Dracula existed, and his name was Vlad The Impaler. Of course, the real Dracula did not lurk in a ghost-ridden castle and suck the blood of virgins. No. Vlad The Impaler was more terrifying than the folklore of horror fiction. In this post, you’ll read about Vlad The Impaler, the history of vampires and the literary legacy of Dracula.
About Vlad The Impaler
Vlad Drăculea / Vlad Țepeș was one of the most important rulers in Wallachia, and also a hero of Romania. For three times between 1448 and his death, he ruled over Wallachia. The second son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad and his younger brother were hostages under the Ottoman Empire. Why? The Ottomans desired the loyalty of Wallachia. Sadly, Vlad Dracul and his eldest son met a brutal end from the Regent-Governor of Hungary, John Hunyadi who had invaded Wallachia.
In response to this, the fearsome son Vlad, took Wallachia, even with Hungarian support. But Vlad The Impaler did not stop here. He purged the Wallachian boyars to fortify his position. Impaling was a favourite activity of Vlad. The Transylvanian Saxons learnt that, as did two envoys from Mehmed II, the current Ottoman Sultan.
… Turkish messengers came to [Vlad] to pay respects, but refused to take off their turbans, according to their ancient custom, whereupon he strengthened their custom by nailing their turbans to their heads with three spikes, so that they could not take them off.Antonio Bonfini
Eventually, Vlad was captured by the King Of Hungary, Matthius Corvinus in late 1462. For twelve years, tales of Vlad’s creutly and merciless behaviour travelled throughout continental Europe. Whispers of an impaler reached Germany. Although Corvinus did not provide military assistance to Vlad, the impaler settled in Pest. (Buda-pest!) His cunning and ruthlessness continued, with Slavic reports of Vlad executing thieves and other unfortunate souls.
Unfortunately, the brutal story of Vlad Dracula must end. And brutal it did. His Moldavian retinue were massacred, and Vlad The Impaler perished fighting the Ottomans and Basarab Laiotă. However, Vlad was not the only brutal person. His corpse was hacked, his head sent to a ruler… by the Ottomans.
In today, you can only look at Vlad The Impaler with terror and fear. He’s found in Slavic stories, pop culture, and in the myths of vampires. But remember: Vlad The Impaler was not a ‘supernatural’ creature. Rather, his humanity reminds us of the evil lurking among us, or perhaps, within us.
But why is he associated with vampires? It wasn’t until Bram Stoker made the connection between Vlad III and blood-sucking creatures from Transylvanian superstitions. Stoker worked with limited sources about medieval Romania, and thus, Dracula misses many nuances of Vlad The Impaler’s life. Some historians speculate Bram Stoker made the connection between Vlad the Impaler and his creation, Dracula, by chance.
Either way, Bram Stoker’s connection made history. But what about the history of vampires? Bram Stoker didn’t invent them, but he formed the modern conception of vampires.
A Terrifying History
Vampires existed in mythology and folklore, particularly in Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. In the 12th century, two English historians, William of Newburgh and Walter Map recorded accounts of animated corpses. Although the writings on vampires is scant, and thus, harder to understand, we shouldn’t limit vampires to the 19th century.
In Hungary, vampire-like creatures are mentioned in the notes from the Inquistion. Also, certain pagam shamans claimed that ‘demons’ existed. In Slavic areas, (such as Russia), the ‘vampires’ do not drink blood from the undead. Although ‘vampires’ existed in folklore throughout Europe (and Asia) it is false to presume everyone invisioned vampires the same way. Also, we must consider the different reactions in how civilizations reacted to rumours of the undead.
In Albania, tales of a female vampire witch (shtriga) with an ugly face differ from the ‘romantic’ vampires from Ireland (Dearg-due) who seduct men while roaming graveyards. At best, vampires caused mild entertainment among locals. However, the fear of ‘vampires’ lead to hysteria and even executions. In Istria, Croatia (1672), reports of the vampire ‘Giure Grando’ caused panic and the tragic murder of a peasant named Giure.
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary
To understand the ‘power’ of the vampire, we must acknowledge the ‘human’ traits of them. Vampires may appear as human, and can easily disguise themselves as living. Vampires also have human desires: food (flesh) and sex (blood-sucking). However, the vampire peverts these desires. If vampires did exist, they obstruct our understanding of the afterlife. When someone dies, we believe they have ‘moved on’, gone to heaven or hell, or ceised to exist. However, if vampires existed, how much of the ‘original person’ is embodied within the vampire?
Writers and filmmakers have fascinating responses to that question.
The Literary World Of Dracula
Of course, Dracula shaped gothic literature. In Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, we follow the diary entries of those who encounter Dracula. When reading Dracula, I noticed the lack of page-time the character Dracula got. Stoker must’ve known the effectiveness of showing glimces of Dracula, while keeping mystery. In Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 debut novel, The Historian, a similar dynamic is at play. Vampires are mentioned, researched, considered, debated and thought about. But Kostova shows us how the characters react and process the vampiric threat.
In film, vampires are romantic, even sardonic creatures. In Interview With A Vampire, both Louis and Lestat are memorable partially because they are playful and twist people’s expectations. That isn’t to say vampires can’t be terrifying. In 30 Days of Night, vampires are horrifying creatures, hunting down humans in the Alaska winter.
When man meets a force he can’t destroy, he destroys himself. What a plague you are.30 Days of Night
What about vampires in television? Unfortunately, vampire shows like True Blood weren’t that terrifying. The show, whilst enjoyable in its campiness, doesn’t really have scary vampire moments.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer came dangerously close to this territory, too. As the seasons went by, the vampires got ‘de-fanged’ (aka, less scary). This was remedied in Season Seven, however. The Turok-Han was cool, and represented jeopardy. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was unafraid to make its characters vulnerable in the face of demonic evil. Vampires in BTVS didn’t just exist for slaying.
Over the seven seasons, Buffy fell in love with two vampires. The first time Buffy died was from a vampire. The season three episode ‘Helpless‘ remains a favourite, because the antagonistic vampire provokes such distress in our heroine. Because of that, vampires evoke rich emotions in (human) characters. That’s why vampire fiction is often melodramatic and angsty.
Both Dracula and Vlad The III are legendary, reminding us of worldy horrors. They make us look at history with careful eyes, scared of what will unveil. But most of all, they conquer our imagination and our reality. Vampires reflect our desire for comfort, for love, for knowledge. But ultimately, the vampire denies us after teasing, sucking its victim dry.
What are your thoughts? Comment below, especially with any recommendations of vampiric literature!