“A Castle Built on Capitalism and Corruption” by Suzanne Muldowney
In the late 1970’s, Atlantic City, New Jersey, sought to revitalize itself as an East Coast equivalent of Las Vegas: legalized gambling, slot machines, casinos, and luxury hotels. In time, though, organized crime became rampant and many hotels and casinos closed.
But it is in Wildwood, 35 miles to the southwest, that this account is based. In the summer of 1978, a newly built walk-through horror house opened on the boardwalk. But the parent company named the facility after Dracula, with disastrous results.
I was on vacation in Wildwood Crest at the time. My hotel’s manager knew I was a Dracula authority and showed me an article in the local paper. I screamed! But as I read the story more carefully, it stated that the castle’s contents seemed similar or identical to exhibits within a great many chambers of horrors. The article’s one photograph of a “resident spook” was a young woman in a hooded black robe and “spiderweb” makeup. But costumes and makeup such as hers were very general thematically.
That night, I went to investigate.
The only access to the castle or several other features, all fenced in, was a ticket gate. There were several small food booths built into one outer wall. The castle’s main entrance was atop an ostentatious staircase. There was a balcony on one side of the stairs, on which stood a mannequin Dracula (copycat Lugosi). It was motorized; about every ten minutes it was turned on, making gestures and a taped greeting in an imitation Lugosi voice. There was an underground water ride, with a black-robed-and-hooded, skull-faced “ferryman” mannequin on the stern of each boat. There was a roller coaster entrance, with the ride itself off to the left.
I did not tour the castle’s interiors as an ordinary customer. I just remained outside, examining the panorama again and again. Finally, I turned away and returned to my hotel.
I lay on my bed, pondering over what I had seen. The castle had not shown anything connected to Vlad; the mannequin on the balcony was just another imitation Lugosi. Everything else was virtually the same in just about any haunted house! Even the slightly different roller coaster and boat ride had nothing to do with Dracula as either the Prince or the Count!
Next morning, I called the paper to see if the castle had a direct number. I was given the number of the company that ran the entire complex: Marine West. I called the company and asked for the manager.
“I saw the article about the castle and would like to come see you. I’m a Dracula expert.”
When the manager, Ed, and I met later that day, I explained that since the facility had been given a specific name, the company automatically took on the responsibility of keeping the exhibits in line with the name or theme.
Haunted House, Creepy Cave, Devil’s Dungeons, Magic Corridors, Fright Frenzy, Towers of Doom, etc., were simplistic names for commercial chambers of horrors in which a multiplicity of miscellaneous, unrelated themes might be justified. But not this place!
“Are you aware that Dracula was for real in the mid-15th century?”
“He what! Are you sure?” Perhaps Ed didn’t know.
I forget if I had brought any of the books with me. I informed Ed about Prince Vlad, the mass impalements, the approximate total body count of 100,000, the out-of-date crusades, his assassination, and the Stoker novel’s sole responsibility for the fictional image. Ed seemed spellbound.
With the castle’s bearing a definitive name, its being a horror display, and the real-life incidents’ being authentic as well as infinitely scarier than any fiction, the Marine West owners and managers would benefit greatly by authenticating the complex.
After that, I called the paper again to let it know I had “the real story of Dracula.” A reporter came to my hotel and I “laid the goodies” on him.
Around Labor Day, Ed contacted me that there would be a masquerade contest outside the complex on Sunday, September 17, to mark the end of the first season. I simply had to appear as the Impaler; the Count was too obvious. There were bound to be a number of “vampires”.
On the appointed day, it took me several hours to get to Wildwood because it was past summer; there were no more express buses between Camden-Philadelphia and the oceanfront.
At the complex’s entrance, I went into the office. I was already wearing the staple costume; now I donned the outer garments. I picked up my stake and went outside.
The contest was to start at two. But when the moment came, Ed announced that the judging would not start until five! For the next 3 hours, the contestants were left to mingle among themselves or onlookers! My heart sank. I obligingly interacted, informing as many people as possible about the appearance, nature, and wardrobe of the Impaler in contrast to Stoker’s vampire. But when I suspected that no one was paying any more attention, I returned to the office.
If I had not brought books the first time, I had them now. I showed Ed and 2 or 3 other influential crucial proof of the true-life appearance, mass executions, the political and religious conditions, the birth and death years, and the novel’s drastic changes.
