Vampires, werewolves, spooky ghosts and all the rest are from the folklore of Eastern Europe. The famous story of Dracula by Bram Stoker put Transylvania in the imagination of the world as a spooky and mystical place. The story is based on an actual person and there are Dracula sites aplenty to visit. But what if everything you thought you knew about that story was wrong? It probably is.
Who Was Dracula?
The Count Dracula we know about is entirely fictitious. It was, however, based on Vlad III the Impaler. His father was named Dracul, which means “devil” or “dragon”. It is said that the name came from the Order of the Dragon, with which he fought against the Ottoman Turks. In the 1400’s, the Turks were pressing into Europe at an alarming rate. The regions that later became Romania—Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania—were on the frontier between Europe and Ottoman territory. Holding the line between Christian and Muslim worlds was the primary goal for the noblemen of Wallachia, and this is what Dracul was doing. His son, Vlad, was known as Draculá which means “son of the devil” and here we get our famous name. Vlad had the unfortunate position of being ruler of Wallachia in the mid 1400’s, just as the Ottomans were gaining strength, capturing the key city of Constantinople in 1453. The relentless push of the Ottomans was a huge challenge, and the Wallachian forces were outnumber by a huge amount. So the story goes that the Ottomans were about to attack the fortress of Vlad III, and Vlad knew his chances were slim to none. He chose, rather than be decimated by the Turks, to collect all of his enemies, be they Turkish or not, and impale them.
Now, impaling is a fairly gruesome death. It’s not being staked in the heart. It is having a long pole stabbed through the rear, shoved through the body and exiting through the neck, leaving the person skewered but alive. The person was then placed on display and left to die, which usually took three days.
When the Turks arrived at Vlad’s fortress, they found a gruesome display along the road. Hundreds of people skewered and left as a warning. It wasn’t just Turks, but also his own people, women and children included. The castle was left deserted and the doors wide open. This terrifying and insane display did what it was meant to do—the Ottomans turned around and went the other way. They wanted nothing to do with someone that unhinged, they could only imagine what else he had planned. A victory for Wallachia.
A similar story has Vlad inviting his political enemies for brunch on Easter Sunday. The enemies, of course, were impaled and put on display while he ate his brunch alone and watched.
In total, it is said that he impaled around 20,000 people, which is a huge number considering that populations were much smaller 500 years ago. Of course he became legendary, but stories tend to be exaggerated over time and the truth of these tales is murky.
You’d think that Romanians would be horrified by this story and distance themselves from it, but he’s seen as a sort of folk hero. Apparently, part of his impaling campaign was aimed at rooting out corruption. With a government these days that is less than perfect, Romanian political rallies are known to chant “Where are you, Vlad?”
What About Vampires?
Vlad the Impaler was no vampire. There is no vampire story in Romanian lore, it’s actually something that came from Serbia, and the word comes from the Serbian vampir. The vampire story comes not from someone sucking another person’s blood, but from superstitions about disease. When a plague hit a Serbian village, the first person to die was blamed for rising from the dead and killing the others. So the villagers did exactly what you think they did—they exhumed the body of the perpetrator and staked the corpse in the heart.
This staking story has also taken place in Romania. Traditionally, if a person felt they were being tormented by a poltergeist, or strigoli, that corpse could be exhumed and staked in the heart, which the lore suggests would send the spirit on to the next life. This sounds like something that must have happened hundreds of years ago, no? Well, the last case in Romania of exhuming a corpse and staking them happened within the past decade…
What About Dracula’s Castle?
If you’ve read travel guides to Romania, there is almost certainly a mention for Bran Castle. Somehow this has become the erstwhile castle of Dracula, but it has no relationship at all with either Vlad the Impaler or with the fictional Dracula’s Castle. Vlad’s fortresses were elsewhere, and there is no evidence that he ever set foot in Bran Castle. Also, Bram Stoker’s description of the Dracula castle doesn’t match either the structure or the location. Stoker never even visited Transylvania, but likely saw photos of castles and looked at maps. The place he describes in the Carpathian Mountains has no castle, except for the “Dracula’s Castle Hotel” (built in the 1970’s) and a church with a giant cross facing it.
There are a lot of great castles in Romania, but I’m sorry to report that there is not one you can visit that is the home of Dracula. You can visit the alleged birthplace of Vlad III in Sighisoura, and restoration is currently in progress in central Bucharest on the ruins of the actual Vlad III fortress.
ok, ok, but What About the Garlic??
Since Dracula has been debunked, what is the story with the garlic? Folk stories suggest that rubbing garlic around your front door would keep away bad spirits or the “evil eye” and this is something common from Romania south to the Balkans. While there is no proof that this actually works, eating lots of garlic will certainly keep pretty much everyone away from you, so I’m guessing the evil spirits would also take a pass on drinking your stinky blood. Heck, it even keeps mosquitos away, so there is something to the garlic folk tales.
So now you know the truth of Dracula and of the fake castles. It’s all a little goofy, but having been to the birthplace of Vlad, draped with red satin and featuring a guy in a coffin that pops up to scare you, I can say that there’s no harm in a little fanciful fun. I’d just like to see fewer Draculas on the doorstep on Halloween and a few more Vlads. The Romanians are looking for him, after all.
Many thanks to Alexandra Chirila of Roaring Romania Tours for telling these stories.