Rick and I didn’t always have a lot in common. When we first got together, he was fronting a punk band called Weeping Anus. I was staging a whimsical clown show in which people salsa danced with six-foot-tall forks. But we’ve always had Halloween.
Rick inherits his love of Halloween from his dad, who at the ripe old age of 50 was still buying mortician’s wax and yak hair for his Wolf Man costume. For me Halloween has always been about costumes that felt like a good idea, but never quite got off the ground: a horse (first grade); a mini-refrigerator filled with popsicle boxes (third grade); and “Budget Dracula” (junior year college), a costume consisting of a pink wig, magic marker unibrow and moustache, and wool blanket.
In New York, Rick was always a zombie. Over the years his costume grew more and more elaborate. Fake blood, latex wounds, sodium bicarbonate to simulate foaming at the mouth, rice krispy maggots feasting on rotting flesh. When the costume couldn’t get any more elaborate, we mustered a Zombie Army to march in the Village Halloween Parade. A team of scientists from the Center for Zombie Control, equipped with white jackets, Zombie Zappers, and So You’ve Been Attacked By a Zombie pamphlets, herded a mob of the undead. When the zombies attacked the crowd, the scientists controlled them the only way they knew how: by playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The best part was, every single time the Zombies performed their Thriller dance, some random fellow-parader threw caution to the wind and joined in. Over the course of the parade we danced with two hoochies in devil horns, Luigi from Super Mario Brothers, a naked guy, Ace Frehley from KISS, and a roller skating chicken.
How do you follow an act like that, a continent away from home, in a country where no one gives a rat’s ass about Halloween? You go to Transylvania.
And Transylvania is beautiful. The Carpathians are covered in autumn leaves. The train takes you through little towns where horse-drawn carts draw loads of hay, shepherds pipe in distant fields, and people harvest by hand. There are crumbling factories and commie apartment blocks, the color of grey October. You eat stag stew and drink homemade liquor out of plastic water bottles.
Like most visitors, we went to Bran (“Dracula’s”) Castle and browsed its kitsch carnival of a souvenir market, where vendors make a killing on Dracula’s Blood wine and Vlad the Impaler coffee mugs. Later we hiked up a steep, winding path through thick pine forest to reach nearly deserted Rasnov castle. At the top of the mountain, a horse wandered through the ruins, grazing beneath a crow’s cage swinging in the wind.
The history associated with these castles is important enough regionally, but it’s not what tourists come to see. The American image of Transylvania has nothing to do with reality. Transylvania is the magical realm of the horror movie, land of dark monsters and blackest night. It is the opposite of historical—it’s timeless. To their great credit, Transylvanians are amused and intrigued by the American obsession with their land. They’ve graciously left history out of their attractions, to let the imagination roam wild. Bran Castle is furnished with a hodgepodge of baroque chairs, twentieth century bearskin rugs, medieval candlesticks, anything grotesque and foreboding. Let’s be clear: this castle has nothing to do with Dracula, who never existed, and nothing to do with Vlad the Impaler. The Romanians know this, they know you know—and they know you don’t care, because imagination is a million times better than dry reality.
Halloween found us in Sighisoara, “Pearl of the Carpathians,” supposed birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. All day long we saw Americans on Dracula Tours: a plump girl with pink hair and glasses, bikers in Halloween Beer Fest t-shirts, a long-haired man in a black silk frock coat, a couple of trenchcoated D&D kids bemoaning Romania’s dearth of Guiness and Cheetoes. I’m not going to lie: I sort of fell in love with them as a group. I mean, you NEVER see Americans like that in Budapest. We wanted to hang out with them that night—if you can’t do it on Halloween, when can you?—but when night fell, Sighisoara was completely dead. Silent. Nothing happened. Crushed, I dragged Rick back to the hostel and made him tell me scary stories.
The next day was an idyllic, sunny November 1. We wandered around the old Saxon graveyard and hiked along the medieval city walls, talking of cabbages and kings. We told ourselves that even if we hadn’t partied on Halloween, at least we were in Transylvania.
