The most powerful witch of the East
In the last quarter of the 16th century, two mighty “Elizabeths” loomed over the European nobility. Dominating the West, Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, challenged the patriarchal underpinnings of Europe’s monarchies and primogeniture. She died old and sickly, possibly the result of blood poisoning due to the amount of lead in the powders she used to cover up her extensive smallpox scars; but even on her deathbed she retained her reputation as “the Virgin Queen”. In the East, however, the Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory – a woman so powerful that neither the Hungarian government nor the Catholic Church risked formally accusing her of her rumored crimes – died alone, imprisoned in an empty room in her Čachtice Castle. She was rumored to have killed more than six hundred young girls and bathed in their blood. As the accusations leveled against her persisted, so did Countess Báthory’s legend grow – first disseminated in the sophisticated Hungarian language of her homeland, it spread far enough to be translated into German and English, giving shape to our recent stories about “The Bloody Countess.” Báthory’s fixation on blood and staying forever youthful unsurprisingly lead to claims of vampirism, as well as speculation that Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu may have used parts of her story as inspiration for his gothic novel Carmilla. Could she have been the source of even more legends?
Her gruesome story has inspired many writers to research the truth behind the dark-haired and haughty Lady, whose reputation fed off the shadowed and wild woods of the Little Carpathians. The French surrealist poetess Valentine Penrose was one of these writers, spending most of her life composing an alchemical narrative to explain Báthory’s dark deeds. When Mercure de France finally published The Bloody Countess in 1962, it influenced French writers and philosophers like George Bataille, who wrote extensively about the relationship between sexuality and death. The Argentinian poetess Alejandra Pizarnik also felt compelled to compose a text – part translation, part review – introducing Penrose and her cursed countess to Spanish intellectuals and poets. Meanwhile, English scholars would deal with the legend in diverse ways: strictly as history, as Tony Thorne did in 2012 with Countess Dracula (Bloomsbury, 1997). Or part history, part fiction, like the excellent recreation K.P. Kulski recently offered in Fairest Flesh (Rooster Republic Press 2020)
The gruesome depravity and sordid sexuality of Countess Erzsébet Báthory’s rumored transgressions have ensured the survival of her legend throughout the centuries. Accordingly, the movies inspired by the Čachtice she-wolf have interpreted and adapted their accounts in line with evolving times, cultures, audiences, and aesthetic styles.
The portrait given by Paloma Picasso in Immoral Tales (Walerian Borowczyk, 1978) is shockingly captivating. This is a must-see movie for those who like detailed, unbiased historical recreations. Paloma’s dark appeal (an erotic light fuzz on her upper lip clearly appears in the close-ups) is enhanced by many of the attributes of the infamous countess. The film reproduces a pearl-covered gown specially designed for her in Venice, following the fashion of the wealthy in late 16th century Europe. Composed of four provocative and lascivious sections, Báthory’s story makes her lesbianism unambiguous and not for the male gaze. Borowczyk reproduces an intimacy, a skin on skin experience more alluring to women.
Also unambiguous is Delphine Seyrig playing a chic version of Countess Elizabeth Báthory in Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971). Located in a vintage hotel in Ostend, Belgium, the film exhales all the decadence of the early 1970s. An incendiary feminist activist in her time, Seyrig delivers her lines about the ultimate independence of women with an infallible seduction. In this production the mature woman plots against the young couple’s marriage out of jealousy: she wants Valery, the newly-wed wife, for herself.
Of the many powerful and seductive scenes in Daughters of Darkness, one moment worth highlighting over others is the scene in which the Countess performs a bite on Valerie’s wrist. It is a witch’s bite, not that of the more widely known vampiric version. The witch’s bite may well be a behavioral “fossil,” the commencement of the cannibalistic act carried out by the Bacchantes, followers of Dionysus, the Greek and Roman god of winemaking, fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. As described by Ovid, Euripides, and other classical authors of antiquity, their rituals (Sparagmos) consisted of tearing apart their victims’ flesh in a primal, ecstatic frenzy. In a similar delirium, Artemis’ hounds pierced Acteon to death, and the Maenads pulled Orpheus apart. Although this savage trope was the inspiration for numerous paintings and sculptures across varying styles of art, movie producers have rarely shown much interest in the witch’s bite. Still, we may see the vestiges of that primitive carnage, as in The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999), where Liana Telfer, a satanic priestess and witch, bites rare book dealer Dean Corso and marks him with her teeth. The VVitch (Robert Eggers, 2015) invites us to imagine a black sabbath in its closing moments. Either way, the bite is not performed to extract blood to be drunk, but collected for other uses, such as bathing in it in an attempt to conquer mortality and attain eternal youth and beauty.
