Would you want to spend Halloween in the castle which inspired the legend of Dracula in deepest Transylvania? That's exactly what more than 80,000 people have applied to do via the accommodation website, Airbnb.
"Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring."
It could be the kind of thing that any Airbnb host might say to welcome their guests, but these words, which Count Dracula says to his guests in Bram Stoker's novel, take on a whole different meaning when uttered by a shadowy count in a Gothic castle first constructed in the 14th century; that castle, Bran, is perched on a rocky outcrop, reinforced by battlements and surrounded by lush Transylvanian forest, mountain peaks and deep dark valleys. In autumn, the forest glows a deep gold and russet red and night falls quickly in this part of the world.
Living the dream
The name Bran comes from the Turkish meaning gate. The castle was, since its completion in 1388, on the boundary between various warring kingdoms and fiefdoms. Passed from ruler to ruler, in the fifteenth century it was graced, sometimes, by the presence of Vlad Tepes, known popularly as Vlad the Impaler, a Transylvanian count. He was in charge of the anti-Ottoman resistance at the borders of Transylvania, and was considered a folk hero in Romania. He was also responsible for impaling his enemies on spikes where they died a slow and brutal death. As tyrants go, reports say, he was one of the more ruthless.
It is likely that the stories of those brutal impalements, along with the love of Gothic and 'penny dreadfuls' in the Victorian era, when Bram Stoker wrote his novel, brought one of the most enduring Vampire creations in history to life. Dracula might be a myth, but it's a persistent, and popular, one.
Gothic overtones abound in Transylvania but Bran castle is adamant that they don't want to cheapen their image with fake blood and fangs.
Bram Stoker's great grand nephew, Dacre Stoker, himself an author, vampire expert and guardian of the Bram Stoker estate, is about to utter Dracula's 'immortal' words once again when the winners of the competition arrive for the spookiest of spooky Halloweens.
"In reality it's a dream. I've come to Bran castle to do research and to lead some tours and enjoy it myself, and I've always thought what an amazing place to spend Halloween, it's like Ground Zero for Halloween, and now I get to be here and experience the whole event with the contest winners," Dacre Stoker explains to DW on the phone from Romania where he's busy making final preparations for 'his' guests.
No Hammer horror here
Those preparations won't, though, include any hammer horror elements of creaking doors, dry ice or virgins screaming before being pierced by a bloody set of fangs.
"There will be no fake blood and absolutely no plastic vampire teeth," states Alex Priscu vehemently, the marketing manager for Bran castle. He explains that they are not about staging some theatrical Gothic event or cheapening the image, and that he believes that Dracula would have been "allergic" to plastic just as much as he was to garlic.
Since the castle was returned from state hands to its aristocratic heirs, following a series of legal proceedings in 2006, a new kind of historical tourism has boomed. What the castle does is use Bram Stoker's book as the hook by which tourists are then able to discover the treasures and history that Transylvania and Romania have to offer. This competition though will be the first time that anyone has stayed over at the castle since 1948 when the Communists took possession of the buildings.
When the two contestants arrive, they will experience "pretty much the same thing that Jonathan Harker [in the novel] experiences," explains Dacre Stoker. "We wanted the two winners to get the full flavor of that 'Jonathan Harker' feel of being alone in the castle and a little bit of spookiness."
He sounds a tiny bit disappointed when he admits that he won't also be spending the night in the castle, but he believes it was best for the winners to be totally alone at Bran. Dacre Stoker expresses hope that, if the event turns out to be a success, then perhaps another year he will be able to spend the night there, too, "for the ultimate Halloween experience."
"I helped them find out from the novel which steps Jonathan Harker went through, from when he came in the carriage, and he gets out of the carriage and makes the long walk up to the castle and then he is greeted by Dracula. The winners will get pretty much the same experience…" Stoker adds.
"Then they'll get served the same dinner that Jonathan Harker ate on his first night there, and then, the piece de resistance, they get to sleep in these really cool coffins in this dressed-up crypt." That dinner will be a traditional Romanian chicken stew, confirms Alex Priscu, adorned with beautiful porcelain and served in a candle light setting.
'Are you going to drink our blood?'
The winners will eat a traditional Romanian chicken stew by candlelight, before retiring - to their coffins
"When I was a kid, there would be a lot of ribbing…" remembers Dacre Stoker. "Around Halloween, you know, it pretty much revolves around Vampires and Dracula. People would come to my house and they would be like, are you going to give us candy or are you going to take our blood? It was a lot of fun." Stoker admits though that he didn't really understand his family legacy until he was in high school or even college. He recalls reading a first edition of Dracula which he "pulled off the shelf at home," not realizing how valuable the book was.
"Luckily I didn't tear any pages or do anything to ruin it," he laughs. Stoker appears to wear the dark overtones of the book and family history lightly. Spending years playing sports, before taking on historical research and writing in 2003, he likens the dedication taken to write and create stories to that of the sportsman, and has found many parallels between his famous relative's life and his own.
"Going through this, I found [similarities in that] the darkness of the writing and the imagination, [is like] doing high level sport. It is all about guttural endurance and hard training; sticking with things when they aren't going well, so the skills are transferable. I also discovered that Bram Stoker was a champion athlete; he overcame childhood illness to be healthy and strong. He competed at Trinity College in race walking and rowing but his main life was as a theater manager, then in his spare time he was a writer. So he really had two lives as well which he would click in and out of: the night life of the theater and his internal life of writing. I felt I went through the same kind of transformation and still do to this day."
Romania has more to offer - but vampires sell
Today Dacre loves visiting the places associated with Bram Stoker's creation. Dublin, London, Whitby on the Yorkshire coast in the UK, and Transylvania. He admits that his relative never got to Romania himself, his stories came from books of history and folklore which he read in the British library and then wove into characters he came across in the theatre and on the pages of his research.
Stoker said that at first some Romanians were resentful that his relative had turned their folk hero, Vlad the Impaler - who held off the Ottoman hordes - into Count Dracula, but that now they were realizing the potential of using the stories to create responsible tourism and generate the economy.
Alex Priscu at Bran castle is certainly on board with this vision. He's aware of how beautiful the castle and the area are: "It's absolutely marvelous this place. There are breathtaking views of the mountains and a million colors in the woods, with the leaves."
Despite that beauty, he acknowledges that Stoker's stories are of "major importance" to their tourism package. "It's crucial; it's the magnet that brings the people. Of course when the people leave, they realize that Romania has way more to offer than this legend. Transylvania is an outstanding area…but they come here to meet this vampire count and they leave with thousands of other good impressions."
Clearly, Priscu, Stoker and Airbnb hope that that is exactly what the two winners will leave with on November 1, too, following their spooky, Gothic experience in Bran castle; that is, if they survive what could be a strange and wondrous night, "the pain of sleeplessness or the fear of sleep" - to paraphrase Bram Stoker one last time.