A Horror Writer in Transylvania

Richard Thomas


Horror isn’t always what you think it is—it comes in many shapes and colours, and often when we least expect it. I hopped on a plane to Transylvania, over 5,000 miles away, to teach a horror writing workshop in the shadow of Dracula’s castle. It was nine and a half hours from Chicago to Dusseldorf, then a few more hours to Bucharest, followed by a three hour drive to Bran, out into the country—hills and trees surrounding our hotel. I remember standing at baggage claim, not sure if I should step outside the security to find my friends, my ride, my phone not working right. I asked a man who spoke little English, if I could get back inside if I went outside to look, and he said, “No.” Sensing that I was worried, he walked me over to the doors, which kept sliding open and closed, and motioned for me to look between them, to see if my ride was there. I spotted Ina, smiling, waving at me, and relief washed over me. I said to the man, “multumesc,” the only word I knew in Romanian, which meant thank you, and walked out. The tension began with those first steps into the unknown.

On the road from Bucharest to Bran, I laughed with my guide, Elena, and the writers in the back seat, who would be two of my students. It was a beautiful trip—the country different, but not entirely alien. One thing caused me great concern though—the drivers, and the pedestrians on the side of the road. As we enjoyed the architecture, every fence and home showed something different, a great sense of pride in ownership—a mix of wrought-iron, wood, and stone, I kept having minor panic attacks as we pulled over to the side of the road, cars whizzing by. Now and then there I’d spy something dead on the side of the road. I worried about the people, the children, the dogs that roamed the countryside. A pile of puppies at a gas station, so cute and fuzzy, were just feet from the two-lane road. I feared for their lives. Old women in babushkas slowly worked their way up and down the shoulder, wagons pulled by horses, as children in diapers danced under soap bubbles, a stumble and fall from the highway. Maybe I’d seen too many movies, or maybe I was haunted by the tragedies I’d seen in my youth—a man parachuting onto the St. Louis arch, sliding down the leg, splattering on the ground, a sheen of blood as wide as the base. I stopped looking. I felt as though I might will it happen, simply by looking too hard. In this land I felt that death was always close.

On the first night at the Mama Cozonacilor hotel in Bran, our hosts and hotel owners urged us to take part in a blessing from some local priests, and we agreed, laughing as we sat at the dinner table, boughs of garlic all around. The superstitions were baseless to us, but serious to our hosts—mandatory, even. It went on for twenty minutes. “Mama” and her son, Laurentzio, crossed themselves often, with a fervour usually reserved for those speaking in tongues. We listened to the rituals and watched the incense burning, dried herbs dipped in holy water and then splashed onto the room, onto us, rosaries given to one and all, a cross kissed by each and every writer, regardless of religious affiliation. I wondered if they were blessing us, and the hotel, or offering us up as a sacrifice for daring to teach the horrors that had happened on these farms, and in these castles. By invoking the name of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, were we tempting fate? We scoffed at such ideas, but our hosts did not smile when asked about the history of the land. And as I fell asleep the first night in the hotel, dogs barked up and down the valley, and then suddenly went quiet, crickets silenced, even the death rattle of the peacocks muted. I wondered what might be possible out here in Romania. The archway, that was the door to my room, shimmered in the moonlight, as shadows ran up and down the walls. It was nothing, I said. And I’d keep telling myself that all week long.

One night, Holli, an author, and I decided to take up the bet of local writer, Igor, to climb an incredibly steep hill behind our hotel, to see if we could scale it and return in under three hours. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of time to us. We opened the metal gate and stepped next door to seek access to the hill. An old woman warned us that it was getting dark. Her dog barked at us like we were the danger here—but the dirt path just past the chicken coop and small barn was an easy route up the hill, or so we thought. I can’t explain how quickly it became impossible, even after witnessing elderly men with scythes cutting grass earlier in the day. We slowed down, fearful of tipping over, falling backward, quickly lowering to our hands and knees, out of breath in no time, grabbing hunks of grass to keep from rolling back down the hill. It took us thirty minutes to get to the top—sweaty, unable to breathe, bitten by bugs and stung by nettles. We sat and wondered what the hell we had done. It was dark now. The hotel was far below us, and we knew that we could not walk back down. We considered the woods to our left, or maybe just rolling down. In the end we “crab walked” down, slowly, laughing into the night, ruining our shorts, returning to the campfire and the winning bet, in just over an hour and fifteen minutes. When they asked us about the creatures on the hill, our faces stayed blank. They wanted to know if we saw the red eyes on the hill, did we run into whatever it was? We had no idea what they were talking about. We chalked it up to sheep, but when I called up my memory of the hill, I had seen no sheep that day, eating grass, or milling about. We’d seen nothing on the hill—nothing at all.

