Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2013

The Prayer of Ninety Cats by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In this darkened theatre, the screen shines like the moon. More like the moon than this simile might imply, as the moon makes no light of her own, but instead adamantly casts off whatever the sun sends her way. The silver screen reflects the light pouring from the projector booth. And this particular screen truly is a silver screen, the real deal, not some careless metonym lazily recalling more glamorous Hollywood movie-palace days. There’s silver dust embedded in its tightly-woven silk matte, an apotropaic which might console any Slovak grandmothers in attendence, given the evening’s bill of fare. But, then again, is it not also said that the silvered-glass of mirrors offends these hungry phantoms? And isn’t the screen itself a mirror, not so very unlike the moon? The moon flashes back the sun, the screen flashes back the dazzling glow from the projector’s Xenon arc lamp. Here, then, is an irony, of sorts, as it is sometimes claimed the moroaică, strigoi mort, vampir, and vrykolakas, are incapable of casting reflections—apparently consuming light much as the gravity well of a black hole does. In these flickering, moving pictures, there must surely be some incongruity or paradox, beginning with Murnau’s Orlok, Browning’s titular Dracula, and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sinister Marguerite Chopin.

Of course, pretend demons need no potent, tried-and-true charm to ward them off, no matter how much we may wish to fear them. Still, we go through the motions. We need to fear, and when summoning forth these simulacra, to convince ourselves of their authenticity, we must also have a means of dispelling them. We sit in darkness and watch the monsters, and smugly remind ourselves these are merely actors playing unsavory parts, reciting dialogue written to shock, scandalize, and unnerve. All shadows are carefully planned. That face is clever make up, and a man becoming a bat no more than a bit of trick photography accomplished with flash powder, splicing, and a lump of felt and rabbit fur dangled from piano wire. We sit in the darkness, safely reenacting and mocking and laughing at the silly, delicious fears of our ignorant forbearers. If all else fails, we leave our seats and escape to the lobby. We turn on the light. No need to invoke crucified messiahs and the Queen of Heaven, not when we have Saint Thomas Edison on our side. Though, still another irony arises (we are gathering a veritable platoon of ironies, certainly), as these same monsters were brought to you courtesy of Mr. Edison’s tinkerings and profiteering. Any truly wily sorcerer, any witch worth her weight in mandrake and foxglove, knows how very little value there is in conjuring a fearful thing if it may not then be banished at will.

The theatre air is musty and has a sickly sweet sourness to it. It swims with the rancid ghosts of popcorn butter, spilled sodas, discarded chewing gum, and half a hundred varieties of candy lost beneath velvet seats and between the carpeted aisles. Let’s say these are the top notes of our perfume. Beneath them lurk the much fainter heart notes of sweat, piss, vomit, cum, soiled diapers—all the pungent gases and fluids a human body may casually expel. Also, though smoking has been forbidden here for decades, the reek of stale cigarettes and cigars persists. Finally, now, the base notes, not to be recognized right away, but registering after half an hour or more has passed, settling in to bestow solidity and depth to this complex Eau de Parfum. In the main, it strikes the nostrils as dust, though more perceptive noses may discern dry rot, mold, and aging mortar. Considered thusly, the atmosphere of this theatre might, appropriately, echo that of a sepulcher, shut away and ripe from generations of use.

Crossing the street, you might have noticed a title and the names of the players splashed across the gaudy marquee. After purchasing your ticket from the young man with a death’s head tattooed on the back of his left hand (he has a story, if you care to hear), you might have paused to view the relevant lobby cards or posters on display. You might have considered the concessions. These are the rituals before the rite. You might have wished you’d brought along an umbrella, because it’s beginning to look like there might be rain later. You may even go to the payphone near the restrooms, but, these days, that happens less and less, and there’s talk of having it removed.

Your ticket is torn in half, and you find a place to sit. The lights do not go down, because they were never up. You wait, gazing nowhere in particular, thinking no especial thoughts, until that immense moth-gnawed curtain the color of pomegranates opens wide to reveal the silver screen.

And so we come back to where we began.

With no fanfare or overture, the darkness is split apart as the antique projector sputters reluctantly to life. The auditorium is filled with the noisy, familiar cadence of wheels and sprockets, the pressure roller and the take-up reel, as the film speeds along at twenty-four frames per second and the shutter tricks the eyes and brain into perceiving continuous motion instead of a blurred procession of still photographs. By design, it is all a lie, start to finish. It is all an illusion.

There are no trailers for coming attractions. There might have been in the past, as there might have been cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, or newsreels extolling the evils of Communism and the virtues of soldiers who go away to die in foreign countries. Tonight, there’s only the feature presentation, and it begins with jarring abruptness, without so much as a title sequence or the name of the director. Possibly, a few feet of the opening reel were destroyed by the projectionist at the last theatre that screen the film, a disagreeable, ham-fisted man who drinks on the job and has been known to nod off in the booth. We can blame him, if we like. But it may also be there never were such niceties, and that this 35mm strip of acetate, celluloid, and polyester was always meant to begin just so.

Likewise, the film’s score—which has been compared favorably to Wojciech Kilar’s score for Campion’s Portrait of a Lady—seems to begin not at any proper beginning. As cellos and violins compete with kettledrums in a whirl of syncopated rhythms, there is the distinct impression of having stumbled upon a thing already in progress. This may well be the director’s desired effect.


WOMAN’S VOICE (fearfully)
Katarína, is that you?
Katarína? If it is you, say so.

The camera lingers on this bleak spire of evergreens, brush, and sandstone, gray-white rock tinted pink as the sun sinks below the horizon and night claims the wild Hungarian countryside. There are sheer ravines, talus slopes, and wide ledges carpeted with mountain ash, fenugreek, tatra blush, orchids, and thick stands of feather reed grass. The music grows quieter now, drums diminishing, strings receding to a steady vibrato undercurrent as the score hushes itself, permitting the night to be heard. The soundtrack fills with the calls of nocturnal birds, chiefly tawny and long-eared owls, but also nightingales, swifts, and nightjars. From streams and hidden pools, there comes the chorus of frog song. Foxes cry out to one another. The scene is at once breathtaking and forbidding, and you lean forward in your seat, arrested by this austere beauty.


