Vlad “They don’t like it up ’em” Dracula

(Titled with apologies to L/Cpl Jones)

This time I’ll be taking a quick look at two fascinating characters, one real, one fictional, who are these days often seen as one and the same. The first, Vlad Dracula (or Tepes) was a 15th Century warrior prince who defended Wallachia from the Turks and though painted a monster by his enemies, remains a folk-hero in modern Romania. The second is Count Dracula, Bram Stoker’s literary classic monster. Many of us today, reading of Voivode Vlad’s real and supposed violent exploits, tend to believe that Stoker must have based his Count upon this very real figure. In fact, the connection between the two is essentially in name only…


I recently watched an episode of a 2005 TV programme called “Legend Detectives” that dealt with the historic Vlad Dracula. It was a real mixed-bag, containing both interesting history and location filming in Romania, and cringe-worthy attempts at “psychic” reading courtesy of the self-parodying Tony Stockwell. Or was it Shirley Ghostman? Anyway, it was still worth a watch, thanks to the efforts of historian Tessa Dunlop and sceptic Massimo Polidoro. I’d have paid money to hear Polidoro comment on Stockwell’s particularly poor hot-reading antics, but one obvious wince of his towards the end did make me chuckle. He has written a good summary of the TV show and the Vlad/Stoker connection here.

Those two emphasised throughout that the sum total of the Vlad Dracula content in the “Dracula” novel are:

  1. The name, changed to “Dracula” before publication.
  2. Several brief references to Dracula having at some stage fought “the Turk”.

Stoker had always intended to call his anti-hero “Count Wampyr”, until he happened upon both the above tidbits in an 1820 book called “Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia”, by a chap called Wilkinson. Accounts of the time used a modern Romanian translation of his name; that of “Son of the Devil”. However, this was originally an official nickname of sorts with positive connotations; “Son of the Dragon“. The former translation suited Stoker’s satanic spin on Eastern European folklore just fine though, whilst the mention of ancient warfare made the Count appear truly an ancient and immortal warrior. This aspect was played up to great effect in the 1992 Francis Ford-Coppola’s 1992 film version of the story (though the visually stunning harness of red armour he wears resembles nothing from history). Both the name and the medieval back-story are vital elements of the Dracula character as we now know it, yet are nothing more than afterthoughts in the context of the original book. Now, the historical Vlad Dracula was a nasty bleeder, no doubt about it. He did a range of deeply unpleasant things to a variety of different people, including both his enemies and his own people. Most famously, he would stick big wooden stakes up people’s naughty bits and into the ground, and let them slowly die.


A German woodcut depicting Vlad indulging in his hobbies

This is why the Turks bestowed a second nickname upon him; that of “Tepes” or “Impaler”. But you have to view this in a medieval context, and realise that as Voivode he was fenced in by a numerically superior enemy, and dealing (albeit brutally) with endemic internal corruption. Such terror tactics don’t seem quite as bad in that light. Additionally, some of the activities ascribed to him by his enemies are quite likely to be false or exaggerated, and some supposed connections appear to have been made in quite recent times, such as his drinking the blood of his enemies (though Florescu and McNally claim to have found one reference to Vlad doing just that). In fact, not even his biggest critics tried to imply that he was any kind of supernatural being. The Romanian Strigoi was quite a different animal than the sort of vampire made famous by Dracula. And no, you can’t equate the staking of folkloric and fictional vampires with this instance of jamming bits of wood into people. You might just as well draw a parallel with, say, the equally fictional Robin Hood…


Why bother learning to differentiate between the two Draculas? After all, the simple link does seem to add considerably to the mythology of the character. Well, for one thing the Romanians aren’t too happy about their historical equivalent of Winston Churchill or George S. Patton being hijacked to sell plastic capes and fake blood (though no doubt it’s a big boost to the tourist industry). But the genie is out of the lamp, and it’s going to be impossible to truly separate the two characters. But we should nevertheless maintain some consciousness of the weak connection between them, and the very real and fascinating history behind the Count’s namesake. Anyone looking to read further on either of these characters should check out the website and publications of recognised authority Elizabeth Miller.