At Dracula’s Castle (Castle Bran) in Brasov, which dates back to the 1200s, we toured the grounds, one beautiful room after another, the castle imposing from the outside, steep angles and worn stone, but welcoming on the inside. At least until we found the collection of torture devices, a private tour behind a velvet curtain—sharp poles for impaling, iron maidens filled with spikes, racks, masks and blades. The horrible ways that people could die, all laid out in front of us, complete with illustrations. Those images stayed with me as we ascended dark stairs from one floor to another, secret passageways filled with flickering light—shadows dancing on ancient stone, muffled screams echoing from hundreds of years ago, still lingering in the corners. I would step out of one room into another, lost in time—disoriented.

Later, on the bus back to Bran, we’d look at a picture of a relatively innocent door, with a simple heart carved in the centre of it. Comparing two pictures of the door, side by side, the heart shifted, something weird going on with the light. When we zoomed in, it was possible to see two eyes, a sharp nose, and a gaping mouth—reminiscent of the cinematic depicture of Nosferatu. It was certainly just a glimmer of light, a reflection, we thought.

In the safety of the daylight we would huddle around a table, and write. I’d ask the authors to tap into what we’d just seen, each one of them lowering their heads, eyes darting to the corners of the room, recalling moments of unease that had passed in the night. When we would read these paragraphs later, the nods and sly grins were infectious. A rotting smell, a presence outside a door, a scream or bark in the night, balls of twine and hair, sudden gusts of wind, incense and perfume, laughter when all were asleep. And then we’d release a nervous cackle, eyes meeting, and then looking away again. If we didn’t speak of it, did it exist? Were we inviting something to come closer, simply by acknowledging it?  I wasn’t sure.

There was something in the air in Romania. When we toured the haunted forest up the road, we were told about the workers who had abandoned the concrete blocks, men disappearing into the woods, the work never finished. We visited the Castle Hasdeu, where protégé Lulia died at the age of eighteen, conversations with her father though a hole in the wall written down in journals, the building a shrine to her life, and early departure from this earth. Other forts and castles would share with us their histories, their age, and secrets, and we would nod our heads, in a place far removed from the technology and metal skyscrapers of American industry—a place of dreams, barking dogs, shrieking peacocks, of peaceful yet ominous moments such as the trees drifting back and forth in the moonlit night, a cool breeze washing over the hotel, the temperature suddenly dropping thirty degrees. Goosebumps. Hot flashes, skin quickly flushed. I’d mumble, one eye on the arched doorway of my room, one eye on the open door to my balcony—the creaking outside my door happening every night, waking up at 3:02 am to the sound of silence, a sheen of sweat coating my body.

It was nothing, I kept telling myself.

I brought home a mask. I’ve been looking at it all week, fallen in love with it. I’m under its spell now. It is tall, thirty inches long, carved by an elderly artisan in Moldova fifteen years ago, with wide eyes and gaping mouth, present in the hotel to ward away the evil spirits, I was told, not to summon them. The sharp fangs, I’d touch the tips, careful never to pierce my skin. No blood offered up here, in case the dark spirits were watching. My children love the mask, although they often put a wary eye on it at night, as they step into, and out of, my office. My wife won’t touch it. Still hasn’t. I keep telling her it’s here to protect us. She’s not so sure. When Laurentzio gave it to me as a gift, he only had one demand—that I come back next year, and teach again. I wouldn’t call it a pact, no, there was no curse or contract signed in blood. But I plan on returning, keeping my word, just in case. But that’s not out of fear. Right?

Was I bitten in Transylvania, did I come home pale with marks on my neck? No, of course not. Did I lose fifteen pounds? Maybe. There is horror everywhere in this world, but in some places, as we push out into nature, as we become less the dominant species, and more often a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land, there is a sense of possibility, that anything can happen. And sometimes it does. I’m sure the people, the landscape, the backdrop of Romania, of Transylvania, will seep into my writing. I’m working on a story about water, what creatures might lurk in the depths of an ocean, and how that horror might surface. I can see red eyes in the expanding liquid, a German Shepherd barking at me to stay on the beach, to not step into the cold, and uncaring waters. Perhaps there is a peacock crying, or maybe that’s something else—the wind, or maybe just a baby crying. I’m not sure yet.

I look at the mask, as it leans against the bookshelf, telling myself that it fell over the other day because of my cat, or maybe I bumped it. It certainly didn’t move on its own. I remind myself that the terror carved into the ancient wood is there to ward off spirits, not bring them closer. I tell myself a lot of things, and then I rub the rosary that the priests gave me in Romania, burn some incense, light a candle to push away the darkness—and wonder if any of it will do me any good. I know that in my heart of hearts I’ll never see it coming, whatever might manifest to punish me for my sins, to dispense my dark karma for acts committed when I was weak, altered, and otherwise desperate. I ask for forgiveness anyway, and hope the light is stronger than the darkness.

Richard Thomas

is a

Wandering Editor for Panorama.