And then night fell.
On the way back from dinner with a nice Swiss backpacker, we heard distant screams. I rushed through the gate of the clock tower and found a mob of people in medieval garb, beating drums and hauling around a terrified woman in a torn shift. Three film crews eagerly recorded it all. Naturally I had to know what the hell was going on. A drummer in a bald cap and peasant shirt explained that this was a reenactment of a witch trial in 1026, but it was over now. He sounded a drumroll to emphasize his point. Disappointed but undeterred, I looked around for someone who might know more. One quiet, solitary man with an air of authority was hiking off towards the main square.
MY ACTUAL CONVERSATION WITH THIS ROMANIAN GUY
Sarah: Excuse me, sir, but are you involved in this? Is it over?
Romanian Man: Yes, now the witch will be kept in the tower dungeon, until it is her turn to burn at the stake. Her journey is finished. But now…now we go underground, to the cellars of Sighisoara. And there, at midnight, the new Countess Dracula will be crowned.
(Sarah gapes, dumbfounded.)
Romanian Man: If you like, you will join us.
Sarah: (hastily) Yes, yes, we would love that!
Romanian Man: (stopping in his tracks) We are the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. (bows) You are Welcome.
Sarah: (mouths silently) YESSSSSSSSS!!!
And so we descend into an ancient cellar. There are Americans there in full-on, elaborate costume: not just vampires, but Scooby Doo, a headless man and a mad scientist. A female monk explains that tomorrow, God willing, they will all be inducted as knights of the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. The film crews are already drunk and dancing. The anchorwoman of the Filipino crew (“Miss Universe 1999! A very intelligent woman!” someone tells me) boogies with an elated Romanian waiter. A cheerful reporter from Bucharest shouts “If you think this is good you should see the party next door! There are some real freaks over there!”
And indeed there are. In the cellar next door are scores of completely blasted Americans: cowboys, jesters, princesses, vinyl queens, Elvira. Beneath the fake cobwebs and dancing fake skeletons, they’re dancing their hearts out to Love Shack, La Isla Bonita and Up In the Club: “Go Shorty, it’s your birthday, we gonna drink Bacardi like it’s your birthday...” Prince comes on. An obviously straight, Midwestern transvestite dances on a chair. The helpful hotel staff—safety first—brings him a table to dance on instead. A man in a top hat clambers onto the table and the crowd cheers as the two bump and grind. Our Swiss pal flees in horror. An elf swing dances with a break dancer. A mental patient does the twist.
Rick observes sadly that these people have come all the way from America to transform a real Transylvanian cellar into a New Jersey rec room. But it’s something more than that. These are the people who always had the most fun at the costume party, the people who dressed up for Halloween at the office. They’re not cool. Their costumes have always been a little bit too elaborate, a little too thought out. They try too hard. And here, for the first time, there’s no one to spoil the party. They’ve all brought their costumes thousands of miles, they’ve all scrimped and saved, and here they all are, for one night only, dancing the night away in Transylvania. This is what we’ve all come for, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: a Halloween Hajj.
Back at the Dracula party, Countess Dracula—an airhead Romanian teenager—emerges from the shadows, languidly showing off the new bite marks on her neck. “Was it good for you?” Scooby Doo shouts, and the Americans cackle. The journalists eagerly interview the Countess. Now a team of Romanian teenagers in medieval garb rushes into the room and starts square dancing to a techno version of Cotton Eyed Joe. The Bucharest journalist yells over the din, “Romania is the Fifty Third American state!” A vampire with shaved head, painted contacts and glued-on fangs flirts with the Countess. There’s a conga line. The electric slide is danced. The Macarena. And suddenly, the party is over.
The next day, we take the train home. In the dark countryside out the window, we see the flicker of candles in a graveyard. All Saints’ Day. Back home at last, I look at my calendar: November 1. We had totally screwed up the dates; we never missed Halloween at all. “Rick! Yesterday was Halloween! Yesterday really was Halloween!”
10 months ago