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Anna Friel as Erzsébet in Bathory (2008)

Have you heard of Erzsébet Báthory a.k.a. Elizabeth Bathory? If you have, it may be from the legend of her as the serial killer who bathed in the blood of 650 dead virgins, or from her reputation as sort of the female Dracula of the 16th century. She was a real woman, and she was convicted of more than enough murders to qualify as a serial killer, and she’s also connected with the archetype of the older woman murderously jealous of the beauty of younger women, and she’s also the Guinness World Record holder for the most victims for a female serial killer (yes really). She lived in Hungary in the 16th century, is widely believed to have gruesomely killed at least 80 young women, and died bricked into a tiny room of the same castle she used as her murderous playground. This story is everything.

You can see the influence not only of the actual Erzsébet Báthory, but of the numerous folk tales that sprung up about her murderous deeds, in a certain type of female character: think Game of Thrones’s Cercei Lannister, Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman, Angelina Jolie in MaleficentShe was a wealthy serial killer who preyed perhaps exclusively on young woman, posthumously rumoured to bathe in the blood of young virgins in an allegory that simultaneously shamed vanity while propagating the notion that youth is always preferable to aging; a double-edged sword that simultaneously shames and empowers women.

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Julie Delpy as Erzsébet in The Countess (2009)

Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed was born in Hungary in 1560 to one of the most powerful European families. Her uncle, Stephen Báthory, was the King of Poland and Prince of Transylvania and the rest of her family, on both sides, were nobility and/or monarchy. She was extremely well educated, speaking and reading in four languages, and because of her family’s power and influence, wielded much more power than that of most women of the era. At the height of her powers, her family’s estates covered a third of Europe; 4500 people attended her marriage, at age 15, to Lord Ferenc Nádasdy. (Ferenc, for the record, was a war hero known for his bizarre cruelty, including playing football with the heads of Turkish captives and dancing with their corpses so like… that’s the level of brutality we’re dealing with here).

She and Ferenc had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Erzsébet took both male and female lovers, including her children’s governess, a woman named Anna Darvulia who also, allegedly, taught her torture techniques. Erzsébet surrounded herself with women — female servants, courtiers, and advisors, which sounds as badass as it was, but which also, as ever, aroused the suspicion of her political rivals and the area misogynists. In a manner similar to the Salem witch trial victims or Anne Boleyn or Clara Bow, stories of her murders and sexual adventures blossomed in the wake of widespread suspicion against her. Was she a powerful woman brought down by the patriarchy for daring to step outside her lane, or a notorious serial killer, or something in the middle?

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Delphine Seyrig as Elizabeth, a character based on Erzsébet, in Daughters of Darkness (1971)

As the story goes, while Ferenc went off to play football with more enemy heads, Erzsébet managed their immense estates, during which time she was known for the charity she showed to women in dire straits on the castle property, why, even taking peasant girls in as servants and inviting higher class girls to the castle for etiquette lessons. Too bad most of them never left… Because basically, that was her alleged modus operandi: get young women, teenage girls mostly, to come to the castle either under false pretenses or via abduction and basically torture them to death. The whole “bathing in virgin blood” was never actually proven, but is so visceral and just feels right that it’s become a permanent part of her legend — and that of her pop culture appearances, like in the video game and movie Staying Alive or the Hammer horror film Countess Dracula, as well as in many of the renderings of her found on DeviantArt or Tumblr. An older woman preying on young women just feels like a legend that’s always been around, the vanity and gruesomeness of bathing in her victims’ blood likewise sounds plausible in a time when beauty regimes included lead-based paint and doctors regularly let blood to cure basically anything.

She lived with Ferenc for many years, up until he died in 1604 of a mysterious illness that had left him unable to use his legs for a few years prior. As was the custom of the times, his estate, Erzsébet, and his children were all entrusted to a super-powerful man named György Thurzó. Remember that name (how could you forget it, really?)

