Romania, Vampires in

Enlarge picture
The movie Subspecies, starring Anders Hove as Radu, was the first vampire movie made in post-Ceausescu Romania.
Enlarge picture
Vlad the Impaler’s tower at his palace in Tirgoviste, Romania.
Enlarge picture
Vlad the Impaler’s court in Bucharest.
Enlarge picture
The Golden Krone (Crown) Hotel in Bistritz, Romania, where Jonathan Harker stopped to eat on his way to Dracula’s Castle.
Enlarge picture
Bran Castle in Brasov, Romania, which the Romanian government once touted as Castle Dracula.

Romania, Vampires in

(pop culture)

No country is as identified with vampires as Romania. A land of rich folklore concerning vampires, its reputation was really established by Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula (1897) began and ended in Transylvania. Though at the time Transylvania was a part of Hungary, it is now a part of Romania. Recent scholarship has confirmed that the title of Stoker’s novel was a reference to Vlad the Impaler, a fifteenth-century prince of Wallachia, a section of modern Romania that lies south of the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker derived much of his knowledge of Transylvania, where he located Castle Dracula, from Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest (1888). Gerard was a Scottish woman who had married a Polish officer serving the Austrian army. As a brigade commander, he was stationed in Transylvania in the 1880s. The couple resided in Sibiu and Brasov. In describing the several supernatural entities encountered in her research on practices surrounding death, she wrote:

More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Romanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. There are two sorts of vampires, living and dead. The living vampire is generally the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons; but even a flawless pedigree will not insure anyone against the intrusion of a vampire into the family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons till the spirit has been exorcised by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin. To walk smoking around the grave on each anniversary of the death is also supposed to be effective in confining the vampire. In very obstinate cases of vampirism it is recommended to cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing its ashes over the grave. (p. 185)

Romanian concepts concerning the vampire are strongly related to folk beliefs of the Slavic vampire in general, though the Romanians, in spite of being largely surrounded by Slavic peoples are not themselves Slavic. Romanians locate their origins in ancient Dacia, a Roman province that emerged in Transylvania and the surrounding territories after Trajan’s capture of the land in the second century C.E… He also brought in thousands of colonists in the sparsely settled area. As the colonists and the indigenous people intermarried, a new ethnic community was born. This new community spoke a form of Latin—the basis for modern Romanian. Their subsequent history, especially over the next century is a matter of great controversy between Romanians and their neighbors, a controversy difficult to resolve due to the paucity of archeological evidence.

Following the abandonment of the territory at the end of the third century, Transylvania became the target of various invaders, including the early Slavic tribes. In the seventh-century it was absorbed into the Bulgar Empire. Though some Romanians had become Christians as early as the fourth century, the systematic conversion of the land began in the ninth century soon after the conversion of the Bulgarians under the brothers Cyril and Methodius. The Romanian church eventually aligned itself to Eastern Orthodoxy under Bulgarian Episcopal authority.

At the end of the tenth century, the Magyars (present-day Hungarians) included Transylvania in their expanding kingdom. The Hungarians were Roman Catholics, and they imposed their faith in the newly conquered land. They also encouraged immigration by, among others, the Szekleys, a branch of Magyars, and Germans. During the thirteenth century, seizing upon a moment of weakened Hungarian authority in Transylvania, a number of Romanian Transylvanians migrated eastward and southward over the Carpathian Mountains and found the kingdoms of Moldavia and Wallachia. An Eastern Orthodox bishop was established a century later in Wallachia. From that time to the present day, Transylvania would be an item of contention between Hungary and Wallachia (which grew into the present-day Romania). Ecclesiastically, both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would compete for the faith of the people.

No sooner had Wallachia and Moldavia been established than a new force arose in the area. The Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and began the steady march across the peninsula that would carry it to the very gates of Vienna in the early sixteenth century. During the fourteenth century Hungary and the Turks vied for hegemony in Wallachia, thus providing a context for a prince of Wallachia by the name of Vlad to travel to the court of the Emperor Sigismund where he would join the Order of the Dragon, pledged to defend Christian lands against the invading Muslims. The Wallachian prince would become known as Vlad Dracul (1390?–1447). He in turn would be succeeded by his son, Vlad the Impaler (1431–1476), known as Dracula.

