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Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Real Life Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Continuing 2016's 'Month of Horror' we'll look at possibly one of the most famous horror icons of all time: Count Dracula. Dracula came to life in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula and is recognized as being one of the most influential vampire novels of all time, (another one possibly being Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla). Stoker's novel has heavily influenced the world's perception of vampires, and so has the many adaptations. The second adaptation Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror, (the first adaption was a Soviet film entitled Drakula which has unfortunately been lost), created the ideas of vampires dying in sunlight. However, Bela Lugosi's performance as Dracula in Universal Studio's 1931 classic is the adaptation which heavily inspired all other perceptions of Count Dracula. The cape, his hypnotic stare, and the thick Romanian accent that are all associated with Dracula came from Lugosi's performance. Dracula, though, is not entirely a work of fiction. Count Dracula is based off of a real person; a real person even mentioned in the novel as possibly being Dracula himself. A real person whose name influenced Stoker to change the name of his antagonist from Count Wampyr to Dracula. This person was Vlad III, voivode (prince) of Wallachia/Walachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler.

The Land of Dracula
Walachia c.1390
Walachia was a principality located in what is now Romania. At the start of the fifteenth century Walachia became a puppet state of the far larger and more powerful Ottoman Empire to the south. Vlad Tepes, (Vlad Dracula), was born between 1428 and 1431 in Transylvania to the voivode, Vlad Dracul, who would seize Walachia when his half-brother died in 1436 becoming Vlad II. Several years prior to this Vlad had joined an order called the Order of the Dragon which was a fellowship of Christian knights designed to resist the Muslim Ottoman Empire from conquering Christian Eastern Europe. It was his membership of this fellowship that Vlad gained his surname 'Dracul', Romanian for 'devil' or 'dragon', so as a result his son was called Vlad Dracula, 'son of the dragon'. When Vlad Tepes was born Transylvania and Walachia were trapped in constant warfare with the Kingdom of Hungary to the north constantly warring against the Ottoman Empire to the south. In 1442 the voivode of Transylvania, John Hunyadi, managed to route the Ottoman Empire in Walachia Vlad was forced to flee to the Ottomans. The Ottomans promised to restore Vlad but, in return, he would have to give them annual tribute and, leave his sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages at Tokat. During this period of captivity he tried to escape leading to him being beaten, possibly sexually assaulted, and generated a deep loathing of the Ottomans.

Vlad the Impaler
Vlad the Impaler
In 1447 Vlad II and his son, and Vlad Dracula's oldest brother, Mircea, were killed fighting against John Hunyadi and his puppet voivode who then invaded the Ottoman Empire. With the Ottomans invading Walachia Vlad quickly broke into Walachia and declared himself voivode. However, this was short lived and he had to return to exile in the Ottoman Empire. He returned in 1456 and reigned until 1462 when he was imprisoned by the Hungarians. He would remain captive until 1476 and would continue his reign for a short period until his death either in the December of 1476 or the January of 1477.

During his time in power he would often war against the Ottomans, and brutally suppress opposition to his rule. His cruelty is what has made him famous. A papal legate in 1462 wrote to the pope to inform him of the stories of Vlad's cruelty, and in 1463 a poem was performed for the Holy Roman Emperor entitled Von ainem wutrich der heis Trakle waida von der Walachei (Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia). Among the brutalities that Vlad has reportedly committed included having people who performed homosexual acts to boiled in oil, mass executions of boyars at the start of his second reign, and of course impalement. Vlad has refined this method of execution so much that it could take up to three days for a person to die, but it was not a simple stake through the heart as we would imagine killing a vampire would be like. The stakes he impaled people on were very large. A good example is this 1499 German woodcut below of Vlad having people impaled.
The woodcut
After refinement he would have some people impaled through the anus until it went through another part of the body, (there is a woodcut depicting this but due to Google's policies it is too gory and disturbing for me to show you). Even the unrefined method of impalement did not bring a quick death. Victims could be still be left for days until they died through exposure. Some of the most gruesome accounts say that Vlad would dine among the impaled bodies, (as depicted in the woodcut), and dip his bread in blood. On the banks of the Danube it is believed that he had around 20,000 people impaled! Fifteenth century sources also claim that he regularly had people boiled alive, skinned alive, disemboweled or decapitated. Historia Pannonica, written around 1495, even says he had the turbans of some Ottoman messengers nailed to their heads as it was against their custom to take them off while greeting someone. Vlad III Dracula's legacy after his death remained a bloody one with Europe naming him Vlad the Impaler.

How much is true?
Most of the sources of Vlad's atrocities come from either German or Russian sources; most of these originate after his death. The Holy Roman Empire was not allied with Walachia so had reason to portray him negatively, and the Russian paint him negatively as he converted to Catholicism. A combination of most of our depictions being after his lifetime, and from people who were actively against him could indicate that the atrocities were overblown. However, this does not whitewash his infamy. However, outside of Walachia Vlad was known for his cruelty which does show that he did have a reputation. Even Romanian historians and oral tradition, which usually shows Vlad more positively, reports on his cruelty. Constantin Rădulescu-Codin, an early twentieth century Romanian teacher, compiled local legends of Vlad and, some are just as disturbing as the German and Slavic sources, including Vlad burning the lazy, poor and lame. From here Vlad's penchant for sadism and cruelty can be corroborated. Although it is likely that the number of Vlad's victims were exaggerated his infamy is still well justified.

Count Dracula is regarded as one of the greatest villains of both literature and cinema. Even when he is the 'hero', such as in the manga and anime Hellsing, he is still cold, ruthless and sadistic. Something similar to his real life counterpart. Vlad the Impaler may have been unable to turn into a bat or cloud of fog, or could sleep outside a coffin, but he did share the sadism and ruthlessness of the vampire which he inspired.

Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-One Bloody Thing After Another by Jacob Field

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