Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Horror Writer’s Workshop day 1: What jetlag?

Every house is haunted.

It’s only to be expected in a place with so much history. Most of the buildings in these little Romanian villages are hundreds of years old.

I’d spent a total of about fifteen hours in planes and airports, but I had a surprising burst of energy after dinner on my first evening in Bran, Romania. Maybe it was the home-cooked meal–all the food at the Mama Cozonacilor is fresh, traditional, and cooked from scratch. Or perhaps it was the brief nap I caught during the three-hour drive from Bucharest.

But I suspect it was the vampires.

It’s exhilarating to be in a place where vampires and werewolves are not only legend–they’re respected and feared. Many Romanians still believe in them, although they won’t necessarily admit it unless they’ve gotten to know you. And they don’t like to talk about it.

During my first evening, I was told so many places were haunted that I had to laugh. It was getting ridiculous, already! Talk about a horror writer’s paradise.

Leading the pack is Bran Castle–the so-called Dracula’s Castle, where the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, may or may not have spent some time. The castle that may or may not have inspired Bram Stoker while he was writing his horror classic. The one that draws in 10,000 visitors per day during the tourist season.

And yes, it’s reputedly haunted.

So I came up with the brilliant idea of walking to the castle after dark. Tausha, one of the organizers of the Horror Writer’s Workshop, was enthusiastic. Ina, our dear Romanian friend, was decidedly less so.

There are three reasons this adventure was dangerous (in addition to the ghosts, of course):

1) Romanian drivers: They are crazy! I swear they speed up when they see someone walking along the narrow roads.

2) Romanian dogs: Community dogs are everywhere, but thankfully they’re usually friendly. (Although one did seem to get its kicks from biting Tausha’s ass.) These dogs are healthier and better fed than a lot of the strays I’ve seen abroad. After they stopped growling, it was nice to have their company.

3) The castle was closed.

The walk (over six kilometres in the dark, over narrow uneven roads) took us about two hours. By then, we’d lost Ina, who was too unnerved by the entire experience to continue. If walking past a graveyard at night gives you the creeps, you probably don’t want to wander in Romania. We saw at least two of them on our journey.

Undeterred by the immense wrought-iron gate, Tausha and I found a small gap in the fence and wedged ourselves inside, followed by our new canine friends. (Many Romanians won’t keep dogs as pets because werewolves. Cats don’t fare much better.) Suddenly we heard guards! They were right on the other side of some cedar trees. They were so close we could hear them breathing. We sat on the grass and waited for them to leave, praying they wouldn’t see us as they drove away. Finally they left and we continued our journey to the castle.

The castle grounds are well-lit, probably in order to catch dumb tourists like us. We’d gone only a few feet before Tausha spotted a guard keeping watch. Yep, time to leave. And we were so close to reaching the castle! Drat.

I’m really glad I arrived in Bran two days early. It’s been great to have more time to check out this beautiful region, and to get to know Tausha and Ina–although they felt like old friends from the moment I met them. We never stop yakking.

This morning, Tausha took me to a centre that rescues bears and wolves from unethical zoos, circuses, DSC_6255and even restaurants and stores. Some nefarious entrepreneurs actually used wild bears to lure in the tourists! Unfortunately, rather than cherishing these wonderful animals, they beat, mistreated, and starved them. The bears have a much happier home now, but hearing their stories was difficult. We left the rehabilitation centre with heavier hearts and even more resolve to do what we can to protect and help all animals.

DSC_6320Then I saw Dracula–over and over again. He was all over the markets in Bran. Dracula mugs, T-shirts, fridge magnets, wall hangings, masks. Whether you want a Bela Lugosi-style Drac or the real thing–Tepes himself–you can find it here. I managed to resist, aside from one souvenir T-shirt. The most awesome find was a smoky cheese the Romanians age inside of Christmas trees. It comes in a little package made from the bark of the tree, and was too delicious and unique to pass up.

The bakeries are to die for, and women selling baskets of fresh raspberries from the forest are everywhere.

They’re probably haunted raspberries.

At the very least, they’re cursed.

**I apologize in advance for being really crappy about visiting blogs for the next while, but I promise to make up for it as soon as I’m back.**

1 part newsletter, 1 part unnerving updates,
2 parts sneak peeks of new projects.


  1. Crystal Collier

    You sneak! What a fun adventure. I chuckle about the whole pet conundrum, but if we examine our own culture, we all have interesting aspects, eh?

    • JH

      Most definitely. That’s what I love about traveling…you get to see the world through totally different eyes. I love learning about other cultures.

  2. Madilyn Quinn

    Wow! This sounds so awesome! Have an amazing time!
    The bear thing makes me sad, but I’m glad there are places that save and rehabilitate them!

    • JH

      Me too, Madilyn. There are bear rescues around the world that do amazing work.

      Thanks for the kind wishes. So far, so good!

  3. Tausha

    I love your energy, J.H.! It’s been such a pleasure these last two days. Can’t wait to see what adventures we’ll have together in the Land Beyond the Forest. Only Day 1, so here we go!

    • JH

      Thanks! I’ve had a lot of fun, and it’s been great getting to know you and Ina. Thanks so much for spending the time with me!

  4. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    Of course you have to get at least one t-shirt! 🙂

    And I bet those haunted/cursed raspberries are delicious.

    So looking forward to hearing more about this trip/conference! Thanks for sharing!

    • JH

      I wasn’t into the travel T-shirt thing until China. That’s when I got into it. I’ll be glad to have a Transylvania shirt when I’m back in Winnipeg. 🙂

      They are quite delicious!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It means a lot.

  5. susan

    Just have fun – am drooling at raspberries and bakeries!

    • JH

      The baked goods are out of this world, Susan. I’m not really a sweets person, but I haven’t been able to resist. Today we had something called “cheese pie” which looked like puff pastry and tasted like the lovechild of homemade donuts and cheesecake.

    • JH

      Thanks, Heather! Will do. I promise to visit everyone’s blogs when I get back. It’s great to get some feedback.

  6. Birgit

    Oh Lucky you!! I have read that this castle is probably not the main one he resided in but another which is half in ruins and looks even more haunted. So sad about the animals because of the ancient culture I am certain black dogs and cats are rare, which is sad

    • JH

      Hi Birgit! Yes, have to say I haven’t seen any black animals yet. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since I’ve only seen a handful. I’ll let you know if I do find one.

      I’m excited to see the castle, Vlad or no Vlad. 🙂

  7. Mary Aalgaard

    A trip of a lifetime! How brave of you to walk to the castle, and try to sneak in, in the night! Do they ever allow night time tours? I’m sick about what they did to those animals.

    Haunted raspberries, haha.


    • JH

      Thanks, Mary. Yes, they do! For 2000 lei (just over $630 CAD, less in the US) you can rent the entire castle for the night.

  8. Sara C. Snider

    How fun and also creepy! Cheese aged in Christmas trees sounds magical, and might be worth a trip to Romania for that alone.

    • JH

      It was pretty awesome. I really hope it survives. The outside packaging was pretty sappy this morning.


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