It was a dark and stormy night. I was alone, in a foreign country, in my hotel room, with . . . Dracula? Yes, we'd been introduced by a patrician-voiced Brit on late night BBC. I was in Copenhagen, in a hotel down the street from a sex shop and the train station, and had found the English-speaking channel. And I was disturbed to learn that Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, the inspiration for numerous scary movies, Halloween costumes and even breakfast cereals (remember Count Chocula?), was itself inspired by a real-life honest-to-goodness guy from the fifteenth century named Vlad Tepes Dracula, ruler of the Romanian province of Walachia.
The name "Tepes" means "the impaler." Vlad earned this title because impalement was his favorite way to punish his subjects, and also, apparently, his favorite form of recreation. Death by impalement involved piercing the victim with one end of a sharp stake, planting the other end in the ground, and leaving the person, at gravity's mercy, to sink further down into the spear. It was a slow and painful demise that Vlad is said to have doled out to between 20,000 and 500,000 people during his lifetime.
It is speculated that the Irish novelist Bram Stoker heard about Dracula through a Hungarian professor friend. He combined what he knew of Vlad the Impaler with popular Victorian vampire legends, Gothic literary tropes and plenty of imagination to come up with his fictional character. After my own brief encounter with Vlad in Denmark, I was curious enough to do a Google search for him, and found that countless websites - vampnet.com, gothcentral.com, and hauntedamerica.com among them - were eager to recount his exploits. Naturally he is also a figure of interest to historians and literary critics. With so much information available, I was quickly able to piece together Vlad's cruel and unusual story.
Vlad Tepes Dracula was born in 1431, in the fortress of Sighisoara, Romania. His father, also named Vlad, who was serving as the military governor of Transylvania at the time, was a member of a military and religious society known as the Order of the Dragon. He consequently became known as Vlad Dracul, as "Dracul" means "dragon" or "devil" in the Romanian language. "Dracula" means "son of Dracul," or alternatively, "son of the devil."
Dracul later became prince of Walachia, and it was here that Vlad jr. spent his early years. But in 1442, when Vlad Dracula was eleven, his father sent him and younger brother Radu to Turkey, in order to prove the family's loyalty to that country. The boys were held there as hostages, not the happiest of childhoods, until 1448, when their father was assassinated.
After the death of Dracul, the Turks sent seventeen-year-old Vlad Dracula, supported by a Turkish army, back to Walachia to claim the throne. His younger brother Radu decided to stay behind in Turkey. Vlad Dracula succeeded in taking over Walachia, was thrown out after two months, and then regained power in 1456. It was at this time that he began the twisted practices for which he earned his infamy.
Easter Sunday of 1459, Vlad invited all of the aristocrats, called boyars, who had played a role in his father's death, to a feast. At the celebration he asked them how many princes they had lived through in their lifetimes. They answered that they'd seen many reigns. Vlad retorted that they had themselves to blame for the instability, and then proceeded to arrest everyone. The party was just getting started. He then had the older boyars impaled. The remaining youngsters were forced to take a fifty-mile hike to the town of Poenari, forbidden to rest until they reached that destination. Needless to say, many of them did not. Dracula forced the survivors to build him a fortress overlooking the Arges river, and many more died in the process. If their clothes became ragged and fell off, the former aristocrats remained naked. Dracula seized the boyars' property and re-distributed it to his supporters. His heartless yet innovative strategy had eliminated his enemies, given him a new fortress and a new, presumably loyal nobility.
Another time, again coming up with a creative new solution to an age-old problem, he invited all the poor, cripples and beggars of Walachia to his court for a great feast. After everyone had their fill, Vlad asked them, "would you like to be without cares, lacking nothing in the world?" Yes, they answered enthusiastically. Vlad had the hall boarded up and set on fire. No one escaped. "I did this so that no one will be poor in my realm," he said.
Dracula frequently ordered people to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, and buried alive. He prided himself on making the punishment fit the crime. He cut off noses, ears, sexual organs and limbs. Vlad once had a mistress who claimed to be pregnant with his child. He had her examined, learned that she was lying, and slit open the woman's stomach. Another time, when two foreign ministers refused to take off their hats before Dracula, claiming it was the custom of their fathers, Vlad ordered their hats to be nailed to their heads, to ensure that such a wonderful tradition would never be broken.
