there. It would be best, I decided, to explore the outskirts of the town. But I had barely passed the last house when I was startled by an enormous billboard advertising a nearby attraction. It read: ­motel restaurant dracula.

I hastened back to the town and soon found myself again walking the citadel’s narrow streets. In the center of a small gravel square that looked down the steep side of the hill, I found a bust of Vlad Tepesatopastone atop a stone-and-cement pedestal. A black plaque near its base displayed the dates of his life: 1431–1476. The features represented in the bust are the same as those found in several portraits painted soon after Vlad’s death: a long nose, a drooping mustache, shoulder-length hair, and wide, dark eyes that contain almost a hint of sadness.


When, sitting in the reading room of the British Museum sometime in the 1890s, Bram Stoker came across the name Dracula in a book that described the Turks’ fifteenth-century military campaigns, he could not have read of Sighisoara. Although Stoker had originally intended to set the vampire novel he was then working on in Styria, the locale of Joseph Le Fanu’s earlier, influential vampire story “Carmilla,” he later relocated his tale to Transylvania. He never visited the region, and what he knew of the medieval Romanian prince remains unclear. Stoker perhaps knew that while Vlad was alive, and for decades after his mysterious and violent death, in 1476, ballads, pamphlets, and books circulated in the German-speaking world that portrayed the prince as a psychopathic lover of torture. Chief among these tales was an epic poem read to the Holy ­Roman Emperor Frederick III during Vlad’s lifetime, called The Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia. Stoker may also have known that this literary craze originated with stories, likely exaggerated, told by Saxons who had visited Transylvania under Vlad’s rule and drawn the ire of the prince, who saw the Western foreigners as parasites on the local economy. Stoker may also have known that the word Dracula, usually translated as “son of Dracul,” can also be read as “son of the devil,” but he may not have been aware that in Romania Vlad was more commonly known by his other nickname, Tepes, or “the Impaler.” But whatever Stoker knew about the life of the historical Dracula, he kept only the name and the setting for his novel, and buried the history. The author made his Dracula an aristocratic vampire, a seducer, and a predator, with eyes set on a foreign city.

On my first night in Sighisoara I ate tripe soup—a local specialty recommended by my guidebook—at an open-air restaurant at the foot of the citadel. In the middle­ of dinner, the radio playing in the restaurant’s kitchen ratcheted a notch higher and the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” flapped out into the night. It was not the 1960s soul version of the song—which, strangely enough, I had heard earlier that same day while sitting in a café—but the slick, chart-topping, white-boy cover version from the early 1990s. American R & B in a Sighisoara café had struck me as a bit out of place, but something about hearing that cover version, that adult contemporary hit, bouncing off the ancient walls around me felt ominous, like the sudden appearance of a bat in a bedroom at night.

Feeling somewhat engorged after the heavy meal, I wandered up into the citadel once again, to check train schedules at one of the bars that doubled as an Internet ­café—I think it was the Culture Club, whose name inevitably brought to mind that English singer, popular in the 1980s, who now paints his face white and his lips into a great red grin. “I think you should get me a drink,” someone said to me in accented English, almost as soon as I had walked into the bar, which was located in the brick-walled cellar of the building. When I turned to look at the speaker I saw a pale, pudgy young man in his twenties, wearing a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt and a bright red baseball cap. His name was Petre, he told me, and he could tell right away from my clothes and my hair that I was a foreigner. He worked as a marketing director for a high-end hotel nearby, and had lived in Sighisoara his entire life. When he found out I was from New York, he said he’d like to go there for just one year, and even though he didn’t know anyone, in one year he would be the boss because he didn’t give a fuck about anybody and fuck my fucking city.

I got Petre a drink, and he talked a lot. For a while I was somewhat mesmerized by his weird stories and idiosyncratic mastery of English, a brew of strange metaphors and violent declarations that he said he had gained entirely from watching American movies. “You have been to the Sighisoara cemetery?” he asked me. I had; it clings to the back of the citadel hill, smothered in ivy, its tombstones tilting in a ­frozen fall. At one end stands a squat, turreted church, the house of worship for some of those Saxon travelers, hated by Vlad Tepes, who came to Transylvania in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In that cemetery, said Petre, I made a girl from Albuquerque, New ­Mexico, run around naked. I chased after her, and when I caught her, I fucked her.

