Some say Vlad The Impaler, a viciously violent war lord, enjoyed dining among the rotting flesh of his impaled enemies and drank their blood.
In 1897, writer Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula, the story of an undead figure named Count Dracula who sustains himself off of human blood, hunting them down and slaughtering them in the middle of the night.
The Count Dracula in the book, which critics described as “the most blood-curdling novel of the paralyzed century,” was no more than a made-up character. But many believe the blood-thirsty figure was based on a real person known as Vlad the Impaler, a fearsome monarch known for his ruthlessness and history’s real Dracula.
Vlad The Impaler’s Early Life And Reign
It’s widely believed Vlad the Impaler was born Vlad III in 1431 during a time of unrest in the state of Wallachia, now the southern portion of present-day Romania.
His mother, the queen, came from a Moldavian royal family while his father was Vlad II Dracul. The surname translates to “dragon” and was given to Vlad II after his induction into a Christian crusading order known as the Order of the Dragon. Young Vlad had two brothers, Mircea and Radu.
Due to Wallachia’s proximity to the warring factions of Christian-ruled Europe and the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire, Dracul’s territory became the site of constant turmoil.
At one point, the Ottomans called for a diplomatic meeting and invited Vlad Dracul. He saw an opportunity to educate his younger sons in the art of diplomacy so he brought Vlad III and Radu with him.
But Dracul and his two sons were captured and held hostage by the Ottoman diplomats instead. The captors told him that he would be released — but he had to leave his sons.
Dracul, believing it was the safest option for his family, agreed. Fortunately for Vlad III and his brother, during their time as hostages the two princes received lessons in the art of war, science, and philosophy.
However, things were far worse back home. A coup orchestrated by local war lords — known as the boyar — overthrew Dracul. He was killed in the swamps behind his home while his oldest son was tortured, blinded, and buried alive.
Vlad III was freed soon after his family’s death. But when he returned to Wallachia, he transformed into an ugly, violent ruler, eventually earning the moniker “Vlad the Impaler.”
Vlad The Impaler’s Horrifying Vengeance
We can only guess whether his family’s horrific death was what turned the prince into Vlad the Impaler. Some accounts stated Vlad was subjected to forms of beatings or torture during his imprisonment under the Ottomans which may be where he learned the tradition of impaling enemies.
Upon his return to take back the throne, Vlad took on the new name Vlad Dracula, meaning “son of the dragon,” as an ode to his father. He began his bloody campaign of vengeance and, in 1456, led Wallachia in a battled to defend their land. His tenacity proved fruitful as he regained control over the territory.
Some accounts state Vlad regained power after he was seen personally beheading his enemy, Vladislav II, in one-on-one combat. Some considered the rival family better leaders, leading to uproars in villages across the region. The returning monarch knew he had to assert his dominance over the people. So, he decided to host a banquet and invited all of those who opposed him.
It didn’t take long before the festivities turned bloody; Vlad’s dissenting guests were stabbed to death and their still-twitching bodies impaled on spikes.
Vlad Dracula later married Ilona Szilagy, a relative of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, who made an arrangement with Vlad to restore him to his throne. Vlad and his wife had three sons, one of which was the result of a previous affair with a noblewoman.
Vlad’s notorious reputation continued to grow as he defended his throne through the grisliest methods imaginable.
The Real Dracula’s Reign Of Terror
Vlad the Impaler was an undeniably brutal ruler. But his victorious campaigns against the Ottoman forces which protected both Wallachia and Europe were commended. In fact, even then-Pope Pius II expressed admiration for the notoriously violent ruler’s military feats since a threat to Europe was deemed a threat to Christendom and, therefore, the pope.
But while the real Dracula brought some stability and protection to a vulnerable region, Vlad III was still an incredibly violent ruler who seemingly relished his own brutality. During one of his successful campaigns against the Ottomans in 1462, Vlad wrote the following to one of his allies:
“I have killed peasants, men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea… We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers… Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace.”
In Romanian history, Vlad Dracula is commonly referred to as “Tepes” which is a name derived from the Turkish nickname “kaziklu bey” meaning “impaling prince,” a moniker used by Turkish historians in retellings about his cruelty.
