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Curse of Dracula?

Romania embraces the fictional vampire and his real-life namesake. A theme park, though -- that may be going too far.

August 24, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

Sighisoara, Romania — A scream echoes through the old house on the hill in Transylvania. A man in a black cape flies down the stairs. Outside a storm threatens. But even in Dracula's hometown, evil is not what it used to be. The man in black is Hans Bruno Frolich, a Lutheran priest. The shriek comes from his young daughter, playing upstairs in the parish house.

And a few cobblestone streets away at the Club Dracula Internet Cafe, the only thing diabolical is the price of a drink.

"It's purely commercial," says Holom Adrian, who works in the basement cafe, explaining the decision to name the club after the town's most famous son and tack up a few paper bats. "It's just a business opportunity. It's marketing."

Father Frolich takes a different view.

"This Dracula legend deforms real history," he says. "It's not compatible with the Christian faith in any case. You might make money exploiting Dracula, but it makes a very bad image for Romania. In America and Europe, it's Transylvania equals Dracula. That's all anyone knows. This is a country with a great history and culture."

Fourteen years after the collapse of communism, Romania has few growth industries. Dracula, to the chagrin of some here, is one. But as the country tries to take advantage of its notoriety as the home of Bram Stoker's fictional vampire (who shares a name with a real 15th century Romanian prince, Vlad Dracula, who was born here around 1431), a chorus of critics worries that the country is, in essence, selling its soul to the devil.

Disneyland of the undead

Nothing has sparked more controversy than the government's on-again-off-again proposal to build a huge Dracula theme park. "Mickey Mouse with fangs, lots of vampire kitsch, by the sound of it," says Elizabeth Miller, an English professor in Newfoundland who is the president of the Canadian chapter of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, a scholarly organization dedicated to the study of its namesake, both real and imagined.

In 2001, Tourism Minister Matei Agaton Dan announced the building of a $32-million Dracula theme park, sort of a Disneyland of the undead, with a castle, faux torture chamber, rides, shops and a 700-room hotel. All of which was expected to eventually draw more than a million visitors a year to Sighisoara.

The project, however, seemed cursed from the beginning. The venture had to use the name Dracula Park, since a Romanian hotel had already trademarked the preferred Dracula Land. And the tourism ministry had to sponsor a school competition to come up with a new look for Dracula when Universal Studios demanded royalties from the usage of any Bela Lugosi-like vampire imagery.

Then, like the climax of any good vampire story, the priest showed up. Frolich and a small group of locals attacked the idea of dedicating a park to the Prince of Darkness.

"I understand that the financial situation in Romania is very bad," Frolich says, "but I'm a priest and I can't say this is a good way to make money."

The Romanian Orthodox Church, the dominant denomination in the country, also objected. "We are not glad that Romania will be associated with Dracula," declared Bishop Vincent Ploiesteanu, perhaps a bit tardily. "We are disturbed by the name Dracula."

The tourism ministry responded with a short video called "Dracula and the Good Lord," claiming that a theme park would be a way to educate visitors about Romania's spiritual history.

Before long, even the U.N. was involved -- or at least UNESCO, which lists Sighisoara as a World Heritage Site and complained that the development threatened the town's historical integrity. Greenpeace protested the plan to cut down an ancient oak forest to make room for the park. And last year, Britain's Prince Charles, a patron of the preservation organization Mihai Eminescu Trust, took up the issue with Romania's president after a visit to Transylvania. "The Dracula-land Park," the trust wrote in an open letter to the government, "will turn the history of Romania into a cartoon.... It will ridicule Romania."

Early this year, the tourism ministry declared that the park would be built outside of Bucharest, in Snagov, where Vlad Dracula is said to be buried. The government floated a $5-million bond issue to raise money for construction, but most of the investors bailed out last month when the new tourism minister, Miron Mitrea, announced that the park was not one of his priorities. Days later, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase went on state television to insist that the park would still go ahead.

"I suppose it's OK," Dracula scholar Miller says of the theme park, "as it will bring some badly needed tourist dollars into Romania. But I am concerned that it will serve to further exacerbate the confusion between fiction and history."

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