WOMAN’S VOICE (angry):
It is a poor jest, Katarína. It is a poor, poor jest, indeed, and I’ve no patience for your games tonight.

GIRL’S VOICE (soft, not unkind)
I’m not Katarína. Have you forgotten my name already?

The camera’s eye doesn’t waver, even at the risk of this shot becoming monotonous. And we see that atop the rocky prominence stands the tumbledown ruins of Čachtice Castle, Csejte vára in the mother tongue. Here it has stood since the 1200’s, when Kazimir of Hunt-Poznan found himself in need of a sentry post on the troubled road to Moravia. And later, it was claimed by the Hungarian oligarch Máté Csák of Trencsén, the heroic Count Matthew. Then it went to Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, who spent much of his life in alchemical study, searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. And, finally, in 1575, the castle was presented as a wedding gift from Lord Chief Justice Ferenc Nádasdy to his fifteen-year old bride, Báthory Erzsébet, or Alžbeta, the Countess Elizabeth Báthory. The name (one or another of the lot) will doubtless ring a bell, though infamy has seen she’s better known to many as the Blood Countess.

The cinematographer works more sleight of hand, and the jagged lineament of the ruins is restored to that of Csejte as it would have stood when the Countess was alive. A grand patchwork of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, its formidable walls and towers loom high above the drowsy village of Vrbové. The castle rises—no, it sprouts —the castle sprouts from the bluff in such a way as to seem almost a natural, integral part of the local geography, something in situ, carved by wind and rain rather than by the labors of man.

The film jump cuts to an owl perched on a pine branch. The bird blinks—once, twice —spreads its wings, and takes to the air. The camera lets it go and doesn’t follow, preferring to remain with the now-vacant branch. Several seconds pass before the high-pitched scream of a rabbit reveals the reason for the owl’s departure.


Ever is it the small things that suffer. That’s what they say, you know? The Tigress of Csejte, she will have them all, because there is no end to her hunger.

Another jump cut brings us to the castle gates, and the camera pans slowly across the masonry of curtain walls, parapets, and up the steep sides of a horseshoe-shaped watchtower. Jump cut again, and we are shown a room illuminated by the flickering light of candles. There is a noblewoman seated in an enormous and somewhat fanciful chair, upholstered with fine brocade, its oaken legs and arms ending with the paws of a lion, or a dragon.

Or possibly a tigress.

So, a woman seated in an enormous, bestial chair. She wears the “Spanish Farthingale” and stiffened undergarments fashionable during this century. Her dress is made of the finest Florentine silk. Her waist is tightly cinched, her ample breasts flattened by the stays. Were she standing, her dress might remind us of an hourglass. Her head is framed with a wide ruff of starched lace, and her arms held properly within trumpet sleeves, more lace at the cuffs to ring her delicate hands. There is a wolf pelt across her lap, and another covers her bare feet. The candlelight is gracious, and she might pass for a woman of forty, though she’s more than a decade older. Her hair, which is the color of cracked acorn shells, has been meticulously braided and pulled back from her round face and high forehead. Her eyes seem dark as rubies.



COUNTESS (tersely):
Why are you awake at this hour, child? You should be sleeping. Haven’t I given you a splendid bed?

GIRL (seen dimly, in silhouette):
I don’t like being in that room alone. I don’t like the shadows in that room. I try not to see them—

COUNTESS (close up, her eyes fixed on the child):
Oh, don’t be silly. A shadow has not yet harmed anyone.

GIRL (almost whispering):
Begging your pardon, My Lady, but these shadows mean to do me mischief. I hear them whisper, and they do. They are shadows cast by wicked spirits. They do not speak to you?

COUNTESS (sighs, frowning):
I don’t speak with shadows.

GIRL (coyly):
That isn’t what they say in the village.
Do you truly know the Prayer of Ninety Cats?

By now, it is likely that the theatre, which only a short time ago so filled your thoughts, has receded, fading almost entirely from your conscious mind. This is usually the way of theatres, if the films they offer have any merit at all. The building is the spectacle which precedes the spectacle it has been built to contain, not so different from the relationship of colorful wrapping paper and elaborately tied bows to the gifts hidden within. You’re greeted by a mock-grand façade and the blazing electric marquee, and are then admitted into the catchpenny splendor of the lobby. All these things make an impression, and set a mood, but all will fall by the wayside. Exiting the theatre after a film, you’ll hardly note a single detail. Your mind will be elsewhere, processing, reflecting, critiquing, amazed, or disappointed.

Onscreen, the Countess’ candlelit bedchamber has been replaced by the haggard faces of peasant women, mothers and grandmothers, gazing up at the terrible edifice of Csejte. Over the years, so many among them have sent their daughters away to the castle, hearing that servants are cared for and well compensated. Over the years, none have returned. There are rumors of black magic and butchery, and, from time to time, girls have simply vanished from Vrbové, and also from the nearby town of Čachtice, from whence the fortress took its name. The women cross themselves and look away.

Dissolve to scenes of the daughters of landed aristocracy and the lesser gentry preparing their beautiful daughters for the gynaeceum of ecsedi Báthory Erzsébet, where they will be schooled in all the social graces, that they might make more desirable brides and find the best marriages possible. Carriages rattle along the narrow, precipitous road leading up to the castle, wheels and hooves trailing wakes of dust. Oblivious lambs driven to the slaughter, freely delivered by ambitious and unwitting mothers.