Vlad the Impaler is remembered today in Romania as a great patriot and a key person in the development of the Romanian nation. After Vlad’s death, Wallachia fell increasingly under Turkish hegemony, and Moldavia soon followed suit. Through the 1530s the Turkish army moved through Transylvania to conquer the Hungarian capital in 1541. The remainder of the Hungarian land fell under the control of the Austrian Hapsburg empire. The incorporation of the Romanian kingdoms into the Turkish empire allowed a degree of religious freedom, and Protestantism made a number of inroads, particularly in Transylvania. Contemporary scholars have emphasized that none of the vampire legends from Romania or the surrounding countries portrays Vlad the Impaler as a vampire. In the German and some Slavic manuscripts, Vlad’s cruelty and his identification as Dracula and devil was emphasized, however, Dracula as a vampire was a modern literary creation.

In the seventeenth century, the Hapsburgs began to drive the Ottomans from Europe, and by the end of the century assumed dominance of Transylvania and began to impose a Roman Catholic establishment. Transylvania remained a semiautonomous region until 1863 when it was formally unified with Hungary. For over a century Moldavia survived amid Russians, Greeks, and Turks, each fighting for control until a united Romania came into existence in 1861. Through a series of annexations at the beginning and end of World War I, including that of Transylvania in 1920, Romania, in roughly its present size, came into existence. The Romanian majority exists side-by-side with a significant Hungarian minority in Transylvania, and the Romanian Orthodox Church competes with a strong Roman Catholic and persistent Protestant presence.

The Vampire in Romania: The Romanian vampire, in spite of the distinct ethnic origin of the Romanians, is a variation of the Slavic vampire. However, like the vampire in each of the other Slavic regions, the vampire in Romania has acquired some distinguishing elements. That distinctiveness begins with the major term used to label vampires, as found by Harry Senn in his field work in the 1970s. Strigoi (female, strigoaica) is closely related to the Romanian word striga (a witch), which in turn was derived from the Latin strix, the word for a screech owl that was extended to refer to a demon that attacked children at night. A second term, moroi (female, moroaica), also spelled murony in older sources, seems to be the common term in Wallachia, as strigoi is in Transylvania. The Romanians also distinguish between the strigoi vii (plural, strigoi), or live vampire, and the strigoi mort (plural, strigoi morti), or dead vampire. The strigoi vii are witches who are destined to become vampires after death and who can send out their souls and/or bodies at night to cavort with the strigoi mort.

The live vampires tend to merge in thought with the striga (witches), who have the power to send their spirits and bodies to meet at night with other witches. The dead vampires are, of course, the reanimated bodies of the dead who return to life to disturb and suck the blood of their family, livestock, and—if unchecked—their neighbors. The strigoi mort was a variation of the Slavic vampire, although the Romanians were not Slavs and used a Latin word to designate their vampire. The strigoi was discovered by an unusual occurrence either at their birth or death, and a living strigoi was a person who was born with either a caul or a little tail. A strigoi vii may become a strigoi mort, as well as other people who died irregularly by suicide or an accident. Romanians also use the term vircolac, but almost exclusively to describe the old mythological wolflike creature who devoured the sun and moon.

The closely related terms pricolici or tricolici were also wolves. Virolac is a variation of the Greek vrykolakas or the Serbo-Croatian vukodlak. Agnes Murgoci, who worked in Romania in the 1920s, found that they still connected the term with its pre-vampiric mythological meaning of a creature who devours the sun and moon. At times when the moon appears reddish, it was believed to be the blood of the vircolac flowing over the moon’s face. More definitive work was pursued by Harry Senn in Transylvania in the 1970s. He found that popular use of the vircolac distinguished it from the strigoi. The term vircolac described a person who periodically changed into one of several animals, usually a pig, dog, or wolf. As such it was much closer to the popular concept of werewolves than vampires. Nosferatu is an archaic Old Slavonic term apparently derived from nosufuratu, from the Greek nosophoros, “plague carrier.”

From the religious context, the word passed into popular usage. It has been variously and mistakenly cited as a Romanian word meaning either “undead” (Wolf) or the devil (Senn). Through the twentieth century it seems to have dropped from use in Romania. Stoker’s use of the term derived from Gerard. It was used by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in his attempt to disguise his movie, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens from Dracula. He tied the story to the great plague that hit Bremen, Germany, in 1838.

In Romania the vampire was believed to come into existence first and foremost as the product of an irregular birth, and any number of conditions have been reported that could predispose a person to become a vampire. Children born out of wedlock, born with a caul, or who died before baptism could become vampires. Pregnant women who did not eat salt or who have allowed themselves to be gazed upon by a vampire could bear a vampiric child. The seventh child of the same sex in one family was likely to have a tail and become a vampire. Though children with an irregular birth were the prime candidates of vampirism, anyone could become a vampire if bitten by one. Other potential vampires included people who led wicked lives (including men who swore falsely), witches (who had relations with the devil), a corpse over whom a cat had jumped, or a person who committed suicide.

