For four days -- and, more ominously, for three nights -- dozens of fearless vampire slayers from all over the world are gathering in the medieval Transylvanian town of Sighisoara in central Romania. The occasion at hand is the 3rd World Dracula Congress, a chance for vampire fans from around the globe to eat, drink -- wine, that is -- and learn more about their infamous idol. But it's not all fun and games. As RFE/RL reports, congress planners have an agenda: to drive a stake through the heart of Count Dracula, Hollywood star.
Prague, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- To the untrained eye, the men and women walking the narrow, cobblestone streets of the medieval Romanian town of Sighisoara might look like an ordinary group of foreign tourists in search of souvenirs.
But as dusk falls over Sighisoara, heralding the onset of a dark, mysterious night, the preoccupied look on the faces of the visitors tells you they are no ordinary pleasure-seekers.
They are members of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, congregating at the birthplace of their patron on the occasion of the 3rd World Dracula Congress.
But if you think this is a typical vampire festival with coffin rituals, plastic fangs, and fake blood -- think again. Much more is at "stake."
Nicolae Paduraru is the president of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula. He tells our correspondent that the theme of this year's congress is not limited to the infamous count himself.
"The theme of the congress is fear. Fear of the supernatural in folklore, fear in religious and social terms, the architecture of fear in the works of famous writers and directors, fear in today's world. We have guests from Canada, the U.S., Europe, Japan. While, of course, a lot of the presentations are centered on Dracula himself, we also have interesting analyses which show that Dracula is part of a system [of fear]," Paduraru said.
The Western world is best acquainted with the version of Dracula popularized by the 19th-century Irish novelist Bram Stoker.
Stoker set his work in the then-Hungarian province of Transylvania and loosely based his vampire character, Count Dracula, on the 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad Draculea, or Tepes, which means "impaler" -- a name earned for his penchant for placing the severed heads of his enemies on stakes, preferably in public view. Vlad, who gained notoriety for his unreserved cruelty, is said to have been born in Sighisoara in 1431.
But Stoker himself never set foot in Transylvania, and the very background for his book is a mishmash of fantasy and largely erroneous historical information.
Errors notwithstanding, Stoker's character went on to become a 20th-century pop cultural icon, thanks mainly to countless Hollywood movies, many of which themselves stray far from the book, leaving the character of Dracula not only a distant relative of Stoker's vampire, but a virtually unrecognizable variation on the original Vlad the Impaler. Romanians, however, have always regarded Vlad as one of their national heroes -- despite his notorious cruelty -- because of his struggle against the invading Turks.
After the collapse of communism and the disappearance of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, many ordinary Romanians were outraged to learn that their heroic prince was depicted as a bloodsucking ghoul in the West.
Professor Elizabeth Miller, an expert in medieval history and the head of the Canadian chapter of the Dracula Society, explains: "The writer of the novel "Dracula," Bram Stoker, took the name Dracula from the historical figure, from Vlad, but he didn't know very much about Vlad. Vlad certainly wasn't the inspiration for his novel, as many people think. So the connection is actually very thin, very tenuous, but it's been totally blown out of proportion, of course, which has all kinds of consequences, because a lot of the resentment among some Romanians about the Dracula concept is a belief that Bram Stoker denigrated one of their national heroes by turning him into a vampire. And that's not really exactly what happened at all."
Paduraru, who, as a tourism official during Ceausescu's rule came into contact with Westerners and their interest in Dracula, says that long before the demise of communism he had had the idea of establishing a society to separate historical truth from popular literature and to draw Westerners' interest back to the real Dracula.
But he says Dracula -- the Hollywood-style vampire -- was taboo in communist Romania.
"It had been impossible to establish a Dracula society earlier, because our late leader used to be often compared with Dracula [in the West]. When I found out our foreign guests had a totally distorted view of our folklore and history -- based on the view of various writers and researchers who had spent a couple of days in Romania and then written books -- we decided to come up with an alternative point of view. If you talk about Romania's history and folklore, wouldn't you want to hear what we have to say? This would be one of the objectives of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, to accept the Dracula challenge and to make the necessary corrections at the same time," Paduraru says.
Paduraru, who founded the Transylvanian Society of Dracula 10 years ago, says it rapidly developed into an authority on the subject, and was joined by Romanian and foreign scholars, folklore researchers, historians, writers, and even two academicians.
He says the society's goal, as promoted through annual symposiums and periodic congresses, is to provide a bridge between western culture and its traditional image of the vampire as embodied by Dracula, and the Romanian historical depiction of Vlad the Impaler.
But the society is not all about stuffy research and analysis. Amid the academic presentations, there is plenty of time for fun. Not everyone at the congress takes the high road when it comes to Dracula, as Miller explains.
"You'll get some people of course, who are entirely historians, who have no interest in the vampire side of it at all, and who are very serious in the exploration of the life and times of Vlad Tepes. And then you get the people at the other extreme, who are only interested in the popular culture side of it and the movies, and the comic books and who have a much different view. And then, you get the in the middle, sort of like me, I suppose. I mean, I can have a lot of fun with this, but my work is certainly scholarly in the scientific sense, so that everything that I state I make sure I can back it up with primary sources," she says.
Indeed, among papers with scholarly titles such as "The Philosophic Approach to Fear" or "Psychological Warfare and Vlad Tepes", the congress program proposes lighter themes such as "Fear of the Crone: American Actresses of a Certain Age" or "Dracula Go Home! An International Crusade against Horror Comics."
Furthermore, the congress offers intermezzos of guitar and organ concerts, local wine and food tasting, night sightseeing tours of the medieval town and tours of Tepes's haunts -- conducted by the appropriately titled "Company of Mysterious Journeys" -- an enterprise owned by Paduraru.
Visitors looking to prove their valor can acquire knighthood and become a member of the newly founded Order of Transylvanian Knights -- but only after passing six difficult tests.
But the society members have strong opinions about the Romanian government's intention to build an amusement park based on Dracula the vampire.
The park's initial location, near Sighisoara, was changed earlier this year after strong protests from national and international heritage organizations.
Miller says she welcomes the decision to move the location somewhere else: "It further exacerbates the confusion between the vampire Dracula and Vlad, given that Sighisoara is now traditionally acknowledged as Vlad's birthplace, and that it would do nothing at all for the historical side of things to have this Disney-type, Mickey-Mouse-with-fangs park stuck right next to this town."
And Paduraru explains the mysterious absence from the guest list of Tourism Minister Matei Agathon Dan, the main promoter of the Dracula Park project -- and a regular at the past two congresses. Paduraru says he decided not to invite Dan to this year's congress in order to avoid any unwanted connection between Dracula Park and the Transylvanian Society of Dracula .
Who knows? Such an ardent fan of Vlad the Impaler might be ready to use garlic and a cross to keep promoters of Dracula Park at bay.