HALLOWEEN IN BECKOV, SLOVAKIA
It was a full moon. My friends Liduse, Milena and Dana picked me up at the train station in Prague where I had just returned from spending a weekend in Austria. I had thought we were going to a Halloween party and I was excited to be in my first automobile since leaving the States but when we had been on the highway for over an hour I became anxious about our destination. My companions were giggly and secretive when questioned and just kept repeating that ‘we were going to a party.’ And we did. The white sepulcher. Surely the most chilling party held in all the world that celebrates Halloween. In another hour we crossed the border into Slovakia and in a matter of minutes arrived into a tiny town called Beckov. It was close to 10:00 pm and the village looked pretty sewn up. At the end of the main road I could see a large hill looming in the distance. It appeared to be lit in places by a strange glow and I suddenly shuddered with the feeling of a dark and ominous presence there. I shrugged off my uneasiness with the thought that it was Halloween and my companions probably wanted me to be scared. I thought it was probably some party at a haunted house out in the middle of nowhere. We parked in some grass near a few other cars at the bottom of the hill. Milena grabbed a basket with wine, bread and cheese and candles in it and the rest of us grabbed blankets and began walking. Shortly I could see that the structure on top of the hill was a ruined castle and I could see people milling about. They were in the ruins, on the cliff leading up to it and in the grass below. Some were walking, some were sitting but they all had candles which explained the glow I had seen earlier. We found a place to sit on the grass, uncorked some wine and the spine-tingling tale began, through Milena. We were in a region of the country that used to be part of Transylvania. We were at one of the the castle remains of Elizabeth Bathory, the evil countess Dracula. Her other castle was at nearby Cachtice. She had achieved an infamy unmatched for bloody butchery during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Her own diaries diligently cited about 650 victims with accompanying perfunctory descriptions such as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ and ‘disappointing.’ The Guinness Book of World Records only attributed her 611 victims but she still holds the record for the most murders committed by a woman. We were on the actual scene of her torturous and murderous acts and I felt my flesh beginning to crawl with goosepimples. At first I wasn’t sure if I believed it because I was not very knowledgeable on the subject as it seemed to belong to the horror genre and those books or movies had never interested me. I think I had relegated them to the same category as cartoons when I was a kid. They never held my attention because I knew they were not real so along the same line atrocities such as these were inconceivable to me and thus became “not real.” Believe me, I know this is lame and I am almost ashamed to admit that I have existed in this state of ignorant denial about some of the darker minds in the history of our world. Jung said the conscious is like a giant iceberg. He said only 1/10 was conscious (the ego) and this showed like the tip of an iceberg to impress you whereas 9/10 was submerged or unconscious in order to frighten the hell out of you. Well, I felt like I was about to go underneath and I longed to return to the esoteric and ignorant bliss that I had previously enjoyed and never speak of such things again….. Not to be and I knew it so I concentrated on trying not to feel but simply to think rationally and my first question was “So what in hell are we doing here?” I was too horrified to see the irony in the question in that we might actually be in hell. Milena said that we were stalking Countess Dracula. She said that this place is so very haunted and that many of the ghostly victims have been seen on Halloween wandering about and wailing in perpetual torment. She said that people come to comfort the innocent victims, pay homage to the dead and help the spirits make it through the night. I asked her to tell me more about Elizabeth Bathory. She obliged, saying that she came from wealth and that her lineage included such notables as kings and princes. Milena said she was the product of a family whose frequent and dangerously close intermarriages ensured the continuance of its “blue blood” and generated a long history of fainting spells, epilepsy, uncontrollable fits of rage and violent mental illness. She had a brother who was an avid Satanist and clearly insane, an aunt who was a lesbian and murdered her husband, another aunt with a penchant for procuring and brutalizing young girls, a cousin who practiced witchcraft and murdered her own child, on and on the family tree grew. Popular lore has it that the killings began when Countess Bathory became obsessed with losing her youth and beauty. The depraved Countess conceived that if she bathed in the blood of young girls she would maintain her looks. Some say that the blood baths were merely myth created by peasants who did not want to admit the horrible truth … that the Countess was actually a cannibal. How was it possible for this fiendish female to have murdered so prolifically? It was actually quite simple. She was killing peasant girls and the authorities would not dare question the Countess based only on the accusations of poor village folk. Her family was royalty and Protestant so in effect outside the jurisdiction of the civil authorities and the ruling Catholic Church. Eventually she ran out of victims and the sanguinorous Bathory became frenzied in her hunt and turned to young women of aristocratic background. This the local authorities could not turn their backs on but in the end she was stopped by her own family. Not for the killings, but because Countess Bathory was threatening to press charges against the Hungarian king over some money and the family felt that if there was a trial, the money and Bathory property would be lost and the family’s exalted name would be tarnished. Even then she was never punished but simply walled up in one of the towers of the castle where she died a withered old woman in 1614. As Milena finished her grim tale, I noticed that I was shivering and my teeth were chattering. I told myself that it was 0 Celsius or possibly minus something by that time, for God’s sake. Then I wondered where God was at that moment. Never one to rely on anybody else I was suddenly glad to have my talisman around my neck. Actually I had on both my cross and my milagros but I would have gladly added a string of garlic, too. What I really desired was for Aladdin’s magic carpet to give me a ride off of that necropolis. While waiting I drank deeply of the wine and huddled closer under the blankets with my companions and hoped that I would soon warm up. The fog had begun to move in and it was playing hide and seek with the moon. The moon was so bright and the fog was so shrouding, it was a manic combination and almost like watching an opera with the castle as the stage and the moon as a giant spotlight that would showcase its star and then quickly plunge her into darkness. I know that it was the fog that was moving and yet I began to feel giddy as I was certain that the moon was doing an insane dance for us up above. She was two-stepping across the sky and I was fascinated. Milena said that no one would stay in the castle past midnight and I had noticed that there were fewer and fewer candles up there as we approached that bewitching hour. Milena said everyone just settled in to keep vigil for the night and pay homage to the dead so that’s what we did. And that is pretty much how we passed the night. Professional mourners guarding a mausoleum, sitting on over cinerary urns. Surely there were those among us who hoped for the resurrection of agonized ghosts but for the most part it felt like being at a wake, complete with muffled drum and the singing of religious hymns. From an aerial photograph one might think of an outdoor concert with clusters of people waiting with their picnics spread out pleasantly in front of them but the mood was solemn and there seemed to be no pranksters among us as I kept expecting. People sang quietly (in Czech) among their groups and when I tried to teach my friends some English hymns the truth of how badly I carry a tune came home. The only odd occurrence (besides just being there) was at about 3:00 am I heard someone throwing up and then I heard more people throwing up and it seemed a chain reaction. I thought a lot of people sure were getting sick on the wine but Milena said this always happens to certain people and those people claim to see and feel the spirits. I think it is a documented fact that only certain people have the ability to ruminate with the transcendental. Or maybe it was more along the lines of the psychological theory of contagion or mass hysteria. At any rate, it lasted an hour or so and I never saw any apparitions but I did feel sick to my stomach at the thought of all the suffering that had taken place there. I arrived back home around 7:30 am and the first thing I wanted to do was scrub my body furiously to remove all traces of that evil, tainted ground. Then I wanted to get warm so I piled under three heavy blankets to sleep and think about what I would write here. It is seven hours later and I am still chilled to the bone. Do I believe the castle is haunted? I don’t see how it could be anything but. Liduse is providing a picture for me to remember the most portentous and disquieting Halloween I ever experienced.