The presence of vampires was usually first noticed when several unexpected deaths in a family and/or of livestock followed the death of either a family member or of someone suspected of being a vampire. The vampire might, on occasion, appear to the family, and female vampires were known to return to their children. The home of a suspected vampire often was disturbed by the its activity, either in throwing things around (poltergeist) or getting into the food supplies. The vampire would first attack the family and its livestock and then move on to others in the village. If not destroyed it might move on to more distant villages and even other countries, where it could reassume a normal role in society. Vampires were especially active on the eve of St. George’s Day (either April 23 or May 5), the day witches and vampires gathered at the edge of the villages to plan their nefarious activities for the next year. Villagers would take special precautions to ward off the influences of supernatural beings on that evening. Stoker’s character Jonathan Harker made the last leg of his journey and finally arrived at Castle Dracula on St. George’s Eve. Vampires and witches were also active on St. Andrew’s Day. St. Andrew was the patron of wolves and the donor of garlic. In many areas of Romania, vampires were believed to become most active on St. Andrew’s Eve, and continued to be active through the winter, and ceased their period of activity at Epiphany (in January), Easter, or St. George’s Day.

St. George’s Day was and is celebrated throughout much of Europe on April 23, hence the Eve of St. George would be the evening of April 22. St. Andrew’s day is November 11, and the eve immediately precedes it. Romania which was on the old Julian Calendar, was 12 days behind the modern Gregorian calendar. Thus in Stoker’s day, St. George’s Day would have been celebrated in Romania on what was the evening of May 4 in western Europe. Likewise, St. Andrew’s Eve would have been the evening of November 23–24. The lag time between the Julian and our Gregorian calendar increases one day every century.

The grave of a suspected vampire would be examined for telltale signs. Often a small hole would be found in the ground near the tombstone, a hole by which the vampire could enter and leave the coffin. If there was reason to believe someone was a vampire, the grave was opened. Those opening the coffin would expect to find the corpse red in the face. Often the face would be turned downward and fresh blood on it or, on occasion, cornmeal. One foot might have retracted into a corner of the coffin. Senn reported that a vampire in the community could be detected by distributing garlic at church and watching to see who did not eat.

It was the common practice of Romanians to open the graves of the deceased three years after the death of a child, four or five years after the death of a young person and seven years after an adult’s death. Normally, only a skeleton would be found, which would be washed and returned to the grave. If, however, the body had not decayed, it was treated as if it were a vampire.

There were a wide variety of precautions that could be taken to prevent a person either from becoming a vampire or doing any damage if they did become one. A caul might be removed from the face of a newborn and quickly destroyed before it was eaten. Careful and exacting preparation of the body of the recently dead also prevented their becoming a vampire. The thorny branch of the wild rose might be placed in the tomb. Garlic was also very useful in driving away vampires. On St. Andrew’s Eve and St. George’s Eve, the windows (and other openings of the house) were anointed with garlic, and the cows would be given a garlic rubdown. Once the vampire was in the tomb, distaffs might be driven into the ground above the grave upon which the vampire would impale itself if it were to rise.

On the anniversary of the death of a suspected vampire, the family walked around the grave. Once a vampire began an attack on the community and its identity was discerned, the vampire had to be destroyed. Emily Gerard, author of The Land Beyond the Forest, found the emergence of a relatively new tradition in nineteenth-century reports in which a vampire might be killed by firing a bullet into the coffin. The preferred method, however, was to drive a stake into the body, followed by decapitation, and the placing of garlic in the mouth prior to reburial. This method was adopted by Stoker in Dracula as a means of destroying the vampiric nature that had taken over Lucy Westenra‘s body. In Romania, the staking could be done with various materials, including iron or wood, and the stake was impaled either in the heart or the navel. Instead of decapitation, the body could also be turned face downward and reversed in the coffin. Millet seeds might be placed in the coffin to delay the vampire, who must first go through a lengthy process of eating the millet before rising from the grave. An even more thorough process might be followed in the case of a vampire resistant to other preventive measures. The body might be taken from the grave to the woods and dismembered. First, the heart and liver were removed, and then piece by piece the body was burned. The ashes could then be mixed with water and given to afflicted family members as a curative for the vampire’s attack.

