Was Dracula based on a real person?
One of the greatest characters in all of horror fiction is Count Dracula. The character is very well-known around the globe and has appeared in countless books, movies, and even video games. Dracula first appeared in an epistolary novel, written by the Irish author Brahm Stoker in the late nineteenth century. The success of the novel and subsequent adaptations ensured that Count Dracula has stayed in the popular imagination ever since.
There has been much speculation as to whether or not the fictional character was based on a real-life historical figure. This article examines those historical figures which may have inspired the Irishman to create his immortal Count Dracula. It also discusses the possibility that the development of the character was inspired by Irish mythological figures.
Vampires in European folklore
Many cultures have myths and legends about vampires and the first known references to these beings were in Ancient Mesopotamia. These figures are prevalent in European legends, especially in the Balkans. Traditions about the vampire are in particular very much associated with Romania. Vampires are typically beings, who were once human, had died, and continue to exist because they are feeding on some vital force, usually the blood of the living. They are classed as a species of revenant, and that is a visible ghost or spirit.
Typically, they were criminals, social deviants, witches, and suicides, in life. These undead figures would haunt their old homes and remote areas. They are usually portrayed as evil figures who do harm to innocent people and often kill them, in their efforts to obtain blood.
In many folktales vampires not only killed the innocent, but they turned them into blood-suckers. There is plenty of archaeological evidence that shows that people from all over Europe took preventative measures to ensure that the dead did not return to haunt the living as vampires, such as driving stakes into the heart of a corpse or placing stones in their mouths. Many historians believe that the folk beliefs of vampires arose because of misunderstandings or ignorance of what happened to the body after death.
Beliefs in vampires were once pervasive especially in Eastern Europe, and there were many instances of mass hysteria brought about by the fear of the undead who drank the blood of the living. Indeed, in the past many innocent people were brutally executed during these hysterias because they were alleged to be vampires, even as late as the eighteenth century.
Stoker (147-1912) was not the first to write about vampires. Polidori and Sheridan Le Fanu previously wrote about Vampires, and these tales are considered to be masterpieces of the genre. Stoker’s character was different, and the vampire is as a very ambiguous and even human figure, unlike the traditional depictions of the beings as simply hideous and monstrous beings. In Stoker's work, Count Dracula’s early years are only briefly discussed. It appears that he was a member of the landed nobility and belonged to the Selkyer ethnic group, who are kin to the Hungarians. The native land of the Count is described as the land beyond the forest; this description is an old term referring to Transylvania in modern Romania.
Count Dracula we are told was a prominent figure in his times. He was a leader of his people and was also a great knight. The Count was very brave in defense of his homeland against the Ottoman Turks, who regularly attacked his people. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula was a great warrior and knight who fearlessly fought the Muslim Turks and helped to maintain the freedom of his native land and people. The character is shown to be possessed of great intellect and a ferocious curiosity. There was no science or art that he did not study. However, like Faust, he grew dissatisfied with science and reason and began to study the dark arts and in particular alchemy and black magic. Stoker has his character studying magic and alchemy in an academy in the Carpathian Mountains in his native Transylvania.
Although this Dracula is a very respected figure who falls in love and marries. When his wife commits suicide because of a false report of his death, he is distraught. The local Orthodox priests refuse to bury his wife, because suicide is a mortal sin, and told him that she would never see Heaven. The Count is outraged and renounces his Christianity and turns to the dark side. In his anger, he commits various acts of sacrilege. When he wounds some religious figures’, he drinks their blood and at this point, he becomes a vampire.
Stoker shows the Count as voluntarily becoming a vampire. Later he dies and is entombed but leaves his burial place every night and continues to live in his castle, attended by three female bloodsuckers. Stoker portrays the Count as having a series of supernatural powers and these include the ability to become invisible and to turn those he bit also into vampires.
Moreover, he is described as the leaders of the undead and those who drank the blood of the living. Stoker portrays Dracula to be hundreds of years old, but he appears to be young because the blood of his many victims allowed him to stay young. In the Irishman’s novel, the character is shown traveling to England as part of his attempt to dominate the world. He is thwarted and later killed. Later writers and filmmakers added many of the characteristics of the Count. However, every representation of Dracula has been decisively influenced by the Stoker’s interpretation of the character.
