Romania Takes Its Stake in the Dracula Legend To Heart
Wednesday, December 1, 2004
Petre Moraru emerged from the darkness of his stand-up coffin, dressed in a long black cape and white chiffon scarf, and grabbed the hand of a young lady who wobbled on spiked heels. Moraru stared at her with piercing eyes and purred in his best Transylvanian-accented English, "My, you have a nice neck."
As he retreated into the tomb, the woman followed briskly, beseeching, "Can I come with you?"
"Sometimes, I feel I have the force," Moraru later told a pair of visitors. "It can be dangerous to be Dracula. He is irresistible."
Moraru, a veteran stage actor, is the star attraction at the Dracula Club Restaurant, a theme eatery in the heart of Bucharest, Romania's foggy capital. And he's not the only one finding the vampire irresistible.
Dracula is much in vogue in a country that once ferociously resisted identification with a celluloid bloodsucker whose most famous film interpreter may be Bela Lugosi -- a Hungarian no less. Although tour guides still half-heartedly explain that Romania's own real-life Dracula, a historical figure known as Vlad the Impaler, had nothing to do with bats and bites, they have also surrendered to the irrepressible desire of tourists to thrill at the sites purported to be locales for Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula," which he just happened to set in Transylvania, the rugged western part of the country, and on which the film versions, however loosely, are based.
Disdain has given way to the lure of money. Despite unhappy holdouts to the vampire's allure, Romania, it seems, is learning to love the vampire. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs and campgrounds bear the vampire's name. Souvenir vendors hawk plastic fangs and rubber bats. An on-again, off-again plan to build a Dracula theme park is on again.
"We're beginning to find Dracula interesting as well as lucrative. Why fight it?" asked Moraru as he devoured a meal of "The Count's Mixed Grill," one of the restaurant's specialties. With his longish face and swept-back gray hair, Moraru looks uncannily like Christopher Lee, who starred in the British hit 1958 Hammer Films version of "Dracula," as well as a long list of sequels: "Dracula: Prince of Darkness," "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave," "Scars of Dracula," "Dracula and Son" and . . . well, you get the picture.
When Moraru pops out of his coffin, artificial mist fills the restaurant; you're suddenly on a movie set. The rooms have fake hands sticking out of the walls.
There are passionate dissenters to the Dracula craze. Some regard it as a setback in Romania's climb to respectability. As a candidate for membership in the European Union, Romania is already burdened with gruesome claims to fame: the Christmas Day 1989 execution of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, scandals over house-of-horror orphanages, runaway crime and its reputation for corruption (87th out of 145 places in the most recent Transparency International Survey).
"Here is Romania, trying to join the EU, a club of nice countries, and it is saddled with a bloodthirsty image that Dracula only accentuates," said Duncan Light, a professor from Liverpool Hope University College in England. He is spending a year in Romania to study its folklore.
For others, the Dracula link is a sad case of identity distortion and historical falsification. The cinematic Dracula has become inexorably linked with Vlad the Impaler. Romanians by and large admire Vlad for relentlessly beating back Ottoman Empire invasions and safeguarding Christianity in Europe. He never morphed into a bat.