Vampire Folktales: The Romanian vampire has also become the subject of a number of folktales. Folklorists have noticed that many relate to the cases of couples in which one has recently died. Frequently reprinted was the story of “The Girl and the Vampire” (which also exists in a Russian variant) in which the boy committed suicide following his failure to gain the marriage blessing of his girlfriend’s parents. As a result of his manner of death, he became a vam pire and began to visit the girl at night. The girl spoke with a wise elder woman in the village who instructed her to attach a thread to his shirt. She then traced the thread, which led to the graveyard and disappeared into the grave of her late boyfriend.

The vampire continued to visit the girl, and they continued their sexual liaison, when her parents died. She refused the vampire’s request for her to tell what she had seen the night she followed him to the graveyard, and the girl soon also died. She was buried according to the wise woman’s instruction. A flower grew from her grave, which was seen by the son of the emperor. He ordered it dug up and brought to his castle. There, in the evening, it turned into a maiden. Eventually she and the emperor’s son were wed. Sometime later, she accompanied her husband to church and had an encounter with the vampire. He followed her into church where she hid behind an icon, which then fell on the vampire and destroyed him. The story served as a discouragement to out-of-wedlock sexual relations while at the same time reaffirming the wisdom of older people and upholding the church as a bastion against evil. Similar values were affirmed in other stories.

It was once the case, according to one folktale that “vampires were as common as leaves of grass, or berries in a pail.” They have, however, become more rare and confined to the rural areas. In the mid-1970s Harry Senn had little trouble locating vampire accounts in a variety of Romanian locations. Admittedly, however, the vampire suffered during recent decades from both the spread of public education and the hostility of the government to tales of the supernatural. The importance of vampires in the overall folk belief of Romanians was also demonstrated in a recent study of a Wallachian immigrant community in Scandinavia.

Conclusion: The strigoi morti, the Romanian vampire conformed in large part to the popular image of the vampire. It was a revenant of the deceased. It had powers to product poltergeist-like phenomena, especially the bringing to life of common household objects. It was seen as capricious, mischievous, and very debilitating. However, the vampire’s attack was rarely seen as fatal. Also, it rarely involved the literal biting and draining of blood from its victim (the crux of the distortion of the vampire’s image in films in the eyes of Romanian folklorists). The strigoi usually drained the vital energy of a victim by a process of psychic vampirism. The description of the strigoi’s attack, described in vivid metaphorical language, was often taken in a literal sense by non-Slavic interpreters who then misunderstood the nature of the Slavic vampire.

Of contemporary note, Mircea Eliade, the outstanding Romanian scholar of world religion, was fascinated with vampires, and among his first books was a vampire novel, Dominisoara Christina (“Miss Christina”). This obscure work was rediscovered years later by Eliade fans in France and Italy and republished in both countries.

In the 1990s, Romania became the focus of vampire tourism, and several tour companies emerged to support vampire related visits, especially in October. A new Dracula hotel in the Borgo Pass was created to serve Dracula-thirsty visitors. Attempting to provide a more nuanced appropriation of Romania’s vampire-related culture was the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, which annually sponsors a scholarly seminar on a folklore-related subject. The country has also tried to promote itself as the site for movies, the most notable ones being the half dozen Subspecies vampire movies produced by Full Moon in the 1990s.

Sources:

Eliade, Micea. Domnisoara Christina Bucharest, 1935. French edition as: Mademoiselle Christiana. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 1978. Italian edition as: Signorina Christiana. Milan: Jaca Book, 1984.
Gerard, Emily. The Land Beyond the Forest. 2 vols. London: Will Blackwood & Sons, 1888.
Kreuter, Peter Mario. Der Vampirglaube in Südosteuropa: Studien zur Genese, Bedeutung und Funktion. Rumänien und der Balkanraum. Berlin: Weidler, 2001.
Murgoci, Agnes. “The Vampire in Romania.” Folk-Lore 27, 5 (1926): 320–349.
Perkowski, Jan L. The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. 174 pp.
———, ed. Vampires of the Slavs. Cambridge, MA: Slavica Publishers, 1976. 294 pp.
Schierup, Carl-Ulrik. “Why Are Vampires Still Alive?: Wallachian Immigrants in Scandinavia.” Ethnos 51, 3–4 (1986): 173–198.
Senn, Harry A. Were-Wolf and Vampire in Romania. New York: Columbia University Pres, 1982. 148 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire in Europe. 1929. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.