Another dissolve, to winter in a soundstage forest, and the Countess walks between artificial sycamore maples, ash, linden, beech, and elderberry. The studio “greens men” have worked wonders, meticulously crafting this forest from plaster, burlap, epoxy, wire, styrofoam, from lumber armatures and the limbs and leaves of actual trees. The snow is as phony as the trees, but no less convincing, a combination of SnowCel, SnowEx foam, and Powderfrost, dry-foam plastic snow spewed from machines; biodegradable, nontoxic polymers to simulate a gentle snowfall after a January blizzard. But the mockery is perfection. The Countess stalks through drifts so convincing that they may as well be real. Her furs drag behind her, and her boots leave deep tracks. Two huge wolves follow close behind, and when she stops, they come to her and she scratches their shaggy heads and pats their lean flanks and plants kisses behind their ears. A trained crow perches on a limb overhead, cawing, cawing, cawing, but neither the woman nor the wolves pay it any heed. The Countess speaks, and her breath fogs.


COUNTESS (to wolves)
You are my true children. Not Ursula or Pál or Miklós. And you are also my true inamoratos, my most beloved, not Ferenc, who was only ever a husband.

If tabloid gossip and backlot hearsay is to be trusted, this scene has been considerably shortened and toned down from the original script. We do not see the Countess’ sexual congress with the wolves. It is only implied by her affections, her words, and by the lewd canticle of a voyeur crow. The scene is both stark and magnificent. It is a final still point before the coming tempest, before the horrors, a moment imbued with grace and menacing tranquility. The camera cuts to Herr Kramer in its counterfeit tree, and you’re watching its golden eyes watching the Countess and her wolves, and anything more is implied.


The Countess is seated before a looking glass held inside a carved wooden frame, motif of dryads and satyrs. We see the Countess as a reflection, and behind her, a servant girl. The servant is combing the Countess’ brown hair with an ivory comb. The Countess is no longer a young woman. There are lines at the edges of her mouth and beneath her eyes.


COUNTESS (furrowing her brows)
You’re pulling my hair again. How many times must I tell you to be careful. You’re not deaf, are you?

SERVANT (almost whispering)
No, My Lady.

COUNTESS (icily)
Then when I speak to you, you hear me perfectly well.

Yes, My Lady.

The ivory comb snags in the Countess’ hair, and she stands, spinning about to face the terrified servant girl. She snatches the comb from the girl’s hand. Strands of Elizabeth’s hair are caught between the teeth.


COUNTESS (tone of disbelief)
You wretched little beast. Look what you’ve done.

The Countess slaps the servant with enough force to split her lip. Blood spatters the Countess’ hand as the servant falls to the floor. The Countess is entranced by the crimson beads speckling her pale skin.


COUNTESS (whisper)


The Countess stands in a dim pool of light, before a towering mirror, a grotesque nightmare version of the one on her dressing table. The nymphs, satyrs, and dryads are life-size, and move, engaged in various and sundry acts of sexual abandon. This dark place is filled with sounds of desire, orgasm, drunken debauchery. In the mirror is a far younger Elizabeth Báthory. But, as we watch, as the Countess watches, this young woman rapidly ages, rushing through her twenties, thirties, her forties. The Countess screams, commanding the mirror cease these awful visions. The writhing creatures that form the frame laugh and mock her screams.


The Countess stands naked in the falling snow, her feet buried up to the ankles. The snowflakes turn red. The red snow becomes a red rain, and she’s drenched. The air is a red mist.


Nude and drenched in blood, the Countess gazes at her reflection, her face and body growing young before her eyes. The looking glass shatters.


The Hungary of the film has more in common with the landscape of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm than with any Hungary that exists now or ever has existed. It is an archetypal vista, as much a myth as Stoker’s Transylvania and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Styria. A real place that has, inconveniently, never existed. Little or nothing is said of the political and religious turmoil of Elizabeth’s time, or of the war with the Ottoman Turks, aside from the death of the Countess’ husband at the hands of General Giorgio Basta. If you’re a stickler for accuracy, these omissions are unforgivable. But most of the men and women who sit in the theatre, entranced by the light flashed back from the screen, will never notice. People do not generally come to the movies hoping for recitations of dry history. Few will care that pivotal events in the film never occurred, because they are happening now, unfolding before the eyes of all who have paid the price of admission.



If you have been taught the prayer, say the words aloud.

How would you ever know such things, child?

GIRL (turning away)
We have had some of the same tutors, you and I.

The second reel begins with the arrival at Csejte of a woman named Anna Darvulia. In hushed tones, a servant (who dies an especially messy death farther along) refers to her as “the Witch of the Forest.” She becomes Elizabeth’s lover and teaches her sorcery and the Prayer of Ninety Cats to protect her from all harm. As Darvulia is depicted here, she may as well have inhabited a gingerbread cottage before she came to the Countess, a house of sugary confections where she regularly feasted on lost children. Indeed, shortly after her arrival, and following an admittedly gratuitous sex scene, the subject of cannibalism is introduced. A peasant girl named Júlia, stolen from her home, is brought to the Countess by two of her handmaids and partners in crime, Dorottya and Ilona. The girl is stripped naked and forced to kneel before Elizabeth while the handmaids burn the bare flesh of her back and shoulders with coins and needles that have been placed over an open flame. Darvulia watches on approvingly from the shadows.



COUNTESS (smiling):
You shouldn’t fret so about your dear mother and father. I know they’re poor, but I will see to it they’re compensated for the loss of their only daughter.

JÚLIA (sobbing):
There is never enough wood in winter, and never enough food. We have no shoes and wear rags.

And haven’t I liberated you from those rags?

They need me. Please, My Lady, send me home to them.

The Countess glances over her shoulder to Darvulia, as if seeking approval/instruction. Darvulia nods once, then the Countess turns back to the sobbing girl.


Very well. I’ll make you a promise, Júlia. And I keep my promises. In the morning, I will send your mother and your father warm clothing and good shoes and enough firewood to see them through the snows. And, what’s more, I will send you back to them, as well.

You would do that?

Certainly, I will. I’ll not have any use for you after this evening, and I detest wastefulness.

This scene has been cut from most prints. If you have any familiarity with the trials and tribulations of the film’s production, and with the censorship that followed, you’ll be surprised, and possibly pleased, to find it has not been excised from this copy. It may also strike you as relatively tame, compared to many less controversial, but far more graphic, portions of the film.


