The legend of the Countess Erzsébet1 Báthory presents a unique case in which the fictional elements of vampire and witch folklore combine with real historical facts to create the quasi-mythical figure of the Bloody Countess. Argentine Poet Alejandra Pizarnik wrote the short story ‘La Condesa Sangrienta’ (1968, ‘The Bloody Countess’) based on the historical figure of the Countess Erzsébet Báthory as compiled in the socio-historical text ‘The Bloody Countess: Atrocities of Erzsébet Báthory’ (2000) by French surrealist poet Valentine Penrose. Also, Romanian-American poet and novelist Andrei Codrescu, using Hungarian archival documents, wrote the novel ‘The Blood Countess’ in 1995. Even though Alejandra Pizarnik is transparent about the fictionality of her text, Andrei Codrescu’s truth claim of basing his “novel” on historical documents does not make his text any more historically reliable than Alejandra Pizarnik’s. Therefore, today’s article will focus primarily on a discussion of the historical text as well as the two fictional texts and the film ‘Eternal’ (Canada, 2004) and how the “monstrous” character of the Bloody Countess is a product not only of her murdering over six thousand, five hundred two virgins. However, also of her various sexual perversions and psychopathic madness. The weaving and interweaving of history, fiction and popular culture will be key to examining how the “monstrous” characterisation of Countess Erzsébet Báthory is unfairly and predominantly linked to her sexual deviance: her suspected lesbianism, her marital infidelities and an overall deviation from the prescribed role for women in her society and culture.
The Valentine Penrose text provides the reader with the historical context and events in the life of Countess Erzsébet Báthory and the very text that Alejandra Pizarnik reveals as the foundation for her fictional short story ‘The Bloody Countess2.’ By examining and comparing these two texts, one will note an overwhelming relationship between history and fiction in the appropriation of the figure of Erzsébet Báthory as the Bloody Countess3 into popular culture4. Basing ourselves on Valentine Penrose’s presuppositions provided in his historical document on Erzsébet Báthory, one can attribute the origin of Erzsébet Báthory’s mischievous homicidal behaviour to the environment in to which she was born. Specifically: she was a child of aristocratic inbreeding5 during a time of warfare where torture and violence were an everyday occurrence6 that was able to indulge in a life of privilege as well as sexual and intellectual freedom that her social ranking allowed her7.
Erzsébet Báthory was born during a very tumultuous historical period that saw the struggle between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as well as the Turkish wars for the conquest of Europe (the same wars that kept her husband away from her years at a time). Erzsébet Báthory was, above all, an educated woman for her time, with a strong sense of megalomaniacy based primarily on her sense of entitlement that her noble birth and social standing provided her. In the attempt to rationalise Erzsébet Báthory’s sexual and murderous perversions as related to her psychopathic madness, Valentine Penrose reveals that not only was she was born in 1560 “within the mould of sorcery” but she was also the product of much inbreeding typical of the Hungarian upper class8 to which her family belonged. Coupled with the fact that she had she received a traditional education by both a Protestant minister and Catholic monk in her childhood as well as instruction in the art of witchcraft by, among others, her faithful Darvulia; one could say that genetics only account for part of Erzsébet Báthory psychopathy. That is to say, her moments of genetically inherited epilepsy and insanity were tied to the established Báthory family trait of “a marked taste for monstrous or unnatural acts of lust.” Albeit, her use of manipulation and intimidation to satisfy her own selfish needs were traits associated with the psychopathic killer component to her personality and were further accentuated by the lack of any empathy for her victims or remorse for her actions.
However, can the murder of over six hundred fifty young girls be blamed entirely on moments of epileptic madness? On the contrary, I would argue that her attention to detail in the torturing and killing of young girls could not have been caused solely but episodes of uncontrolled madness or epilepsy but rather a sign of a more deeply rooted sadistic inclinations. Erzsébet Báthory methods of torture evolved with time from merely biting and piercing servants who did not do their task correctly to more intricate and elaborate methods of extracting personal pleasure from inflicting pain and ultimately death on her victims. Some of the contraptions she used to arouse pain (and pleasure) included: the Iron Maiden, an iron cage in the shape of a woman embedded with precious stones that would close upon its victim piercing her with its daggers located in the interior of the cage; in “death by water” the victim would be taken outside in the middle of winter naked, and water poured over her, freezing her to death; a cage lined with sharp blades that would be pulled up to the ceiling piercing the victim’s flesh as it swayed; also other modes such as branding, piercing, biting and the severing of body parts. Throughout the various episodes of torture and killing, Erzsébet Báthory would sometimes talk9 and shout during the sessions at times “pacing up and down her room like a rapacious animal” and other times have breakthrough moments in her cold demeanour of genuine emotion.
One cannot ignore that Erzsébet Báthory sexuality plays an essential part in her monstrous characterisation, but to say it is the only reason would be essentializing the psychological complexity of her murderous impulses and would also undermine the morbidity of her numerous killings. Let us recall those serial killers have been profiled as being motivated by psychological impulses or sexual compulsion. Valentine Penrose, Alejandra Pizarnik and Andrei Codrescu all seem to bring forth that Erzsébet Báthory experienced both the psychological and sexual gratification in her killings: not only would the torturing of her victims alleviate her “epileptic” seizures and attacks of melancholy (and anger), but they would also replenish the youthfulness of her skin10.