Ed took me outside and upstairs to the castle’s entrance. Inside was what was obviously a foyer: banners on a wall; a coffin containing a motorized mannequin “vamipress” which sporadically rose to a sitting position; a sign warning You’re All Gonna Die; a “fireplace”; and a costume live “Count” seated overhead.
“Count Dracula?” Ed addressed the actor. “Meet Prince Dracula.”
The actor rose to his feet. But he was too high up for us to shake hands.
“Meet your historical counterpart, Count.”
“She’s a big authority. There may be major revisions in this castle’s attractions.”
I looked around again, taking mental notes on the foyer’s contents; Ed and I went out the door.
I made sure at this time, if not previously, to get hold of a couple of brochures. There were expertly folded fliers with pictures and printed information. One flier I would keep; I would send the other to the authorities!
The contestants were starting to form lines for the judging. Several feet from the bordering wall, small poles joined by chains had been set up to form a parallel wall, leaving a narrow path for the contestants to walk on during their turns.
Ed spoke over the PA. The competitors were to proceed through the passageway, using any theatrics they felt appropriate, while the judges scrutinized them. Criteria would be based on originality.
Originality! I gasped and then panted. I just had to win! What was more original than Vlad Dracula, played by an authority who had met the authorities, read the authentic sources, re-created the period garb, portrayed him through an unused medium, dance, and appeared before a structure bearing his name!
When my turn came, Ed spoke grandly. “Ladies and gentlemen, I think we should pay homage to our next contestant, Suzanne Muldowney! She’s dressed as the original Dracula, the Impaler! She portrays him through dance and has met the topmost authorities!” I brandished my stake, marched, lunged, and twirled.
Among other horrific competitors were several Counts (no more Impalers!), a Gene Simmons from KISS, a giant spider with a giant web made of strung silver sequins, several devils, a decomposing corpse, a hunchback who was a mere 6-month old baby on its mother’s shoulder, an Incredible Hulk, some hideous hags, and miscellaneous spooks.
There would be ten finalists to be re-evaluated. When the list was brought out, I was the first! For a while the finalists mingled again among the throngs. I had to make a superb final impression; there were no other “Draculas”.
Three top winners were called. I was not third or second; could I be first? Originality? Self-made costumes? Educated by the historians-authorities?
The top prize went to a Frankenstein’s Monster which, although magnificently constructed, was only a carbon copy of Karloff! Some originality! That image had been around some 50 years!
I had won nothing. After all my Dracula-related work at a building named after him, and being admired by the tourists, I had failed. I began to cry. I looked around wildly at the spectators, but they were dispersing rapidly. I was left alone, still crying, against the fence.
But then the Daniks, a couple who were the publicists for Marine West, approached me. “Come on! You were a sensation. Look at all those crowds who saw you.”
“What crowds? Everybody’s almost gone! The only crowd left is over there, fawning over the Monster.”
“Don’t you think the Monster is fabulous? Look at all the work that went into it.”
“Ed said the judging was based on originality! Frankenstein’s Monster a la Karloff is at least 50 years old! It’s cliché!”
“So, everyone still remembers you and who you dressed as.”
“Dead wrong! Do you see anyone still looking at me? Asking for information? The saying that only participation counts is a big lie! Only the winners get their pictures and names in the paper! They’re the only ones people remember!”
“All right! Let’s go. How much time do you still have?”
“My return bus isn’t for two more hours. I could have gotten an earlier one if we hadn’t been made to mingle for three hours before we were judged!”
“Want to go out for dinner?”
“All-all right. Let me get my things from the office.”
I was still sobbing as I removed my outer garments and re-donned my extra civilian skirt. I bade goodbye to Ed, promising to keep him advised of needed authentic remodeling.
The Daniks and I went to a restaurant a few blocks away where I was able to get a good steak. As we ate, they seemed enthusiastic about my artistry. Since they were the media consultants for a facility named after Dracula, would they want to build a Dracula campaign around me? I informed them about a 3-act series of dances I had created which called for fluorescent costumes, concentrated light beams, shadow plays, and choreographed patterns and colors of lights.
But when the waitress brought the check, and Mr. Danik looked it over, he said to me, “Pay us the money you owe.”
“What? What money? I didn’t buy anything.”
