It’s pretty much common knowledge that Bram Stoker based his title character Dracula on an actual person, Vlad Tepes (1431-1476). But what’s the story of the real Dracula? Was Vlad the Impaler really a vampire, or vampiric in any way? Let’s see…
Vlad Tepes (also known as Vlad Dracula, Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Impaler, Vlad III) was the ruler of Wallachia, with the title of voivode (warlord or prince), that acquired a terrifying reputation due to his cruelty and the propaganda that was spread throughout Europe during his life and after his death. In Romania, Vlad has been honored historically for being the leader that defeated the Ottoman Turks.
Vlad was born in Sighisoara, Transylvania, the son of Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia (d. 1447). Vlad and his brother Radu spent many years as hostages of the Turks, learning from them a lesson of humiliation, oppression and terror. For a short time in 1448, with the approval of the Ottomans, Vlad claimed power in Wallachia but was soon overthrown, fleeing to Moldavia and the safety of the Hungarians.
He returned to Wallachia in 1456, with the support of the Hungarians, embarking on a reign which lasted until 1462. During his reign he campaigned against the Turks, had Castle Dracula built, and he massacred thousands of his subjects by a variety of horrific methods, the most common being the stake (which is how he earned the name Vlad the Impaler). But, those that were tortured and murdered were those that broke his laws. When Vlad returned to Wallachia it was war torn, impoverish and overrun with crime and hunger, but with his leadership he brought prosperity and order back to the land.
In 1462 Vlad once again fled to Hungary because of the Ottomans, but once there he was imprisoned by King Matthias Corvinus, who feared Vlad. After twelve years he was released from imprisonment, but it wasn’t until 1476 that he was once again a voivode. But by this time Vlad had far too many enemies and he was killed.
After his death, Vlad became a legend due to all of the crazy rumors of his death and corpse. His headless body was said to be buried at Snagov, near Bucharest, but the wild gossip said that in truth, the grave was empty. Then they said that Vlad had not died, but that he went into hiding, waiting for the day he was needed again. Then, thanks to incredibly exaggerated and untrue writings that were circulated all over Europe, Vlad’s accomplishments as voivode were pushed aside and all he was known for was the grisly murders he committed. He had become viewed as an evil and cruel murderer, not as the leader that fought for his home.
While searching for someone to model his character after, Bram Stoker came across the shadowy figure of Vlad. Vlad Dracula fit the part perfectly: he died under mysterious circumstances, he was decapitated, his body was apparently never recovered, and he loved impaling people. Even the name Dracula had occult connotations.
Vlad and vampirism never mixed until Bram Stoker. Not once was it said that he was a vampire until Stoker’s character, Van Helsing, declared that the wicked vampire Dracula was, in truth, Vlad Tepes. And so the determined nobleman that had died hundreds of years before was thrown back into the European limelight, once again the victim of half truths. Vlad went from being accused of shedding the blood of innocents, to being accused of drinking it.