In 2015 the Guinness Book of Records named Count Dracula as the most adapted literary figure with, at that time, over 500 productions making use of Bram Stoker’s iconic character. Underneath the cloak and dripping fangs has always been the suggestion that the monstrous Count is based on a true story, that of Vlad Țepeș, Voivode of Wallachia during the 1400s. The nature of this inspiration has been contentious, with many arguing that Stoker had never heard of Vlad Țepeș, and so he could not be the inspiration behind the story. This comes from the fact that no mention of Vlad Țepeș is made in the hundreds of pages of notes made by Stoker during writing the novel. However, the amount of similarities between the character and the historical figure of Țepeș makes it difficult to avoid drawing parallels. The question then becomes, did Țepeș inspire Count Dracula, or is this relationship more complicated than it first appears?
To paraphrase Lestat, another famous vampire, we will assume Count Dracula needs no introduction. However, on the off chance that you haven’t heard of Dracula, all you really need to know is that he is an unknowably old Count, usually residing in a gloomy castle in Transylvania. He is a vampire, the master of the undead, who seeks out fresh blood to sustain his life force, often with his brides in tow. He charms and seduces his way into society, sometimes pining for a lost love, always looking to disrupt the status quo and cause havoc in the modern world.
But who was Vlad Țepeș? And what about his life made him worthy of inspiration for a blood-sucking vampire? Officially known as Vlad III, he was also known as Vlad the Impaler and, most significantly, Vlad Dracula. This is in reference to his place as son of Vlad Dracul, a title that refers to his father’s membership to the Order of the Dragon. Dracula is thus, the son of the dragon. This commingling of monikers is an indication of the tangled web of his story, one that has echoed through the centuries, growing more outlandish with each telling. For ease, let’s stick with calling him Vlad.
Vlad the Impaler Earned His Name Through a Bloodthirsty Past
One of the most well-known elements of Vlad’s history is, perhaps unsurprisingly given his nickname, his aptitude for torture. It is said that Vlad learned his torture techniques from the Ottoman Empire whilst being held as a political prisoner during his childhood. The torture techniques he learned in childhood would later be used against the Ottoman army during the many battles between them and Vlad’s empire. Vlad earned the nickname ‘the Impaler’ due to his propensity for impaling his enemies on railroad spikes and leaving them dotted about as a warning to other would-be opponents. At one point, he had created a forest of impaled and rotting corpses, said to number more than 20,000, designed to ward off approaching enemies. Quite the stomach-churning visual and one that has cemented his place in history as a bloodthirsty murderer.
However, this bloodthirsty history is rarely touched on in either Stoker’s original work, or subsequent adaptations. Brief mention is made to his status as a soldier in Dracula (1992), where Gary Oldman is depicted as returning from the battlefield to find his beloved wife dead, but this violent history is often left out, with little mention made of his life before the modern day intrusion of Jonathan Harker brings him into the present day. This adds weight to the idea that Stoker’s original Count Dracula was not inspired by Vlad, but there are other similarities to the story that make it difficult to avoid linking Vlad to Dracula.
Was Vlad the Impaler as Much of a Romantic as Dracula?
One of the least obvious ways in which Vlad has influenced the Dracula story is in the enduring romantic element of the story, with Dracula ‘crossing oceans of time’ to find Mina Murray, the reincarnated spirit of his dead wife in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). This romantic element is particularly emphasized in this adaptation with a smoldering love affair building between Dracula and Mina (Winona Ryder). Whilst it may not be the most faithful adaptation, it is one of the most enduring portrayals. This notion of love lost and of the power of it to endure across the ages lends a humanity to Dracula that pivots the character away from the pure monstrousness of Stoker’s original work into a complex, often sensuous, character. This sensuality has endured in later interpretations of the vampire, with a romance element worming its way into many subsequent offerings.
The historical accuracy of Vlad as a lover is unknown. Little is known about Vlad’s romantic life, but, as the story goes, when enemy intelligence sent word that he had been killed in battle, his wife threw herself from the battlements, unable to cope with the loss of her husband. That such devotion could exist at a time when marriage was transactional, and often politically motivated, adds a layer of romance to the history of Vlad. But this must be interpreted with the usual caution of historical tales, and it must be noted that he was married twice, with one wife who survived him, so perhaps this is a tale to take with a pinch of salt. It is difficult to reconcile a man who could impale 20,000 people being a romantic, but perhaps he was just good at not taking work home with him. We shall never know, this is yet another element of his story that is lost to the ocean of time.
How Period Accurate Is Count Dracula’s Cape?
