Bleeding The Dracula Myth

Actress Callie Thorne, left, writer and director Tom DiCillo, center, and actor Steve Buscemi pose together before the screening of their movie, "Delirious," in New York on Aug. 9, 2007. The movie opens in limited release Aug. 15.
Mist shrouds the Casa Vlad Dracul, where tourists sink their teeth into bloody chops drizzled with Dracula sauce -- red and spicy -- and wash it down with bottles of Vampire cabernet.

Over at the medieval main square, pallid-faced actors film a scene for "Dracula Resurrection," a new B movie. Down in the dungeon-like Dracula video arcade, teen-agers zap virtual vampires while their elders belly up to the bar for a Bloody Mary.

Bleeding the Dracula myth for all it's worth is a way of life here in the Transylvanian birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the cruel 15th-century count whose penchant for turning his enemies into human scarecrows was the inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's legendary vampire.

But for the town of 38,000, the stakes are about to get much higher.

Next spring, construction is set to begin on Dracula Park, a $30 million dollar theme park that people here hope will bring cash and celebrity to a corner of Romania that seems frozen in time.

"This town is numb -- it's a city asleep. Dracula will wake it up," said Emilia Butnariu, 76, who barely gets by on the $50 a month she earns selling paintings of Sighisoara's sagging fieldstone houses and alleys.

The Disneyesque project is to be built by a consortium of German companies led by Westernstadt Pullman City, which operates an American Wild West theme park in the German town of Passau. Sighisoara's mayor, Dorin Danesan, says the financial blueprint will be complete early in November and the first phase is to open sometime in 2003.

Although details are still being worked out, Danesan said the park will be open year-round and feature amusement rides, a golf course, a Gothic castle wired with spooky effects, a zoo, horseback riding, restaurants and shops, all encircled by a miniature train line.

There are even plans for an international center of vampirology.

"We don't want it to be a kitsch," he said. "But this government wants to do business. We're not afraid to exploit the Dracula myth to save a town that's a national monument."

The government has promised to improve Sighisoara's roads, electricity and waterworks and renovate its walled, pastel-colored old town, which dates to 1280 and is one of Europe's few medieval fortresses where people still live.

Townspeople see 3,000 new jobs for a region battered by 50 percent unemployment, and talk excitedly of as many as 1 million visitors a year. Already, new hotels are going up, and property prices have soared.

As the bat flies, Sighisoara is 180 miles northwest of Bucharest, tied to the capital by a highway, a railway and a local airport. Dracula Park will be built about four miles outside town in the brooding fir forests where bears, wolves and wild dogs still prowl and howl.

Lying among those forests are the fabled killing fields where Vlad executed up to 100,000 people -- mostly Turks -- by impaling them on stakes.

His methods were macabre, but the Impaler was less a villain thaa man of valor who took a big bite out of crime, insists Nicolae Tescula, a researcher at Sighisoara's museum.

"He was renowned for stopping highway robbery and murder," Tescula said. "There are accounts of a fountain in the middle of nowhere with a gold cup that no one dared to steal. For Westerners, he's a man of darkness. But for Romanians, he's a model of justice like Washington or Jefferson."

Luminita Untanu runs the Casa Vlad Dracul restaurant in the yellow-stuccoed house where Vlad was born in 1431. She's counting on Dracula Park to ease some of her fellow Transylvanians' many hardships.

Farmers unable to afford even a modest tractor still plow by hand behind their horses. Their wives and children crouch in the fields to pick beets, cabbages and potatoes just as their ancestors in the Middle Ages did.

Cars share the roads with horse-drawn wagons piled high with hay, and panhandling children in rags play raspy accordions for drivers waiting for the lights to change.

"Life itself can be cruel," Untanu said. "Vlad was cruel, but he used his cruelty to create order among the people. Perhaps the Balkans are harder to rule than the West."

Project organizers say the target market of Dracula project is first of all Germany, where interest in the city of Sighisoara, the only inhabited medieval city in Europe, has been high.

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