In 1971 Peter Sasdy directed a curious film, Countess Dracula, in which Erzsébet Báthory calls to mind the wicked matriarch described by the Grimm Brothers in 1812 (see also Terry Gilliam’s The Grimm Brothers, 2005). Here she is portrayed as a jealous and wicked mother obsessed with beauty, mirrors, and the youth of young maids. In this case, though, she attempts to prevent the wedding of her own daughter out of jealousy, as she madly craves her son-in-law-to-be. To the Countess, he represents the ultimate sign of conquered youth, the definitive defeat of aging and death.
Nevertheless, not all the movies explicitly dedicated to the Bloody Countess offer a sinister portrait of her. Bathory, by the Slovak filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko (2008), and The Countess, by Julie Delp (2009), fall for the enchantments of the Hungarian aristocrat only to deconstruct her legend as a consequence of political treason. After the death of her husband, the mighty warlord Ferenc II Nádasdy, she inherited such a vast fortune that even the king of Hungary became indebted to her. In these two movies, all traces of lesbianism have disappeared. Instead, both films provide political intrigues as explanations for Báthory’s legend. According to these two retellings, her baths were not filled with the blood of young girls, but herbs that tinted the water red. This, combined with malicious gossip and the extraction of unreliable information via the torture of the Countess’ servants, resulted in the wild and unfounded rumors of murder and vampirism. If there was any blood at all, it was an accidental and isolated event with no relation to supernatural or occult practices.
In the TV show “Lore” (2018), the sacrifices are not mere rumors. The episode Mirror, Mirror (S02E02) depicts Báthory using a reproduction of an “Iron Maiden” she had commissioned after seeing the sordid torturing device on a trip to Vienna. She had it adapted to her wicked needs and kept it in Čachtice’s lugubrious basements.
In theory, the influence of Bathory’s biography in movies ends here, unless the following is considered: what if the practices of the dark arts executed by the Hungarian Countess worked out, and after dying confined within the walls of her castle, she came back, rising into unlife as a vampire? That will explain why Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (published in 1872) coincides with the life, death, and continued legend of Erzsébet Báthory. Le Fanu’s biographer, Jim Rockhill, recently confirmed this theory in a talk for “The Last Tuesday Society.”
The fangs of the lesbian vampiress
Could Le Fanu’s eponymous Carmilla be Báthory’s transfigured remains? The specific details about the barbaric countess’ doings were first whispered by Hungarian peasants to their German masters. As early as the 16th century, Austrian tour pamphlets contained the macabre tale of a ferocious noblewoman fatally attracted to young maids. Carmilla’s Styria coincides with Báthory’s extensive possessions and castles stretching between Slovenia and Austria. Perhaps Saturn finally conceded the aristocrat a vampire afterlife after so many atrocities of blood.
Be that as it may, Carmilla’s introduction to the big screen took some time, with some critics attributing the delay to her overt lesbianism. Cinematic adaptations have often avoided the original name of the novel, favoring that of her male counterpart, Dracula, written by Bram Stoker twenty-five years later, in 1897.
Blood and Roses (Et Mourir de Plaisir in the French original, by Roger Vadim, 1960) is a close adaptation of the novel, with a mysterious and sensual woman called Carmilla who tries to prevent the wedding of her best friend, Georgia. As in the later Daughters of Darkness, Carmilla is motivated by a jealous and sensual desire for the bride; Carmilla shows nothing but contempt for men. Terror in the Crypt (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1964) follows the same formula: an old witch, an innocent maid, a vampire on the loose, and a heavy dose of satanic imagery to spice things up.
The Spanish production The Blood Spattered Bride (Vicente Aranda, 1972), one of my favorite adaptations, stands out for its originality, though it is still unfairly underrated. It unfolds a witty array of surrealist elements in an otherworldly atmosphere: a newly-wed bride raped by a brute, the groom’s indifference towards the bride’s sexual needs, the beautiful woman unburied from the sand beach, and a recurring dream of a lost dagger.