Petre introduced me to his younger brother, who spoke less. He had a narrow face, hair that drooped to his shoulders, a thin mustache, and an expression about his eyes that I can only describe as weariness or melancholy. We have a fight club, Petre said, like the movie. My brother is small, but he is quick—he is a fighting champion, Petre told me as he pulled a chain out of his pocket and then wrapped it around his fist. He explained that it was for hitting people, and put the metal ring at one end over his ­middle finger. I tried putting it on. Like this you will break your hand, said his brother, and showed me how to wrap it correctly. He told me about a kind of fighting they have in Romania where guys use the chains from chain saws to tear one another. That wasn’t real fighting, he said. The only kind he did was just two guys, in a ring, and nothing else. This is my brother, Petre said. For him, I would kill.

His brother said he was sick of this bullshit, always talking about fighting. They fought because they needed the money it brought. Their mother had cancer and their father had died when they were young. We continued drinking, and at one point Petre argued with a bespectacled man he knew at the bar—a middle-­aged history professor from Italy, who, as chance would have it, once lived in Brooklyn—about whether Romania should have stayed with the Germans in World War II. If I could, Petre declared, I would start a national party to get rid of the gypsies. His brother disagreed. He said in Romania they had a problem because everyone was poor, and everyone stole, not just the gypsies.

After a long time and many drinks, we all left the bar and I headed to the hostel to sleep. Come back to Culture Club tomorrow night, said Petre’s brother. We are there every night.


“Everywhere has vampires,” I overheard a man in the citadel say the next day, in English—so he must have been a foreigner, or speaking to a foreigner. “French vampires, German vampires, Russian vampires…” The vampire once inhabited the folklore of nearly ­every European culture, and could be found even in India and China. But this vampire was little more than a reanimated corpse—bloated, discolored, and foul smelling, with bright red blood oozing from the mouth, nose, and ears. He never left his home village, and was swiftly exterminated by a stake through the heart, or by beheading, or burning, or being turned over in his coffin, or some combination of these methods. A series of vampire scares plagued villages in Eastern Europe from the 1670s to the 1750s. When the hysteria in one village near Belgrade in Austrian Serbia became so great that the imperial government was forced to send a military team to investigate, the resulting account of unearthed graves and swollen cadavers quickly spawned best sellers in Leipzig, Versailles, and London. In 1816, a very different vampire appeared in the fictional character of Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon, widely recognized at the time as a satirical portrait of George Gordon, Lord Byron, who had earlier seduced and then snubbed the vampire’s authoress, Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron himself, having developed a taste for the exotic several years prior during a grand tour through Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, was visiting Switzerland with Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft at the time Lamb published Glenarvon. It was during this same Swiss vacation that Byron’s traveling physician, John Polidori, produced “The Vampyre,” a story whose villain, another Byronic aristocrat named Ruthven, is discovered during a trip to Rome and Athens. A swarm of translations and imitations followed on the Continent.

By 1820, stories of the touring Byron, who enjoyed writing his age as one hundred in hotel registers and who retained valets, a sparring partner, a zoo with a peacock, a dog, and a monkey, dining quarters, sleeping quarters, and a library on his journeys, had passed into a strange undying territory, where his figure exemplified the seductive traveling noble, even as Byron the man rotted and bloated in the shadows of Genoa. Shelley for his part continued to wander Europe, though at the time of his uncanny death, in 1822, the poet had wearied of the trinket sellers, aubergistes, and guides who beset him at every turn, and indeed of the entire population of the Continent, who, he wrote, subsisted like an army of leeches on weakened travelers.

In September of 1845, British readers were first introduced to Sir Francis Varney in the initial installment of Varney the Vampyre: or, The Feast of Blood, which soon became one of England’s more luridly popular “penny dreadfuls.” On August 4 of that very same year, three hundred people had taken a day trip by rail from Leicester to Liverpool at a special price of fourteen shillings per head. It was the first instance of a commercially successful packaged tour, and the second project of Thomas Cook, a temperance campaigner from Derbyshire who began dabbling in arranged travel four years earlier, when he coordinated an outing from Leicester to Loughborough for 570 fellow campaigners. By 1846, while Sir Francis Varney embarked on an episodic tour of Bath, Venice, Naples, and Pompeii in search of prey, Cook was leading English travelers on sightseeing excursions in Scotland. Within fifteen years, Cook’s tours had extended their reach to France, Switzerland, Italy, America, Egypt, and the Holy Land. As the regulated railroad, invented in England in the first decades of the century, rapidly formed new arteries across the body of the continent, international travel ceased to be the exclusive domain of aristocrats, scholars, and artists, and fell into the grasp of the working classes. These new travelers, mostly British, though with an increasing number of Americans, found in packaged tours like Cook’s everything to take the mind off itself, as one contemporary guidebook put it, everything to end self-reflection and free oneself from the keen memory of the past.

