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Tricks and Treats

Casting off the spell of Dracula
Hundreds of young Goths will descend on Stoker's Whitby this weekend
By LARRY HUMBER, Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 28, 2001

WHITBY, GREAT BRITAIN -- An English abbey that was once home to the diabolical Dracula, that bloodsucking cad?

That's the impression held by many who come to what remains of Whitby Abbey, which rises majestically over the town of Whitby, an old whaling port on England's northeast coast. "Lots of people come in here believing it's Dracula's castle," said Ian Linsley, who is deputy head custodian at the abbey, an English Heritage property that is one of the country's most popular sites, attracting some 130,000 visitors each year.

Blame it on Bram.

Bram Stoker that is, author of the horror classic Dracula,which was first published in 1897. Stoker set significant portions of the book in Whitby, where he summered for the first time in 1890 (the house in which he stayed is marked by a plaque). One memorable scene has the cursed count bounding up the 199 steps that lead from Whitby Harbour to St. Mary's church, behind which stands the crumbling abbey. Dracula is in the guise of an "immense dog" that subsequently takes refuge among the tombstones at St. Mary's, many of which are at awkward angles, having been exposed to gale-force winds over the years. Church officials are forever having to remind modern-day visitors that they are on hallowed ground. In other words, no funny business among the deceased.

Dracula appears in other forms during his spell in Whitby, as both a "great bat" and a "good-sized bird." But he never hangs his hat -- or cape -- at the abbey that's often mistaken to be his home.

Instead, it was the site of a momentous get-together in church history, the Synod of Whitby of 664. It was at that event that the date for Easter was nailed down -- and not with wooden stakes. The rites and authority of the Roman church were also adopted at that time.

That's the story Linsley is keen to relate, downplaying Stoker's work. He's certainly not about to recommend Dracula to his book club. "It's a horrible book to read," he says. "It's 500 pages, but it could be told in half that many." Despite his unfavourable review, the book is on sale in the abbey's gift shop, incongruously sharing shelf space with an assortment of objects of a religious nature.

While the abbey sees a steady flow of visitors, business really picks up around Easter and just after Halloween. That's when the Goths -- youths outfitted all in black, sporting top hats and capes, their faces caked in white makeup -- flock to Whitby. Dates for this year's festivities are April 27-29 and Nov. 2-4.

Linsley, surprisingly, says the Goths are a welcome sight. "They may be all in black, but they add a lot of colour to the place." When the abbey closes its doors in late afternoon, they retreat to the town proper, with its steep, cobbled streets, for a vampire's ball, concerts and readings.

A favourite hangout is the Elsinore Pub. The Goths may look like they mean trouble, but they rarely get out of hand. "They're a good group, no problems," said the bartender at the Elsinore a few weeks prior to their spring arrival.

Have there been any unusual happenings while they have been in town? "No, nothing like that," he said, then quickly looked away. The three men -- they might have been fishermen -- sipping pints at the bar tried not to appear interested in such talk. Were they hiding something?

For more information on goings-on in this town with a Dracula theme, check out Whitby Dracula Society

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