Two painful Dracula contest memories!
At this time of year in 1978, I was in two contests; both time I played Dracula. This year is not a multiple of 5 or 10 years since 1978, but the dates, September 17 and 25 were on a Sunday and a Monday respectively, the same way they are this year.
I have mentioned previously about repeated identical alignments, every few years, of all the dates of any one-year occurring on various days of the week. This year had the same date-weekday alignment as 1865, 1967,1978,1989 and 1995.
The September 17 contest was in Wildwood, NJ held by a Boardwalk walk-through horror castle, which was ending its first season that day. It was called Castle Dracula! When I saw an article about it in the local newspaper during the summer, I went head over heels over that title. The article had a photo of one of the female “haunts” who worked there; she wore grotesque face makeup and a black hooded robe. Unfortunately, that was a very general look that could be found in numberless other commercial haunted houses; since this one named itself after Dracula, it should have kept its exhibits authentic to the definitive name. I contacted its manager to let him know I was a Dracula expert & for him to consider authenticating the “products.” A tourist brochure for it said it was “removed stone by stone from the Carpathian Mountains,” but its shape wasn’t at all like the honest-to-goodness Castle Dracula overlooking the Arges River. And the exhibits were not at all authentic to the Dracula story in either the historic or fictional sense! There were a great many unrelated and cliché horror topics within the exhibits which could be found in countless other houses of horror. It was a castle of corruption and, to quote one double-crossing friend, a monumental fraud. It’s true horror was its lack of authenticity.
The participants in this contest—a masquerade contest—represented a great many familiar characters that were either horrific or grotesque. There were some other “Draculas” among the contestants, but they were all vampires. I was the only one dressed as Prince Vlad!
I had been told the judging would start at 2pm, but instead the manager of the castle said it would not be until 5:00! For the next 3 hours I wandered around the boardwalk adjacent to the castle, trying to interact with other contestants who took little or no interest in me. The manager took me inside the castle lobby to introduce me to their resident vampire. I remember I said to him, “Meet your historical counterpart, Count!”
Two other people I met there were husband and wife “image makers”, as they advertised themselves, who were photographing some of the contestants. They seemed interested in my unique approach to Dracula but they nagged me to take a ride on the roller coaster which was part of the castle complex. I refused, as I had an unpleasant experience as a child; this couple scolded me and branded me a coward for spurning a scary roller coaster while going all out for a scary character!
When it was finally time for judging, the manager said contestants were to process, one by one, down a narrow ramp which had been cleared in front of the castle. Contestants were to be judged and rated according to originality. Any dramatic presentations they might have prepared were welcome. I was glad to hear this, since I meant to make dance gestures when it was my turn. Only a couple of years later, when I started participating in Sci-Fi convention masquerades, I would remember this event when the sci-fi masqueraders were encouraged to make presentations! The manager when it was my turn, emphasized that I deserved an extra big hand for appearing as the real-life Dracula.
I thought I had a really good chance, and had done a good job, when I was placed first among ten finalists. I was certainly original, but there were several cliché characters among the other finalists. But when the final winners were announced, I burst into tears. Not only did I fail to make the top three, but the three who were chosen were very unoriginal. The top prize went to a Frankenstein’s Monster which, although magnificently constructed, was strictly copycat Karloff! The contestants had been told originality was the key; yet the top prize went to a design that had already existed for some 50 years.
Spectators crowded around the winners and congratulated them; they ignored me completely. Whoever said that participation, not winning, was all that counted was sadly mistaken.
The two “image-makers” saw me crying and offered to take me out to dinner. I accepted since my return bus was not for a couple of hours. But after we finished our meal, they expected me to pay my own bill! They had not made it clear beforehand that I was expected to pay for my own meal. I had a couple of dollars which I gave them, and in the following days had to send them a check for the balance. This day had proved disastrous.
In the months that followed, I returned to the castle many times to implement authenticity, but the manager and the board of directors refused. They preferred money to authenticity; they chose to exploit the name of Dracula to attract tourists to a fraudulent facility. I was expelled the following year. For years the castle stood as a thorn in my side, but it finally burned to the ground, a target of arson in 2002!
Also in the months following the contest, the “image makers” tried to set me up as one of their feature attractions. But they were very nosy, irritating couple, who took unflattering pictures of me and provoked me into many arguments. Sometimes they would make dates to meet at my home only to come hours earlier or later than said, and being drunk while they were there! I renounced them after the Castle Dracula board fired me.
The other contest was on September 25th in Philadelphia. I did not find out about it until I arrived at work that morning and one of my co-workers asked me about it. I thought she meant the Wildwood contest, but no - it was a different event. I looked at a brief newspaper article.
The Philadelphia chapter of March of Dimes was having a Halloween haunted house next month and wanted a mascot, in the role of Dracula, for it. I did not have a piece of my costume with me! I had to get permission from my boss to go home and get it, be in the contest, and then finish out the day.
I felt I had a better chance this time because this contest was strictly Dracula rather than a hodgepodge of horror themes. When I returned on the bus to John F. Kennedy Plaza, where the contest was to be held, I saw a coffin on the stage. I saw a radio station mascot, in a beaver suit, and a couple of other contestants who, fortunately, weren’t dressed anything the way I was. I was prepared to show both side of Dracula this time.
The emcee was to interview each contestant one by one. I was first and gave an impressive explanation of how I was impersonating the authentic, real-life Prince Vlad. The emcee then called for me to get into the coffin and rise out of it, but I said that would have to wait until I changed my costume to that of the vampire. I would be called back.
The contestants that followed were two female vampires and a young man with so much face makeup that a judge tried to eat it! I thought I had an excellent chance when suddenly, another contestant, late in arriving, appeared. He was in the cliché vampire costume and was lame in one foot, using crutches! All other entrants had to get into the coffin and ascend from it, but they all needed assistance, especially the crutch walker.
It was now time for me to be re-evaluated. The emcee called me back as I went through dancing motions and lunges with my sword, as he explained about the real Dracula. Then I put down my stake and removed several costume pieces in order to change to the vampire. I stepped into the coffin and sank down, thinking, “This is how it’ll be when I die.” I held my breath, then opened my eyes and started to rise. Suddenly I realized since I was surrounded by walls, Dracula actors had hard times climbing out because they were enclosed! Cameras never showed every detail of the ascent. The emcee shouted, “Somebody help her out!” But I doubled one leg under me, took a deep breath, and rose to a standing position on the inhalation! I had risen without help, the only contestant to do so, and stepped out.
But I ended up second, by a hair, to the crutchwalking mock Lugosi! I was a Dracula authority; I had made a sterling presentation; I had risen from the coffin without assistance; and had come second to a cliché vampire who had needed help! I received no compensation. There was a newspaper photo the next day of the entrants, but I was left out!
Both contests had proven insincere in that they awarded top honors to cliché material and snubbed a conscientious, authentic Dracula impersonator!