Monday, October 5, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 73 - Bran Castle

Moment in Oddity - The Vetala

The vetala is an interesting part of Indian lore. Some people mistake the vetala as a ghost, but these spirits actually possess the bodies of the dead. Where they originate from is uncertain, but the legends claim that the vetala lurk in cemeteries just waiting for a nice fresh corpse to arrive. They jump inside and reanimate the body, but they are not satisfied with just wandering around inside a dead body. They enjoy shocking people, so they do strange things with their new homes. They turn the hands and feet backwards. While these spirits enjoy playing with humans, they also can help humans. Indians believe that the vetala guard their villages. Some people claim that vetala are vampires since they appear undead, but one distinction is that the vetala can wander in the daylight, while vampires shun the sun. The vetala may just be myth, but they certainly are odd.

This Day in History - Women's March on Versailles

On this day, October 5th, in 1789 during the French Revolution, the women in the marketplaces of Paris marched on Versailles. The march was one of the most significant parts of the French Revolution. Food was scarce at the time and bread was hard to find. When there was bread for sale, it was exorbitantly priced. The women of Paris had enough of the prices and scarcity. Particularly when they watched how opulently the rich lived. At the same time, revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy. As the mob of women grew and united with the revolutionaries, riots began to break out. The mob grew to thousands and there was a call to ransack the armory. The group did just that and with weapons in hand they marched to Versailles. They entered the palace and violently confronted the guards and King Louis XVI. They told the king their demands and by the next day, the King, his family and the French Assembly went to Paris. The King lost his independence and the changing of the power structure began. This march by the women began the Third Estate, which signified that the French nobility was over and the balance of power was turning to the common people.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle is more famously known as Dracula Castle. Originally, the Teutonic Knights claimed this spot and had a wooden fortress on the site in the 1200s, but eventually a new castle would be built and it possibly might have been a place where Vlad the Impaler passed through. Queen Maria would take possession in the 1920s and turn the fortress into a fairytale castle. Bram Stoker chose this location as the setting for part of his novel "Dracula." Stoker never visited the castle and thus his description does not match reality. Count Dracula never lived here either being that he is fictious. But the history connected to the castle gives it an ominous mystique, one that would lead many to believe the castle is haunted. But is it? And what of the lore about vampires? Are they real? Join us as we examine the history and hauntings of Bran Castle.

Bran Castle was built in 1377 by King Louis I of Anjou, the Magyar king, as a militarily strategic fortress that blocked the trade route through the Bran Gorge, which was at that time on the border between Walachia and Transylvania. Magyar refers to a nation and ethnic group of Hungary. The castle was built into and atop a 200 foot rocky crag. It is a magnificent stone structure that took only five years to construct. Through the years, its fortifications would be strengthened. The numerous turrets rise above the treetops along with the tiled roofs. King Louis' military tactics against his enemy nation Walachia heavily relied on the fortification and blocking of gorges like Bran Gorge. The road here was heavily traveled for trade. The fortress was built to protect the Magyar customs centre and intercept the road through the Gorge that lead to Transylvania.

The residents of the nearby town of Braşov eagerly helped to build the fortress because it promised new economic opportunities for the area. They were also incentivized by the promise of the return of land historically belonging to them, and maintained a good relationship with the Magyar sovereignty. Amazingly, the fortress was completed within the King's reign, and was the scene for a major battle between Romania and Walachia according to some historians. After the Romanians won the war, Bran Fortress took ownership of a lot of the surrounding lands and continued to dominate the route through Bran Gorge.

Bran Fortress was in the possession of Magyar King Sigismund of Luxembourg from 1395 - 1406. During this time he used the fortress to invade Walachia and remove Vlad the Usurper, who was replaced by the king's ally, Mircea the Old. Bran Fortress changed hands to Mircea the Old in 1412, but only for occupation and usage, and was in his possession for six years. After Mircea the Old died in 1418, the fortress returned to Sigismund of Luxembourg and was used for defensive purposes.

