A Serial Crime of Streaming Episodes

How Netflix's "Mehmed vs. Vlad" does a disservice to both history and imagination

A Serial Crime of Streaming Episodes
A still from Netflix’s “Rise of Empires: Ottoman.” (Netflix Media Center)

Allow me to begin by saying that before “Mehmed vs. Vlad,” the new season of the Netflix series “Rise of Empires,” I attempted to draw public attention to “Elizabeth vs. Vlad,” which is narratively and logically a kinder way to rewrite history.

Netflix had not yet been born when I published my novel “The Blood Countess” in 1995. Had Netflix and its streaming kin been around, the history of Dracula would have originated with Bram Stoker’s Victorian bloodsucker and continued in its many guises through Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Tom Cruise and his ever-increasing brood in the future. Given these opportunities, Dracula would have spun into the future in sequels and episodes driven by new technologies and diversity, without compromising the integrity of its expressionist roots. Dracula would now be an AI woman with a doctorate in superpowers and an infinite future stretching like the Black Sea under her wings.

Boy, was I wrong! Not about Dracula’s future, which is as safe as U.S. bonds, but about the introduction of a more factual history that would have naturally included his companion Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian “blood countess” whose unimpeachable bloody cred might have even eclipsed Vlad the Impaler — or, at the very least, matched it, in what would have been a couple’s story unequaled in our time by even Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. I know that it won’t do to mix recent tabloid horror with ancient S&M, but referring to Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, Tristan and Isolde, Cosima Wagner and Gustav Mahler would have complicated the story beyond any reader’s forbearance. Forgive me. I misjudged Netflix’s streaming greed and its endless supply of Ph.D. Renfields. (Renfield was Dracula’s assistant, who eats bugs and mice in a mental hospital in London and can’t wait for his Transylvanian master to arrive so he can serve him. By Ph.D. Renfields, I mean scholars of Stoker’s Victorian novel “Dracula” who write endless theses in the hope that they might become immortal through academic prose. Netflix has a stable of these scholars for future vampire tales.)

Why did I think that Netflix would keep streaming only into the future? I valued the technology above the humanities and made the mistake of thinking that they were separate. Mea culpa. They are one and the same. But let’s not insist on my naivete, it’s a millennial flaw.

Elizabeth Bathory, aka “the blood countess,” was a powerful Hungarian aristocrat with an army, several castles and an insatiable appetite for young women. In addition to those givens, she straddled two religions, with a frightfully wide education by two of their greatest theologians, Martin Luther and Father Ponikenuz. S.J. Bathory’s lands and forts were situated geographically, economically, politically and philosophically on the border between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and its Christian Austro-Hungarian counterpart. In other words, her uncle, the King of Hungary, and Emperor Rudolf both owed her money she lent them for their campaigns against the Ottomans. Her cousin was Prince of Transylvania, a principality that had been owned by her family for centuries, renowned for its ferocious warriors and for the insane lust it aroused in every sultan who had studied her maps.

Countess Bathory was considered immortal from the very moment she ordered her servants to prepare her a bath from the blood of 13 virgins. This consideration hardened into a firm belief when she discovered that all of her servants were witches. Full moon dances, broom flights and weeklong parties followed. Her debauches were eagerly attended by her debtors, and her travels to castles in other principalities were keenly anticipated by nobility from Budapest to Kolosvar and Prague. Hundreds of servant girls were provided for her bloodbaths, until the empire started running out of peasant girls and her desperate hosts began to recruit from the nobility, a dangerous and illegal activity.

Emperor Rudolf was even crazier, if that’s possible. Yet, whatever he did, he knew he was mortal. Jealous of Elizabeth, he moved the capital of the empire from Vienna to Prague and surrounded himself with alchemists who worked day and night to (1) make him immortal and (2) make piles of gold to repay his debt to her. If the alchemists failed in 30 days, he fed them to the bears living in the moat around the castle. Incidentally (or not), Franz Kafka lived in Alchemists Alley, just below the castle and above the moat. Rudolf’s Castle is the same castle used by Kafka to write his classic “The Castle.” What is time to an immortal, after all? Elizabeth Bathory did meet Kafka about three centuries after she had her first bath in virgins’ blood, but that’s another story. Rudolf never achieved immortality (or paid her back).

