The bloody legend of Hungary’s serial killer countess
Published October 21, 2022
10 min read
It is a grim tale stained by blood, haunted by torture, sensationalized by sex, and increasingly disputed by scholars. Depending on the account, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) was either a murderous maniac or a pawn incriminated by family and foes keen to seize her holdings.
Bathory is often proclaimed the most prolific female serial killer of all time, accused of slaying more than 600 young women inside her lavish castles. Legend has it that she believed that bathing in their virgin blood would grant her eternal youth. It made her live long in infamy. Bathory’s alleged sadism has inspired films, plays, operas, television shows, even video games. Now, however, researchers are questioning this long-standing narrative. They believe that Bathory’s crimes may have been exaggerated in a conspiracy against her. Nevertheless tourists intrigued by Bathory’s gory legend continue to follow her tale across Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, visiting castles, crypts, and museums.
Trail of blood
Visitors to the Hungarian town of Nyirbator, about 170 miles east of Hungary’s capital Budapest, can stare the countess in the eye at the Bathory Castle and Wax Museum, which displays wax effigies of Bathory and her relatives. The museum occupies the renovated castle where, in 1560, she was born into a wealthy dynasty that controlled Transylvania, now a region of Romania.
But Bathory’s privileged upbringing was tainted by violence and health problems, according to Aleksandra Bartosiewicz, of Poland‘s University of Lodz, who in 2018 published a research paper on the countess. Bartosiewicz states that she had epileptic seizures and violent mood swings since the age of five. She also suffered from painful migraines.
Bathory was also exposed to brutality. In this era, servants were routinely beat and she witnessed a public execution at the age of six. At 13 Bathory was engaged to 18-year-old Count Ferenc Nadasdy, from another influential Hungarian family, and they married two years later. They had four children. They were newlyweds and moved to Sarvar in western Hungary where Nadasdy tortured his wife. Nadasdy Castle became the site of a number of atrocities, Bartosiewicz says. Nadasdy made a girl be restrained, sprayed with honey, and then ravaged by insects for Bathory’s pleasure. He gave the countess gloves with claws that were spiked with claws to punish her servants. Clara, Bathory’s aunt, introduced Bathory to orgies as well as a shadowy circle that included people who were witches, sorcerers, and alchemists.
(This “horror hotel” was inspired by an American serial killer. )
Bathory’s violence peaked within another grand fortress. The crumbled remains of Cachtice Castle are now an eerie tourist attraction, looming above the town of Cachtice in western Slovakia, 50 miles northeast of the capital, Bratislava. Visitors can roam this lofty site, from which startling rumors tumbled down the hillside in the early 1600s.
Bathory moved to Cachtice in 1604 after her husband died. Tales of her malice toward staff became so widespread that local families hid their daughters from her service, says Tony Thorne, a linguist at King’s College London and author of the 1998 book Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Bathory. Rachael Bledsaw adjunct faculty at Washington State’s Highline College says that the widow countess was finally freed from her abuse by extending it to victims of a higher social class. Bledsaw, who wrote a thesis about Bathory, said that killing servants and serfs, even though they had fewer rights than nobles, was not illegal. “Killing your fellow nobles, even ones of lower rank, was a far more serious problem, and not one that could be ignored.”
Finally, in 1610, an investigation began into dozens of suspicious deaths and disappearances in Cachtice, launched by Matthias II, King of Hungary. With the testimony of dozens of witnesses, Bathory was arrested and imprisoned in Cachtice Castle for the murder of 80 young women, Bledsaw says. Some witnesses estimated her body count at more than 600. The countess was not convicted and her husband could never be prosecuted from the grave. Instead, four of Bathory’s servants were convicted for violence against young women in her castles. The countess, meanwhile, remained locked in her spacious jail until she died in 1614, at the age of 54. This castle was occupied for nearly a century. Nowadays, visitors can join guided tours of the infamous site and browse the “Elizabeth Bathory–Cruelty Hidden in Lace“ exhibition inside Drakovich Mansion in Cachtice, where a wooden statue of her dominates the town square.
While Bathory’s tale haunted Cachtice for generations after her death, it didn’t gain a wider audience until 1744 when it was retold in lurid detail in a book on Hungary’s history by Jesuit priest Laszlo Turoczi, Thorne says. This one story is the main inspiration for the countess’ legend.
A lurid legend reconsidered
In the 1980s that narrative began to be challenged, Thorne says. A 1982 book by Slovakian archivist Josef Kocis detailed new aspects of Bathory’s life, which several researchers since have used as evidence of a probable conspiracy against her. Some have gone as far as to portray Bathory as a “defenceless widow.” That is how renowned Slovakian filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko, on his official website, says he depicted her in his 2008 movie, Bathory: Countess of Blood, which “diametrically opposes the established legend.”
Others, like Bartosiewicz and Thorne, are more restrained in their views. They say Bathory’s crimes were likely exaggerated to discredit her–a conspiracy by relatives and the Habsburgs, a dynasty which at that time ruled a swath of Europe, including Austria and western Hungary.
(Witch hunt tourism is lucrative. It also obscures a tragic history. )
Habsburg ruler King Matthias II owed a large debt to Bathory and so benefited from her demise, Bartosiewicz argues. The king also viewed her as a political threat, who might support her cousin Gabriel Bathory‘s efforts to challenge Matthias II’s control of Western Hungary. Thorne states that the countess’ imprisonment not only helped rivals but also her family. One of Bathory’s daughters stole valuables from her property while her sons in law wanted their inheritance without waiting for her death.
Bledsaw, however, is unconvinced Bathory was the target of a conspiracy. She claims that her son inherited the domain of the countess and their debts when her husband died.
Regardless of growing doubts about its veracity, the macabre legend of the serial killer countess is destined to persist, says Thorne.
“Humans have a need for symbols, icons, and personifications of the dramatic forces that shape our lives, and we, guiltily or not, thrill at the excesses of those who go too far,” Thorne says. There are many male representations of a great deal of evil. There are very few well-known evil females. Bathory fills a gap in the iconography of horror.”
Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.