In 1438 the Ottoman Empire launched a military campaign in Transylvania, passing back through Bran Gorge with their spoils of war. The residents of Bran were so scarred by this that they financed fortifications to Bran Fortress themselves, despite having no obligation to do so since the fortress wasn't their property. Iancu of Hunedoara, the Voivode (principle commander of the military) of Transylvania, defeated an Ottoman attack at Bran Fortress in 1442, and used the strategic position of Bran Fortress to defend Transylvania.

Interestingly, the Walachian ruler Vlad Dracul III known as Vlad the Impaler, who has been linked to Bran Castle in popular belief because of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," actually had very little to do with the fortress' history. The connection wasn't made until much later. The name Dracul comes from the Romanian word for dragon because Vlad II was inducted into the knightly Order of the Dragon. Vlad III had conflicts with the merchants of Braşov due to economic regulations, but attempted to follow the policies of his grandfather Mircea the Old and form alliance with Walachia. However, after some conflict, the Transylvanians broke the treaty and tense relations were heightened. In 1459, Vlad started a series of "punishment" raids against Braşov, and in 1460, attacked the area through the Bran Gorge and destroyed it in his typical bloodthirsty way, burning crops and impaling prisoners. Vlad's favorite form of torture was reputed to be impaling people while they were alive and rumors circulated that he dined among those dying in such fashion. Eighty thousand people were said to have been killed by Vlad. His barbaric reputation inspired the character of Count Dracula.

In 1462, Vlad was arrested by the Magyar king on charges of siding with their mutual enemy the Turks, as evidenced by letter from Braşov residents. He was released in 1476 on the insistence of Stefan the Great, ruler of Moldavia, and reached Walachia through the Bran Gorge in an attempt to reclaim his throne. He was successfully reinstated, but had a short reign before dying in confrontation against a contender for the throne. It is believed that Vlad died in battle, but there is no significant evidence as to where and how.

Bran Fortress changed hands from the Walachian Viovode to the residents of Bran from 1497 - 1521, and was involved in the Ottoman Empire's conquest of the Hungarian Empire. When the Ottomans took over the area, their leader planned to use Bran Fortress for his military needs, but after fierce resistance, conceded to allowing the Bran residents to keep the fortress for their own use. Over the next century, it was visited by political and religious representatives and the scene of a few battles, including more conflict between Walachia and Transylvania, during which the fortress was conquered by Transylvania. In 1625, a dungeon was added to the castle and torture was believed to be practiced within the room.

The residents of Bran finally regained control of the fortress when it was donated to them by the Transylvanian Prince Gheorghe Rákóczy II on 24th April 1651. At the end of the 17th century Transylvania became part of the Habsburg empire, but the residents of Bran were allowed to keep Bran Castle in accordance to the 1651 treaty. Bran lost importance in 1836 when the border was moved, but was restored in the late 19th century when the castle was repaired and given to the Braşov Forestry, who occupied it until 1918.

After World War I, the castle became a residence of Queen Maria of Romania, beginning its relatively short history as a royal residence. It was converted to the royal summer residence, and was much loved by the Queen until her death in 1938. She added windows to the arrow slits, horse stables, a tea room, children's playroom, a gaudy chapel and extensive gardens filled with plants and animals. In 1940, Queen Maria's heart was transferred to Bran so that, according to her daughter Princess Ileana, she could be closer to her people. The Princess also had the body of her beloved younger brother Mircea, who had died in 1916 at four years old from one of the war's fever epidemics, moved to Bran to be closer to their mother, believing that they would keep each other company. It is believed that the Queen's heart was placed inside a silver casket and encased in a cliff at Bran. Princess Ileana ensured the upkeep of Bran Castle, and during World War II, founded a hospital near it and became a nurse like her mother had in World War I while her husband served in the German army. The hospital was called Queen's Heart Hospital. She was forced to leave the country in 1947 when the king abdicated, but returned in 1990 to find the hospital in disarray and the castle's objects and furnishings dispersed by the Communist government. Serious restoration of the castle began and in 2014 the castle was put up for sale (although reportedly sans plumbing, removed by the Communists in 1958 for some reason). Queen Maria is reported to haunt another nearby castle named Peles Castle. The smell of lavender is detected by custodians at times.

