Given Hollywood fascination with period pieces, with violence, and especially with vampires, one would imagine that the tale of Elizabeth Bathory would have been well-covered — trampled upon, even — by now. And while there have been books written about the Blood Countess, both fictional and historical, and though the likes of The Discovery Channel and TruTV have covered the life of Bathory, Hollywood has been surprisingly mum, save for a obscure 2008 movie starring Anna Friel that never advanced further than the AFI Film Festival (it was, however, released in Czechoslovakia, where it made $3 million). A 1971 film, Daughters of Darkness, set in the then present day, was also undoubtedly inspired by Countess Bathory, though it was a vampire tale set in a vacation resort.
The life of Elizabeth Bathory is a gruesome one, infused with legend, and covered in sweet, sticky blood. The Countess Dracula, as she would be referred in 18th century folklore, may have even inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some suggest that Dracula may have been a composite of Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, and with a body count reportedly as high as 650, Bathory might be considered one of the most prolific serial killers in world history. Some historians even suggest that Bathory, after killing her victims, drained their blood and bathed in it, so as to keep her youth and beauty (the conceit behind the above Daughters of Darkness). It’s a deliciously sordid tale, full of politics, sex, and blood. So very much blood. It’d be the kind of film, if done correctly, that could completely transform the career of one of Hollywood’s young actresses known for putting on a corset, drinking tea, and speaking with a proper English accent. Who needs Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies when there’s a real-life vampire serial killer ripe for the telling and a woman like Keira Knightley or Natalie Portman to bathe in the blood of servants.
Born in Hungary in 1560, Elizabeth Bathory grew up during a period in which most of her country was being overrun by the Ottoman Empire. When Elizabeth was 11 years old, her cousin Stephen became the Prince of Transylvania (and later, the King of Poland). Elizabeth entered into an engagement with Ferenc Nádasdy, although between the time she was engaged and the time she married, she had a brief affair with a peasant, and she was sequestered until she delivered the baby and could marry Nádasdy.
Nádasdy was a soldier, so he spent most of his time away, fighting in wars, which left Elizabeth home alone and a nice big castle with nothing to do but kill the help. And kill, she did. It apparently started with simple discipline: She wanted to keep the servants in line, particularly the young girls. She loved to torture them, sticking pins under their fingernails or in other sensitive parts, and she had a particularly cruel means in which she liked to murder those servants. For instance, she liked to strip her servants, send them out into the snow, and then douse water on them until they froze to death. Other accounts suggest that she stripped servants, covered them in honey, and allowed the insects to eat them alive. Her husband, during time at home and away from war, even liked to join Bathory’s games and why not? Nobility could do as they wished, at the time.
It wasn’t until after Bathory’s husband died that she really began to pick up her game, enrolling the assistance of her friends, like Anna Darvulia and Erzsi Majorova. These associates were primarily tasked with finding young women for Elizabeth to torture and kill. Bathory took delight in performing unneeded surgeries on her servants (often resulting in death), mutilating their hand, faces, and genitalia; eating their flesh; starving them to death; and sexually abusing them. Some were tortured for weeks; others were forced to eat their own flesh. Most of her victims were the adolescent daughters of servants, lured to the castle with the promise of well-paid work. She was particularly fond of the buxom, feisty women because they could survive the torture for longer periods of time.
Bathory, one of the most powerful aristocrats of the time, was able to get away with the murders because no one dared question her, because they were afraid of her power, and because Bathory and her family were far wealthier than the King of Hungary himself. She was able to carry out these murders at three different resident castles over the years, and in places between, too. Some suggest Bathory — who was uncommonly intelligent, fluent in three languages — was completely insane, although given what she was able to accomplish, others believe she was in full control of her faculties.
As she aged and her beauty began to fade and her fortunes began to dwindle, however, her cruelty — driven by her jealousy of the younger, more beautiful servants — began to intensify, and that’s when she began to resort to cannibalism, thinking she could incorporate their youth into her body by eating their flesh. That Bathory bathed in the blood of these servants is not entirely accurate; rather, she put them in cages and lanced them, taking showers in their blood geysers while screaming obscenities at them. The bodies began to pile up, so much so that she ran out of space to bury them. She even kept some of the corpses under her bed.
In 1610, the politics began to take over the story. Reports of what Elizabeth was doing began to surface years earlier, but authorities dragged their feet on account of Elizabeth’s connections to royalty. She could’ve gotten away with it all, but she got greedy; she went after a Hungarian noble, who escaped and tattled. In 1610, under orders from King Matthias, György Thurzo and a few associates when to Bathory’s castle to arrest her, where they found one dead woman, several more who were dying and still others who were locked up and awaiting their torture. Bathory and four of her servant accomplices were arrested. Reports listed the number of dead over the years in the hundreds, as high as 650.
But Bathory avoided execution because she was nobility, and it was thought that such an execution would negatively affect the royal family. Thurzo was not interested in killing her, anyway. He was interested in taking her land. He didn’t even put her on trial; he decided to simply let her rot in prison. After the arrest, King Matthias took her properties and was absolved of a huge debt that he owed Bathory’s husband. Meanwhile, three of her servant associates had their fingers ripped off of their hands with red-hot pincers and were then burned alive. One other associate, who was deemed less culpable, was fortunate enough to have his head removed before they threw him in the fire.
Bathory, meanwhile, was put under house arrest. She was imprisoned in a windowless brick room with only enough slits to allow in air and food. She remained in that cell for over three years before dying. She had been dead for several days before she was discovered lying face down, dead at the age of 54. Next to her was a prayer that she had written to the devil to send 99 cats to kill King Matthias.