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Stories of Transylvania: BYU students collect folklore

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 11:28 p.m. MDT

Trent Leinenbach spent a month in Transylvania learning about the supernatural and divine folklore there. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU) Trent Leinenbach spent a month in Transylvania learning about the supernatural and divine folklore there. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU)

Transylvania may be the home of the feared count who dwells in a prominent, sinister castle in the mountains overlooking the region in Bram Stoker's classic novel "Dracula."

However, Transylvania is not simply a place of fiction in a book; it is a place of folk stories, culture and historical border disputes. This is why Trent Lienenbach and Nick Jones, English majors at Brigham Young University, traveled to one of the most mythically recognized lands in the world this summer — to uncover folk tales from a place shrouded with mystery.

"We wanted to collect folklore, Transylvanian and Hungarian folklore," Lienenbach said. "BYU was very generous in helping, not just with money but professors who volunteered to be sponsors and work with us."

Lienenbach and Jones spent July in Transylvania with the help of an ORCA grant — $1,500 awarded to undergraduate students for research or creative projects of their choice.

Trent Leinenbach spent a month in Transylvania learning about the supernatural and divine folklore there. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU) Trent Leinenbach spent a month in Transylvania learning about the supernatural and divine folklore there. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU)

Once they received the funding, they flew to Hungary to spend some time there, and then took a bus to Transylvania to begin their journey.

"We began talking to locals and making friends and collecting folklore," Lienenbach said. "We went to festivals and watched dances. There was always a lot of customary folklore dress and food … there was folklore and folk tales shared. All of that we used as a lens for our research questions."

The pair collected numerous tales as they traveled through the region and met people everywhere, including stories about a witch who accurately predicted the death of locals, ghosts that haunted villages and curses that caused things to happen to livestock, as reported in a BYU news release.

One piece of popular culture not found in Transylvanian folklore is that of Dracula. Though based on a Transylvanian count, known as Vlad the Impaler in Stoker's novel, Dracula is not a part of lore in the region and is more important to Romanians than to Hungarians, Jones said.

"If you were to bring up Dracula as a person or historical figure, he is very much a national hero for Romanians in the area," he said. "The Hungarian population is aware of him and know the history well, they have heard about it mostly from American pop culture and have a high awareness of Vlad and his military tactics and his cruelness. … For Romanians, you'll see statues and plaques around showing where Vlad did different things."

Vlad's castle is now a tourist hot spot, but most of the people don't seem to be bothered or opinionated about the Dracula fad, according to Lienenbach.

"The bookstores are full of vampire books, but that's much more due to Stephanie Meyer than Bram Stoker or their own folklore," he said. "It's kind of the cherry on the top when looking at issues of identity; the primary mode of identity pushed on them by people not in their country is not something that has anything to do with them."

The research questions focused on the different ways the people of the region identified themselves, with so many past border and cultural changes.

Many of the stories had deeply rooted messages from the subconscious of the people and their past, often with a theme of obvious social functions — the way men and women are supposed to act, the way families function and the class structure in the area, Jones said.

Both young men had served LDS missions in Hungary, and while there they had heard a lot of talk about the long-lost brothers of the country who had been cut off — those who lived in the region of Transylvania. The nation of Hungary used to be three times bigger than its modern-day size, until after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, in which a lot of land was stripped away and Transylvania was given to Romania, Lienenbach said.

"It was a traumatic event for all Hungarians involved," he said. "In Transylvania there is a border … hotly disputed, they are all vying for Transylvania and the country it belongs to. You can say 'I don't care, I am a Hungarian and nothing can change that,' but with time there is this natural erosion that takes place. You can't stay a Hungarian forever unless you're within that nation's border.

"If you can't positively identify yourself as either Hungarian or Romanian, you've lost the ability to identify yourself nationally," Lienenbach said. "So, how do you identify yourself?"

In most cases, the students found that people did identify in ways other than nationally. They either defined themselves as Szekely (an old Hungarian tribe), by means of town, village or hamlet, or — most radically — simply as themselves.

"We would really like to go back and look at that issue particularly, about the ideology of (someone's) borders are just those of (their) body and they don't have national identification," Lienenbach said. "Anything besides national influence, and that is your core sense of identity."

One of Jones' favorite parts of the research and travel was making personal contact with all kinds of people, mostly by living at homes and farms instead of in hostels and inns.

"We made good contact with people there; we got to see how people live and what life is really like," Jones said. "We made good friends we still keep in contact with. Though it didn't seem like a vacation at all, it was better than a vacation. We had access to so many things we wouldn't have had access to … in a couple cases it seemed like we were members of the family."

Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She studied journalism and political science at Utah State University and hails from Highland, Utah.

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