For the Girls

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Čachtice, Slovakia – July 2014

Wildflowers line the road leading up to Čachtice Castle, which was the favorite residence of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. This is most likely the same path used back in her day. The path that the girls would have taken. What was on their minds as they drew closer to the castle’s shadow, their meager possessions wrapped in a cloth? Was it pride at being chosen to work in the powerful woman’s service? And later, after the stories seeped into villages near and far, did dread fill their souls?

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A group of locals passes by, heading back to the village. They sport Čachtice t-shirts and proud smiles. The castle has just reopened after some renovation. In the village square, a rough wooden sculpture of the Countess and a wailing servant girl greets visitors. It’s only a matter of time before there are Bathory day tours from Bratislava. Much needed revenue will come to this lonely village. It’s also an ironic sort of vengeance.

Further along, a middle-aged man wielding a hose stands at the end of his driveway. His gut balloons out of a t-shirt many sizes too small. He barks at a couple who have just stepped out of their car. Don’t park on the grass across from his house! They must park in the castle parking lot, which costs more than the entrance fee to the castle itself. Before I reach the top of the hill, I pause by a large patch of wildflowers. I reach out to pluck some that are in full bloom, but then stop myself. Instead, I choose one, just one, that is withering on the stem.

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The castle is a large ruin perched on the side of a mountain. Brand new wooden ramps allow visitors to get closer to the structure. Storm clouds approach, but for now the sunlight illuminates even the darkest corners. Couples pose for selfies. A group of young Slovaks strolls through the compound blowing bubbles. Families picnic on the hillside. Little girls skip down the paths and giggle, oblivious to the macabre history.

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According to legend, Countess Bathory tortured over six hundred young girls to death. She bathed in their blood, because she thought it would preserve her beauty. This story, like that of Vlad Dracula, is the product of imagination and time. Blood coagulates too quickly for one to bathe in it, and, even though the alleged murders took place over a thirty-year period of time and in several of the Countess’s many estates, six hundred is an unreal number of young girls to go missing. Especially during this era of constant war and plague and low life expectancy.

Does it matter whether it was six or six hundred? She did torture servant girls, sometimes to death. In those days, cruelty to servants was expected. Peasants were considered as property, not human beings. But she went way beyond what was acceptable, even back then. She was born into one of the most powerful families in Hungary. She was more highly educated than most nobles. She married one of the most illustrious soldiers of the time, Ferenc Nadasdy. He was known for his great courage and extreme cruelty to the Ottoman prisoners. It is said that he schooled her on unique ways of torturing the servant girls. For example, one girl was stripped naked, covered in honey, and left outside to be stung by wasps.

While her husband was away at battle, which was most of the time, the Countess efficiently managed their vast estates and doted over their children. She also continued to practice her hobby. Girls would be stripped naked, taken outside in the bitter cold of winter, and doused with water until they froze to death. She had three accomplices: a burly washerwoman of great physical strength, a deformed dwarf, and a woman who was rumored to be a witch. After her husband died, the tortures escalated. The descriptions are too sickening for me to ponder. There is too much blood.

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Early on, the local Lutheran minister voiced his concern, more than once, to the Hungarian King. Given her absolute power, this was a very courageous thing for him to do. For years, nothing was done. The King owed her huge sums of money. Besides, the girls were just Slovak peasants. However, when girls from the lesser Hungarian nobility started to disappear, something had to be done. Her accomplices were executed, and her property was confiscated. In order to spare the nobility and her family name the shame, she wasn’t put on trial. She was bricked up in her bedchamber until she died a few years later. It was forbidden to speak her name in polite society for one hundred years.

In recent years, there has been talk of a conspiracy. Church records show that an unusually high number of young girls died while she was at Čachtice, as well as her other properties. The revisionists claim that she was actually trying to help the girls by performing abortions. Right. With so many deaths, a truly benevolent person would have realized that she didn’t have what it takes to be an effective abortionist, and, therefore, would have given up the practice and just allowed the girls to live with the shame. Of course noblemen swooped in on her wealth. Never let a good crisis go to waste. This attitude still exists in the modern political realm.

But, enough about her.

There is nothing fascinating about a psychopath. Empty subhuman creatures. The only reason to devote any contemplation to them is to learn how to spot them, avoid them, deflect them. For they are among our trusted leaders and admired celebrities. Presenting a polished smile to the crowds and cameras, but revealing the monster behind closed doors. They are among us.

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Even the cheerful sunshine can’t dispel the chill in my blood. The profound sadness at the unfair reality of life.

I lay the wilted wildflower down. For the girls.

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63 thoughts on “For the Girls

    • Yes, of course I know about this, and similar situations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Governments could easily do more, but they don’t. Kinda makes you wonder why they don’t, doesn’t it?

        • The thing is…it’s not just women who are exploited and tortured, and, as we see in this case, women are sometimes the perpetrators. With sex trafficking, there are often older women involved, sometimes their own family members, in gaining the girls’ trust. Because a woman couldn’t possibly betray them. Maybe the women are “only” the traffickers and not the customers, but it’s appalling just the same,

      • Yes it is difficult… really… but we need to face the reality and try at our level to act in the most fair way But what we consider as fair can be conseidered as unfair by some other… very complicated. But cruelty is something that really shocked me… and that some people feel superior to some others seems to me a deep lack of reflection.

