The Romanians just don’t know how to build a Dracula theme park. Communism took all the initiative out of them.
I hurried along the dusty, cobbled streets of Sighisoara, trying to find my way back to the empty hotel near the train tracks. Around every corner, I had to dodge open graves and the leers from men standing inside them with shovels. The story ran through my mind about a 15th century prince who was captured by Vlad Tepes not far from here and forced to read his own funeral oration as he knelt before an open grave.
It was dusk, last Halloween day.
I had expected to arrive in town alongside thousands of tourists on a pilgrimage because apart from a little town in Mexico, where pumpkins are said to have originated, Sighisoara has the best claim to being Halloween Mecca. After all, Vlad III Dracul, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was born here around 1431 and was famous for filling Transylvanian fields with his impaled victims.
In the hands of tackier countries, Sighisoara might have been made into a scary Disneyland long ago.
But with the exception of the half-dug graves, I didn’t see anything that screamed Halloween. It wasn’t the overt fright-fest I had expected.
On the contrary, Sighisoara is a gentle, pretty place. Like much of Transylvania, it has pastel houses, coloured cobblestones, colourful leaves and pretty frescoes on the church spires. The historic centre of the city, perched on a hill, is a 12th century Saxon Citadel built by artisans and craftsmen and is one of the best preserved and most beautiful in Europe. I was the only one running around it in a silly costume.
Somehow, Romania has resisted turning this lovely town into another Niagara Falls, where the natural beauty is overshadowed by tourist traps. A few years ago, a proposal to build a Dracula theme park nearby was rejected because both the local and international community feared it would take away from the true character of the city.
There are a few carved pumpkins adorning windowsills and you can get a bowl of blood soup at Casa Dracula Restaurant. But there are only a handful of souvenir shops selling Dracula fangs and capes, and not a haunted house or Ripley’s Believe it or Not in sight.
I walked around town wearing a black mask and plastic fangs to feel even closer to Dracula, and realized that the lack of flashing orange lights allows the imagination to run wild with the quiet, inherent creepiness of Transylvania. Halloween in Sighisoara is a a state of mind, rather than the bad Michael Myers movie you watch to get yourself in the mood. You don’t need a ghost-shaped, cardboard cut-out to give you the chills; just hearing the wind whistle in Transylvania is enough. The name itself conjures up stories of black cats and bats whipping through your hair at night.
In Sighisoara particularly, spires look like pitchforks and footsteps on cobblestones sound like they’re coming just for you.
And you can fool yourself that ordinary construction sites are open, waiting graves.