When we are finished here…
When we’re finished, and my hunger is satisfied, I will speak with my butcher—a skilled man with a knife and cleaver —and he will see to it that your corpse is dressed in such a way that it can never be mistaken for anything but that of a sow. I’ll have the meat salted and smoked, then sent to them, as evidence of my generosity. They will have their daughter back, and, in the bargain, will go be hungry. Are they fond of sausage. Júlia? I’d think you would make a marvelous debreceni.

Critics and movie buffs who lament the severe treatment the film has suffered at the hands of nervous studio executives, skittish distributors, and the MPAA often point to Júlia’s screams, following these lines, as an example of how great cinema may be lost to censorship. Sound editors and Foley artists are said to have crafted the unsettling and completely inhuman effect by mixing the cries of several species of birds, the squeal of a pig, and the steam whistle of a locomotive. The scream continues as this scene dissolves to a delirious montage of torture and murder. The Countess’ notorious iron maiden makes an appearance. A servant is dragged out into a snowy courtyard, and once her dress and underclothes have been savagely ripped away, the woman is bound to a wooden stake. Elizabeth Báthory pours buckets of cold water over the servant’s body until she freezes to death and her body glistens like an ice sculpture.

The theatre is so quiet that you begin to suspect everyone else has had enough and left before The End. But you don’t dare look away long enough to see whether this is in fact the case.

The Countess sits in her enormous lion- (or dragon- or tigress-) footed chair, in that bedchamber lit only by candlelight. She strokes the wolf pelt on her lap as lovingly as she stroked the fur of those living wolves.

“We‘ve had some of the same tutors, you and I,” the strange brown girl says, the gypsy child who claims to be afraid of the shadows in the small room that has been provided for her.

“Anna’s never mentioned you.”

She and I have had some of the same tutors,” the child whispers. “Now, My Lady, please speak the words aloud and drive away the evil spirits.”

“I have heard of no such prayer,” the Countess tells the girl, but the actress’ air and intonation make it’s obvious she’s lying. “I’ve received no such catechism.”

“Then shall I teach it to you? For when they are done with me, the shadows might come looking after you, and if you don’t know the prayer, how will you hope to defend yourself, My Lady?”

The Countess frowns and mutters, half to herself, half to the child, “I need no defense against shadows. Rather, let the shadows blanch and wilt at the thought of me.”

“That same arrogance will be your undoing,” the child replies. Then all the candles gutter and are extinguished, and the only light remaining is cold moonlight, getting in through the parted draperies. The child is gone. The Countess sits in her clawed chair and squeezes her eyes tightly shut. You may once have done very much the same thing, hearing some bump in the night. Fearing an open closet or the space beneath your bed, a window or a hallway. In this moment, Elizabeth Bathory von Ecsed, Alžbeta Bátoriová, the Bloody Lady of Čachtice, she seems no more fearsome for all her fearsome reputation than the child you once were. The boyish girl she herself was, forty-seven, forty-six, forty-eight years before this night. The girl given to tantrums and seizures and dressing up in boy’s clothes. She cringes in this dark, moon-washed room, eyelids drawn against the night, and begins, haltingly, to recite the prayer Anna Darvulia has taught her.

“I am in peril, O cloud. Send, O send, you most powerful of Clouds, send ninety cats, for thou are the supreme Lord of Cats. I command you, King of the Cats, I pray you. May you gather them together, even if you are in the mountains, or on the waters, or on the roofs, or on the other side of the ocean…tell them to come to me.”

Fade to black.

Fade up.

The bedchamber is filled with the feeble colors of a January morning. With the wan luminance of the winter sun in these mountains. The balcony doors have blown open in the night, and a drift of snow has crept into the room. Pressed into the snow there are the barefoot tracks of a child. The Countess opens her eyes. She looks her age, and then some.

Fade to black.

Fade up.

The Countess in her finest Farthingale and ruff stands before the altar of Csejte’s austere chapel. She gazes upwards at a stained-glass narrative set into the frames of three very tall and very narrow lancet windows. Her expression is distant, detached, unreadable. Following an establishing shot, and then a brief close up of the Countess’ face, the trio of stained-glass windows dominates the screen. The production designer had them manufactured in Prague, by an artisan who was provided detailed sketches mimicking the style of windows fashioned by Harry Clarke and the Irish cooperative An Túr Gloine. As with so many aspects of the film, this window has inspired heated debate, chiefly regarding its subject matter. The most popular interpretation favors one of the hagiographies from the Legenda sanctorum, the tale of St. George and the dragon of Silene.

The stillness of the chapel is shattered by squealing hinges and quick footsteps, as Anna Darvulia rushes in from the bailey. She approaches the Countess, who has turned to meet her.


DARVULIA (angry):
What you seek, Elizabeth, you’ll not find it here.

COUNTESS (feigning dismay):
I only wanted an hour’s solitude. It’s quiet here.

DARVULIA (sneering):
Liar. You came seeking after a solace that shall forever be denied you, as it has always been denied me. We have no place here, Elizabeth. Let us leave together.

She came to me again last night. How can your prayer protect me from her, when she also knows it?

Anna Darvulia whispers something in the Countess’ ear, then kisses her cheek and leads her from the chapel.


Two guards or soldiers thread heavy iron chain through the handles of the chapel doors, then slide the shackle of a large padlock through the links of chain and clamp the lock firmly shut.

Somewhere towards the back of the theatre, a man coughs loudly, and a woman laughs. The man coughs a second time, then mutters (presumably to the woman), and she laughs again. You’re tempted to turn about in your seat and ask them to please hold it down, that there are people who came to see the movie. But you don’t. You don’t take your eyes off the screen, and, besides, you’ve never been much for confrontation. You also consider going out to the lobby and complaining to the management, but you won’t do that, either. It sounds like the man is telling a dirty joke, and you do your best to ignore him.

