Across the forest documentary – the real vampire hunters of Transylvania
In the Transylvanian mountains, ancient beliefs in vampires (strigoi) abound. Discover the real vampire slayers, interviewed by director Justin Blair for a documentary…
I lived in Transylvania for nine months and went to very remote villages to collect stories about vampires, werewolves and forest spirits, collating them in a documentary called Across the Forest. Here are some of the remarkable stories and people I found…
In the depths of a hard Transylvania winter, in a tiny village named Lugoj (from whence Bela Lugosi took his name), I sat across from a true vampire-slayer. My meeting with that person broke all of the stereotypes I had about who would “kill” a vampire. It remains one of the most surreal experiences life has granted me to this day.
But allow me a moment to explain how I arrived there.
In a way it was befitting that I should find myself in Transylvania searching for stories of the supernatural. As a child I had dressed up like a vampire for Halloween. Granted, when you have dark hair and blue eyes, coupled with a weird hairline, it’s just kind of the default costume.
I grew up on horror movies, slasher flicks and speculative fiction. In high school English class we were all asked to write down where we thought our classmates would end up ten years after graduation. Several of my classmates placed me living in a “gloomy castle” or “in Transylvania”. I’m still not sure what kind of occupation a person undertakes in a “gloomy castle”. My guess is it involves payment for brooding.
Drawing blood: A first taste of the real Transylvania
College came and went, a history degree was had, but one of the only really engaging classes I took was a study abroad course in archaeology in Romania. (As a note, Transylvania is roughly the area West of the Carpathians in the modern state of Romania). I fell in love with the people, their stories and customs there that summer and vowed to return.
After college I was looking for something to do besides menial labour, or enrolling in post-graduate study, and as luck would have it I stumbled upon a small dispatch from Romania. It related the story of a small band of villagers who had disinterred a corpse, cut its heart out, burned said organ, and then made a potion from the ashes. Reportedly, the group then consumed the tonic as a remedy against a strigoi. The strigoi, as I would learn, is something akin to what we think of as a vampire, but shares characteristics more commonly associated with ghosts.
There it was. I knew what to do, but not exactly how to do it. I searched and couldn’t find anyone who had actually travelled to Transylvania to find out what people who lived there thought about vampires and the supernatural. That didn’t seem fair. Western literature and film had used the place for a very long time as a setting for all types of other-wordly mischief. So I decided to try to find out what the people of Transylvania actually did believe in. I decided to shoot a documentary in Transylvania.
Find out more: Across the Forest is a film about the real vampire hunters of Transylvania.
Later I would realize why it is easier to make a fictional film about the supernatural. The truth isn’t often told by Hollywood stars and isn’t accompanied by computer graphics. The truth as related by those who feel they have touched something out of this world can be confusing, uncanny, and difficult to grasp. It’s an unsettled thing, and it doesn’t usually have a lot to do with good versus evil.
Stephen Moyer with fangs grabs great ratings. Kate Beckinsale can pull off complex action sequences in highly restrictive pants while dispatching various creatures of the night. And, let’s face it, sparkly vampires make the film industry a lot of money. It’s fairly profitable to pen a soap opera and place some sharp teeth in it, and make a bundle, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s entertainment. But what I found in Transylvania was a stranger thing, at least to me, and anyone who would like to delve a little deeper into vampire mythology has to grapple with it.
The grandmother, the vampire-slayer
She was in her eighties, bonnet on head, dark bifocals, a matronly figure. She took pride in showing us around her humble home, and introducing us to her family. She also took pains to point out her many cats, perhaps a dozen or so. She showed us her Christmas lights and offered us a local variant of an apple strudel as we settled in to conduct our interview. She made us feel welcome in her home. She was a grandma who obviously loved her family, and she also just happened to have been a vampire-slayer who began to relate an oftentimes brutal story of her personal struggle with what she called a strigoi.
I can’t relate the entire episode here, as I cannot do justice to the details, or adequately explain the context. Perhaps even my film Across the Forest can’t entirely do that. But as I sat there struggling with understanding her regional Romanian, having given up on trying to eject one of her many kittens from my lap, I can say that woman was telling the truth from where she stood.
It had happened in her youth. She had no stake, so she made do with a “needle” surreptitiously broken off from a loom her village used to make hemp. She had no hammer to drive the makeshift stake home, so her friend used a piece of firewood to bludgeon it into the corpse’s heart. The strigoi was a corpse, but when they drove the stake home, it spoke with the “voice of Satan” and blood flowed from the mouth. The reasons she gave for taking these drastic steps were more related to what we would think of as a haunting than a vampire attack. It’s a difficult tale on many levels.
I believe stories have merit whether they are objectively true or not. You learn something about the storyteller and – if skillfully told – from the story.
I’m a skeptical person. I think it is usually possible to find a “logical” explanation for things. Still, the story that lady told us as the feint winter day died outside, and one of her many cats begged to be let inside from the cold, was something I never thought I would hear from a living person.
If I were a vampire, I would be much more frightened of that grandmotherly figure with her cats, Christmas lights and apple strudel than any Hollywood vampire-killer found on the big screen. Films end, stories come to their conclusion, actors leave the set, but the lady I interviewed that night lived with her experience for the rest of her life. I’m just pleased I had a chance to let her tell her story.
Photo copyright Justin Blair 2010.