A collection of Indian tales called Vikram and the Vampire was published in 1870. It had been translated into English by the famous explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton, perhaps England’s most noted traveler, who, according to his acquaintance Bram Stoker, had a strange habit when he laughed of lifting his upper lip to expose a sharp canine tooth. Two years later, Joseph Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” the story of a female vampire in Styria, was published in an English magazine, and Thomas Cook & Son, Inc., organized its first round-the-world tour.

In 1897, the British vampire novel reached its climax with the publication of Dracula. Thomas Cook did not live to read it. He had died five years earlier, but had already passed into that deathless realm of household names. Cook’s company remained the leader in an industry he had invented, leaving an indelible mark on the world. A poster for Cook’s tours from the end of the nineteenth century pictures a mustachioed, pointy-eared, devil-­horned man carrying a group of British tourists on his back as he flies over an exotic landscape of steep mountains and turreted castles on a pair of enormous bat wings.


The more I saw of ­Sighisoara, the more I saw every­where the twin marks of seduction and predation, with little of the innocence and vitality I had originally looked for in the town—a town that, only forty years ago, seemed immune to the enticements of the very few tourists who visited it. At that time, Jeanne Youngson recently told me, none of Sighisoara’s current dozen hotels had yet opened and there were no restaurants at which to eat out; buildings were lit by bare forty-watt bulbs, and almost every business closed after dark, as if to ensure that any foreigners looking for a nightlife would stay indoors. Jeanne, who founded the Count Dracula Fan Club, lives alone in a penthouse on the top floor of a century-old building overlooking Washington Square, where the bookshelves are filled with Dracula- and vampire-related books, and every other available space is covered with portraits and busts and tiny statues and ashtrays depicting Bram Stoker, Vlad Tepes, and Béla Lugosi, all of which Jeanne has been collecting since her first visit to Romania, in 1965. Back then, she said, Sighisoara looked very primitive to me, like it existed forever at some point in the 1920s. My husband, Jeanne explained, was a movie producer who frequently traveled to California for work, and since I hated visiting Hollywood he had promised me tickets to anywhere in the world. First I went to Germany. But I found such a suffocating horde of tourists there that I signed up for a small tour of Romania as soon as I got the chance. An Australian man and I were the only English-speakers on the trip.

Our German guides took us to Sighisoara to see the medieval architecture. The town was more or less inhospitable to people like us, so we stayed close to our tour guides. They of course never once mentioned vampires. The bust of Vlad Tepes that now stands in the citadel had not yet been built. The plaque that marks Dracul’s house, where Vlad was probably born, was not put up until later, and for many years no one went into that building aside from the old men who sat in the front room to drink tea and talk. Today, of course, there is a big electric vending machine outside the building that sells ­sodas, and inside is a modern tearoom where tourists go for lunch. But in 1965 Sighisoara had nothing for foreigners. At one point on that first trip I went into a toy store to buy a souvenir for my nephew and found the light from the single bulb so dim that it was difficult to see the items on the shelves. The Australian, who like so many of his country­men seemed to have spent a significant portion of his life visiting the obscure places of the globe, was the only one to bring up vampires on that trip. You know, he said on the bus ride to Sighisoara, this is the birthplace of Dracula—the real Dracula. Only after he had spoken at length about Bram Stoker and Vlad Tepes did I realize that he had been lured to Sighisoara by a conviction that the Victorian novelist had based his fictional predator exactingly on the biography of the medieval Romanian prince.

