Dracula or Vlad the Impaler (Vlat Tepes) was the son of Vlad Dracul (1436-1442; 1443-1447) and grandson of Mircea the Old (1386-1418). Vlad Dracul was dubbed a knight of the Dragon Order by the Hungarian king. All the members of the order had a dragon on their coat of arms, and that is what brought him the nickname of Dracul (the Devil). Vlad the Impaler used to sign himself Draculea or Draculya – the Devil’s son -, a name which was distorted into Dracula.
Dracula’s renown reached the West through the Saxons from the Transylvanian towns of Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt), who often gave shelter to those who claimed the Wallachian throne. In order to escape the peril of losing his throne, Vlad would punish the Saxons. Sibiu and the neighbouring area were pillaged and burnt down by Vlad, and many Saxons were impaled. The same happened to the Saxon merchants who came on business to Târgoviste.
In fact, Vlad was called Tepes (the Impaler) only after his death (1476). He ruled in Wallachia between 1456-1462 and in 1476. In 1462, having been defeated by the Turks, Vlad took refuge in Hungary. In 1476, with the help of the Hungarian king Matia Corvin and the Moldavian prince Stephen the Great, Vlad took over the Wallachian throne again for a month. A battle followed, during which Vlad was killed. His body was buried in the church of the Snagov Monastery, on an island near Bucharest. His body lies in front of the altar. In 1935, a richly dressed but beheaded corpse was exhumed at Snagov, a fate known to have overtaken Dracula, whose head was supposedly wrapped, perfumed and dispatched as a gift to the Turkish sultan.
They say that impalling was one of Dracula’s favourite punishments, but he was not the only one who made use of it at the time. Other German and Spanish princes would do the same. He used the method for boyars, thieves and criminals, Turks, Saxons and those who conspired against him; more than once it happened that a whole forest of sharp stakes with enemies’ heads would rise around Târgoviste, the capital of Wallachia at the time. It’s estimated by modern scholars that Vlad was responsible for the deaths of more than 80,000 individuals. That’s a huge number, but remember the population of Europe in 1400 was 50m people – today it’s about 750m. You could multiply 80,000 by 14 (1.1million deaths) to give a more realistic idea of his trail of slaughter in today’s terms.
To create panic and disarray within his enemies, Vlad embarked on gruesome psychological warfare. He chose to impale his victims on sharp spikes – indeed, whole towns of people were often impaled in forests of spikes, as a message to would-be attackers.
But he was a sadistic man that enjoyed cruelty. Often his victims would be hoisted to the top of the spike where they were impaled, and left to die slowly, gravity dragging them down the pole. They’d then be left to rot, as a warning.
This wasn’t enough for Vlad, though – he reportedly also enjoyed burning victims alive; gouging out eyes; and chopping off limbs. He saved particular cruelty and brutality for females – committing unspeakable acts to pregnant women.
Horrified by these atrocities, the Saxons printed books and pamphlets in which they told about Vlad’s cruelty. These booklets also reached Germany and Western Europe, where Dracula became known as a bloody tyrant.
In 1897, the Irish writer Bram Stoker published Dracula, which made Vlad the Impaler famous world-wide. Stoker read the stories about Dracula printed in the 15th and 16th centuries and was struck by his acts of cruelty. He decided to make him his character; he also read several books about Transylvania (a name of Latin origin, meaning “the country beyond the forests”), and thought that this “exotic” land would make a proper setting for Dracula’s deeds. His novel was also inspired by the Transylvanian folktales of ‘strigoi’ – ghosts who rise at night to wander the countryside, and suck the blood of their victims.
In fact, Stoker used Vlad only as a source of inspiration, since in his novel, Dracula is not prince Vlad the Impaler, but a Transylvanian count living in a mysterious castle where he lured his victims. During the day, he rests in his coffin, but at night, he rises to feast on human blood. The people he bites turn into vampires themselves. Dracula continues to claim victims until his pursuers succeed in driving a stake through his heart, finally ending his reign of terror.His story takes place in the Bistrita area, and the castle lies near the Bârgau Pass (in the Carpathian Mountains). As Stoker had never visited Transylvania, most places and happenings were pure fiction.
The legends of Vlad the Impaler’s inhuman behavior may have contributed to an association of Dracula with vampires, corpses that rise from the grave during the night to drink the blood of humans. However, it was Stoker’s novel that forever linked the name Dracula with the “undead” bloodsucking creatures of the grave.
Stoker’s novel became the best-known vampire tale of all time. Produced as a play in 1927, the story was the basis of many movies, starting with the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The classic motion picture version of Stoker’s story, made in 1931, won international fame for the actor Bela Lugosi, who starred as the black-cloaked Count Dracula. This film established a pattern for vampire-based horror movies that continues to this day.
Legend and true history about Dracula intermingle and are being kept alive by tourist destinations like the Monastery of Snagov near Bucharest, or Bran Castle near Brasov.
A Collection of Castles All Linked To Dracula
The truth is that there’s no single ‘Dracula’s castle’ somewhere in the world. Instead, there are a multitude of spooky castles in Transylvania connected to the Dracula legends. All these castles were connected to Vlad the Impaler, the ‘real life Dracula’; and all of them acted as inspiration for the spooky castle in Bram Stoker’s novel.
Bran Castle, Transylvania
Bran Castle is commonly thought by tourists around the world to be ‘Dracula’s castle’. And from a distance, it looks a great deal like the castle described in Bram Stoker’s novel: it’s a terrifying silhouette, perched on a cliff-face near the Bran Pass.
Unfortunately, the resemblance is only skin deep. The castle doesn’t really have any connection to Vlad the Impaler: there’s no strong evidence to say he stayed here, although he did fight battles in the region. There’s also no evidence Bram Stoker ever visited – or had even ever seen – the castle.
Today, the closest you’ll get to Dracula here is the rather tacky gift-stands.
Poenari Fortress, Transylvania
Poenari Castle is the work of Vlad the Impaler – so, in a sense, it really is Dracula’s castle. There was a fortress on this high, mountainous lookout since early Medieval times; but Vlad the Impaler decided that it needed to be strengthened.
The legend goes that Vlad enslaved the inhabitants of nearby Tirgoviste and forced them to rebuild the castle – offering them their freedom if they could complete the structure in three years of work.
The legend goes that, although the enslaved kept their side of the bargain, Vlad the Impaler didn’t. After the years of backbreaking work, he had most of the unfortunates executed.
Today, Poenari Castle is the absolute opposite of Bran Castle – a ruined, mighty fortress that seldom sees that many tourists. Views from the citadel are outstanding – and you can be assured that the real life Dracula really did stay here.
Hunyad Castle(Hunedoara Castle), Transylvania
The appearance alone of Hunyad Castle is enough to strike fear into most people’s hearts.
The castle is also intimately linked to Vlad the Impaler, our real life Dracula. Later in life, when Vlad’s power waned, he was held prisoner in the dungeons of the castle. Legend goes that the imprisonment drove him further towards insanity: as he tortured rats, insects and animals, in preparation for his release.
It doesn’t appear that Bram Stoker ever visited the castle, but for sure the writer may have got inspiration from the terrifying appearance of this place.