Even though her noble class provided her with more freedom than women of lower social standing, Erzsébet Báthory was not beyond reproach. Before the rumours of lesbianism11 and other “unnatural” sexual tendencies, Erzsébet Báthory already had the reputation of having had extramarital affairs during her husband’s prolonged absences while away at war against the Turkish. However, to say she was monstrous based solely on her lesbian tendencies and sexual perversions would be essentialist and would take away from our present discussion. Notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that Valentine Penrose compares Erzsébet Báthory, at various points in his text, to another serial killer: The French Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais. In his right, Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was accused of murdering eight-hundred young boys12 from 1433-1440 as well as sodomy, necrophilia and making pacts with demons. Similar to Erzsébet Báthroy, Gilles de Montmorency-Laval also took sadistic pleasure in torturing and smearing the blood of his victims on himself, but unlike Erzsébet Báthory, in the end, he did show remorse for his crimes and was never classified as having vampiric qualities.
Erzsébet Báthory’s infamous bloodbaths were supported not only by the recommendations of her witches but her obsession with maintaining her youthful beauty to avoid becoming an “uncharitable void of nothingness.” At first, Erzsébet Báthory was instructed by her witches that bathing in the virgin blood of a young girl would help preserve her beauty and youth. However, as time began to show itself in her appearance despite these baths in virginal blood, Erzsébet Báthory is advised by her witches (specifically Majorova, as indicated by Valentine Penrose) that she must bathe in blood similar to her own: the noble blood of young ladies. Erzsébet Báthory, with the aid of her witches, could secure young noble ladies to come to her castles under the premise that they would be receiving specialised training in good manners and languages.
It is important to mention that for years rumours were widespread of the mysterious disappearances of attractive young girls while in the service of the Countess of Báthory. Although very organised at the beginning of her murdering spree, towards the end Erzsébet Báthory (and her assistants) began to show signs of carelessness in disposal of the dead bodies and of answering to questioning parents looking for their daughters. At this point, it seems that Erzsébet Báthory became all consumed with the torturing and killing to fulfil both her psychotic and sexual pleasure and her obsession with her youthful beauty and not so much in taking the necessary precautions so that her deviant behaviour would not be exposed. In essence, she loses control of her murderous impulses leading ultimately to the discovery and disclosure of her crimes. Notwithstanding, it is only when the young ladies of noble lineage begin to vanish that the gossip of Erzsébet Báthory’s strange behaviour and alleged murderous penchant is demanded to be formally investigated.
Some critics question the validity of said investigation due to the unique circumstances that Erzsébet Báthory nobility and social status allowed her (yet again). In this particular instance it is important to note that King Matthias Corvinus himself owed much money to the Báthory-Nadazdy family and if Erzsébet Báthory were to have been formally charged by the King’s court, the family riches would have automatically passed on to the reigning monarch. Thus, what occurs is the questioning, torturing and eventual execution of Erzsébet Báthory’s witches and other servants for their participation in the ritualistic killings of the victims13. However, due to the financial implications and tarnishing of the family names, Erzsébet Báthory herself is “investigated” under the aegis of the family court (and never formally charged in the King’s court). Moreover, she was condemned to live out the remainder of her life walled in one of her rooms in her castle at Čachtice until her death on August 14th, 1613.
The relationship between fact and fiction surrounding the macabre story of the Bloody Countess has attracted not only historians and writers but also filmmakers, musicians and artists in various forms. As a brief example, in 2004 the film ‘Eternal’ is released based loosely on the story of Erzsébet Báthory. This particular film takes place at the same time as its production and follows the murderous and sexual escapades of Elizabeth King (the reincarnated version of Erzsébet Báthory for the 21st-century). Similar to her historical counterpart (and alluded to at various points in the film itself) Elizabeth King thrives on the blood of young women to maintain her beauty and immortality. Nevertheless, the film tends to focus more so on the mythical vampiric qualities of the Countess Erzsébet Báthory in which Elizabeth King not only bathes in the blood but also sucks it and ingests it from her victims as a typical vampire.
As we have already discussed, there is a wealth of historical documents and evidence substantiating the gruesome details of Erzsébet Báthory’s serial murders and psychopathic behaviour. However, we have also seen that the line between fact and fiction often become blurred and at times even blend. To date, the Bloody Countess’ story continues to draw the interest of historians, critics and artists and in the process, one could argue, the victimising of her victims for the second time. Countless of them, especially those who did not belong to the noble class, destined to remain faceless and nameless in the legend of the Bloody Countess. It is beyond a doubt that Erzsébet Báthory was a psychotic megalomaniac serial killer spurred in her killings by her belief in the occult and witchcraft to grant her most desired wish: to remain youthful and beautiful forever. I would say that maybe she has succeeded in this immortality — at least in the lines of the pages dedicated to unweaving the intricate interweaving of the history and fiction surrounding the details of her life story.