The next time I visited was in 1974, Jeanne continued. By then, the Count Dracula Fan Club had become very active, and for this trip we were able to hire a Romanian tour guide who has since become quite successful. Even then, when he was young—probably only in his twenties—and retained an air of ­innocence, there was something unpleasant about him. Today he decks himself out in Savile Row suits and drives an extravagant car and sports an expensive haircut and diamond-studded cuff links, but in 1974 he was a frumpy little man in cheap glasses, and when I first saw him I couldn’t help but be reminded of a rat. Each time one of us mentioned Bram Stoker he would say we must not speak of such things, and would refuse to discuss them. The Romanian regime did not want its ­country associated with a British novel of fantasy, and this guide was an agent of that regime, which drained the country for decades and would not allow foreigners, especially Americans, to travel without an approved escort. To this day, our guide, who now runs one of Romania’s biggest tour companies, has always made sure to keep in the good graces of whatever government is in power. Indeed, he lives off them just as much as he lives off the tourists.

That was my last visit to Transylvania before all of this began to attach itself to the scene, Jeanne said, and passed her hand over a ­table in her apartment covered with snapshots of souvenir vendors in Sighisoara selling little portraits of Vlad Tepes, some with fangs added; of the Dracula Bazaar at the foot of Bran Castle, where locals hock miniature dolls in black or red capes, Vlad Tepes coasters, ashtrays, stuffed heads with fangs, Dracula wine, and postcards depicting a hook-nosed, sharp-toothed old man peering at the body of a sleeping woman whose bare skin is lit by a crescent moon, with the words thinking of you… from romania inscribed in deep red letters beneath; of Dracula T-shirts of every conceivable variety; of a whole menagerie of vampiric treats, Drac Snax, VampBites, Candy Fangs and Candy Bats, Count Crunch, Dracula Piller and Pez, Buncula—endless souvenirs, accumulating like feeding flies.


On my second day in Sighisoara, after another dip into the citadel, I was forced by bad weather to take shelter in the Café International, which I found mercifully free of conquering Spanish visitors. For a while I sat and flipped through an evangelical Christian magazine, the shop’s only English reading material, and then went to the coffee house’s Internet café. I had been there only a few minutes when a small boy came in and sat next to me. I recognized him from the day before, when he had followed me around the citadel square, demanding money in barely intelligible English. I had given him a euro to buy some bread. When he reappeared five minutes later I told him I was going to the train station. I’ll take you there for a hundred thousand lei, he said. Then he said he was joking and told me to give him some lei for a sandwich. Today, in the café, the boy was accompanied by a middle-aged Romanian man carrying a laptop computer. We started talking, and when the man learned I had come from Paris he told me he had once worked in the labs at the Louvre, studying art preservation. He told me the boy’s name was Simion, and that he was trying to help Simion become a tour guide in Sighisoara. I told the boy, the man continued, that he needs to give tourists his email address so that they can contact him, but then he told me he couldn’t read or write. He is improving, though, added the man. Now at least he knows that he has to work, and then he can get money, and that he can’t simply demand it from visitors.

The rain had stopped and I took my leave of Simion and his mentor and made my way out of the citadel to the lower, newer part of town where most Sighisoarans live. I soon happened upon a market­ set up in an empty lot. On long cement ­tables that carried an air of half-buried oppression, farmers and gypsies from the surrounding area had set up their wares of apples and potatoes, vegetables, beans, seeds, and unrecognizable liquids in glass jars. One man was selling cheese, another wooden spoons. There was a woman with handmade brooms, and one with wicker baskets and painted wooden eggs. A farmer opened the trunk of his car and produced two sheep, picking them up by their bound feet and depositing them for sale on the sidewalk. I walked past each table, hoping to find some charming or authentic article that I could bring home to remind me of this moment. But every­thing was merely practical. Here I had no doubt I was the only foreigner. Each ­object—the cement tables, the farmers’ wares, the old bills and the new bills changing hands—seemed to link with the next to form a current that extended in front of and behind that moment but that did not connect to me, and that I could not access.

That night as I sat down to dinner I opened my guidebook to a page I had previously neglected. A note on vampires, it read: Vlad Tepes has been confounded with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula by Westerners since 1897, and more recently by the Romanian tourism industry. Stoker never visited Transylvania, and wrote the bulk of his Dracula during vacations in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Stoker’s decision to locate the count’s castle in the Borgo Pass of the Carpathian Mountains is slightly baffling, since there has never been a castle there. The faux-medieval Hotel Castle­ Dracula, now a popular tourist destination, was built on the site in 1983. Although Dracula was translated into dozens of languages in the years after its publication, the guidebook continued, the novel was not available in Romanian ­until 1990. In the meantime, Transylvanians have been living with vampire Draculas since 1931, when Hollywood’s loose adaptations of Stoker’s novel first became popular thanks to the performance of Béla Lugosi, a Hungarian, as the count. But, the guidebook concluded, for decades the steadily increasing number of vampire films (so many of which made use of Transylvania and the name ­Dracula) somewhat perplexed Romanians, since without a vernacular translation of Stoker’s novel the fictional origins of the Dracula-vampire connection remained invisible to them.