But his favorite form of punishment, of course, was impalement. He liked to set up banquet tables so he could watch as his victims died their slow deaths, which sometimes took several days. Vlad enjoyed elaborate spectacles at which multiple people were impaled. He often installed the stakes in interesting geometric patterns, such as concentric circles. When a nobleman complained of the stench of rotting corpses throughout the city, Vlad had him impaled on a stake higher than the rest, so that he would not smell the rot. In fact, the height of a spear often indicated the rank of its victim.
Vlad was known throughout the land for his fierce insistence on honesty and order. To demonstrate how well his laws worked, Dracula placed a golden cup on display in the central square of Tirgoviste, the capital city. Anyone could drink from the cup, but the rule was that it had to remain in the square. It did.
A visiting merchant once left his money outside all night long, thinking that he would be protected under Dracula's strict laws. To his surprise, in the morning he found some of his coins had been stolen. Dracula promised the return of his money, and then secretly replaced the merchant's coins plus one extra. When the merchant discovered this, he told Vlad that the money had been returned and that he had found an additional coin. Dracula replied that the thief had been caught and would be impaled, and that the merchant would have been, too, if he had not been honest about the extra coin.
Another often-sited anecdote tells how Vlad noticed a man working in a field who was wearing a caftan that Dracula deemed too short. Vlad demanded to see the man's wife, pointed out her husband's short caftan as evidence of her laziness, and ordered her to be (you guessed it) impaled. The husband protested that he was satisfied with his wife and the caftan, and that she was certainly not lazy. But the woman was not spared, and Vlad ordered another woman to marry the peasant, warning that she should work hard or else suffer the same consequences as her predecessor.
Despite all this, Dracula's subjects respected him for being a strong ruler and for successfully defending them against Turkey (Vlad had turned against the Turks sometime after his first brief reign). In fact Dracula was the last Walachian prince to remain independent from the Ottoman empire. The 500th anniversary of his death was even commemorated with a 1976 Romanian postage stamp, and today, there are numerous Dracula-based tourist attractions in that country.
But things started going downhill for Dracula in1462, when he attacked the Turks, hoping to drive them out of the Danube River valley. The Turkish Sultan retaliated by invading Walachia with an army three times larger than Dracula's, and the Impaler was forced to retreat towards his capital city of Tirgoviste. Along the way, he burned his own villages and poisoned all the wells, so that the Turkish army would find nothing to eat or drink.
And by the time the Sultan and his armies reached the capital, exhausted and famished, Vlad had another surprise in store: a jungle of stakes planted outside the city held the carcasses of some 20,000 Turkish prisoners. The ghastly scene became known as the "Forest of the Impaled." For the moment, Vlad's aesthetically striking atrocity did the trick, the Turkish officers were too scared to go on, and the Sultan retreated. But the Sultan handed the job over to Vlad's younger brother, Radu, still loyal to Turkey, who pursued Dracula to Poenari castle, the one he had forced the boyars to build on the Arges river.
At this point Vlad's poor wife was so terrified that she committed suicide by diving off the upper battlements of the fort into the river below. Vlad managed to escape into the mountains using a secret passage. He was helped by peasants of the Arefu village, and reached Transylvania where he met up with the new king of Hungary. But instead of offering refuge, the king arrested Dracula and imprisoned him in a tower at the Hungarian capital of Visegrad. Still the same old Vlad, Dracula impaled rats and birds to pass the time.
After several years in Hungarian captivity, Vlad was allowed to move into his own house, and eventually married a member of the Hungarian royal family. In 1476, after the death of his younger brother Radu, Dracula invaded Walachia with the help of Transylvanian and Moldovian armies, and won back the throne. Later that year he was assassinated near Bucharest while fighting the Turks. Some say he was killed in the battlefield by his own men. It is well documented that Vlad's head was displayed, appropriately, upon a stake in Constantinople.
Nevertheless, gypsy legend has it that Vlad Dracula never actually died.
Certainly in his legacy of Rocky Horror Picture Show enthusiasts, Halloween
paraphernalia and Goths everywhere, Vlad lives on.