Count Dracula might be the most popular Halloween icon of all time. The bat-winged vampire has inspired everything from movies to muppets, and his iconic accent permeates pop culture. Yet few know the real historical underpinnings of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula character. The Halloween legend is in fact based (loosely, of course) on a Hungarian prince known for his excessive cruelty in war and punishment. Vlad III Dracul, or “Vlad the Impaler”, has inspired a generation of horror fiction, so travellers with a love of the macabre will find that his story provides some fascinating opportunities for historical travel.
Since Vlad was a real person, a prince born in 1431 into a minor throne under pressure from the Ottoman military machine, his life has left real traces that can be followed. Transylvania – a country which has openly embraced the tourism trade that comes with their ghoulish Western reputation – has a dozen fields used by Vlad to display the spitted bodies of his enemies, or of criminals. His nickname was reportedly deserved, and impalement became his signature punishment. It wasn’t his only famous act, however, and he achieved new levels of notoriety when a group of visiting Turkish diplomats refused to removed their hats in his presence – so he ordered the caps nailed to their heads. Reports of his love for the taste of human blood are unconfirmed, likely added retroactively following Dracula’s rise to the forefront of public imagination.
Little wonder that Bram Stoker used him as the basis for a horror novel, then, or that the character’s Achilles heel is a wooden stake passed through his body. Other aspects of the Dracula myth are apparently based on Vlad – including the vampire’s snivelling lackey Renfield. Vlad apparently had a servant of the same name, a man who was said to eat insects and torture rodents for fun. Vlad was also a member of a group of post-Crusades Christian knights called the Order of the Dragon, whose red shawls may be the basis for Dracula’s blood-red cape.
Every great villain needs a base, though, and in modern-day Romania there is a castle which bills itself as Dracula’s Keep. Bran Castle has steeped itself in Vlad’s lore, and that of his fictional counterpart, though in reality the Transylvanian royal spent only a little time there. Still, some of his most notorious deeds were committed in the area, and the castle now partially functions as a museum of his life. Tours are accessible and relatively cheap, letting you walk all through it from the guard’s rooms in the lower level to the sunny terrace on the roof.
In fact, Bran Castle has a worthwhile history all its own. Visitors will be delighted to find that the castle has an assortment of fascinating architectural features, not the least of which are some hidden stairs, a Hall of Costumes, and a music saloon. Having been destroyed and rebuilt over the course of several wars and natural disasters, the castle itself has easily as much personality as any spooky bed-time story.
A second castle, less accessible but more historically accurate, has a greater claim to Dracula’s crown. Poenari Castle was his fortress for many years, and the site of many ostentatious shows of cruelty in the form of impaled men and women. Today the castle is partially ruined and open only to visitors who are willing to climb over 1,400 steps to get there. Still, the genuine history of the place will be enough to justify the effort to some.
Whichever castle is the “true” Castle Dracula, both are situated near the epicenter of a centuries-old controversy over Vlad III’s true nature. In many parts of Romania and Bulgaria, Vlad is hailed as a national hero. According to some histories, his methods were hard but fair and his cause (the defense of his homeland against the Ottoman Empire) was just. They also point out that his methods were little more extreme than many of his less famous contemporaries on both sides of the conflict. In most of the rest of Europe, however, the story is very different and Vlad is considered to have been a uniquely evil tyrant.
Whatever conclusion you reach, the story of Vlad the Impaler is one that’s sure to entertain and educate. Our darkest legends almost always do – and when it comes to legends, they don’t get much darker than Vlad.