Monday, 18 August 2014

Beauty With Cruelty

The gothic subculture, for all its inherent liberalism, has always had a thing for tyrants. And not just those tyrants who run gothic rock megagroups, either (it’s always a horrible moment when  a parent has to tell their child that Andrew Eldritch actually exists and isn’t just a Yorkshire folk legend invented to scare young musicians). The Daddy of Tyrants, the patron saint of goth rock megalomania, has always been Vlad Tepes (the ‘Impaler’), whether in his original undiluted form or filtered through 600 years of legend and camp. Conversely, the Queen of Tyrants is almost certainly Elizabeth Bathory. 

It is tempting to consider the Blood Countess to be part of a complimentary symmetry with Vlad, so on that basis we might as well do so. Roughly a century after Vlad fought the Ottoman Turks in what would become present-day Romania the Countess was busy murdering peasant women right next door, in Hungary. Vlads  sadism and brutality were legendary, and involved not only stories of the torture of enemy soldiers and rivals but also of a total despotism over all his lands; this was a kind of modern-day terror, the terror of the dictator and the totalitarian state, and of cruelty-as-governance. The Countess, on the other hand, was exercising sadism and cruelty on a more personal scale – luring women to the castle and then torturing and/or killing them. This was a more intimate kind of cruelty than practised by Vlad as head of a state.

Stories of her bathing in the blood of her victims to regain her youth came afterwards and did not correspond to any of the eyewitness reports from the time, but as with all of these things you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. This invariably led to the linking of the Bathory myth to that of vampirism (as with Vlad at around the same time) and the eventual title of ‘Countess Dracula’  - as memorably depicted in the classic horror film of the same name. Again, the fact that the Hungarian nobility was in no way linked to the Order of the Dragon appears to be besides the point (plus the fact that nobody appeared to be suggesting that Bathory was herself a vampire). But I digress.

The myth of the Blood Countess is interesting in that it brings up all manner of issues. The most obvious theme is that the Countess was a vicious sadist, and one of the clearest examples  some 200 years before de Sade would begin to expound the idea fully.  From that perspective we could argue that Bathory was essentially one very mean Domme, and such an archetype runs deeply within gothic culture. There is also the issue of absolute power in the entrenched, elitist class system of the middle ages; the pecadillos of the ruling classes seemed to mirror the violence of the society in which they ruled. 

Of course, another more sympathetic point of view is that Bathory was simply caught up in the power struggle of the Hungarian nobility - she got too powerful, she was in the way, and she was set up. It would certainly seem that her imprisonment for four years in a bricked-up cell could be construed as rather suss. People may well have wanted to believe stories of an apparently ‘evil’ woman if it suited their needs to do so.

Either way there is something very modern about the story and the alleged actions and impulses of the Countess; Foucault for one would have had a lot to say about the political and physical basis of her cruelty. The template of the beautiful and cruel has a remarkable endurance within gothic culture and within popular culture more generally.  In 2008 the Bathory story was remade in the horror biopic ‘Bathory: Countess of Blood’ which after initial reports of Famke Janssen playing the Countess saw Anna Friel take the role; now, setting aside the fact that if you think Anna Friel is a good fit for the Blood Countess then you probably need help, it does nevertheless show that the Bathory legacy still casts a long shadow.

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