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Witches, curses, ghosts and … prayers? The real stories of Transylvania

BYU undergrad finds both eerie villages and divine stories

A few Transylvania folktales Leinenbach was told:

  • A witch that predicted the early deaths of several locals accurately
  • Ghosts that haunted people over property disputes
  • Curses that did strange things to area livestock

Everyone’s heard of Transylvania: It’s that fictional place where Count Dracula terrorized villagers in his epic hillside castle, right?
Well, kind of. Except it’s not made up. At least not all of it.

Transylvania is real, and thanks to an ORCA grant, one BYU undergrad found out this summer that it is a genuinely unusual place filled with tales of both the paranormal and the divine.

“There’s a very real supernatural element in a lot of the culture there,” said Trent Leinenbach, an English major from Ridgefield, Wash., who spent July in the Romanian land gathering area folklore. “The classy, credible young people we stayed with still fully embrace the supernatural side of their culture.”

Leinenbach’s plan was to record folktales straight from Transylvanians’ mouths in hopes of peeling back the curtain of mysticism surrounding the area.

And while he was able to do that, he also heard several strange stories that reinforced spooky stereotypes: witches that correctly predicted the early deaths of locals, ghosts that haunted villages and curses that made bizarre things happen to livestock.

Yet when it came to Count Dracula, the 70 or so people he interviewed didn’t really have much to say.

“I hardly heard anything about vampires, werewolves or any of that in all my looking at the culture,” Leinenbach said. “They’re aware that it’s something they are known for, for the most part, but they don’t seem to be extremely interested in that side of the folklore.”

Leinenbach learned much of Transylvanian folklore falls on the lighter side, and is filled with music, dance and fun. A lot of the lore is heavily Catholicized, featuring miracles through prayer or Hungarian kings winning battles because of their belief in God. There are also several legends built around land disputes, an issue that is significant to the population.

Transylvania, previously within Hungary, has long had territorial disputes and was given to Romania after World War I in the Treaty of Versailles. Leinenbach was curious about the intercultural traditions that have developed there and wondered whether the displaced Hungarians living in the now-Romanian area had clung to their old customs or adapted them to a new, hybrid culture.

“Trent was interested in collecting, not inventing, stories in a region that is shrinking and stories are dying out as people are gaining other educations and cultures,” said BYU professor Stephen Tuttle, who is mentoring Leinenbach on the project.

Leinenbach learned the Hungarians in the region remain strong in their heritage. Each year at Pentecost, they unite with hundreds of thousands of visiting Hungarians when a pilgrimage brings people from all over Hungary back to Transylvania. Fellow Hungarians show their solidarity with ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania while returning to a specific church to pay homage at the site of an iconic statue of the Virgin Mary.

For a place that is thought to be shrouded in mystery, Leinenbach said the people were extremely generous and hospitable. Where haunted castles on barren landscapes might come to mind, he was surprised by what he saw.

“Its way up high in the mountains where it’s thickly forested with pine trees – it’s really stunning,” Leinenbach said. “It was sunny the whole time we were there, and I was just overwhelmed by how beautiful it was.”

Of course, it’s a whole different story at night.

ORCA grants: What they are and how to get one

Every year BYU awards several hundred undergraduates $1,500 for a research or creative project of their own choosing.

While the projects span a wide range of fields, they all involve mentored learning outside the classroom. The skills and experience gained along the way open doors to grad schools, employers and entrepreneurship. Mentored learning is part of why BYU ranks in the Top 10 nationally in terms of where new Ph.D.s received their undergraduate degrees – and why BYU is a top feeder school for law, medicine and dentistry.

ORCA is accepting applications through November 1. Click here to apply.

Writer: Amber Dickson

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