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As soon as I saw Bran Castle, in the Transylvania region of Romania, I immediately knew why Bram Stoker chose it as the location for his 1897 masterpiece, “Dracula.” Perched atop a hill, with a sheer drop down all sides, it had an imposing silhouette that looked like the archetype of every spooky castle in fiction.
And I wasn’t just saying that because I was about to enter it just days before the spookiest night of the year, for the castle’s popular annual Halloween party. This was a genuinely scary-looking place. And I was going in, without benefit of garlic, holy water or silver cross, to judge whether Dracula’s castle lived up to the hype on Halloween.
The real-life Vlad III — also known as Vlad Țepeș, Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Dracula (“the Dragon”) — was a 15th-century prince of Wallachia who became infamous throughout Europe for his gruesome misdeeds and shocking cruelty, though he’s still considered something of a national hero in Romania.
Irish author Stoker picked up on what little is known for sure about the tyrant’s shadowy life and turned him into the vampire count we use as our last-minute Halloween costume today. Of course, the real Vlad Dracula had little to do with Bran Castle (and 100% didn’t rise from his grave to join the ranks of the undead), and Stoker never even visited Romania. But the writer is believed by some to have drawn upon descriptions of Bran Castle when he wrote his Gothic horror story, and the fortress and Dracula have been inextricably linked in the public imagination ever since.
To get into the spirit of things beforehand, I reread “Dracula,” which holds up pretty well, and even watched “Hotel Transylvania 3” on the plane from New York City. (Dracula goes on a cruise and falls in love.) Driving to the castle from Cluj-Napoca gave me a sense of the natural, mystic beauty that formed a perfect backdrop for Stoker’s tale of terror: seemingly isolated farmland with occasional patches of forested villages, the smoke from the villagers’ chimneys merging with the smoke from controlled fires in the nearby woods to create what looked like the misty banks of fog I had imagined as I read the book.
Near the city of Brașov, the 14th-century castle originally functioned as a customs house, where taxes were collected from merchants entering Transylvania from Wallachia. Vlad III was probably imprisoned inside for a few months, but he never willingly called it home, as far as we know.
Still, on the day of the Halloween party (held the weekend before Oct. 31), each room of the castle had been transformed into a space fit for a vampire, with cobwebs, skulls, dead leaves and all the other trappings you’d expect to welcome an undead lord. The lower floors had been cheerfully furnished by former Bran inhabitants like Queen Mary and Princess Ileana of Romania, but most of these rooms also featured the dark, gothic artwork of modern Romanian artist Costin Alexandru Chioreanu. To get to the third floor, you had to take a dimly lit secret staircase from the ground floor. The floors throughout the castle creaked delightfully at every step.
There was a torture exhibit in one of the rooms, with reprints of woodcuts showing how the devices were used. On the way outside the castle, there was a gift shop that sold miniature vampires, coffins and, most terrifying of all, a sleep mask silkscreened with Vlad’s doe eyes. (I bought two.) There were also baked goods featuring a likeness of the cat called Ferdinand, the official castle mouser. As I left to get my costume on for that night’s party, I saw Ferdinand playing with a fake ghost flapping in the wind on the castle lawn.
When I returned after nightfall as a Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton, the castle had been transformed into a garishly lit spectacle, complete with special effects that made ghosts crawl along the rock face, bats fly across a full moon and blood gush from the outer walls. Inside the castle, we had to shuffle along ancient corridors in near pitch darkness: easy prey to the costumed performers who scared screams out of people from Germany to New Zealand dressed as dead brides, movie characters, a banana, vampires (naturally), Santa Claus and enough pirates to fully man a galleon.
I could only hope the bloody nurse standing next to the ambulance parked outside was in costume. It was refreshing to be at a party where the people took the holiday so, well, seriously.
Still, some of the attractions were decidedly not from the Middle Ages. The Time Tunnel — the most creative use for an elevator I’ve ever seen — used flat-screen panels to make it seem as if you were descending through layers of rock and sediment to catch glimpses of the castle’s medieval past, followed by ghosts and then fire-breathing dinosaurs. At the bottom, the Grim Reaper awaited amid bloody scenes from historic battles from near Bran Castle. I made it through unscathed and then …
… ended up back in 21st-century Europe, in a dance party under a tent. A DJ kept the dance floor packed with Major Lazer, AC/DC and, of course, Michael Jackson. As I twirled away in my skull face to the chorus of “Thriller” with a man dressed as Vlad Țepeș himself (and who spoke just a lick of English), I realized how easy it would’ve been to be seduced into the dark side by a vampire count at a Halloween party that was everything I had hoped for. It was big, it was loud, it was tacky and, dubious ties to Vlad notwithstanding, it was perfect.
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