The film has returned to the snowy soundstage forest. Only now there are many more trees, spaced more closely together. Their trunks and branches are as dark as charcoal, as dark as the snow is light. Together these two elements—trees and snow, snow and trees —form a proper joyance for any chiaroscurist. In the foreground of this mise-en-scène, an assortment of taxidermied wildlife (two does, a rabbit, a badger, etc.) watches on with blind acrylic eyes as Anna Darvulia follows a path through the wood. She wears an enormous crimson cloak, the hood all but concealing her face. Her cloak completes the palette of the scene: the black trees, the white of the snow, this red slash of wool. There is a small falcon, a merlin, perched on the woman’s left shoulder, and gripped in her left hand (she isn’t wearing gloves) is a leather leash. As the music swells—strings, woodwinds, piano, the thunderous kettledrum —the camera pans slowly to the right, tracing the leash from Darvulia’s hand to the heavy collar clasped about the Countess’ pale throat. Elizabeth is entirely naked, scrambling through the snow on all fours. Her hair is a matted tangle of twigs and dead leaves. Briars have left bloody welts on her arms, legs, and buttocks. There are wolves following close behind her, famished wolves starving in the dead of this endless Carpathian winter. The pack is growing bold, and one of the animals rushes in close, pushing its muzzle between her exposed thighs, thrusting about with its wet nose, lapping obscenely at the Countess’ ass and genitals. Elizabeth bares her sharp teeth and, wheeling around, straining against the leash, she snaps viciously at this churlish rake of a wolf. She growls as convincingly as any lunatic or lycanthrope might hope to growl.

All wolves are churlish. All wolves are rakes, especially in fairy tales, and especially this far from spring.

“Have you forgotten the prayer so soon?” Darvulia calls back, her voice cruel and mocking. Elizabeth doesn’t answer, but the wolves yelp and retreat.

And as the witch and her pupil pick their way deeper into the forest, we see that the gypsy girl, dressed in a cloak almost identical to Darvulia’s—wool died that same vivid red —stands among the wolves as they whine and mill about her legs.

Elizabeth awakens in her bed, screaming.

In a series of jump cuts, her screams echo through the empty corridors of Csejte.

(This scene is present in all prints, having somehow escaped the same fate as the unfilmed climax of the Countess’ earlier trek through the forest—a testament to the fickle inconsistency of censors. In an interview she gave to the Croatian periodical Hrvatski filmski ljetopis [Autumn 2003], the actress who played Elizabeth reports that she actually did suffer a spate of terrible nightmares after making the film, and that most of them revolved around this particular scene. She says, “I have only been able to watch it [the scene] twice. Even now, it’s hard to imagine myself having been on the set that day. I’ve always been afraid of dogs, and those were real wolves.”)

In the fourth reel, you find you’re slightly irritated when film briefly loses its otherwise superbly claustrophobic focus, during a Viennese interlude surely meant, instead, to build tension. The Countess’ depravity is finally, inevitably brought to the attention of the Hungarian Parliament and King Matthias. The plaintiff is a woman named Imre Megyery, the Steward of Sávár, who became the guardian of the Countess’ son, Pál Nádasdy, after the death of her husband. It doesn’t help that the actor who plays György Thurzó, Matthias’ palatine, is an Australian who seems almost incapable of getting the Hungarian accent right. Perhaps he needed a better dialect coach. Perhaps he was lazy. Possibly, he isn’t a very good actor.


Elizabeth and Darvulia in the Countess’ bed, after a vigorous bout of lovemaking. Lovemaking, sex, fucking, whatever. Both women are nude. The corpse of a third woman lies between them. There’s no blood, so how she died is unclear.


Megyery the Red, she plots against you. She has gone to the King, and very, very soon Thurzó’s notaries will arrive to poke and pry and be the King’s eyes and ears.

But you will keep me safe, Anna. And there is the prayer…

DARVULIA (gravely):
These are men, with all the power of the King and the Church at their backs. You must take this matter seriously, Elizabeth. The dark gods will concern themselves only so far, and after that we are on our own. Again, I beg you to at least consider abandoning Csejte.

No. No, and don’t ask again. It is my home. Let Thurzó’s men come. I will show them nothing. I will let them see nothing.

It isn’t so simple, my sweet Erzsébet. Ferenc is gone, and without a husband to protect you…you must consider the greed of relatives who covet your estates, and consider, also, debts owed to you by a king who has no intention of ever settling them. Many have much to gain from your fall.

COUNTESS (stubbornly):
There will be no fall.

You sit up straight in your reclining theatre seat. You’ve needed to urinate for the last half hour, but you’re not about to miss however much of the film you’d miss during a quick trip to the restroom. You try not to think about it; you concentrate on the screen and not your aching bladder.


The Countess sits in her lion-footed chair, facing the open balcony doors. There are no candles burning, but we can see the silhouette of the gypsy girl outlined in the winter moonlight pouring into the room. She is all but naked. The wind blows loudly, howling about the walls of the castle.


COUNTESS (distressed):
No, you’re not mine. I can’t recall ever having seen you before. You are nothing of mine. You are some demon sent by the moon to harry me.

GIRL (calmly):
It is true I serve the moon, Mother, as do you. She is mistress to us both. We have both run naked while she watched on. We have both enjoyed her favors. We are each the moon’s bitch.

COUNTESS (turning away):
Lies. Every word you say is a wicked lie. And I’ll not hear any more of it. Begone, strigoi. Go back to whatever stinking hole was dug to cradle your filthy gypsy bones.

GIRL (suddenly near tears)
Please do no not say such things, Mother.

COUNTESS (through clenched teeth)
You are not my daughter! This is the price of my sins, to be visited by phantoms, to be haunted.

I only want to be held, Mother. I only want to be held, as any daughter would. I want to be kissed.

Slowly, the Countess looks back at the girl. Snow blows in through the draperies, swirling about the child. The girl’s eyes flash red-gold. She takes a step nearer the Countess.


GIRL (contd.)
I can protect you, Mother.

From what? From whom?

You know from what, and you know from whom. You would know, even if Anna hadn’t told you. You are not a stupid woman.

You do not come to protect me, but to damn me.

GIRL (kind):
I only want to be held, and sung to sleep.

COUNTESS (shuddering)
My damnation.