“Yes, you did.” replied Mrs. Danik. “You bought your steak. We were kind enough to get it for you; now you must repay us.”
“Hey, just a minute! We didn’t discuss this or decide on this when we first got here! You never said I had to pay for what I ate!”
“If you expect us to give you the red-carpet treatment for your special dancing and costuming skills, you owe us a favor. Now pay up! How much do you have?”
I was in shock and panic as I opened my purse. “I-I have only two dollars! I need the rest to get home by two buses!”
“Well, give us the two bucks and pay the balance when you can.”
“I’ll have to send a check. I don’t know how long it might be before we see each other again.”
I was sobbing again as I headed for the bus, losing the contest to a cliché image, being tricked by those publicists, and hours from home. It must have been at least one in the morning when I finally came through my door, and I still had to hang up my costume, feed my two cats, undress, put away my things, get my clothes ready for work tomorrow, and shower.
Over the next few days I reviewed my experiences of the past two months. I also scrutinized the printed brochures. Obviously, I had a monumental mission ahead to make this site a meritorious, authentic attraction. Had I had a similar experience in the past? Not with Dracula, but-but…
Of course! When I was in the seventh grade, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was one of the entries in my English reader. I was excessively fond of the story at the time and also owned a number of commercial fashion dolls.
When the time drew near for my class to begin reading the story, I decided to dress the dolls as the main characters, in self-made doll-size costumes! I would pass the dolls around among the students!
I owned some commercial doll-size clothes patterns which I used to recreate the period garments as best as I could. Unfortunately, there were no patterns for Victorian garb. I had nearly finished all the outfits when my mother barged in and gave all my work the thumbs down!
Not one costume, as I had made it, satisfied my mother. She claimed not one was 100% authentic! She showed me an illustrated edition of the book and several encyclopedias. All my workmanship was wrong in terms of garment length, pieces’ shapes, features, colors, etc. I was mortally blown and began to cry.
My mother showed no sympathy. I was compelled to start all over. I had to rip apart, get more cloth, cut anew, combine two or more patterns, change colors, change decorations, sew pieces together differently, remake props, etc.
I had been happy and motivated when doing my original work. Now all the enjoyment was gone. My mother was not positive; she was stern and overbearing. She did not care that my previous work was wasted or that my morale was destroyed.
“Only one thing counts: authenticity. No matter how much effort or time or emotion you spend, remember that others will see your work and analyze it to determine your grade.”
I had not been assigned this task; it was self-motivated! Neither was I being graded; it was a labor of love! I had not sought help; my mother had taken the liberty.
When the day came for me to present the dolls, I was not entirely happy. My soul would forever bear the scars of intrusion and perfectionism.
Now, I spend the next few days scrutinizing the Marine West brochures and recalling what I had seen within the complex. If the castle, boat ride, wax museum, and food booths were to be authenticated as I saw it necessary, it would be a massive undertaking.
I mailed one brochure to Radu Florescu; wait until he saw how Big Business was making use, or not making use, of the research! Part of the printing insisted the castle had been “removed stone by stone from the Carpathian Mountains”! The geographic locale was correct, but I had seen that the building was not of stone. More importantly: photos and text revealed the scarcity of thematic relevance, within the exhibits, to either the Impaler or the Count! There were several pictured themes that would have to be discontinued.
For weeks I reviewed the remaining flier, the research books, other books about period dress, one restaurant review of Romanian cuisine, and the Romanian home landers’ disapproval of Stoker’s vampire and novel.
I imagined a series of tableaux, each with scenery and mannequins in period dress. The series would illustrate incidents throughout Dracula’s real life, with only a couple of tableaux at the finish focused on the Count. Depicted incidents would run from suspenseful or pathetic to mostly horrendous. One tableau would call for part of the boat ride to pass it. The largest amount of indoor space would contain as huge an impalement scene as possible, with myriads of “bleeding” skewered mannequins.
I wrote a list of all the prospective scenes and another of the corresponding elements of shock, suspense, pathos, horror, etc.