Although hundreds of­Dracula-inspired movies and plays have sprung up since Stoker’s novel was published, no decade was more infested with vampire-inspired media­ than the 1970s. In the first two years of the decade alone, Hammer Films released The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Lust for a Vampire, Countess Dracula, and Scars of Dracula. The floodgates were open and could not be shut. Andy Warhol’s ­Dracula, ­Dracula A.D. 1972, Vampiros Lesbos, Blacula, Son of Dracula (which employed the tagline “The First Rock-and-Roll ­Dracula Movie!”), Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Deafula, Old Dracula, Doctor Dracula—these were only a few of the films to cast their shadows across that long decade. Onstage, Frank Langella played Dracula in 1977 (in a production with sets by Edward Gorey), followed by Jeremy Brett as Dracula in 1978, and David Dukes as Dracula in 1979. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire appeared in 1976. Varney the Vampyre, which had been out of print since the 1850s, was republished in 1970. For a new generation of culture consumers, the initial point of contact with the figure of Dracula was no longer the novel Dracula, or even its early Holly­wood adaptations. The elements of the Stoker narrative—­Transylvania, the undead, the Dracula name, seduction, and blood­sucking—began to resemble an organic, free-floating mythology instead of simply a single novel’s plot. Indeed, “the Dracula myth” is exactly the phrase now used by tour guides and travel books to refer to a whole constellation of concepts—Vlad Tepes, Bram Stoker’s­ novel, folkloric vampires—that are factually incompatible.

Raymond McNally was a young professor of Russian studies at Boston College when, in the late 1960s, he was inspired by a love of late-night vampire movies to read Bram Stoker’s novel. He then became convinced that there was a historical background to the novel. I had always thought, he later wrote, that Transylvania was an imaginary region, so I was quite surprised to find it really existed. In 1972, McNally and his Romanian colleague Radu Florescu published In Search of Dracula: A True History of Dracula and Vampire Legends, in which the pair describes their travels among Transylvania’s dark hills and evocative castles. It was here, writes McNally, in this region of colorful peasants and crumbling ruins whose very stones long to tell the traveler their bloody stories, that we discovered Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula—the authentic, bloodthirsty prototype for Bram Stoker’s count. For readers who wanted to follow his trail of his scholarship, McNally included in an appendix to the book a travel guide to Dracula‑ and Vlad Tepes–related sites.

The next year, 1973, marked the publication of Across Asia on the Cheap, a hand-typed, hand-stapled guidebook that two transplanted Britons named Tony and Maureen Wheeler wrote at their kitchen ­table in Sydney, Australia. That guidebook was the first publication of Lonely Planet, one of the world’s largest producers of travel guides. In a world dominated by the aristocratic, Victorian format of the Michelin and Baedeker guides, the Wheelers’ first shoestring-­budget books slaked the thirst of a new kind of tourist, one who was not satisfied merely to tick off items on a list of museums and cathedrals, but who wanted to embed himself deep in the country he visited. For these tourists, a destination was no longer just a place to see but a host whose every aspect could feed their imaginations. Today, the Lonely Planet guides are seen as such an authority that many successful novelists draw on them in order to inject their stories’ settings with the proper details. That first Lonely Planet book sold eighty-five hundred copies in Australia, and as the 1970s progressed the ­Wheelers’ reach extended across the rest of Asia, into Africa, and eventually into Eastern Europe. Other series tried to fill the same niche—Moon Publications also launched in Australia in 1973, while the first Insight Guide had been published three years before—but none was as successful. Handwritten signs in English began appearing in the shadows of remote ­hotels and inns: tony wheeler slept here. By the 1980s, stories circulated among travelers that Tony Wheeler had been killed in a bus or motorcycle accident, or by a bout of malaria, or at the hands of a local terrorist group, so that when the next edition of the guidebook arrived, written by Tony Wheeler, it must have seemed to readers that its author had returned from the dead.

