Dracula's Image Gnaws At Romania -- Historians Puncture Reputation Created By Novels And Movies

BORGO PASS, Romania - A neck-biting nobleman dispatched by 19th century literature to haunt this wind-swept outreach of Transylvania has stirred to life in the post-communist era as the embodiment of a culture clash between patriotic Romanians and Hollywood.

Romanians, only recently acquainted with the Western version of Dracula, are spurning the caped count of Irishman Bram Stoker's 1897 novel.

That's because they fear the fictional vampire - and his celluloid successors - may taint the reputation of a real-life hero. Vlad Dracula the Impaler, a 15th century monarch renowned for making human skewers of his enemies, remains the monster of preference in his native land.

Since his emergence here less than two years ago, the character from Stoker's Gothic novel has aroused strange, inhospitable emotions among the people of a region where the blood-drenched pages of history are more horrible than the wildest imaginations.

So although wolves still stalk this gorge, known to Romanians as Birgau or Tihuta, those who come to search the wild beauty of the Carpathian Mountains for vampires are more likely to get a lecture than a fright.

Westerners, obsessed with vampire lore, may conjure up images of smirking, evil-eyed Bela Lugosi from the 1931 film version of "Dracula" or the depiction of blood lust released two years ago by Francis Ford Coppola.

But the Tinseltown tribulations over whether actor Tom Cruise is fit to play Lestat in the forthcoming film version of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" would be lost on those who inhabit the land of Dracula's birth.

For modern-day Transylvanians and most of the rest of this country, the real Vlad Dracula - whose savagery earned him the name Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) - is admired for his skilled, bestial conduct in terrifying Ottoman Turks from further encroaching on Christian Europe.

"Badly maimed" history

"Romanian history and folklore have been badly maimed," says Nicolae Paduraru, president of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, founded in late 1992 to correct any misimpression that Romania was ever ruled by a fanged count. "Until 1972, no one ever made serious connection between the real and fictional Transylvania, and nobody connected Dracula to a real person."

He attributes what Romanians see as a slight against their late leader to the publication 22 years ago of a book by two American historians who researched Stoker's notes, studies and journals to conclude his vampire character was loosely based on the medieval prince.

In a series of books published over the past two decades, Boston College professors Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally have detailed Vlad Dracula's proclivity for subjugating military challengers by impaling them upright on wooden stakes; skinning alive promiscuous women as a lesson to those who would abandon family values; and nailing hats to the heads of visiting dignitaries who failed to doff them in a proper show of respect.

Even more outrageous, in the view of Romanian movie-goers, is Coppola's "Dracula," which unabashedly merges the real and fictional Draculas into a blood-besotted, time-traveling count.

The story of a nobleman who fed on victims' blood reached here only last year, when Stoker's novel was published for the first time in Romanian to coincide with the Bucharest premiere of Coppola's movie.

Since the stunning disclosure that foreigners do not share their esteem of the real Vlad Dracula, historians and budding capitalists have embarked on a campaign to set the record straight while cashing in on the Transylvanian mythology that was taboo during the communist era.

Romanian admirers of the impaler have devised dozens of programs of corrective tourism to re-educate the mythologically misguided.

Tracing Dracula's footsteps is now one of Romania's most popular tourist offerings, with Paduraru's society serving as technical adviser to an array travel bureaus.

But contrary to Western expectations, the tours focus on the impaling prince to the virtual exclusion of his fictional successor. Most start with a visit to the hilltop castle in the village of Bran, a spired fortress overlooking a valley dividing the provinces of Wallachia and Transylvania.

The impaler never lived there, but his father, Vlad "Dracul" (a title evolved from membership in the crusading Order of the Dragon), gained the castle as a customs outpost from which to tax Transylvanian merchants.

"Son of the dragon"

Vlad Dracula - or as his name translates, the "son of the dragon" - ruled the Wallachian province from castles in Tirgoviste and Poienari that now lie in ruins.

Despite Bran's remote association with the infamous monarch, the fortress' profusion of gables and outlooks feeds the fantasy of Westerners who have their hearts set on touring what looks like a haunted castle. Romanians see the site as commemorating the protector's role for which Vlad Dracula became famous.

"For Romanians, Dracula is a totally positive figure," says Cristina Dinu, a 25-year-old computer programmer. "When he ruled, it was one of the most prosperous periods for Wallachia and he succeeded in completely getting rid of thieves."

"Forest of the impaled"

He created the "forest of the impaled" on the approach to his stronghold of Tirgoviste as Turkish troops were about to attack in the summer of 1462. Confronted by the sight of 20,000 corpses of slaughtered invading Turks rotting on stakes that formed a two-mile wall of the dead, the sultan's army retreated.

Today, visitors to the village of Arefu, near the ruins of the castle at Poienari, are treated to a more flattering version of Vlad Dracula's deeds. Villagers tell how their forbears were rewarded with all the land around them for tipping off Vlad Dracula about yet another attack by the sultan's forces.

Agencies also deliver clients to Vlad Dracula's birthplace of Sighisoara for dramatic re-enactments of the last witch trials in Transylvania, performed in the house where the impaling prince was born in 1431. It now hosts a beer bar.

Romania's most ambitious undertaking to clear up Vlad Dracula's reputation is to take place in May, when scholars, folklorists and the merely curious are invited to the first World Dracula Congress.

J. Gordon Melton, a scholar on cults and religions at the University of California at Santa Barbara, believes the congress will help narrow the gap between vampire enthusiasts and Romanian patriots.