The Ingrid Pitt column: the Bloody Countess
Our own Countess Dracula travels to Romania to check out the castle of the real Countess Dracula - Erzebet Bathory
My purpose in going to Romania, I was told, was to spend a night in Bran Castle. The PR handout had me sleeping in the bed of the old Countess to find out if it were true that she ran around at night swearing and cursing her cousin Lord George Thurzo who was the snitch who orchestrated her downfall. After the trial, in which she was found guilty, dear George had taken great delight in walling her up in her room while he took over her estate. Erzebet spent her dying moments walled up in Cachtice Castle. So what were we doing in Bran Castle? It seemed impolite to ask.
As we wound our way up the hill I couldn’t believe it. There, etched in dark chiaroscuro against the sky was an emblem I recognised instantly: the old Hammer logo. I thought of Jonathan Harker riding up the hill in the stage coach and felt the thrill he must have felt at that moment. Okay, so Harker’s fictitious, and it was another castle, but it wasn’t a time to be picky.
The room in which I was installed was a bit barn-like but an effort had been made to cheer it up. Mouldering carpets covered the walls and a couple of smelly paraffin stoves had been pressed into service to try and combat the cold. Dominating the room was a huge four poster bed draped with faded velvet curtains. I could believe they had been there for four hundred years – I hoped they had been cleaned at least once since the old ogress had wiped her bloodstained hands on them.
The photographers took some snaps and departed. They were staying in a rather smart Winnebago parked outside my window. When they had gone I peeped out and saw them sitting around a blazing fire, laughing and telling jokes about this stupid actress who thought she was going to see the ghost of Countess Bathory. I wished I was out there joining in the fun. One of the journalists had thoughtfully left me half a bottle of vodka so I guzzled that and climbed into bed. The sheets were damp and smelled awful. Underneath my butch exterior I long for silk sheets, a warm body and as much perfume as I can dowse myself in without getting too slippery.
So I lay there and thought about dying. In the morning they would break down the door and find my fragile young body stiff beneath the damp sheets – a victim not of an ethereal Bathory but of hypothermia. That’d teach ’em. After about an hour I couldn’t stand it any longer so I got out of bed, opened the window and screamed that I had seen the Bloody Countess. That brought on some more happy snaps and then a drive down the hill and back to the hotel. The journalists were great. And totally uncritical. Next day it was all in the paper. Luckily I couldn’t read what had been said so just smiled and nodded a lot when I was questioned about it later.
The following evening I was invited to the British Embassy by the Ambassador. He seemed to think I had overdone it. Told a few porkies along the way. I looked at him open mouthed with astonishment. Me – tell porkies? We didn’t get on too well after that. I loved my few days in Romania. The villages hadn’t changed for a hundred years. In many of them there was no water or electricity. Sanitation was supplied by a bucket and spade. Going to the cinema, even in Bucharest, was a hazardous event. Some time during the performance the lights would go out and everybody would shout and stamp and light matches and flaming sheaves of paper. I saw one of the best Dracula films there, the one that Chris Lee would loved to have made and which Roy Skeggs, the ex-Hammer boss, would have loved to produce – Vlad the Impaler. The Romanians are great. They have a history of being overrun: by the Romans, by the Turks, by the Hungarians and almost anyone who ventured their side of the Carpathians. Either because or in spite of that they have developed an easy-going nature with a great sense of humour and a generosity towards strangers that is unbelievable considering their history and present circumstances. Naturally their rich history has left them a heritage of folk dances and songs and a menu that takes the best from the cuisine of their invaders – who all seemed to relish boiled pork and cabbage.
Ingrid Pitt writes every week at Den of Geek; read her last column here.