The legend of a vampire Count living in the gloomy foothills of Transylvania stems from the real, bloody life of Vlad the Impaler.
In 1897, Bram Stoker published his novel Dracula.
The concept of a figure that would drink the blood of humans and hunt them down in the middle of the night was so terrifying that it was referred to by critics as “the most blood-curdling novel of the paralyzed century.”
The figure that scared them so much was Count Dracula himself, the titular character, and a man with an insatiable need for human blood. As terrifying as Dracula was, however, there was some solace to be taken in the fact that he was simply a character locked in the pages of a book.
Imagine how much their blood would have curdled had they known that Stoker drew real-life inspiration from a man who was, if possible, even more terrifying than Count Dracula.
Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, was a fearsome monarch who ruled over the Romanian region of Transylvania, striking fear into the hearts of everyone who dared to cross him.
However, Vlad the Impaler didn’t start out impaling people. In fact, as a child, he was just Vlad III, the child of Vlad II Dracul, ruler of Transylvania.
Vlad was born in 1431 during a time of particular unrest. His father had been granted the surname Dracul, meaning dragon, after being inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a Christian military order supported by the Holy Roman Emperor.
Because of the proximity to Christian-ruled Europe and the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire, Transylvania was often the site of turmoil.
During one of the bloody battles, a diplomatic meeting was requested between Vlad Dracul and the Sultan Murad II. Vlad Dracul decided to bring along his young sons to teach them about diplomatic order and the importance of meeting with your enemies.
Irony struck when, upon arriving at the meeting, the three men were captured and held hostage by the Ottoman diplomats. Vlad Dracul was told he would be released, though only if he left his sons behind.
Dracul agreed, believing it to be the safest option for him and his sons. He was partially correct.
Vlad III and his younger brother were tutored in the arts of war, science, and philosophy. However, back home, Dracul and his oldest son were tortured beyond belief. Dracul was killed in the swamps behind his home by local warlords, while his oldest son was tortured, blinded and buried alive.
After his family’s death, which most experts believe was the point at which Vlad started to become the ruthless Impaler he would be, Vlad took on a new name, calling himself Vlad Dracula, or the son of the dragon. He fought to bring back power in the region to his family after a rival family took over after Dracul’s death.
After regaining power, Vlad Dracula’s reign truly turned bloody. Though taking back his kingdom had been relatively easy, there was still turmoil amongst the people. Some of them had decided that the rival family had been better leaders, and there was talk of uproar in the villages throughout Transylvania.
In order to assert dominance and solidify himself as a fearsome leader, Vlad hosted a banquet, inviting all of those who wanted to oppose him.
As they arrived, he stabbed them all and impaled their still-twitching bodies on spikes.
Apparently, the tactic worked so well, that Vlad decided to impose it upon everyone who crossed him. Literature at the time claims that he killed 80,000 people, and impaled roughly 20,000 of them during his reign, including Saxon merchants, Ottoman deserters, and treasonous prisoners of war.
Legend has it that he even hosted a dinner for himself, in a “forest” of spikes topped with impaled bodies, and displayed them throughout Transylvania to ward off his enemies. The carnage was reportedly so disturbing that several invading Ottoman sultans retreated at the sight of it.
Eventually, the Ottomans gained enough traction and military footing (and iron stomachs) to take the throne from Vlad, marching into the city and overthrowing him. During the ambush Vlad the Impaler was killed, beheaded, and, as legend has it, paraded back to Constantinople to be displayed over the gates to the city.
Though the legend of his head over the gates of Constantinople survives, there was little mention of his body after his death. To this day, the story of his descendants remains a mystery, perhaps only living on through the fictional accounts of Bram Stoker and Count Dracula.
After this look at Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula, check out these five legends that have a basis in incredibly creepy facts. Then, take a look inside Dracula’s castle. Finally, meet Elizabeth Bathory, the “blood countess,” as well as the real English queen known as Bloody Mary.