It was also about thirty years ago that a new type of visitor was first seen in Romania. Beginning in the 1970s, the travel agent Ed­uard Popescu told me recently, large numbers of American tourists traveled to Romania searching for the Dracula from those vampire movies­ that were everywhere in their country. Eduard, who has worked in Romania’s travel in­dustry for decades, wrote to me from the Bucha­rest office of Medieval Tours, his custom tour company. For most of the twentieth century, Eduard explained, the word Dracula had held little significance for Romanians. Prince Vlad was always called Vlad Tepes or Vlad III, and in addition to banning Bram Stoker’s book and its many offspring, Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime touted Tepes  as a national hero. But when those first tourists came to Bran, a small village in the Carpathians, it was because the castle there seemed to fit the description in the Dracula ­novels they read. So they began to call it “Castle Dracula,” even though Vlad Tepes never lived there, and soon both travelers and tour guides referred to it by that name. The real castle of Vlad Tepes, located hundreds of miles away from Bran, in Romania’s Poienari region, is now a pile of ruins.Today,” Eduard writes, “nearly half a million people visit Bran annually, especially Americans around Halloween, a holiday we do not celebrate in Romania.”

Indeed, Dracula has done more to promote Romanian tourism than any tour company or travel bureau. Today, millions of international tourists come to Transylvania, most of them entranced by a fiction. They become like so many Jonathan Harkers, whose journal-entry descriptions of Transylvania at the beginning of Dracula are lifted directly from the Romania guidebooks of Stoker’s day. Travel literature was as popular a genre as the Gothic narrative in Victorian England, so it is no wonder that Stoker would unite the two. But never having visited Romania himself, he depended entirely on the accounts of other authors, and Harker’s journals reflect it. He writes as if hopeful that someone will follow his trail, which is precisely what happens in the novel, and continues to happen today. Like many tourists, Harker jumbles his history and muddles his geography. Everything he sees is a picture. He peoples the picturesque landscape with picturesque Szekelys, Germans, Saxons, and Slovaks, but erases the ­ethnic group that would have actually inhabited Transylvania—the ordinary Romanians. The locals have no religion, Harker writes, only superstitions. After Harker is welcomed to Castle Dracula by his new host, the two discuss at length the count’s upcoming trip to England, and the count bemoans his dilemma—the tourist’s eternal dilemma: though someday he would be master, Dracula will be a stranger in the strange land of England, unable to participate in the whirl and rush of humanity, the keen current of change. To know England is to love her, says Dracula in his idiosyncratic English, but his love, like his language, is derived entirely from books. From this moment, the vampire (who will soon become a tourist) and the tourist (who soon comes very close to turning into a vampire) are united in their relation to history. The tourist cannot participate in history; the vampire has been cut loose from it. Both are freed from the sickening flow of time and stand outside it, unreflecting. A particular year or a particular life scarcely appears more significant to them than the next, taken altogether in the jumble of humanity.

For a time I thought that whenever a tour guide had to explain to an American or a Brit or a Spaniard that they won’t find the thing they’re looking for in Romania because what they’re looking for is a fiction, something very real was lost, something vital dripped out of the country’s national heritage. But it may be that every tourist is a traveler visiting a place for something that isn’t really there. The Sighisoarans seem to have figured this out, and appear fine with the arrangement. Now it seems to me that the Romanian guides are seducing the tourists just as much as the tourists seduce them. Both draw on the same body of famous dates and famous names, of unnaturally preserved attractions, of misconceptions and manufactured myths. It may be that, after the ­pallor of cultural immortality falls on their town, the locals—the ones who are not tour guides or souvenir sellers or hotel owners—get to keep something even more real for themselves, something a tourist can never touch. Because if the tourist, like the vampire, stands outside history, then he also has no access to history. And that is what saves the locals: the knowledge that they can feed the tourist this false, undead body of attractions, monuments, and sites, and keep the living flow of history for themselves. 

More Reads

Childeish Ideas

I. HIGH IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS On a bright October morning in 1957, V. Gordon Childe, at the time the most famous archaeologist in the world,[1] finished his tea and caught a ...


Dark Family

Megan Abbott

Carving the Whale

I. HIGH IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS On a bright October morning in 1957, V. Gordon Childe, at the time the most famous archaeologist in the world,[1] finished his tea and caught a ...