Next, I re-examined the brochure. One photo was of a black hooded and robed teen “spook” menacing a pair of passengers in one of the boats. Costumes and makeup among the spooks were too general for a facility of horrors which bore a definitive name. One text passage claimed that the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Hulk, etc., were popular, in reality they were not connected to one another, let alone to Dracula: the creators had lived in different times and places, never knowing one another. And there was one repulsive theme in text and photo: “…something that will sear your eyes -the sacrifice of a muted virgin!” The photos showed a small room with two goats’ heads on opposite walls; two hooded and robed men with uplifted heads and hands as if praying; and between them what appeared to be a naked woman, dead white, supine, with all her blood vessels exposed! These tableaux did no justice to the Dracula name. The last emphasized Satan worship, nudity, and burnt offerings -totally immoral and inappropriate for children. All these irrelevant and grotesque displays would have to be discontinued.
I sent my list of authentic scenes, some illustrations photocopied from the research books, and the list of undesirable themes to Marine West.
Sometime later I telephoned Dr. Florescu. “I was not impressed,” he said about the brochure. I hadn’t expected him to be; I had had to send it to him as evidence.
In the months that followed, I communicated frequently with Marine West about carrying out the authentications. But my immediate contact, one of the managers, said the company’s board of directors, not the employees, had to be briefed about any proposed plans and had the last word. Oh, no! How many valuable ideas or gifts could end up watered down or lost altogether by having to be caught up in red tape?
The board members refused to accept that in reality, Dracula looked and dressed as shown in the Castle Ambras portrait and other illustrations. Neither did they tolerate his birth and death dates shown together; they refused to admit he was mortal (his head was cut off in combat). No, they insisted he never died and is still at large!
Crowd control was a priority. Unlike supermarket, library, hotel, museum, or other facility consisting of many rooms or lanes, the castle had a fixed route through which only a limited number of customers could walk, and exit after 15 minutes, at any one time; there never were multitudes moving in many areas and directions at once.
I hoped I would be invited to dance on special occasions. But the board said no inside space in the castle was large enough. Neither was an outdoor stage, repeatedly constructed and deconstructed, possible.
The board stated that the boat ride, wax museum, roller coaster, and food windows were not part of the castle, but independent units! Why, then, were they photographed and advertised collectively on the single flier, with “Castle Dracula” as the only overall title in the biggest print?
My heart sank at the scenario of the castle’s not being as significant as it was fostered. I thought I was going to bring a colossal makeover resulting in a Dracula wonderland! Instead, my perspective influence had been made much smaller.
The board members fretted over the massive quantities of new construction, de- and re-construction, buying raw materials, buying and making 3-D art, props, figurines, scenery, sight/sound effects, period costumes, and of course the labor and man hours involved in authenticating the castle. Excuses! The members had forgotten what it was like to be on the other side of the coin. In their individual lives, as infants to toddlers they were imposed the concepts of motor skills, eating, manners, and etiquette with no choice or say; all through school they were saddled with a multiplicity of courses and relevant books, essays, questionnaires, tests, experiments, examinations, reviews, field trips, progress reports, evaluations, and homework all in the name of great intelligence and experience and expertise, with work hours, stress, and emotions counting for nothing; when learning trades or getting jobs, they bore the same burdens of “all work, no (or little) play,” “business before pleasure,” “doing one’s best” but failing to satisfy the other sides, and being not people in their own rights, but others’ subordinates. Weren’t current board members, now allegedly superiors with the world under their thumbs, subjecting their individual families to the same burdens, pressures, intimidations, and hurt feelings? So long as the job was done, and as meritoriously as possible, absolutely nothing else counted.
Here I recalled a painful college experience. In one of my courses, I wrote a collection of children’s creative arts-and-crafts projects in conjunction with obvious holidays. But the course instructor gave me a D! She wrote editorial comments all over my manuscript, denouncing every project, finding fault with this, that, and the other thing in page after page! The common denominator seemed to be “What does this activity teach? Why bother with it?”
Apparently, amusement or enjoyment or entertainment or recreation alone was not enough; participants also had to learn something practical for life! From birth to communicating, children were imposed with topics and lessons by their no-nonsense parents and relatives who tested the children for perfection. Upon starting first grade, children had to sit at desks for hours at a time and also start “putting more eggs into one basket” by having to take school home via homework. The higher a student climbed the grade ladder, the more eggs he/she was made to put into the one basket via a multiplicity of topics, essays, research papers, experiments, tests, examinations, book reports, projects assigned over weekends and holidays and even summer, field trips, etc., meant to make the student crammed full of knowledge, a serious attitude, more and more time spent on work than on recreation, with even the recreation having to be practical rather than just enjoyable. Even after coming of age, and for the rest of his/her life, the average person was goaded to make all of his/her waking hours into chores, tasks, duties, drudgeries: “all work, no (or little) play… business before pleasure (if pleasure was allowed at all)… you must always improve yourself…” so that in the end an average lifestyle might as well have resembled those of the Puritans: somber, laborious, stifled, regimented, devoid of recreation or amusement.
