Everyone is more than familiar with the story of Dracula: that deathless revenant has haunted the stage, screen and popular novels (and even comics) ever since Bram Stoker first published his frightful novel of a centuries-old Romanian noble who lived by night to feast off the blood of young Victorian women. Few people realize, however, that Dracula is based on something more than a few old European folktales. The character is taken from the actual history of Wallachia, a land beyond the Carpathian Mountains, and bordered to the north by Moldavia and Transylvania. It is a land steeped in the myth and folklore of gypsies, werewolves, magic, monsters…and vampires.
Vlad’s father, Vlad II, was the prince of Wallachia at time when the political situation in the embattled country was precarious to say the least; the Prince was often forced to change allegiances quickly, lest either the Hungarians or Turks, creating pressure on separate fronts, imperil the existence of his kingdom. It was for this reason (and also, one must assume, for his barbaric cruelty) that he was honored with the rather unflattering moniker of “dracul”, which translates roughly as “dragon,” or even “devil.” The nickname was to earn his son Vlad “Dracula” (or “son of the dragon”) an everlasting, immortal infamy. Vlad’s sons were imprisoned for a short time by the Turkish sultan to ensure that their father would maintain a longer allegiance to the Turks than what he was traditionally known for. Vlad Tepes spent four years in the dungeons of the Sultan, where, it is rumored, he learned firsthand the propensity to cruelty which must be indulged in by the successful medieval ruler. By 1448, he had left captivity to begin his own career of horror.
First he spent some amount of time allied with the Turks, then turned his loyalty to Moldavia, then becoming a staunch leader of Transylvania.
One wonders if Vlad didn’t find all this treachery to be good, dirty fun.
In 1456, his ascendancy to the throne of Wallachia was assured, and Vlad began a reign of terror comparable only to the excesses of the Roman emperors . Vlad’s favorite pastime, which earned him the further nickname of “The Impaler”, speaks for itself: Prince Vlad’s favorite method of execution was to line up thousands of tall wooden stakes and mercilessly impale his enemies on them, leaving them to die an agonizing death. The impalement was accomplished through the heart, navel or anus. When it was a woman’s turn (Vlad, it would seem, was no chauvinist when it came to cruel and merciless forms of execution) the unfortunate lass could count on being impaled through her sexual organs. Freud, one supposes, would have had a field day with Prince Vlad.
Vlad utilized many familiar means of capital punishment, among them: burning, boiling, beheading, and slow disembowelment. However, it was his peculiar love of impalement that put him in such foul repute with nobles of a somewhat more restrained nature. One hideous example, preserved in visual tableaux by the skilled hands of an adept woodcutter, depicts Vlad amidst the impaled bodies of five hundred slowly-dying Saxons, while he dines on a merry outdoor feast. (Not the sort of chap you might have want to have along on a picnic.)
So many accounts circulated through the centuries concerning the cruelty of Prince Vlad, it is hard to know where reality ends and legend takes over. He was known, for instance, to proclaim a large charitable feast for all the beggars his soldiers could gather. After having had them dine sumptuously on delicacies they could scarce have ever had a hope of indulging in, he would very politely rise, and ask the assembled throng if they wished to live the rest of their lives in such luxurious comfort. When they, to a man, responded in the affirmative, he had them trapped inside the dining hall, and burned alive. It was likewise said, that upon one occasion, he condemned a man to be butchered slowly and fed to lobsters. It was further stated that, upon this grotesque act being completed, the man’s luckless family was forced to eat the lobsters! They were then burned alive.
The mind boggles.
Could it all be true?
A most notorious diddle was the turn played on visiting Turkish diplomats, who according to their custom failed— and then, of all horrors, boldly refused— to remove their turbans. Vlad obliged them their eccentricity by affording them the assurance they would never be able to remove them again: he had them nailed to their heads. However, all of this brazen butchery backfired on poor Prince Vlad when it came time to enlist allies in his eternal struggle against the Turkish invaders, for when it came time to ask for some assistance from fellow Christians, most of them found themselves too appalled at the murderous despot to be much concerned.
Although, initially, Prince Vlad had some successes at forestalling the Turkish invasion (the Turks being cowed, somewhat, by the field of impaled bodies they happened upon as they mounted what would be their push into Wallachia) , he was forced to flee into exile. He remained thus for fourteen years, four of which he spent imprisoned in Hungary. He was called out, briefly, to serve in the Hungarian army (yet again against the Turks) and eventually made his way back to Alachua, reascending the throne, but only for a brief final sojourn; two months later he was dead, killed in battle against his lifelong adversaries. But his legend survived him, resurrecting his memory in the nighttime stories old mothers told to their grandchildren to frighten them into pleasant dreams.
`He lives on, too , in the vast modern myth of “Dracula”: the suave vampire who sleeps by day and lurks the fog-shrouded streets of East London by night, a character that was first brought into existence by the mordant pen of Bram Stoker and then imprinted upon the consciousness of countless generations, starting with the first silent screen adaptation Nosferatu (1922), starring the cadaverous Max Shreck. It was further refined into infamy by Bela Lugosi in the classic Universal feature Dracula (1931) directed by pioneering horror maven Todd Browning.
In five hundred years, Vlad has been metamorphosed from a monstrously cruel despot to a supernatural ghost with a bad summer-stock Hungarian accent and a penchant for tuxedos. To this very day, movies, television, toys, games, cartoons, music, and comic books still focus on the Dracula mythos, and the end is nowhere in sight. In his homeland, history has been far kinder to Prince Vlad, and his likeness is often sold on the streets of Transylvania, along with a particular vintage of plum brandy bearing his august sobriquet. After all, impalements or not, he was a national hero for defending his homeland on behalf of Christendom. One final note: It is said that, during the period of his final incarceration, Prince Vlad occupied his spare time, chiefly, with a very peculiar practice: it is rumored that he would chase down small animals and impale them on sharpened sticks for his amusement.
Well, one supposes a great man should have a hobby.