Some areas have such a strong sense of place that to visit them is to halfway live in a story. These places depend on the person of course, but you can imagine the first time you visit Tokyo or Paris or Rome and feeling the surreality of being in such a famed place. Crater Lake in Oregon has always been like that for me. This fall, I found another place.
I came to Transylvania to celebrate my favorite holiday of the year. The train that goes up the country passes farms and men in horse carts. Yellow and red trees and small ponds dot the countryside In fact the descriptions that Bram Stoker used in Harker’s diary are pretty spot on. I spent four nights in the small town of Sighișoara mostly because it’s where Vlad Țepeș was born. And I gotta tell you: this place is packed a horror story clichés. Luckily, we’re talking the Act I, vaguely ominous clichés rather than anything truly terrifying.
People on the streets give me grim-faced stares. Every yard has a dog that barks like mad when I go by. One street had a dead cat splayed out grotesquely in the street, surrounded by street dogs. The smell (and sight) of woodsmoke is everywhere. There are ruins even in the city center and yellow leaves dot the cobblestone streets. The mornings and evenings are chilly and foggy and there are strange harvest effigies (not to mention a mysterious locked door to nowhere) in my hostel room.
I climbed up to a plateau behind the city today where a group of shepherds sitting around a fire had to shout at their pack of dogs, who definitely felt like I had encroached on the territory of them and their sheep. These were big dogs that are responsible for keeping the sheep safe from bears, wolves, and lynxes. It’s hyper-real to be in a place that drips with so much of the exact atmosphere you expect.
The list goes on but the point is I’m fascinated that these elements that make me feel like I’m in the beginning of a story would make such a poor story. The village with unwelcoming members is as tired as any trope can be, and barking dogs might be even more tired. But they sure feel real when you’re there.
If anyone was writing a horror story in 2022 with those elements, they would be either getting ready to subvert these ideas or writing a very unoriginal story.
But here’s the thing. Being here and experiencing these boring ass story elements is fully the experience I could. This might explain why so many stories use boiler plate templates for plot and story. But real life doesn’t need subversion. Real life is happy to stumble from one cliché to another. Real life is, in short, far more boring and far more complex than fiction.