In seventh grade I had been told that only authenticity counted; in college I had been told that only knowledge, learning, and practicality counted. Were these the matters all that counted in an amusement park’s horror facility which bore a definitive name? Were these “party poopers” pertinent to all businesses, school activities outside of studies, and any/all forms of recreation?
Obviously, these rules applied to everyone, with no exceptions. Everyone had been taught them (sternly!) and were expected to obey them blindly all their lives. In that case, Marine West was obliged even further to authenticate the castle!
One time a board member told me a survey had been taken. Several members had questioned passersby what they thought of the castle’s exhibits and other contents. “I don’t care what’s in there.” “Why should it be authentic?” “Who cares as long as it’s scary?” “I don’t care.” These and virtually verbatim replies were those the surveyors claimed they received.
What was I hearing! After all I had seen and heard? Public discontent and demand for change from stereotypes? The rediscovery, manifestation, and worldwide absorption of the facts being the answers to public prayers? The truth becoming common knowledge? All the follow-up books, plays, films, toys, souvenirs, etc.? Actors attempting to play the Count overseas being denied entry by a number of countries? All the rules about sticking to the subject? Authenticity? Only the truth counting? Reality superseding fantasy? Debunking myths or superstitions? Enlightening, rather than just amusing oneself as much as possible about anything or everything?
I had not been forced-fed all these concepts alone; so had the public. Now this board member was saying the average public cared nothing about authenticity -or lack of it -within a structure bearing a thematic name. “What you insist upon is costly, time-consuming, and laborious. How are we supposed to function? We have to make money to stay in business.”
I looked quickly around the room. When and where had this survey been made? Who and what were the people who had been questioned? How many board members had been involved? Only the one member and I were in the room. I found absolutely no corroborating evidence, visible or audible. I had not been present at the incident. I was getting all the information second-hand from the one member!
“You will make money by making the exhibits authentic to the Dracula name and story! You don’t need a hodgepodge of scary but unrelated characters. He’s well enough alone! Real-life incidents duplicated by horrific tableaux; the customers will be scared out of their wits; and they’ll also learn the facts!”
“Remember! This is a public attraction. The whole country learned and knows the truth as well as the fiction. You expect customers to be scared, but they’ll also look the place over and analyze it for relevancy. It’ll be rated, just like a movie or a restaurant.”
I recalled my own two morbidly corrective experiences and my mother’s having said: “No matter how much effort or time or emotion you spend, remember that others will see your work and analyze it to determine your (school) grade (or business/professional rating).”
In the next several weeks, board members instructed me to call the company on a given day at a specific hour “whereupon we’ll have reached a decision.” But when the designated moment came, I got only the voicemail! Some calls I made on my own had the same fruitless results.
On July 13, 1979, Frank Langella’s Dracula movie premiered in a number of key U.S. cities. The newspapers’ centerfolds were two full pages of promos! One of them contained “FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW!” in sets of short paragraphs more than half the height of the page.
Obviously, the average reader was expected to take these statements as gospel; the contents were infallible, the unquestionable truth about the man. But when I read these passages, I found abundant mistakes!
If the movie was debuting in Boston today, those faulty contents in the newspapers would reach the eyes of the topmost authorities, Drs. Florescu and McNally! They would be enraged! What would they think or say or do about these mutilations?
The next time I contacted Marine West, the voice at the other end sounded stern and cold. “We have important facts for you.” The voice confused Dracula with Dracul, his father, born in 1434 -three years too late! His name was not Vlad, but Vladimir; the name Dracula stemmed from the devil, not dragon; an excavation revealed a coffin with “fresh black earth”; the man had never died but had survived as a vampire and still was at large as of that moment.
I recognized certain names and phrases as verbatim from the movie ads! But how, when, and where had Marine West gotten the name Vladimir? The connection to the devil? 1434 as the birth year?
