As long as there have been stories, tales of female vampires have captured the popular imagination. Hebrew scriptures claim Lilith and her daughters lived on the blood of babies, and in the Greco-Roman mythology the followers of Hecate were also said to feast on children. But the Guinness World Record for a woman serial killer is held by a documented historical figure – the wealthy Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614). She is said to have tortured and killed around 600 peasant girls in order to bathe in their virgin blood, believing this was the fountain of youth that would keep her beautiful. The maidens were lured to her castle with promises of well-paid work, only to be beaten, burned, mutilated, frozen, starved, or stabbed to death.
Bathory is also known as Countess Dracula, partly because her atrocities are often compared with Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror – a fellow Transylvanian murderer. Bram Stoker used Bathory’s royal Hungarian connection for his Count, and made Dracula appear younger each time he feasted on human blood.
According to some sources Bathory, betrothed at age 10, married a lesser nobleman when she reached 15 years old. In the meantime, however, she was impregnated by a castle servant and secretly gave birth to a daughter. The child was never heard of again – and the lover was castrated before being fed to a pack of dogs. She was married for 29 years, and during that time had several other children.
Bathory is thought to have suffered from violent seizures in early childhood, which may have aroused the first suspicions that she was “possessed by demons.” Her husband spent a lot of time at war. During his absence a manservant called Thorko apparently introduced her to the occult and several of her companions were rumored to be witches, sorcerers, seers, wizards, and cunning folk. Four of these people were accomplices in her bloody crimes and when she was finally brought to justice, two were burned at the stake, one was beheaded and burned, and a last was imprisoned. Because of her royal status Bathory could not be executed, so she was incarcerated in her castle for the remaining few years of her life.
Legend has likely embellished the horrors of Countess Dracula. And whether she was dangerously vain, mentally unstable, or killed maidens simply for sadistic pleasure, we will never know. But this was the era of witch hunting — and Bathory was a rich, powerful widow who triggered a lot of political envy and resentment — so she was a natural target for the ambitious men around her. We cannot deny the fact that royal ladies have been known to torture and kill. But when one of the charges against this noblewoman claims she cast a magic spell to summon ninety cats to torment her enemies . . . perhaps she is not quite as guilty as we have been led to believe!