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Seton Hill faculty co-curate academic conference for International Vampire Film and Arts Festival in Romania

| Thursday, July 6, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Seton Hill University faculty Michael Arnzen and Nicole Peeler, who recently returned from Romania after overseeing the literary program for the International Vampire Film and Arts Festival, pose for a portrait inside the courtyard of the Seton Hill University admissions building in Greensburg, Thursday, June 29, 2017.
Jeni Benz
Leadie Jo Flowers (from left), Nicole Peeler, Elsa Carruthers, Rhonda Jackson Joseph, and Michael Arnzen touring Bran Castle. Flowers, Caruthers and Joseph are SHU alumnae who presented at the festival. According to its website, because Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that actually fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle.

From Bela Lugosi's eerie, early movie portrayal, to authors Anne Rice's and Stephenie Meyer's creations with tortured souls, to Count Von Count instructing toddlers on "Sesame Street," vampires have long played a role in pop culture.

For those fascinated by vampire lore, films and games, where better to gather and learn than in Sighisoara, Transylvania, the 1431 citadel birthplace of Vlad (the Impaler) Dracula, believed namesake/inspiration for Bram Stoker's "Dracula"?

Seton Hill University faculty members Michael Arnzen and Nicole Peeler co-curated the academic conference for the second International Vampire Film and Arts Festival, held in May in Romania.

Seton Hill sponsored that portion of the festival, billed as a forum to discuss classic works, learn from established authors and give emerging talent a platform. Workshops, seminars and parties embraced all things vampire.

Arnzen, 50, of Greensburg, is an English professor and Bram Stoker award-winning novelist.

Peeler, 38, of East Liberty, is an associate professor of English and program director of the university's master of fine arts in writing popular fiction program.

A descendant of Stoker's reached out to Arnzen, who was excited to receive an invitation to Transylvania.

"I talked to Nicole right away," he says.

Peeler was immediately intrigued.

"As a young kid, I loved (early Dracula historians) Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally books. I have a double obsession with 'Dracula' the book and Vlad the Impaler," she says.

"My dad gave me 'Dracula' when I was young and said, 'You must read this,' " Arnzen says.

It's a book that stands the test of time, he says.

Both view the university's participation as recognition of its pre-eminence in teaching popular fiction writing. They teach all genres in their program, and vampires show up in science fiction, young adult, thrillers, romances and westerns, Peeler says.

Dracula — both Vlad and the fictionalized version — remains a character that incites passion.

There is romance in a character who slips away by day, only to re-appear in the dark, amidst themes of repression, guilt and desire, Arnzen says.

"There is something about vampires that speaks to you," Peeler says.

Along with the horror and terror, there are the seductive pulls of immortality and power, she says. Popular fiction allows people safe zones to explore those fascinations, Arnzen says.

While Vlad Dracula did not bite necks and drink his victim's blood — instead impaling thousands he considered enemies — his own people saw his harsh rule as a form of protection against Ottoman rule, published research shows.

"He was still very much a hero to the people of Romania," Peeler says.

The two reviewed submissions for "Children of the Night: The Vampire Across Popular Culture," considering papers exploring the various appearances of vampires in pop culture and addressing the character's ongoing global significance in different media.

Among their selections were works by three alumnae (and authors) from Seton Hill's program — Elsa Carruthers, Leadie Joe Flower and Rhonda Jackson Joseph — who presented during a panel discussion.

Submissions came from France, Brazil, Finland and Russia.

"The papers were fascinating," Arnzen says.

Joseph injected some humorous outrage about the absence of African-American women in vampire fiction in her presentation, entitled, "Where My Girls At?"

Alumna Claudia M. Kovach, Neumann University English and French professor, participated in another panel with her Delaware County university's colleagues.

Conference topics ranged from "Vampire Suicide" to "Vampires in Brazilian Popular Culture," "The Vampire and Cultural Crisis" and "(En)Gendering the Vampire."

The colleagues' first visit to Romania inspired a desire to return.

"It was stunning, visually," Peeler says.

What it lacks in polish, they say, it makes up for in quirkiness and drive-by castle sightings.

"I walked away with a novel idea," Arnzen says.

"I walked away with five extra pounds," Peeler says, laughing.

Along with enjoying such Eastern European dishes as goulash and papanasi, a cheesy pastry topped with jam, those attending the conference also visited Bran Castle.

Although never the home of Vlad Dracula, the 1382 structure on Transylvania's border is the only one that actually fits Bram Stoker's description of Dracula's Castle, according to its website.

Seeing former students travel abroad and make academic presentations also was satisfying for the instructors, as was the level of interest in the subject matter.

"I think we helped advance scholarship about something in a meaningful way that people (think of as) a Halloween costume," Arnzen says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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