A mere 100 years separated Voevod Vlad Dracula (1431-1476) from Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614). A great many regional changes had taken place in the century before the two of them met and decided to travel together. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople with cannons forged in Transylvania by Saxon ironsmiths. To be fair, the Saxons, who were Catholic, first offered their long cannons to the Christian armies of Byzantium and Austria-Hungary, but they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — meet their price. After the fall of Constantinople, only Hungarian Transylvania now stood between the Ottoman and Western empires. Voevod Vlad Dracula, the ruler of Wallachia, a vassal land of the Ottoman Empire, set his sights on Transylvania.

Raised at the Turkish court along with his younger brother Radu the Handsome, he was a law-and-order prince known for his severe and innovative punishments for even the smallest infractions. For instance, if someone was caught stealing an ear of corn, the thief’s hands were cut off and the stolen corn painfully inserted in his behind. Voevod Dracula was so feared by his subjects that no one dared to pick up a gold coin left on the road for fear of having his eyes gouged out and copper discs inserted in the sockets. Not all the princely punishments were original. He learned impalement at the Turkish court, and used it to great effect to secure the loyalty of the Saxon burghers when he conquered the medieval fortress of Hermanstadt in Transylvania. Eventually, he stopped paying the vassal tax, joined the Christian armies and turned his education against his teachers. He lined the mountain pass where Mehmed II’s large army was readying to attack with the impaled heads of captured Turks, still wearing turbans. His childhood playmate, Mehmed II took a look down the valley and retreated for a whole year, during which he assembled the largest army ever known and returned for an unsuccessful second attempt. The future Netflix star saved Christianity. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

By the time Countess Elizabeth Bathory was in the full bloom of her insatiable youth and rapidly heading for her severely mean middle age, Transylvania was still in Hungarian hands. Her cousin still ruled and the rumors of her witchy powers spread like the hayloft fire in her stables at Čachtice Castle. Void of servant girls, decimated by the neverending wars, the Hungarian court initiated an investigation of her evil deeds. At first, this was not a serious threat to her power. Her army and her forts were capable of withstanding the forces of the empire. It is difficult to believe, but Elizabeth Bathory was a woman of faith. Torn between the teachings of Luther and the more gentle but unbending dogma of her Jesuit teacher, she could often be found praying in the chapel below her apartments, weeping inconsolably about the disagreements between her religious advisers. All the 350 servants who testified, in absentia, at the royal inquest into the evil deeds of their mistress prefaced their testimonies with acknowledgments of her great faith in the Almighty. Only then did they also testify about her tortures, bloodbaths and the like, though to them these matters were not nearly as grave as the doubts she was subjected to by the teachers of her faith. The judges oversaw the hanging of the servants who thought that the Catholic faith might have been winning over Elizabeth, and burned at the stake those who thought Luther was ahead. Elizabeth herself was clearly a victim and the king spoke on her behalf.

While this inquest unfolded, the Spanish started selling African slaves to plantations in the Americas. James Cook claimed Australia for Britain. The Renaissance started to leak into the Enlightenment, shaking most of medieval Europe to its foundations. If these events were even discussed, they remained far away from Transylvania. That mountainous birthplace of Hungarian kings was covered by clouds of rumor and terror. The spies of the Ottoman Empire spread these rumors eagerly. One can only imagine how these rumors thickened into truth. By the time Netflix got a hold of Dracula he had grown larger than Satan in the minds of the world.

And here we must tell of an extraordinary fact: the birth of mass media. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The first book he printed was the Bible. The second was a pamphlet about the atrocities of Prince Vlad Dracula, commissioned by the outraged burghers of Hermanstadt who had watched its better citizens impaled.