GIRL (smiling sadly):
No, Mother. You’ve tended well-enough to that on your own. You’ve no need of anyone to hurry you along to the pit.


The Countess’ face is filled with a mixture of dread and defeat, exhaustion and horror. She shuts her eyes a moment, muttering silently, then opens them again.


COUNTESS (resigned)
Come, child.


The Countess sits in her chair, head bowed now, seemingly too exhausted to continue arguing with the girl. From the foreground, the gypsy girl approaches her. Strange shadows seem to loom behind the Countess’ chair. The child begins to sing in a sweet, sad, lilting voice, a song that might be a hymn or a dirge.


This scene will stay with you. You will find yourself thinking, That’s where it should have ended. That would have made a better ending. The child’s song—only two lines of which are intelligible —will remain with you long after many of the grimmer, more graphic details are forgotten. Two eerie, poignant lines: Stay with me and together we will live forever./Death is the road to awe. Later, you’ll come across an article in American Cinematographer (April 2006), and discover that the screenwriter originally intended this to be the final scene, but was overruled by the director, who insisted it was too anticlimactic.

Which isn’t to imply that the remaining twenty minutes are without merit, but only that they steer the film in a different and less subtle, less dreamlike direction. Like so many of the films you most admire—Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, David Lynch’s Lost Highway—this one is speaking to you in the language of dreams, and after the child’s song, you have the distinct sense that the film has awakened, jolted from the subconscious to the conscious, the self aware. It’s ironic, therefore, that the next scene is a dream sequence. And it is a dream sequence that has left critics divided over the movie’s conclusion and what the director intended to convey. There is a disjointed, tumbling series of images, and it is usually assumed that this is simply a nightmare delivered to the Countess by the child. However, one critic, writing for Slovenska Kinoteka (June 2005), has proposed it represents a literal divergence of two timelines, dividing the historical Báthory’s fate from that of the fictional Báthory portrayed in the film. She notes the obvious, that the dream closely parallels the events of December 29, 1610, the day of the Countess’ arrest. A few have argued the series of scenes was never meant to be perceived as a dream (neither the director nor the screenwriter have revealed their intent). The sequence may be ordered as follows:

The Arrival: A retinue on horseback—Thurzó, Imre Megyery, the Countess’ sons-in-law, Counts Drugeth de Homonnay and Zrínyi, together with an armed escort. The party reaches the Csejte, and the iron gates swing open to admit them.

The Descent: The Palatine’s men following a narrow, spiraling stairwell into the depth of the castle. They cover their mouths and noses against some horrible stench.

The Discovery: A dungeon cell strewn with corpses, in various stages of dismemberment and decay. Two women, still living, though clearly mad, their bodies naked and beaten and streaked with filth, are manacled to the stone walls. They scream at the sight of the men.

The Trial: Theodosious Syrmiensis de Szulo of the Royal Supreme Court pronounces a sentence of perpetuis carceribus, sparing the Countess from execution, but condemning her to lifelong confinement at Csejte.

The Execution/Pardon of the Accomplices: Three women and one man. Two of the women, Jó Ilona and Dorottya Szentes, are found guilty, publicly tortured, and burned alive. The man, Ujváry János (portrayed as a deformed dwarf), is beheaded before being thrown onto the bonfire with Jó and Dorottya. The third woman, Katarína Beniezky, is spared (this is not explained, and none of the four are named in the film).

The Imprisonment: The Countess sits on her bed as stonemasons brick up the chamber’s windows and the door leading out onto the balcony. Then the door is sealed. Close ups of trowels, mortar, callused hands, Elizabeth’s eyes, a Bible in her lap. Last shot from Elizabeth’s POV, her head turned away from the camera, as the final few bricks are set in place. She is alone. Fade to black.

Anna Darvulia, “the Witch of the Forest,” appears nowhere in this sequence.



The Countess watches as Anna Darvulia climbs onto the back of a horse. Once in the saddle, her feet in the stirrups, she stares sorrowfully down at the Countess.


I beg you, Erzsébet. Come with me. We’ll be safe in the forest. There are places where no man knows to look.

This is my home. Please, don’t ask me again. I won’t run from them. I won’t.

DARVULIA (speaking French and Croatian):
Ma petite bête douce. Volim te, Erzsébet.
Ne m’oublie pas.

COUNTESS (slapping the horse’s rump)
Go! Go now, love, before I lose my will.



Anna Darvulia racing away from the snowbound castle, while the Countess watches from her tower.


I command you, O King of the Cats, I pray you.
May you gather them together,
Give them thy orders and tell them,
Wherever they may be, to assemble together,
To come from the mountains,
From the waters, from the rivers,
From the rainwater on the roofs, and from the oceans.
Tell them to come to me.



The Countess in her enormous chair. The gypsy girl stands before her. As before, she is almost naked. There is candlelight and moonlight. Snow blows in from the open balcony doors.


She left you all alone.

No, child. I sent her away.

Back to the wood?

Back to the wood.

You sit in your seat and breathe the musty theatre smells, the smells which may as well be ghosts as they are surely remnants of long ago moments come and gone. Your full bladder has been all but forgotten. Likewise, the muttering, laughing man and woman seated somewhere behind you. There is room for nothing now but the illusion of moving pictures splashed across the screen. Your eyes and your ears translate the interplay of light and sound into story. The old theatre is a temple, holy in its way, and you’ve come to worship, to find epiphany in truths captured by a camera’s lens. There’s no need of plaster saints and liturgies. No need of the intermediary services of a priest. Your god—and the analogy has occurred to you on many occasions —is speaking to you directly, calling down from that wide silk-and-silver window and from Dolby speakers mounted high on the walls. Your god speaks in many voices, and its angels are an orchestra, and every frame is a page of scripture. This mass is rapidly winding down towards benediction.


May I sit at your feet, Mother?

Wouldn’t you rather have my lap?

GIRL (smiling)
Yes, Mother. I would much rather have your lap.

The gypsy girl climbs into the Countess’ lap, her small brown body nestling in the voluminous folds of Elizabeth’s dress. The Countess puts her arms around the child, and holds her close. The girl rests her head on the Countess’ breast.


