In an issue of “Historically Yours” devoted to monsters, in partnership with the magazine Read, Stéphane Bern tells the story of the life of Count Vlad III the Impaler, who inspired the creation of the character of the vampire Dracula. Our host passionate about history disentangles the true from the false, between historical reality and the inventions of the novelist Bram Stoker.
There are men so monstrous that they inspire terrible fictional characters. To the point that it is difficult to differentiate between fiction and reality. This is the case of Count Dracula, the central character of Bram Stoker’s book. As part of a partnership with the magazine Lire , which publishes a special edition devoted to famous literary monsters, Stéphane Bern retraces on Europe 1 the story of the character who hides behind the most famous of vampires.
His story is simple and effective. Jonathan Harker is a young notary clerk who travels to Romania to conclude a real estate transaction with Count Dracula. He finds himself prisoner of the castle of this terrifying man, with a white complexion, sharp canines and able to move by crawling on steep walls like a lizard.
Dracula takes the opportunity to come to England where Mina, his prisoner’s wife, and Lucy, a friend, are waiting for the notary. Dracula sucks Lucy’s blood and tries to grab Mina as well. Then follows a chase of a group formed around Jonathan, who managed to break free. The novel ends with the killing of Dracula in extremis by a stab in the heart.
The dark passions behind Victorian rigor
Bram Stoker published this terrifying vampire story in 1897. He was not the first writer to take an interest in these bloodsucking undead. The 19th century, especially in England, is renowned for its great cultural gap: Victorian conformism coexists with a certain romanticism, even a secret passion for the occult sciences.
Bram Stoker himself maintains an intimate relationship with this dark universe. He has been fascinated by death since he was 5 years old. It was at this time that a violent epidemic of cholera struck down many inhabitants of Northern Ireland. Gradually, he became interested in esotericism and occultism. He would even be part of a secret society, the Golden Dawn, translate the Golden Dawn.
This “school”, founded at the end of the 1880s, specializes in the teaching of magic and the occult sciences of the Middle Ages. Rituals are practiced there according to manuscripts, such as the Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians.
The novelist flirts with darkness. Dracula becomes his favorite subject. It is enough to read the presentation he makes of it in his novel: “his aquiline nose really gave him the profile of an eagle… The mouth, or at least what I saw of it under the enormous mustache, had a cruel expression , and the teeth, dazzlingly white, were particularly pointed; they protruded above the lips, the bright red of which announced an extraordinary vitality in a man of that age.”
Dracula, a bloodthirsty son of a prince
But beyond the fantastic, Bram Stoker was largely inspired for his Count Dracula by a very real character, who lived in Romania almost 600 years ago.
Dracula is part of the name borrowed from a certain Vladislav III, or Vlad Tepes, born in 1431, in Transylvania. His father is Vlad II said Dracul, the Dragon or the Devil, depending on the translations. A name that has nothing diabolical about it, but that it simply owes to having been decorated with the Order of the Dragon by Emperor Sigismund of Hungary. Vlad II is prince of Wallachia, a principality which somehow resists the regular assaults of the powerful Ottoman Empire.
Vlad III’s childhood and adolescence were not the most pleasant. When his father was not captured by the enemies, it was he who was taken prisoner for several years in Turkish jails. He is barely 13 years old. As the son of a prince, his conditions of detention are quite comfortable. But he will retain from this seclusion a taste of revenge, of combat… and of blood.
Installed at the head of Wallachia, Vlad III known as Dracula, the son of the Dragon, is transformed into a bloodthirsty sovereign. His other nickname is none other than the Impaler. The reason is simple: he would take malicious pleasure in torturing the slightest opponent of his authority. Impaling would be one of his favorite punishments. The principle, if indeed it is necessary to explain it, consists in introducing a stake into the anus of the victim who, by leverage, has no other solution than to let himself be skewered until he brings out object of the crime through the chest, shoulders or mouth.
The impalement of enemies by entire forest
The impaled then die in excruciating pain, either from internal bleeding, or from hunger, thirst or quite simply devoured by the vultures. The executioners do not hesitate to choose a rounded stick so that the torture does less damage to the internal organs and that the suffering therefore lasts longer.
The worst anecdote about this very real Dracula is called “the night of terror”. It is said that to impress his Turkish enemies, he demanded the impalement of 20,000 Ottomans. A veritable forest of impaled.
Vlad III is not content with just one method of punishment. He would also be fond of many other punishments: scalding, beheading, hanging, burning, frying, nailing, burying alive. Some have even imagined that to punish unfaithful women, he could have dragged a hungry mouse inside them or demanded that salt and vinegar be rubbed on their bleeding parts.
A well-orchestrated false reputation?
But how to disentangle the true from the false about Vlad III, considered by the Romanians as a national hero? Opinions differ on the veracity of these macabre anecdotes. Historians even put forward the hypothesis that it was Prince Dracula himself who knowingly fueled his own legend to terrify his opponents. With more or less success. After 12 years spent in prison in Hungary, he returned briefly to the head of Wallachia before being beheaded at the age of 45. His head is then carried triumphantly by the Turkish sultan…at the end of a stake!
The taste for blood is therefore what binds the very real Dracula of the 15th century to the romantic vampire of Bram Stoker. The author was also strongly inspired by the fantastic legends that the families of Central and Eastern Europe like to pass on to each other by the fireside. In his novel, the writer regularly inserts winks to these stories heard throughout his life.
Even today, vampirism continues to make people talk. If the 660 pages of Bram Stoker’s novel are not enough for you, travel agencies have specialized in tourism around Dracula, the historical figure. You can visit the house in which he was born, his castle where his wife threw herself from, the fortress where he was imprisoned, the forest in which he allegedly had his enemies impaled… A change of scenery guaranteed to “blood for blood” !