Because Bran Castle is the only surviving castle in Transylvania that fits Bram Stoker's description of Dracula's castle, it has captured the world's imagination as the fictional castle, and Vlad the Impaler as Count Dracula himself. Bram Stoker actually did base the castle on Bran Castle, but having never actually visited Romania, he wrote off a description of the castle. The character of Dracula was inspired by the popular stories of Vlad the Impaler, but those accounts of his blood thirst were written for political purposes (remember that the people of Bran helped imprison Vlad with these accounts). However, Stoker was careful not to make any explicit connections between Vlad the Impaler and Count Dracula in anything other than name.

Stoker turned to the legends and lore of vampires to build his character Dracula after being inspired by the stories of Vlad's bloodlust and the character is also based on the local myths of the Bran area. For centuries the people firmly believed that evil spirits called "steregoi" lived among them. These ghosts lead normal lives during the day but at night, while asleep, their souls left their bodies and haunted the villages, tormenting people in their sleep. These evil spirits haunted their prey from midnight until dawn, when their power to harm people faded.

However, while the castle is of course extremely creepy, especially at night, the reports of hauntings are minimal. In fact, Freya couldn't find any evidence at all of its being haunted! Even the TV series Ghost Hunters International didn't find anything there, and Freya points out that you know they would have attributed a mouse squeak to cries of the undead. The castle does offer some fabulous events around Halloween to celebrate its history and popular culture, including ghost tours, although nothing has ever been seriously documented. It seems that the castle has gained notoriety as a "haunted attraction" only for its traditional/creepy decor and popular connections to Dracula, not because it actually is haunted.

This seems to be the perfect setting to explore the lore of vampirism. The term vampire became a part of the English language in 1732, but the folklore surrounding vampirism dates back centuries. At its very base, a vampire is a revenant. A revenant is a human corpse or the undead that rises from its grave. In most cases, the revenant is harmful to humans. Depending on the culture, a revenant can be either a spirit, a walking corpse or a demon. It's possible that these legends go back to Ancient Egypt.

The characteristics of the vampire include the ability to take the form of an animal like a dog, bat or wolf. They are pale with lips that can be a deep red depending on whether they have recently fed. They generally do not cast a reflection into a mirror and they have to avoid the daylight. Holy water and crosses repel them. These are considered the traditional characteristics. Some stories vary from know, like sparkly vampires. The one core characteristic is the need for a vampire to consume blood. The story element that being bitten by a vampire means that you will become a vampire is pretty recent. It was actually thought to be possible that one could be born a revenant. Folklorist Paul Barber, wrote in his 2008 book, "Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality" that centuries ago, "Often potential revenants can be identified at birth, usually by some abnormality, some defect, as when a child is born with teeth. Similarly suspicious are children born with an extra nipple (in Romania, for example); with a lack of cartilage in the nose, or a split lower lip (in Russia) … When a child is born with a red caul, or amniotic membrane, covering its head, this was regarded throughout much of Europe as presumptive evidence that it is destined to return from the dead."

So how did such a legend get started? It comes down to ancient people not understanding decay. The typical human corpse goes through a series of changes as it decomposes. Generally, we would not know about these changes unless we dug somebody up. And that is what they did, dug people up. Someone would get sick in town and rumors would start that somebody had returned from the dead. The disinterred corpse would appear to still have growing hair and nails and blood would possibly be streaming from the mouth or nose. Internal decay causes bloating, forcing blood out of the body. Nails and hair seemed to continue to grow because the skin would pull back as the body dried. And if the circumstances were right, a body might be preserved for a long period of time.

The means of dispatching a vampire vary, but generally a wooden or iron stake is driven through the heart and the vampire's head is cut off. Unearthed ancient burials reveal that some people were buried either pinned under a rock or with a boulder jammed into their mouths. Archaeology Magazine reported in 2013 that two graves in Bulgaria contained bodies that had been pinned to the ground by iron stakes.

Bran Castle gained its notoriety through Bram Stoker's fiction, but the elements of story were inspired by true historical elements. Whether there are hauntings at Bran Castle or not, there is no doubt that the castle will always hold a mystique. And the popularity of vampires only seems to grow. Do the undead walk among us as either spirits or vampires? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Pictures of the castle:
Music featuring This is Halloween by Kayzo & LooKas can be found here:

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