Few characters are as recognized around the world as Dracula, the vampire who has been the main character of countless books and movies. What is not widely known is that Dracula was a real man, and in part, the basis for the vampire character.
Vlad Tepes was born to Vlad Dracul (translated meaning “Vlad the Dragon,”) in 1431, the Prince of Wallachia, territory in what is now Romania.
In 1442, the Turkish royalty imprisoned Dracul. Vlad (who was referred to as Dracula, translated “Son of the Dragon”), and his younger brother Radu were also imprisoned, only to be left behind when their father was released. In 1448, Dracula escaped from prison and was appointed Prince of Wallachia in his father’s place, who had been assassinated in 1447.
After only two months as prince, Vlad was forced out of his territory by Vladisav II and eventually found refuge in Transylvania, a territory to the northwest of Wallachia. In 1456, the leader of Transylvania killed Vladisav and Vlad was once again appointed the Prince of Wallachia.
It would be during this time, his second reign over Wallachia, when Vlad would receive his nickname, “Vlad the Impaler.” He would be personally responsible for the deaths of about 40,000-100,000 men, women and children. His crimes were against not only his enemies, but his own citizens.
For example, Vlad’s answer to Wallachia’s poverty problem was to invite the poor and invalid of his territory to his castle for dinner. After the meal, he would burn them alive in the room where he fed them, killing hundreds of people at once. He also used this tactic against the nobility of other territories.
Another habit of Vlad’s was to dine in close proximity of people he had impaled from their rear to their throats, so he could eat while watching people writhe in pain and die. On one occasion, one of his lunch guests commented on the odor coming from the bodies. Vlad ordered that the guest be executed, but killed him in a higher place so that he did not have to suffer the odor of which he complained. Every so often, Vlad would have his servant dip his bread in the blood of his victims.
While it was never made clear if Vlad himself ate any of his victims, he had been known to boil people to death and then force their family members to eat them. Many stories cite instances of mothers having to eat their children and husbands having to eat their wives.
Seeing women as nothing more than people who should please and serve their husbands, Vlad had no tolerance for female infidelity. A wife caught in an extramarital affair would have her sexual organs cut out. Then, she would be skinned alive and put on display in public, her skin hanging beside her from a separate pole. This was also the fate of women who engaged in pre-marital sex.
During a visit from a group of Italians as part of state diplomacy, Vlad committed one of his most offensive acts. After the Italian men removed their hats, their skullcaps remained on as part of Italian custom. When the men did not remove their skullcaps, Vlad ordered that they be nailed into the skulls of each man.
In 1462, after a six-year reign, a new Transylvanian leader forced Vlad from his throne. He was thrown in jail where he remained for 13 years. Even while imprisoned, Vlad was able to scare the guards by torturing rats and other rodents that found their way into his cell. He was freed in 1475, at the hand of his cousin, and placed on the battlefield in Serbia to fight the Turks. In 1476, Vlad was declared Prince of Wallachia for the third and final time.
His final reign would be his shortest. After only two months, Vlad was killed in battle and his head was delivered to the sultan of the Turkish Empire. His body was supposed to have been buried at the Snagov monastery, a place of worship he had helped restore.
A grave marked as Dracula’s burial chamber was opened in 1931 by two Romanian archaeologists, but there was nothing found except a few bones from a variety of animals. The location of Vlad’s body remains a mystery.
So how did this tyrannical leader become one of most famous horror characters the world has known?
In the early 1890s, Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist, had begun writing a book about a vampire, originally titled “Count Wampyr.” After hearing vampire folklore and beliefs from Transylvania, Stoker began to research the region.
In his studies, he came across the books An Extraordinary and Shocking History of a Great Berserker Called Prince Dracula and The Historie and Superstitions of Romantic Romania, both chronicling the life and times of Vlad the Impaler. He changed the name of the title character to Count Dracula, and used the land of Transylvania as the home of his vampire.
Some literary critics believe that the similarities end there, seeing as how Vlad was never a vampire or a count. However, it is widely accepted that Count Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler. Many statements of the vampire’s family history e parallel Vlad’s, as well as many of his military experiences. The fictional vampire also spoke of many people Vlad knew and places he was documented as having visited.
Dracula would become Stoker’s most famous piece of work and one of the most popular horror books ever written. The story has spawned multiple other novels, stage plays and movies, spanning across the 20th century and continuing to this day.