The Many Faces of Erzebet Bathori
Other than Vlad the Impaler, surely the one historical figure most often assumed to have been a vampire is Erzebet Bathori (Elizabeth Bathory), a 17th century Hungarian Countess and serial killer. One can understand why, especially given the gothic trappings added to an already horrific life story. For the record, she did not bathe in virgin’s blood. She never owned an iron maiden. But there seems tiny doubt she slaughtered lots of young women (although probably nowhere near six hundred).
But different writers have managed to portray her in a variety of different ways. She even showed up briefly as a member of a torture/murder club in the film Hostel III! Tina Louise (Ginger of Gilligan’s Island fame) played a version of her on the t.v. show Fantasy Island. Likewise she’s popped up as an antagonist to Hellboy in Blood and Iron, to the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in at least three different films, and eventually to Dracula himself in Dracula the Undead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt!
Arguably the most famous version of her was in Hammer’s Countess Dracula, in which Ingrid Pitt portrayed her. This version, curiously enough (although perhaps not when one considers the UK censors) eliminated any hint of lesbianism. Rather the Countess sought the love of a much younger man, discovering the youthening power of bathing in blood comes at a cost. As the effect wears off, she ages more and more. The metaphor for addiction isn’t hard to miss.
Pitt herself studied up on Erzebet and came to believe none of the stories told about her were true. She’s on record as saying Erzebet was framed, a powerful and intelligent woman framed and put down by the male powerbrokers of her era, especially her cousin and of course the King of Hungary (who owed her a lot of money). As far as the motivations of those who arrested her go, this makes good sense. But Erzebet’s apologists (and in Hungary plenty try to make their case–not unlike Southerners in the USA who try to downplay slavery) try and explain away all those deaths by saying she was trying to save lives but failed. The idea here is to paint Erzebet as a medical pioneer, especially in the field of childbirth or other female health problems. It is hardly convincing.
Which in no way prevented filmmakers from making that a premise of the movie Bathory starring Anna Friel.
Rather more convincing from an historical perspective is Julie Delpy’s The Countess, which she directed as well as appearing in the lead. The film has problems. Its essential premise feels more believable, though. Here Erzebet is someone twisted by a cruel, ruthless world. Her deepest desires cannot remain pure or even healthy in her society. Like Lear or Othello, she’s seen as a figure of tragedy, intelligent but fragile, not naturally cruel but driven insane. In one moment, when she’s very sick and her servants bring her the only virgin they can find–a twelve-year-old girl–the Countess even tells the girl to flee!
While flawed, these storytellers at least tried to portray the so-called “Blood Countess” as a human being. Which, after all, she was. Much more common is the trend of making her a fairly extreme stereotype–the vicious lesbian predator. Really at that point she becomes a stock villain rather than a real character.
Look at the direct-to-dvd flick Blood Scarab for example. In this, she doesn’t seduce but simply mesmerizes a bunch of girls to turn them into her sex slaves whom she feeds upon. Typically, she doesn’t really have any conversations with anyone–just gives orders. Likewise, she adheres to the silly idea that as a lesbian of course she despises men (the corollary here is that gay men hate women). To be sure, this is schlock and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But it does illustrate the generally simplistic way Erzebet tends to be treated.
To be fair, Dracula sometimes gets little better treatment. Consider–centuries of night after night hypnotizing pretty girls into having sex with you, then feeding on them. Yeah, that sounds fun in some ways. But my guess is that before the end of even one year it would become very boring. Sooner or later wouldn’t they want to travel, read some books, listen to music, or just talk? Perhaps the best portrayal of Erzebet addresses that very point. Sometime see the film Daughters of Darkness with the late Daphne Seyrig. Her Countess tries to stretch things out, to savor as many moments as possible. She evidently even lets herself go hungry for long periods of time, and keeps her focus as much as possible on the present, the now. Her planning for the future is minimal, and one gets the impression of a person jaded beyond belief.
How do you see the notorious Blood Countess of the Carpathians? What kind of story do you want to see about her?