        • Exactly. We need to stop seeing only what we want to see. It’s difficult for those of us with empathy to understand the mindset of someone who has absolutely none. But we’ve got to make the effort.

  1. What an absolutely sickening piece of history. I didn’t know about it before.
    What was the reason for refurbishing the castle ruins? It must have been difficult to go inside, knowing the history.

    • And I left out the worst of it. It’s really unspeakable, the imagination that went into the cruelty. At least Vlad the Impaler had the excuse of protecting his country from the Turks. Bathory picked on little peasant girls. What a coward.

      I think they refurbished the ruins because they want to encourage tourism. I’m surprised it wasn’t done sooner, as it’s very easy to take a day trip there from Bratislava. Slovakia is filled with atmospheric castle ruins and they are all visited at your own risk. Going on a sunny summer day was a bit surreal and when I went into the underground part of it, I got physically sick. I may go back in the gloomier season and take more photos, but I probably won’t go inside.

  2. Hi Julie , informative post , though macabre . hard to imagine there was so much cruelty surrounding some of the ruins in eastern europe . it will be interesting to introspect if humanity has evolved after all these atrocities . sad fact is cruelty still abounds in sophisticated forms…regards…raj

    • Hi Raj – you’re right, mainstream cruelty has become more sanitized. I don’t think we’ve evolved at all. The really nasty stuff has just gone underground. Gloomy thought, for sure. Thanks for reading, as always. Julie

  3. My education has been lacking – until I read your post I had not heard of Elizabeth Bathory and yet when I Google her, any number of horror movies come up. The 2008 film Bathory seems to have everything in there but the kitchen sink. Her name is almost an aptronym (I had to look that up 🙂 ) – i.e. bath and gory. Thanks for sharing Julie – fascinating.

    • Ha. That name thing never occured to me. It’s surprising that she’s not more well-known, but more people are hearing of her, hence the castle ruin renovations. I’ve seen that Bathory film, which is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayel given that it’s by a Slovak writer/director. It’s an odd film, with touches of bizarre humor. There’s another one starring Julie Delpy called The Countess. It’s much darker, but still a “historical” film rather than straight horror.

  4. “Even the cheerful sunshine can’t dispel the chill in my blood” this says it all for me..the stark contrast of the goodness of humanity and the wickedness of humanity. Such an illuminating post!

  5. Your tribute to the lost girls was beautifully moving. Despite the wooden sculpture in the village square, it doesn’t seem like many visitors are aware of the castle’s tragic history?

  6. I wish I could say that these macabre acts are in the past. unfortunately they still happen. In India every other day we have some horrific news of young girls being mistreated, tortured and raped. And to think we actually have a day to celebrate horror!

  7. I knew the story but you make it more alive with the pictures of the castle and the way you tell it. And it reminds me I’ve never seen “The countess”, so I’ll rent the dvd.

  8. how many atrocities in this world, same stories trought the centuries.. I’m shocked Julie. You’re right: there’s nothing fascinating about a psychopaths. What a contrast between the blue serene sky over the ruins and what you could have felt visiting it.

    • Yes, it was quite a contrast – the weather and the place. At first I thought I wanted to visit it in foggy weather, but now I’m glad that I went during a lovely sunny day, because the contrast shows how dark things can hide behind the superficial.

  9. Wonderful post… Intriguing, captivating but above all heartfelt and poignant.
    Countess Bathory was an awfully cruel woman!.
    And yet you put aside the dark side of the story by highlighting life and simplicity.
    As you chose a flower, withering on the stem and laid it down as a tribute to the victims of the Countess.
    Thanks a lot for sharing. Best wishes to you, dear Julie ⭐
    Aquileana 😀

  10. Although the subject is macabre, your writing is so beautiful. “There is nothing fascinating about a psychopath” – I love this. Unfortunately, it is something the media doesn’t understand and psychopaths are continuously given the attention they don’t deserve.

  11. I have come back a second time to read your powerful post. Good versus evil is a thread throughout history. In hindsight, it is easy to say that we would have had courage to stand against the evil, but it is not that easy, especially when there is a threat to you or those you love. I consider this to be a “wicked problem” – a problem that is too difficult, even impossible to solve because of its contradictory patterns and changeability. I think these problems are solved first within ourselves and demonstrated by the choices we make. There does come a tipping point….

    “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  12. There are periods where wildflowers litter my poetry like tree confetti, they always hold something one struggles to touch at times.

    Wildflower seeds, are freedom waiting on changing winds, lingering in moments, playing for time and chance to find fertile ground, or just the slightest of fractures on the hardest of rock surfaces. For after the storms and broken days, those seeds to the wildflower you left behind, will find new places, and perhaps other people will gain a chance to remember the girls, the shortness to their fleeting seasons.

  13. the worst part no one help the girls
    I bet people new and did not do
    anything to help them, good post
    the photos go so well with this sad story

    • People knew – the peasants were powerless to stop her and so poor and desperate that they had no choice but to send their daughters to work for her. The King didn’t investigate the local minister’s complaints, because he owed her a lot of money and the girls were Slovak peasants. He was forced to do something when girls from the lower Hungarian nobility started to disappear.

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  15. On my recent holiday in Slovakia I failed to visit Čachtice though I have seen a number of castles. This story is frightening. Loving your shots!

    • Thank you, Paula. I’ve heard that Slovakia has the most castles (though mostly ruins) of any country in Europe. Cachtice is one of the most well-known and, of course, notorious.

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