Sunday, April 25, 2010

There's no time like mythology

After quite a few years, I've returned to my unfinished reading of The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose.  It documents historical facts about the woman known as Elizabeth Bathory, a.k.a. the Bloody Countess, who has appeared everywhere in pop culture from David Eddings' The Elenium to Diablo 1 to Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

It amazes me that one woman could have such great effect.  She lived around 1600AD, so her story has had plenty of time to do a world tour, but that doesn't explain her ubiquitous 'appeal'.  Surely the story of a woman obsessed with her own beauty is nothing new.  Killing servant girls to help preserve her looks is taking it a step further.  But I think the big draw is precisely the mythology of it - it happened so long ago and in a relatively small and, at the time, secluded country, that whatever facts have been unearthed gain the air of absolute veracity.  If there is only one account, does that make it true?

Certainly, other people have done research into Erzsébet and Castle Csejthe.  She has been heralded as beginning some of the vampire-related legends from that era.  I can understand that young girls being spirited away in the night, from a deeply superstitious people, would definitely have had that effect.  Deep down, she was merely a sociopath with the means and seclusion to kill some 650 young women.  But why is she so interesting?

If you've ever watched Law and Order: Criminal Intent, you have an idea of what a sociopath may be.  Certainly characters like Hannibal Lecter have made psychological illnesses more popular for popular fiction.  Couple this with a greater understanding of how the mind works, and how it can malfunction, and it seems that every man and his talking dog knows a little about psychology these days.  While this is definitely a good thing, and informing the public on such matters (like the recent distinction between Multiple Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia, often confused or completely wrong in movies from before the 80s) is something I heartily approve of, I do question our fascination with these topics.

It may be that they're simply new to public viewing.  Things like Saw have re-created, or at least popularised, the exploitation genre.  Where is the appeal?  We know these 'people' have something seriously wrong with their brain chemistry to be acting this way.  Why do we want to know what happens?

The darkest depths of humanity are very interesting, one could say.  Carl Jung's The Red Book, only recently released, chronicles his journey into his own psyche and, in my opinion, reads very much like automatic writing.  The dark is fascinating.  It requires guesswork.  And it doesn't always show you things you were expecting.

Due to advances in forensics, as well, I suppose serial killers - for that's absolutely what lovely Erzsébet was - get caught either more easily, more often, or more quickly.  They don't have reigns of terror lasting for 20 years upheld by the superstitious belief of a peasant people in aristocracy as god-like, nor the semi-romantic backdrop of earlier times to contend with.  The serial killers of our times are far more disconcerting for their reality, while a beautiful countess in a windswept castle upon a hillside conjures certain sympathy in some respects.  It can be more rewarding to try to understand her, while our current-day criminals can merely be dismissed as insane.  

'Oh, how lonely she must have been!' I have heard or read people say.  'How she must have suffered!'  And, surely, that's the media treatment most often afforded her, that I've seen.  Interestingly, the people who have done a great deal of the available research are those connected to her by blood, visiting Csejthe and recording what they find there and what the local people have to say.  Some of the villagers are even entertained by the notion that Erzsébet used to take away; now her memory gives.  People will visit Hungary just to go to Csejthe.  And so her allure is undeniable.

Of course, it does have something to do with her death, which also has an air of the romantic about it.  She was bricked into her tower, with only a small window for food, and lived there for 3 years with no companionship or excursions to the outside world.  She did not repent.  And, in the end, she died alone.

Perhaps the pathos comes from the idea that no one really understood her.  That, were we able to speak to her today, her story might be quite different.  But, then again, it might not.  Many people would have liked to have the chance, I'm sure, by doing such things as evoking her name during ouija sessions, but the real answer is that we'll never truly know why she did what she did.  The mystery is what drives her memory, while her actions live on in vague infamy.  It could be something to remember, if one were to be involved in worldbuilding.

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