One of the most enduring, and iconic, elements of Count Dracula is his long black cape. Whether swooping around draughty castles or sweeping swooning maidens into his deathly embrace, early iterations of Dracula always included this dramatic item of clothing. The origin of this particular article of clothing does not come from the Wallachian tradition of the 1400s, or indeed from Stoker’s tale. In fact, this cape didn’t come into play until an early stage adaptation of the novel. In order to hide the wires that made Dracula’s sinister flight necessary, the production utilized a long piece of black cloth to cover these tell-tale wires and also billow deliciously as the actor levitated.
This legacy was secured with the portrayals from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee in Dracula movies of the 1960s and 1970s. This is one of the ways in which the movie adaptations of Stoker’s work deviate so markedly from the historical reality of Vlad. Paintings of him show a dark-haired, intense man in vivid red robes with a jeweled headpiece, a far cry from the somber black suit and cape of modern horror movie nightmares.
Vlad the Impaler Has Been Known to be Associated With a Swarm of Bats
So by now we have learned that Vlad’s status as a romantic lead, and fashion icon, could not be convincingly argued as the basis for Dracula. Does this mean we can discount his role in the creation of one of the most enduring horror characters ever created? Not quite. Two of the most interesting elements of Vlad’s warlord history can feed directly into the Dracula story in a number of ways. First, in relation to the link between Dracula and bats. A war story from the battlefield, one that has been discredited in recent years, said that Vlad has released an army of rabid bats upon the Ottoman Empire’s army and that, due to weather conditions and visibility, it had appeared that Vlad’s army had turned into the cloud of bats that bore down on them, leading to the idea among his enemies that he could shape-shift. This gothically delicious, if disappointingly inaccurate story, ties directly into the iconography of Dracula who is often seen transforming into a bat.
Where Is Vlad the Impaler’s Body? Did He Ever Die?
But perhaps the most convincing argument for placing Vlad as inspiration for Dracula is the mysterious circumstances around both his death and his burial. It is said that he was killed in battle by his own men who mistook him for an enemy soldier. The Ottoman soldiers cut him into pieces and scattered his body parts, sending his head on a spike to Constantinople. His army gathered his remains and gave them a proper burial, but the location of this burial site has remained elusive. What contributes to the vampire myth is that, when his supposed grave site was excavated, no body was found. This fed into the vampiric folklore of the surrounding areas and gave rise to the notion that Vlad may still roam the earth as a blood-sucking revenant. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that, rather than Vlad inspiring Dracula, instead Dracula’s story has retrospectively influenced the history of Vlad. The use of his name, tied in with Stoker’s research into Romanian vampire folklore for his novel has conflated and condensed different geographies, cultures, and even time points, leading to a misshapen clump of myth, legend and distorted fact that has, for better or worse, tied Vlad to Count Dracula.
It is interesting to see how both Dracula and Vlad are perceived by history. Much has been made about the xenophobic and homophobic undertones of the original story, with Dracula representing an alien foreign body that refuses to integrate. This demonization of people from other countries spoke to the Victorian fears of the time, and unfortunately, still resonates today. Whilst many records exist of Vlad’s exploits during battle, he has become synonymous with practices and methods that he, himself, learned in childhood.
In the same vein as Elizabeth Báthory, another historical figure that has been, perhaps, unfairly treated by history, we must consider that the dominant presentation of Vlad may have been heavily influenced by his enemies. Like Báthory, who has also been called The Blood Countess and Countess Dracula, Vlad’s legacy has been inextricably tied with the fictional representation of Dracula. We will never know the truth of his intentions, or the other elements of his character outside his apparent cruelty, as that is the essence of his story that has remained and overshadowed all else. Also like Báthory, whose story has had something of a sympathetic reinterpretation in recent years, it may be time to separate Vlad Dracula from the Count and start to explore the influence of this tangled web of fiction, folklore, and propaganda on his narrative.
It is clear that there are many similarities between Vlad and Count Dracula. The assertion that Stoker had never heard of Vlad the Impaler, and that it was purely coincidence that he found the name Dracula whilst in Whitby is possible but seems perhaps implausible. But we will never know the truth, and that is part of what sustains the myth and interest in both Count Dracula as a character, and Vlad as a historical figure. Regardless of Stoker’s original intention, Vlad and Count Dracula have become inextricably linked. It is clear to see how the truth of Vlad Dracula has been distorted through the cinematic interpretations of Stoker’s Count and how the longevity of the character has shaped his portrayal. Would Dracula have endured without the ties to a bloodthirsty warlord whose body has never been found? Or, conversely, would Vlad still be a historical figure of note if he had not been linked with the charismatically terrifying figure of Count Dracula. It seems that, in this case, the notion of inspiration is much more non-linear and twisted than it may first appear.