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Julia Pietrucha as Carmilla, a character based on Erzsébet, in Angels of Darkness (2014)

So, apparently around the time of Ferenc’s death, rumours began to catch on about Erzsébet’s hobby of murdering young women. Finally, in 1610, György Thurzó (remember?), by then the Palatine of Hungary, began investigating. More than three hundred witnesses were interviewed, along with three of Erzsébet’s female servants who had been reported as her accomplices. They shared tales of seeing or hearing about the girls being “beaten, burned and plunged into ice baths, sometimes wielding the red-hot pokers, tongs and needles herself. She was said to whip girls with nettles; smear them with honey and leave them to the mercy of ants and wasps; light explosives attached to their limbs: and even, it was claimed, cook and eat their flesh.” (source)

Some witnesses actually saw her murder girls; others found marks of torture on bodies buried on the grounds; and others reported having seen her torture and kill girls while on some of her other properties. György, finally convinced of her guilt, went to her castle on December 30, 1610, and arrested her and four of her servants. There is a rumour Erzsébet was found caught in the act of torturing a girl, founded mainly because that’s what György told the peasants after the fact, but it sounds more likely that György, or his men, merely found three girls dead or dying on the grounds at the time of the arrest.

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Ingrid Pitt as Elizabeth, a character based on Erzsébet, in Countess Dracula (1971)

Because Erzsébet’s family was so uber-powerful, with connections throughout the royal families and court system, the thought of her going to trial wasn’t even a question: the scandal would be too much, and allowing anyone to think that the nobility were fallible? Unheard of. György’s Plan A was to send her off to a nunnery, but her notoriety was such that they rather decided to sentence her to house arrest. This wasn’t like, Erzsébet hanging out in her castle, drinking Transylvanian wine and reading her favourite books: no, she was bricked into a tiny set of rooms so completely that the only gaps between the bricks were a slit to slide food in and out of, and a few air holes.

However, four of her accomplices were put on trial. And seemingly everyone in the country testified, up to thirty-five witnesses testifying each day, including most of Erzsébet’s servants. The number of victims was somewhat unclear, with numbers ranging between 36-50, though when one witness claimed to have seen Erzsébet record the statistic as 650, that number stuck in local folklore (the diary entry was never found, although Erzsébet’s letters and journals are still housed in an Archives in Hungary).

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Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) takes a blood bath in Penny Dreadful (2015)

Three of the four servants were condemned to death: two had their fingers ripped off with hot pincers, and then were burned at the stake; the third, who was though to be somehow less culpable, was merely beheaded. The fourth servant was given a life sentence rather than being put to death, as witness testimony suggested she was bullied into participating by the others.

After four years spent bricked into the castle that used to be her home, Erzsébet passed away fairly unceremoniously. Was she truly the monster she was made out to be, the Blood Countess she is still known as? Or was she the victim of a massive conspiracy, the hundreds of witnesses testifying against her paid off or bullied into defaming her? After all, she was never actually convicted of anything and her name came up only once during the trial.

Blood Countess, a Marvel comics villain based on Erzsébet

What is known is that Erzsébet was never convicted of anything. The story of her bathing in victim’s blood wasn’t included in any of the notes from the trial, making its first appearance in print a century after this all unfolded, in a 1729 account by the Jesuit scholar László Turóczi — notably, Bathory was a Protestant in a highly contested time and place, so there are obvious reasons a Catholic chronicler would tend to believe the worst rumours he’d heard about her.

The idea of an aging woman so desperate to cling to her youth and beauty that she would murder and bathe in her victims’ blood combines a denouncement of female vanity with the trope of desperate older women jealous of youth, sliding easily into the centuries’ old tendency to vilify older women while highly prizing younger women. Erzsébet was an independent woman who chose to surround herself with women, who took male and female lovers and also murdered dozens or hundreds of young girls to satisfy her sadism, or, some of that but minus the murder, or, none of that apart from the female entourage. Whatever the truth, Erzsébet is certainly a singular historical figure, worth remembering for more than just the murders she may have committed, as the unending series of female characters crafted in her stead would certainly prove.

Want to learn  more about Erzsébet? Both 2008’s Bathory: Countess of Blood, and 2009’s The Countess tell her story, while her life provided inspiration for 1971’s Daughters of Darkness, 2014’s Angels of Darkness, and 1971’s Countess Dracula. In terms of books, there are lots, and the one I like best is Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess by Tony Thorne.

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