Vlad the Impaler
In Stoker’s work, the Count is speculated to be the voivode (prince) of Transylvania. This would seem to indicate that the Count was the revenant of the ghost of an infamous Romanian hero and monarch. This was Vlad Tepes in Romania or as he is known in English, Vlad the Impaler. He was the son of the prince of Wallachia, which is now in modern Romania and some of which encompassed the Transylvania. Vlad was the second son of the Prince of Wallachia and he was sent as a hostage to the court of the Ottoman Sultan. He came under pressure to convert to Islam, but he refused but he also served with distinction in the elite corps known as the Janissaries.
In 1447, the famous Hungarian war leader John Hunyadi invaded Walachia and killed Vlad’s father and brother and occupied the area. Vlad with Ottoman support entered Wallachia and tried to defeat the Hungarians who had made his cousin a puppet ruler. He was unable to oust the usurper and he was forced to become a wandering exile. In 1456, the Hungarians abandoned their protégé and they gave Vlad support, and this allowed him to become the ruler of Wallachia. Vlad was opposed by many including German settlers. He dealt with then ruthlessly and he impaled the rebels, and this led to him being called Vlad the Impaler. Later he murdered any poor person or beggar in his realms, believing they were social parasites. He attacked the Ottoman Empire and massacred tens of thousands of people, impaling many Christians. The prince fought several battles with the Turks and at the night-battle of Tagoviste, nearly captured the Sultan and killed almost twenty-thousand Turks.
The Wallachians at this stage were more afraid of their own ruler than the Ottomans and they began to desert him, and he was later forced from power and imprisoned by the Hungarians. Later he attempted to regain his crown but was killed in battle in 1477. As we can see there are similarities between Vlad the Impaler and the fictional Count Dracula, they both fought the Turks, for example. However, the Count was once a tolerant and beneficent ruler and person and that was not the case with Vlad the Impaler. Then there is the issue of impaling, the Count was never shown to have impaled anyone while Vlad Tepes had many thousands impaled. However, the Count’s name is derived from the cognomen of the terrifying ruler of Wallachia.  His father's name was Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon, this cognomen was adopted by him after he became a member of the chivalrous Order of the Dragon. This name became the surname of Vlad’s family and indeed it became the dynastic name of the princely rulers of Wallachia. It appears that Stoker adapted the surname of Dracul and transformed it into Dracula.
Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman who owned large estates in Central Europe. She belonged to one of the most powerful Hungarian families. In her castle along with a few accomplices, she murdered hundreds of young girls. It appears that Báthory was one of the world’s worst serial killers in European history. She was accused of the torture and murder of poor girls and servants.
She was never brought to trial because of her connections and was confined in a cell until her death. There are many tales told about Báthory crimes. They often link her to vampirism such as drinking and bathing in blood. This later led many to suppose that she inspired Stoker to create the character of Dracula. However, apart from the obvious fact that she was a woman while the Count was a male, there is also the fact that many of the stories about her vampiric tendencies were later inventions.
Stoker was a regular visitor to the Irish countryside and partly grew up in County Sligo. At this time, he may have head many legends of ghosts and monsters. In particular, he may have heard the legend of Abhartach, which in Gaelic means dwarf. He was an ancient chieftain and a cruel ruler, who also practiced black magic. He was so cruel and evil who was assassinated by his own kin and buried. However, it appears that he rose from the dead and began to kill anyone he found and drank their blood.
In Celtic mythology, he is portrayed in ways that are very similar to the stereotypical vampire. The supposed grave of Abhartach can be visited in Northern Ireland. There are many other tales of vampires in Ireland such as the abbess who drank the blood of her nuns. Then there is the fabled Sidhe, a race of blood-sucking fairies who lived in a magical fortress in the mountains. It seems very likely that Stoker who was very interested in folklore was conversant with the tradition of blood-sucking revenants and ghosts in the Irish countryside.
Count Dracula is one of the best-known figures in the horror genre. With regard to the figure who inspired the vampire, it was evidently not Elizabeth Báthory. While the creator of the Count was clearly familiar with Irish blood sucking revenants and fairies they do not appear to have inspired him to create Dracula. It is clear that Vlad the Impaler was the one historical figure who inspired the character of Dracula. This is seen in his nationality and the fact that he fought against the Turks like the fictional character. More significantly it can be seen in the name of the Count, which was clearly based on Vlad’s surname Dracul. While it is highly likely that the Irish horror writer based his character on Vlad the Impaler, in many ways the vampire is the creation of his imagination. Many of the traits of the Count are entirely fictional.
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Simpson-Housley, Paul. Bram Stoker's Dracula: Sucking Through the Century, 1897-1997. (New York, Dundurn, 1997).
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