Báthory’s Báth of Blood
Elizabeth Báthory was a late 16th and early 17th century Hungarian countess who spent most of her life in her hill-top castle Čachtice, in what is now Slovakia. She is believed to have tortured and killed over 600 young women, mostly offspring of local peasants, although some were daughters of lesser-aristocrats sent to Čachtice to learn courtly etiquette, and she wasn’t above the occasional moon-lit abduction.
The torture of the victims anecdotally featured severe beatings, burning and mutilation of hands, biting, sexual abuse, fatal operations, starving and freezing to death. The bodies were believed to be buried in mass, unmarked graves, but the killings weren’t particularly secret: stories of the atrocities spread very quickly.
In 1610, the countess was arrested along with four servants charged with being accomplices. Supposedly, they found one young lady dead and another in the process of dying when they arrived at her castle. Although her servants were charged and put to death (said to have had their finger nails pulled out and be burned alive, an ironic torture-for-torture), it was worried that sentencing the countess would damage the reputation of Hungarian nobility (oh no!). They considered sending her to a nunnery, possibly the worst idea in the history of the world (but would have made a great horror flick) before settling on house arrest.
The Báthory Countess lived out the rest of her days in a few rooms in her castle, from which the legends of the “Bloody Lady of Čachtice” spread outward, eventually becoming, along with Vlad the Impaler, one of the main inspirations for vampire myths.
So why did she do it? Many legends feature the Countess bathing in the blood of her victims in order to retain her youth and beauty. One story had her discovering blood’s rejuvenating effect after slapping a servant girl across the face so hard that she bled, and noted that where the blood splattered her skin felt so silky soft. (I’d like to see an Andie MacDowell L’Oreal commercial like that!)
Recent historians have questioned this theory, arguing that ‘female vanity’ as a motivation for murder demonstrates the traditional inability to accept masochistic violence from a woman. Similar to Lizzie Borden, who is thought to have gotten off because jurors couldn’t accept that a young woman would violently murder her family for no reason, the fact that the Countess may have had no rational motivation may be the most bone-chilling part of all.
Kept alive due to her aristocratic title, and rescued from sexist stereotypes by modern historians, Elizabeth Báthory’s gender has helped evolve her image once again, becoming cinema’s go-to sexy vampiric chick, from cheesy 1970’s slasher films to European erotic art house, recently played by Julie Delpy in 2009’s The Countess. Because the facts of her life are inseparable from the myths, each century’s version of Báthory says far more about the ongoing reconciliation of femininity and violence than it does about the actual historical personage.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about the Countess until she was named as an inspiration by Montreal designer Jose Manuel St-Jacques in my interview with him for WORN. He described his designs as the “proper attire for a virgin-hunt right before a bath of blood.” Click here to see pictures and read the whole interview, along with those of five other designers.