“No, no!” I struggled. “That was his father!… I taught you about the Order of the Dragon!… the name Vladimir is Russian!… the excavation was at Snagov!… you know he was decapitated… he died in 1476!… Stoker’s novel alone made that image… I showed you that portrait!… you saw the books by the authorities themselves!… you learned that he was real, and how he looked and dressed!…”
“We are not interested in authenticity. We’re in the amusement park business, not the museum business! (But there was a Hollywood Wax Museum on the premises). We have to make money to stay in business. All we care about is making money.”
Why had the company turned its collective back on what I had taught the “top brass” about Dracula’s real story and times? Why had it first been impressed by the facts and my expertise, but now was shunning them? By being concerned with only money and/or what the people wanted, Marine West was catering to very real vampires, active for eons but were not living beings: BIG BUSINESS and POPULAR PREFERENCE! These vampires preyed not on blood but on financial gain and the masses’ ignorance, with no scruples or reservations on how they prospered.
At the beginning of August, I became very worried. Soon it would be time for me to depart for Wildwood Crest again. Would I be welcome to do anything at the castle? The day before I was supposed to leave, I called Marine West. But the board said I was fired; they repeated the previous statements about the Dracula – Dracul, Vlad – Vladimir, and devil – dragon impasses; they again denied that Dracula was mortal; that he looked and dressed as shown in the research books. “We do not care about authenticity! We are not repeating the end-of-the-season masquerade! From now on, all we care about is making money.”
“You’d better be satisfied pleasing the vampire Big Business!!!”
I had been fired. I, a Dracula authority who had met and learned from the Dracula authorities. Though I had never earned any money, I was no longer a historical advisor.
The vintage TV-series Bewitched had a story in which Benjamin Franklin was time-warped by witchcraft to the 20th century. The actor who played Franklin, Fredd Wayne, was also the historical advisor! Did the multitudes involved in production, management, and direction heed Wayne’s advice in authenticity and/or correctness?
What about the movies? How many films, over time, set in bygone eras, could have forced authenticity and accuracy to play second fiddle to budgets, cost-cutting, convenience, and popular preference? The Disney animated film Pocahontas was criticized for many historic mistakes. How many movies whose stories originated as literature willfully changed, added to, or subtracted from the originals? How many altered movies were taken as gospel when the viewers saw the movies, not the original sources first? What about stories that began as plays, and later were made into films, with consequential confusion and protests?
Being a Dracula expert expelled from a Dracula facility was a stigma; I might as well have been skewered or stabbed through the heart on the spot, but I did not die; I lived on to feel nonstop pain and anguish.
What would Drs. Florescu and McNally think? Dr. Florescu had been sent that brochure and was displeased. I feared that I had failed them; I had let them down. Would they hold me in contempt?
Frequently, I had thought of The Ten Commandments, specifically at the time when the old Egyptian nurse says to the princess, “For 30 years I have kept silent… Not one drop of royal blood flows through his (Moses’s) veins.” Something similar/identical could be said about this fraudulent castle: “Not one drop of proper blood runs though it’s corridors.”
I shortened my planned shorefront vacation by one day. I knew now that the castle was out of bounds, but in entering and leaving Wildwood the public buses used the local terminal which was only a block away! In time the terminal was relocated twice, but the buses still had to use roads that paralleled the road and intersection the castle was built on! My heart would ache as I passed, and my face would sadden, considering that all my work and dedication had been laid to waste.
One year after I was fired, the Burlington County Times did an in-depth Dracula article on me. Shortly after it was released, I received a letter from a Romanian-born teen boy in Florence, NJ or thereabouts. I contacted him about the castle, since by now it was about to reopen for another tourist season. “How’d you like to be my spy, my investigator?”
I think the boy’s name was George. He agreed to my proposal. When he returned from his mission, he reported, “It (the castle) was not what it was supposed to be.” One tableau he described was a girl’s execution by guillotine; the device had not yet been invented in Dracula’s time!