The Bible sold well because the priests were persuasive marketers, but the Dracula book, with its terrifying engravings, became a bestseller, the world’s first mass-market success. It influenced Ivan the Terrible, among others. From the birth of print media that popularized him, Dracula never stopped acquiring real estate in the minds of humanity. In Transylvanian history, he became at times a political liability. The communists, for example, didn’t know what to do with him. Their confusion of fame with national pride led them to elevate Dracula to a founder of the Romanian nation. In my school, his portrait hung incongruously on classroom walls alongside Marx, Engels and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the first communist leader of Romania from 1947 to 1965. Oh, Transylvania belonged to Romania by this time, for reasons you can Google. When tourism became a source of hard currency, the Party designated Dracula’s castle a destination for foreign visitors who, as readers of Stoker’s “Dracula,” paid dearly to shiver in the chilling bath of torture victims’ screams piped through the walls. Still unable to reconcile the nation’s hero with commercial savvy, the communists’ only compromise with the tchotchkes (where the real money is) produced only a feeble T-shirt with a pale image of Vlad the Impaler identical with his official portrait. It took the fall of the Berlin Wall to integrate Dracula into the normal circuit of commodity manufacture.

Anyone who has cooked a sauce that requires stirring for a long time until it firms up will understand how rumors thicken into folklore, how folklore becomes legend, and how legend becomes Netflix. In fact, dinner rich with sauces is a leitmotif of Dracula’s rise. The historically confined (by facts) Prince Vlad Dracula consolidated his power in the 15th century by inviting all the great feudal lords to dinner. After they feasted on viands and drank the brews, he had them impaled. At first, only the most powerful were impaled around the dinner table. If their remaining friends and colleagues vomited instead of merrily continuing to eat, they were next to the stakes. Waves of impalements followed until only the prince, his wife and his bloodied faithful finished the fabulous dishes to the accompanying orchestra of the wounded and dying.

After this proto-Stalinist feudal performance, Dracula escaped from the 15th century. First, he arrived in Bucharest after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the owner of a restaurant in Bucharest where red-sauce dishes were served by candlelight as bat-maidens in bikinis flew screeching above the heads of tourists eating dinner. This was an awkward but thankfully brief moment in Dracula’s career. “Dracula,” the restaurant, closed when young economists returned from universities abroad to set up capitalist tourism on less eccentric foundations. A Disneyland-style park was planned for the medieval city of Sighisoara in Transylvania, but the project failed when foreign investors ran up against the residual awe and loyalty the locals still had for their revered prince. Of course, nothing stopped Dracula outside Transylvania and nothing will. The sucker will eventually own everyone.

Meanwhile, a great fear seized Hungary after the collapse of communism. Barely hidden behind the flimsy curtain of time she easily breached, Countess Bathory threatened to have her moment. It is true, she did not have Gutenberg on her side, nor the great storytelling skill of Stoker, nor, lamentably, the attention of German expressionist film directors. Misogyny combined with a conspiracy of silence by Hungarian historians kept her from the limelight she deserved. Still, her extraordinary theater of blood exceeded that of Dracula, and her intelligence was greater than that of the Transylvanian prince.

While reporting on the collapse of communism in 1989, I found her in a palace in Budapest, all dressed up and ready for prime time. I asked her to the red carpet in my novel “The Blood Countess,” but Hungarian resistance and fear of a “Hungarian Dracula,” engineered by nationalists now embodied by Viktor Orbán, conspired to keep this brilliant monster from joining Dracula in his conquest of the postmodern imagination. Still, I can vouch for their having met and fallen for one another. Centuries of bachelorhood and spinsterism will do that to immortals. They are planning to wed in the near future, but I am prevented by a non-disclosure agreement from revealing when and where. Stay tuned.

At this time, Netflix’s “Rise of Empires” series, which is about anything but the rise of empires, has released “Mehmed vs. Vlad,” a hybrid more monstrous than Vlad Dracula himself could have dreamed up. Formally, this sample of videography follows the History Channel formula of re-enactments interrupted by talking heads who pass for historians. The re-enactments themselves follow the tradition of clashing armor between grunting medieval-fair actors, followed by equally dreadful pedagogues cluing us on “real history.”

This is where my sadness reached one of its lowest depths. This is the 21st century, people, the age of “Avatar” and Chat Bot AI, a tech-rich era that could help every legendary monster into the pristine gardens of our children’s minds. By making this sort of hybrid, the reactionary streaming services are killing both history and imagination. Rich perverts and lovers of truth, cut their funding now!

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