A Kitschy Legacy for a Historic Fortress: The Real Story of Bran Castle

Surrounded by dramatic rolling hills and lush green forests stands a fortress, perched strategically to act as a guard over the commune of Bran. Its red-tiled roof and steep staircase create a gothic appearance, and its rich history since the 13thcentury create the fantastical idea that it may have been a place where people met their gruesome end. 

            A setting fit for a vampire? Some may believe so. But, the truth to Bran Castle is steeped more in bureaucratic property trading and strategic positioning than fantastical creatures featuring fangs and a hatred for garlic. A contrast that makes current day vampire-tourism seem even more kitschy and out of place.

            So, how did this mostly-false narrative become so ingrained in the legacy of Bran Castle? I suppose it began with the publishing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.The 1897 gothic horror novel has spawned quite a legacy in its own right. Many tropes of vampire fiction have origins in the story of Dracula and Van Helsing that Stoker penned. 

            Before writing the book, Stoker spent years researching the folklore of Europe, including the 1885 essay Transylvania Superstitions by Emily Gerard. It is said that this essay is what Bran’s imagination was most influenced by –not the castle reaping the rewards of vampire-tourism today. For some fans of literary-tourism, stories of bloody battles and imposing castles are more interesting of an origin story than an essay. 

Nor, was Stoker much influenced by the gruesome acts of Vlad the Impaler, who is often attributed to being the inspiration for Dracula. However, nothing is truly certain about the connection between the falsified Dracula and the real-life Vlad, except for the shared name. Vlad the Impaler was also known as Vlad Dracul, a clear predecessor to the name Dracula.

            Despite this, a tendency to attribute the origins of the blood-sucking creature to the real-life ruler who had a tendency to stick his enemies’ heads on spikes, is still pervasive in tourism today.

            Given the immense success of the novel, and its continued legacy well into the 20thcentury and beyond, its roots in the stunning Transylvania landscape have been exaggerated. A very precise, and conscious adjustment of facts has made Bran Castle the popular tourist destination it is today. Although not all tourists show up in capes and fangs (the management maintains that some do!), it is an undisputed fact that the legacy of Dracula brings in a lot of foreign tourism—and therefore a lot of money to Romania’s economy. 

Princess Ileana wanted the castle to feel “light and airy”, hence the many windows.

            Located just 25km from Brasov, it has become a national monument that registered revenues of nearly 5 million euros in 2017. Over 60% of that income is estimated to have been generated from foreign tourists.

            This growing tourism industry began in the 1970s. In this decade, the communist party of Romania was developing more of a connection the West. Attributed to this closer relationship, is the nation’s renewed focus on marketing for tourism. Bran Castle’s dramatic influence, its perhaps erroneous relationship to Vlad the Impaler, and Vlad’s ties to the Bram Stoker novel, influenced the Romanian government’s decision to market Bran as the “real Dracula’s Castle.”

            That marketing move has made Dracula’s castle a quintessential stopping point on one’s tour through Transylvania. Leading to an industry of vampire-tourism, and spawning the dozens of souvenir shops that surround the castle. In these small spaces, you can find Dracula on magnets, postcards and bottle openers—you know, if you need to indulge in a drink after being exposed to the falsified spooky history of Bran Castle. 

Local vendors have turned the castle into a mini-market place.

            In 2006, the castle was awarded to the royal heir Dominic Habsburg, and converted into the nation’s first private museum. Habsburg, the grandson of Princess Ileana who grew up in the fortress after it was traded to the Kingdom of Romania in 1920, doesn’t relate the residence to anything fantastical or spooky. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said he sees it as the light and airy residence his grandmother turned it into. 

            “Why would anyone want to focus on an invention, when it had its own rich history?” Habsburg asks. 

            The answer to that question is quite evident in the legacy Bran Castle can’t seem to shake. An industry of “vampire hunters in Romania, and tourists dazzled by the fantastical history will continue to arrive by the busload. 

Located between Transylvania and Wallachia, the castle has a strategic vantage point.

            The old idiom “truth is stranger than fiction”, may not apply to this particular legacy. Though the history of the grounds is indeed fascinating and complex, there’s something about the possibility of the impossible that is captivating. Stirring one’s imagination with stories of blood-thirsty vampires, and the possibility it has truthful foundations in the story of Vlad the Impaler, will undoubtedly continue to draw crowds. 

            Fans of Stoker’s Dracula will still see Transylvania first as the setting for a novel that has captivated readers for centuries. Although historians agree there is no evidence Stoker had ever even heard of Bran Castle, the same academic community has to contest that there was no way to know that he definitely didn’t know of the castle. And so, in that small possibility lies the imaginations of the visitors that tour the grounds. 

Perhaps they hope that they’ll see a bat dart away from the crowds, or that they’ll stumble upon a coffin precariously left ajar—spoiler: there’s no coffins in Bran Castle, just collections of furniture collected by Queen Marie. 

Regardless of what the tourists hope to get out of their visit to the castle, many locals applaud the sensationalized account of the castle, for its ability to give Romania more exposure, and to shed light on the legend of Vlad the Impaler. 

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