Impalement was no doubt Vlad the Impaler’s killing method of choice, partially because it was a form of torture. Impaling involved a wooden or metal pole which is jabbed through the body at a starting point that is either inserted from front to back or through the rectum or vagina. The pole’s other end would usually be near the victim’s mouth, shoulders, or neck.
Sometimes the inserted pole was rounded so that it would go through the body without puncturing any internal organs, prolonging the victim’s torture. In these particularly gruesome cases, it could take hours or even days before the victim finally dies but not before going through immense suffering — often on public display for everyone to watch.
Vlad the Impaler used this torturous method to punish and kill anyone who displeased him, though it wasn’t the only way he dispensed his cruelty. He impaled the Saxon merchants in Kronstadt who were once allies to the boyars — his family’s killers. In another instance, he had the hats of Ottoman diplomats nailed onto their skulls after they declined to remove their hats for religious reasons.
In one particularly gory account, the real Vlad Dracula enjoyed basking in the deaths he caused so much that he dined among a “forest” of spikes topped with writhing impaled bodies.
The appetite for violence that Vlad the Impaler possessed even outdid the blood-thirst of his enemies. Sultan Mehmed II, notorious for his own war crimes, was aghast after seeing the decaying corpses of 2,000 of his own men, lined up on stakes half-a-mile long around Dracula’s castle.
“How,” the Ottoman ruler said, “can we despoil of his estates a man who is not afraid to defend it by such means as these?”
Literature at the time claims Vlad the Impaler killed 80,000 people — impaling roughly 20,000 of them — during his reign but it’s difficult to know for sure who many people he slaughtered.
And as for his death, there are multiple accounts as to how the real Dracula perished. One account says he suffered the same ill fate as those he impaled when the Ottoman army successfully invaded Wallachia. As the story goes, Vlad the Impaler was beheaded and his head was paraded back to Constantinople to the hands of his enemy, Sultan Mehmed II, to be displayed over the city’s gates. His remains have never been found.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The true story of Vlad the Impaler matches the terror inspired by Bram Stoker’s fictional bloodsucker. But how did the real Dracula become compared to a mythical vampire?
The answer might be among the gory tales of the blood-thirsty monarch’s exploits. According to one legend, Vlad Dracula enjoyed dipping his bread in the blood of his victims but the authenticity of that account was never confirmed.
Still, the war lord’s unsatiated blood lust was enough to inspire stories about him. Researchers discovered pamphlets about Vlad the Impaler dating from 1488 to 1521 distributed following the invention of the printing press in Germany.
In 1820, a book by the British consul to Wallachia, William Wilkinson, titled An Account Of The Principalities Of Wallachia And Moldavia: With Various Political Observations Relating To Them, also helped popularize the story of the real Dracula across Europe. Stoker was known to have read Wilkinson’s book which is why many associate his Count Dracula with Vlad Dracula.
Nevertheless, Stoker’s Dracula continues to be one of the most adapted horror stories to this day. The first known motion picture to bring the blood-thirsty vampire king to screen was the 1921 Hungarian production, Dracula’s Death. Ten years later, the American production starring Bela Lugosi became one of the most popularly cited adaptations to date.
A more recent adaptation is the BBC-produced 2020 Netflix series Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan, which in one of its episodes transports the centuries-old creature into the social media age. Although Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler share a few similarities — both are born of royal blood and both lived in a towering castle — but there are significant differences between them.
Stoker’s undead Dracula resides in Transylvania while Vlad the Impaler never lived there. He was born in and ruled over the region of Wallachia, which was one of three principalities that made up Romania at the time, including Transylvania and Moldova.
And, as terrifying as Vlad the Impaler was, none of the accounts of him drinking blood were ever confirmed. Titles like The Frightening and Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-drinking Tyrant Called Prince Dracula among the stories about him certainly helped enforce that belief.
Let’s just take some solace in the fact that the blood-sucking Count Dracula was simply a character locked in the pages of a book and that his real-life inspiration is no longer alive, either.
After this look at Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula, take a look inside Dracula’s castle. Then, find out the odds of human survival in a vampire apocalypse using this vampire calculator made by a real scientist.