The years passed; I had bad scares followed by deeply reaching pangs of woe and failure. There were TV commercials, billboards, and revolving signs with “Castle Dracula” in huge white letters against black, sometimes bat-shaped backgrounds, words and phrases about the other attractions were much smaller. Sometimes the castle’s ads emphasized it as “world-famous”! Was the company trying to pass off the fraudulent castle as the Castle Dracula in the homeland? (“Removed stone by sone…”) Sometimes I glanced at it for a couple of seconds; I might as well have heard villainous laughter. Or, the castle might as well have had a grotesque face sticking out its tongue at me! “Nyah, nyah!”
In 1988, I was in a Halloween parade in Wildwood; I was Supergirl. But the route terminated at the Cedar Avenue pier! Unlike all the other amusement piers that jutted perpendicularly from the boardwalk like stuck-out tongues toward the ocean, this one – the castle’s! – went the other way like an ingrown toenail, back toward the street. It being October now, with summer over with, the castle was closed off by a long, high fence. I could not bear to look upon the facility.
In the late 80’s, I went to Strawbridge & Clothier, one of Philadelphia’s major department stores. Brochures in the mail advertised a Christmastime walk-through exhibition of scenes from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! As if touring a museum, visitors went on a set labyrinth-like path through scenes peopled by three-quarter-sized mannequins. These representative tableaux dramatized the story so that the plot enraptured those who knew it by heart and made it clear to those less familiar or totally unfamiliar with the story.
I was an enraptured tourist as I went through the exhibition. Each tableau was an authentic re-creation of a scene from the story in terms of streets, building fronts and interiors, furniture and props, lighting, and mannequins in character/period dress. In place of live or taped narration, there were printed explanatory signs in the tableaux’ corners, depending on what scenes were represented therein. Though following a set path, visitors had no guards urging them along; a visitor could backtrack to whatever scene he/she especially liked and stay there as long as he/she wished. Tourists emerged educated and enlightened, but they had also enjoyed themselves. They were not interrogated or tested in the aftermath.
Brochures never fretted about quantities or types of raw materials, planning of the route, deciding what incidents to duplicate, constructing scenery or backdrops or furniture or props or streets, duplicating snow, coding sections of wall or fence or floor, etc., for easier deconstruction and storage and reconstruction, and certainly strain, man hours, stress, morale, exhaustion or total labor time for original assembly, deconstruction, storage, or reconstruction.
I was happy when I came home but a while later, I began to cry. I cried bitterly! This exhibit had taken a popular topic and faithfully reproduced it in a series of walk-past dramatic tableaux! The parent company, although it needed to make money, had spared nothing in the name of authenticity! It had taken a serious, conscientious attitude! It had done a totally meritorious job! The very first scene had a Charles Dickens mannequin at work at its desk. One of my imagined tableaux, in correct order of time, would have shown Bram Stoker in an identical setup! This organization in Philadelphia had done the very perfectionist project that Marine West had refused to do, the equivalent, with the name and story of Dracula!
1997 was the hundredth anniversary of the novel. That Halloween I was in the Wildwood parade again. Since the judging took place before lining up, I showed both sides of Dracula, but rearranged my garments so that I would appear as Vlad Tepes for the procession. But the route again, terminated on the Cedar Avenue pier. This time I had to go further within the pier because the trophy table and some food and game booths had been set up farther along the way.
I forced myself to look at the castle, steadily. I could again feel the hypothetical thorn in my side, the malicious laughter, and the painless but overwhelming curse on my head.
I lowered my head and sobbed. A man asked what was wrong. I don’t remember giving my name, but I did tell him I was an expert and impersonator, and how I had tried vainly to get the castle authenticated.
“Rumor has it they’re reopening it again.”
“Impossible! This isn’t the tourist season.”
“No, for Halloween.”
“Oh, dear!” I had not been on the premises since 1978. “Do you know if the current owners ever tried to improve the exhibits? Or else the Halloween visitors will see just the same old cliches and trash!”
Because the facility still bore the name Dracula, was the current parent company aware, at all, that this year was the novel’s hundredth anniversary? Was the castle being reopened briefly in conjunction?
Sometime in January 2002, around dinnertime, I was TV-channel-hopping when I came to the evening news. A burning building was shown; the anchorman announced: “Castle Dracula has burned to the ground, at the hands of arsonists!”
It was completely destroyed!
The curse was lifted! The thorn was out of my side!
I squealed with ecstasy! I thanked God; I was free!
I had to notify David, my long-time maritime friend.
Most of all, I notified Radu Florescu, the authority and a very special friend!