GIRL (whisper):
They will come, you know? The men. The soldiers.

I know. But let’s not think of that, not now. Let’s not think on anything much at all.

But you recall the prayer, yes?

Yes, child. I recall the prayer. Anna taught me the prayer, just as you taught it to her.

You are so clever, Mother.

Close up.

The Countess’ hand reaching into a fold of her dress, withdrawing a small silver dagger. The handle is black and polished wood, maybe jet or mahogany. There are occult symbols etched deeply into the metal, all down the length of the blade.


Will you say the prayer for me? No one ever prays for me.

I would rather hear you sing, dear. Please, sing for me.

The gypsy girl smiles and begins her song.


Stay with me, and together we will live forever.
Death is the road to awe—

The Countess clamps a hand over the girl’s mouth, and plunges the silver dagger into her throat. The girl’s eyes go very wide, as blood spurts from the wound. She falls backwards to the floor, and writhes there for a moment. The Countess gets to her feet, triumph in her eyes.


You think I didn’t know you? You think I did not see?

The girl’s eyes flash red-gold, and she hisses loudly, then begins to crawl across the floor towards the balcony. She pulls the knife from her throat and flings it away. It clatters loudly against the floor. The girl’s teeth are stained with blood.


GIRL (hoarsely)
You deny me. You dare deny me.

You are none of mine.

You send me to face the cold alone? To face the moon alone?

The Countess doesn’t reply, but begins to recite the Prayer of Ninety Cats. As she does, the girl stands, almost as if she hasn’t been wounded. She backs away, stepping through the balcony doors, out into snow and brilliant moonlight. The child climbs onto the balustrade, and it seems for a moment she might grow wings and fly away into the Carpathian night.


May these ninety cats appear to tear and destroy
The hearts of kings and princes,
And in the same way the hearts of teachers and judges,
And all who mean me harm,
That they shall harm me not.
Holy Trinity, protect me.
And guard Erzsébet from all evil.

The girl turns her back on the Countess, gazing down at the snowy courtyard below.


I’m the one who guarded you, Mother. I’m the one who has kept you safe.

COUNTESS (raising her voice):
Tell them to come to me.
And to hasten them to bite the heart.
Let them rip to pieces and bite again and again…

There’s no love in you anywhere. There never was.

Do not say that! Don’t you dare say that! I have loved—

GIRL (sadly):
You have lusted and called it love. You tangle appetite and desire. Let me fall, and be done with you.

COUNTESS (suddenly confused)
No. No, child. Come back. No one falls this night.


As the Countess moves towards the balcony, the gypsy girl steps off the balustrade and tumbles to the courtyard below. The Countess cries out in horror and rushes out onto the balcony.


The broken body of the girl on the snow-covered flagstones of the courtyard. Blood still oozes from the wound in her throat, but also from her open mouth and her nostrils. Her eyes are open. Her blood steams in the cold air. A large crow lands near her body. The camera pans upwards, and we see the Countess gazing down in horror at the broken body of the dead girl. In the distance, wolves begin to howl.


The Countess is sitting now, her back pressed to the stone columns of the balustrade. She’s sobbing, her hands tearing at her hair. She is the very portrait here of loss and madness.


COUNTESS (weeping):
I didn’t know. God help me, I did not know.


A small cemetery near the castle’s chapel. Heavy snow covers everything. The dwarf Ujváry János has managed to hack a shallow grave into the frozen earth. The Countess watches as the gypsy girl’s small body, wrapped in a makeshift burial shroud, is lowered into the hole. The Countess turns and hurries away across the bailey, and János begins filling the grave in again. Shovelful after shovelful of dirt and frost and snow falls on the body, and slowly it disappears from view. Perched on a nearby headstone, an owl watches. It blinks, and rotates its head and neck 180 degrees, so it appears to be watching the burial upside down.

In a week, you’ll write your review of the film, the review you’re being paid to write, and you’ll note that the genus and species of owl watching János as he buries the dead girl is Bubo virginianus, the Great Horned Owl. You’ll also note the bird is native to North America, and not naturally found in Europe, but that to fret over these sorts of inaccuracies is, at best, pedantic. At worst, you’ll write, it means that one has entirely missed the point and would have been better off staying at home and not wasting the price of a movie ticket.

This is not the life of Erzsébet Báthory.

No one has ever lived this exact life.

Beyond the establishing shot of the ruins at the beginning of the film, the castle is not Csejte. Likewise, the forest that surrounds it is the forest that this story requires it to be, and whether or not it’s an accurate depiction of the forests of the Piešť any region of Slovakia is irrelevant.

The Countess may or may not have been Anna Darvulia’s lover. Erzsébet Báthory may have been a lesbian. Or she may not. Anna Darvulia may or may not have existed.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Erzsébet was repeatedly visited in the dead of night by a strange gypsy child.

Or that the Countess’ fixation with blood began when she struck a servant who’d accidentally pulled her hair.

Or that Erzsébet was ever led naked through those inaccurate forests while lustful wolves sniffed at her sex.

Pedantry and nitpicking is fatal to all fairy tales. You will write that there are people who would argue a wolf lacks the lung capacity to blow down a house of straw and that any beanstalk tall enough to reach the clouds would collapse under its own weight. They are, you’ll say, the same lot who’d dismiss Shakespeare for mixing Greek and Celtic mythology, or on the grounds that there was never a prince of Verona named Escalus. “The facts are neither here nor there,” you will write. “We have entered a realm where facts may not even exist.” You’ll be paid a pittance for the review, which virtually no one will read.

There will be one letter to the editor, complaining that your review was “too defensive” and that you are “an apologist for shoddy, prurient filmmaking.” You’ll remember this letter (though not the name of its author), many years after the paltry check has been spent.

The facts are neither here nor there.

Sitting in your theatre seat, these words have not yet happened, the words you’ll write. At best, they’re thoughts at the outermost edges of conception. Sitting here, there is nothing but the film, another’s fever dreams you have been permitted to share. And you are keenly aware how little remains of the fifth reel, that the fever will break very soon.