One of the most truthful and carefully produced adaptations of Le Fanu’s vampiress can be found in Shelley Duvall’s Nightmare Classics (1989). Carmilla (S01E02) adapts the novel to the U.S. South, with iconic actress Meg Tilly playing the titular role of the mysterious seductress.
Equally sensual is Myriam Blylock, an irresistible European noblewoman played by the exquisite Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). Although this movie is an adaptation of another novel by the same name, written by the American writer Whitley Strieber, it is heavily inspired by Le Fanu’s subject and shares a deep thematic resemblance. Performances by David Bowie, Susan Sarandon (with a young Willem Defoe in a cameo) reinforces its status as a cult movie. The unforgettable opening scene occurs at a concert of the legendary Goth band Bauhaus, performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead. It undoubtedly inspired Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the vampire genre in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
Variations incorporating the element of blood
In Cat People (1942), director Jacques Tourneur depicts a beautiful foreigner who is cursed with the ability to transform into a panther to kill other women out of jealousy. She comes from Serbia, a country that converted to witchcraft due to the influence of the Mamluks (a factual error in the film, as Serbia never came under the control of the Mamluk Sultanate). If nothing else, Irena Dubrovna is Báthory’s descendant, as the Ottomans constantly invaded the bloody aristocrat’s dominions in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The 1982 version of Cat People, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, reached a wider audience. The cursed woman’s name is still “Irena”, though this version suggests the origins of the curse lie in Africa, rather than the Balkans. Irena is shown here as “a pet” who must remain under control, and this version of the film was heavily criticized due to its depictions of a woman’s free and uninhibited sexuality as a danger that must be tamed.
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016) is a loose variation of the Hungarian aristocrat, as it situates familiar elements far away from The Little Carpathians: an enigmatic young woman arrives in Los Angeles obsessed with the power of beauty. Elle Fanning delivers an outstanding performance, although the show’s real star is the superb Jena Malone, who plays Ruby, one of the most perverted female characters ever to grace the big screen. Ruby’s ritual under the moon (perhaps the legendary rite of “drawing it down” practiced by Thessalian witches) is a remarkable scene, unique, wild, unforgettable, another must-see for fans of the genre.
That same year, 2016, American Horror Story aired its Season 8, “Hotel,” including Lady Gaga among its cast, remarkable in her role as an infamous countess who exhibits all the vices mentioned above, adding to the mixture many of her own, and deserves praise for resisting the pressures to repress her female instincts as an artist. She acts as a vampire with the soul of a witch, a perfect mix of diabolical creatures.
The influence and transformation of blood and legend
The historical Erzsébet Báthory is said to have bitten her victims savagely, as was proper for a descendant of Lilith and Hecate. According to the records left by a local monk, the most common occasion was in her travels between her Carpathian castles and the city of Vienna, as biting and beating her accompanying maid servants would invigorate her during the lengthy and tedious carriage journeys that could last for several weeks. Numerous tellings describe the final color of the corpses: purple, as if the whole body were covered by one enormous bruise. Thus her epithet, “the she-wolf” of Čachtice.
These vicious attacks have little in common with Carmilla’s sensual bites, and filmmakers have typically portrayed a level of sophistication and willing seduction. The allure is so magnetic and powerful that the victim often willingly offers her neck to the bite. Either way, it is vital that the victim be a young maid in both cases: the harpy’s daughter and the vampiress.
Lastly, although never explicitly playing Báthory or Carmilla, I want to conclude by paying tribute to the late British actress Helen McCrory. She excelled at playing evil characters of all kinds and will be missed by witches, vampiresses, and villainesses the world over. The dearest to me was her role as the witch Madame Kali in the exotic TV show Penny Dreadful (2015), where she is shown comfortably singing in a bath of blood, a fitting tribute to the legend of ‘The Bloody Countess’, ‘The She-Wolf of Čachtice, Erzsébet Báthory.
Rosemary Thorne (she/her) is a bilingual Spanish writer, researcher, and translator living in Madrid, Spain. Born in 1968, she became an HWA member in 2019, choosing English as the most welcoming language for her horror fiction. Her first novel, El Pacto de las 12 uvas, was published in December 2021. She has also translated Edward Lee’s The Bighead into Spanish for Dimensiones Ocultas Press. Her goal for the years to come is to populate the English market with her dreadful monsters.