Vlad Dracula was kind of like the Marilyn Manson of historic Romania. He was pretty twisted, but not nearly as twisted as the widely circulated rumors about him suggested, and, of course, he was considered a hero by many – even today (despite poor record sales).
Nevertheless, the fifteenth-century Wallachian prince’s reputation was still frightening enough to be used as a model for Dracula, the toothy vampire starring in the horror story of the same name, penned in 1897 by Bram Stoker.
While many Romanians happily cash in on the tourism fueled by Stoker’s artistic license, some argue that Vlad’s good name, an undeniably significant figure in their history, has been tainted by his literary doppelganger. Vlad is still considered by many Romanians to be a hero. He was voted one of “100 Greatest Romanians” in the Mari Români television show in 2006.
The real Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 in the Transylvanian town of Sighisoara. Somewhat counter-intuative to his enduring fame, he only ruled Wallachia for a mere eight cumulative years (1448, 1456-1462 and 1476). His father, Prince Vlad II, was called Vlad Dracul (from the Latin ‘draco’, meaning ‘dragon’) after the chivalric Order of the Dragon accredited to him by Sigismund of Luxembourg in 1431. The Romanian name Draculea – literally ‘son of Dracul’ – was bestowed on Tepes by his father. Bram Stoker chose to adopt an alternative meaning of the word draco, which, conveniently, was ‘devil’.
Vlad’s childhood was rather brutal. He spent many years in a Turkish prison, where he was allegedly raped by members of the Turkish court. He returned to Wallachia, unsurprisingly, a very angry young man, though he was soon able to vent that anger in a productive fashion. Notorious for his brutal punishment methods, ranging from decapitation to boiling and burying alive, he gained the post-mortem name ‘Tepes’ (‘impaler’) after his favorite form of pre-death torture. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death. Tepes legendarily enjoyed eating a full meal (rare, one presumes) while watching his Turkish and Greek prisoners writhe on stakes in front of him. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to make the connection of how his years in that Turkish prison might have contributed to this affinity.
There’s no denying that skewering defeated enemies was extravagantly cruel, but to be fair to poor Vlad, this was not, in fact, an unusual form of torture in medieval Europe. Tepes’ first cousin, Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), the much celebrated Prince of Moldavia, is said to have ‘impaled by the navel, diagonally, one on top of each other’ 2300 Turkish prisoners in 1473. And that guy ended up being sainted!
Bram Stoker’s fictional, bloodsucking Dracula, of course, was a lavish exaggeration, recast as an undead corpse reliant on the blood of the living to sustain his immortality. Though he never actually stepped foot in Romania, had he made the journey, Stoker would have had no shortage of additional vampire material to work with, being that vampires formed an integral part of traditional folklore. The seventh-born child was said to be particularly susceptible to this affliction, identifiable by a hoof as a foot or a tail at the end of its spine.
Vlad Tepes died in 1476, and Stoker in 1912, yet Count Dracula lives on in an extraordinary subculture of fiction and film. The original “Dracula” has never been out of print.
So, now that we’ve straightened that out, wanna do some real Dracula chasing? Here’s a fun post I wrote for Gadling a few years back: can you guess which is the real Dracula’s castle? – part of my criminally under-recognized “My Bloody Romania” series.