Anna Darvulia sits before a small campfire, her horse’s reins tied to a tree behind her. A hare is roasting on a spit above the fire. There’s a sudden gust of wind, and, briefly, the flames burn a ghostly blue. She narrows her eyes, trying to see something beyond the firelight.


You think I don’t see you? You think I can’t smell you?
You’ve no right claim left on me. I’ve passed my debt to the Báthory woman. I’ve prepared her for you. Now, leave me be, spirit. Do not trouble me this night or any other.

The fire flares blue again, and Darvulia lowers her head, no longer gazing into the darkness.


The full moon shines down on Csejte. The castle is dark. There’s no light in any of its windows.


The gypsy girl’s unmarked grave. But much of the earth that filled the hole now lies heaped about the edges, as if someone has hastily exhumed the corpse. Or as if the dead girl might have dug her way out. The ground is white with snow and frost, and sparkles beneath the moon.



The owl that watched Ujváry János bury the girl is perched on the stone balustrade. The doors to the balcony have been left standing open. Draperies billow in the freezing wind.


Owl’s round face. It blinks several times, and the bird’s eyes flash an iridescent red-gold.

The Countess sits in her bedchamber, in that enormous chair with its six savage feet. A wolf pelt lies draped across her lap, emptied of its wolf. Like a dragon, the Countess breathes steam. She holds a wooden cross in her shaking hands.

“Tell the cats to come to me,” she says, uttering the prayer hardly above a whisper. There is no need to raise her voice; all gods and angels must surely have good ears. “And hasten them,” she continues, “to bite the hearts of my enemies and all who would do me harm. Let them rip to pieces and bite again and again the heart of my foes. And guard Erzsébet from all evil. O Quam Misericors est Deus, Pius et Justus.

Elizabeth was raised a Calvinist, and her devout mother, Anna, saw that she attended a fine Protestant school in Erdöd. She was taught mathematics and learned to write and speak Greek, German, Slovak, and Latin. She learned Latin prayers against the demons and the night.

O Quam Misericors est Deus. Justus et Paciens, ” she whispers, though she’s shivering so badly that her teeth have begun to chatter and the words no longer come easily. They fall from her lips like stones. Or rotten fruit. Or lies. She cringes in her chair, and gazes intently towards the billowing, diaphanous drapes and the night and balcony beyond them. A shadow slips into the room, moving across the floor like spilled oil. The drapes part as if they have a will all their own (they were pulled to the sides with hooks and nylon fishing line, you’ve read), and the gypsy girl steps into the room. She is entirely nude, and her tawny body and black hair are caked with the earth of her abandoned grave. There are feathers caught in her hair, and a few drift from her shoulders to lie on the floor at her feet. She is bathed in moonlight, as cliché as that may sound. She has the iridescent eyes of an owl. The girl’s face is the very picture of sorrow.

“Why did you bury me, Mother?”

“You were dead…”

The girl takes a step nearer the Countess. “I was so cold down there. You cannot ever imagine anything even half so cold as the deadlands.”

The Countess clutches her wood cross. She is shaking, near tears. “You cannot be here. I said the prayers Anna taught me.”

The girl has moved very near the chair now. She is close enough that she could reach out and stroke Elizabeth’s pale cheek, if she wished to do so.

“The cats aren’t coming, Mother. Her prayer was no more than any other prayer. Just pretty words against that which has never had cause to fear pretty words.”

“The cats aren’t coming,” the Countess whispers, and the cross slips from her fingers.

The gypsy child reaches out and strokes Elizabeth’s pale cheek. The girl’s short nails are broken and caked with dirt. “It doesn’t matter, Mother, because I’m here. What need have you of cats, when your daughter has come to keep you safe?”

The Countess looks up at the girl, who seems to have grown four or five inches taller since entering the room. “You are my daughter?” Elizabeth asks, the question a mouthful of fog.

“I am,” the girl replies, kneeling to gently kiss the Countess’ right cheek. “I have many mothers, as I have many daughters of my own. I watch over them all. I hold them to me and keep them safe.”

“I’ve lost my mind,” the Countess whispers. “long, long ago, I lost my mind.” She hesitantly raises her left hand, brushing back the girl’s filthy, matted hair, dislodging another feather. The Countess looks like an old woman. All traces of the youth she clung to with such ferocity have left her face, and her eyes have grown cloudy. “I am a madwoman.”

“It makes no difference,” the gypsy girl replies.

“Anna lied to me.”

“Let that go, Mother. Let it all go. There are things I would show you. Wondrous things.”

“I thought she loved me.”

“She is a sorceress, Mother, and an inconstant lover. But I am true. And you’ll need no other’s love but mine.”

The movie’s score has dwindled to a slow smattering of piano notes, a bow drawn slowly, nimbly across the string of a cello. A hint of flute.

The Countess whispers, “I called to the King of Cats.”

The girl answers, “Cats rarely ever come when called. And certainly not ninety all at once.”

And the brown girl leans forward, her lips pressed to the pale Countess’ right ear. Whatever she says, it’s nothing you can make out from your seat, from your side of the silver mirror. The gypsy girl kisses the Countess on the forehead.

“I’m so very tired.”

“Shhhhh, Mother. I know. It’s okay. You can rest now.”

The Countess asks, “Who are you.”

“I am the peace at the end of all things.”


The body of Elizabeth Báthory lies shattered on the flagstones, her face and clothes a mask of frozen blood. Fresh snow is falling on her corpse. A number of noisy crows surround the body. No music now, only the wind and the birds.


As always, you don’t leave your seat until the credits are finished and the curtain has swept shut again, hiding the screen from view. As always, you’ve made no notes, preferring to rely on your memories.

You follow the aisle to the auditorium doors and step out into the almost deserted lobby. The lights seem painfully bright. You hurry to the restroom. When you’re finished, you wash your hands, dry them, then spend almost an entire minute staring at your face in the mirror above the sink.

Outside, it’s started to rain, and you wish you’d brought an umbrella.



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