It’s almost Halloween and you know what that means; a new round of manufactured urban legends to distract and scare simpleminded people into ignoring that their Republican elected officials probably wouldn’t stop to pee on them if they were on fire.
But! It also means a reliable uptick in interest for all things related to supernatural horror. And when you’ve written a book about the most famous monster in the history of media, that means cha-ching! (In reality, that sound is more like a few dollars in loose change hitting the floor, but you get my drift.)
This year, let’s tackle the apparently frequently Googled question: How did Dracula die?
In the spirit of stretching relatively straightforward answers into 1000-word blog posts, before I can answer that question, I need to ask you a second question: Which Dracula are you talking about, the vampire or the impaling enthusiast, 15th-century prince of Wallachia?
You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll answer both.
Bram Stoker’s vampire (spoiler alert)
In the Dracula novel, the vampire is forced to flee London after all the coffins containing his rejuvenating Transylvanian earth are spoiled by Jonathan Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, Mina Murray and the rest of their killjoy, vampire extermination gang.
But the team is not content to have just run Dracula out of England. They want to delete this monster for the sake of humanity. So, they give chase all the way back to Transylvania, where they converge on the wagon carrying a weakened, coffin-bound Dracula on the final leg of his journey to the safety of his castle.
With daylight receding, the vampire-killing super friends have mere moments to dispatch Dracula before nightfall restores his powers and he can de-bone these impudent meat sacks like they richly deserve.
The hapless villagers transporting Dracula’s coffin are disabled and Jonathan Harker uses a machete to chop off Dracula’s head, while the token American in the group, Quincey Morris, stabs Dracula through the heart with a bowie knife. Dracula’s body “crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.”
You’ll note there was no wooden stake to be seen. Apparently Bram Stoker didn’t know or didn’t care to stick to that trope.
How did Dracula die – The real-life, way more terrifying one
Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula III died in late-1476 (or possibly early-1477), after three lively installments on the throne in the principality of Wallachia that were so action-packed you have to read it to believe. (Buy the book, buy the book, buy the book.)
According to legend, Dracula’s body was found in a marsh near Snagov Monastery, which he visited frequently (and generously funded) over the years while hedging his bets about the afterlife. Fun fact: The monastery still exists today, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Bucharest. Also, there’s been decades of giddy debate about whether Snogov is or isn’t Dracula’s final resting place. (Again, it’s all in the book.)
When his body was found Vlad’s head was missing, because it was bouncing in a sack on the back of a horse sprinting toward Ottoman Sultan Mehmed (“The Conqueror”) in Constantinople, who’d had it up to here with Dracula, after he proved to be an almost unbelievably ingenious and brutal adversary against the invading Ottoman horde. The rest of Vlad’s body had been severely beaten before being dumped.
There are several plausible stories about how Dracula croaked. One is that Basarab, a soundly defeated but somehow still breathing enemy, was able to scrape together a large number of like-minded Ottoman soldiers itching for redemption for previous wartime humiliations at the hands of Dracula. Pushing 50 by this point, well past his fighting prime, Dracula is said to have finally fallen in battle with Basarab’s forces.
Another account of his death, supplied by an Austrian chronicler, claims the Ottomans used Vlad’s own trick of impersonating enemies to enter their ranks against him, sending an assassin dressed as a servant into Vlad’s camp. Despite coming from a reliable source, this story stretches belief, insinuating that this person was able to quietly kill a legendarily death-proof warrior, remove his head and somehow escape unnoticed.
I’ve never removed the head from anything, but I’ve watched all eight seasons of Dexter, so I know it’s messy work. Without access to plastic tarps and unlimited rolls of shrink wrap, how this assassin was able to escape with Vlad’s head while presumably covered in all the blood, bone, and goo that accompanies a quick and dirty decapitating is a question that begs to be answered.
Other theories about Dracula’s death include that he was killed by the perpetually duplicitous Wallachian boyars (a kind of ham-fisted, 15th-century illuminati); killed in a separate skirmish with the Ottomans; or he was accidentally killed by one of his own men who mistook him for an Ottoman soldier, just as he was about to taste victory in yet another battle.
Common sense suggests the latter story seems iffy. If Dracula died surrounded by his own men, it’s difficult to believe they would have allowed the Ottomans to get hold of the body, decapitate and mutilate it.
One thing is for sure, Vlad’s head was delivered to a relieved Sultan Mehmed, preserved in honey, then stuck on a pike and probably displayed somewhere prominent.
And there you have it; “How did Dracula die,” thoroughly answered – twice. It behooves me to add, for both informational and marketing purposes, that my book Backpacking with Dracula contains my very best effort to uncover and present the facts (or the facts to the best of our knowledge) of the blockbuster movie-caliber life of Vlad Dracula III. Think of a combination of Robin Hood and Rambo as a sadistic and efficient killer, with a flair for the dramatic. Or Dexter with a giant mustache.
With record-keeping being what it was in the 15th century and the many embellished, borderline fictional accounts written about Vlad Dracula after his death, the research for my book was no easy feat. But even what we believe to be the firm facts about Dracula are still straight up bonkers and well worth the read. Also, the book makes for a great stocking stuffer for the soon-to-be-grateful members of your entire extended family.