In Search of the Real Dracula

I recently had the opportunity to travel through Europe in search of the reality behind some famous ancient legends. I was part of a team of investigators for a TV show called "Legend Detectives," which subsequently aired in December 2005 by Discovery Channel Europe.

I was particularly interested in the legend that was scheduled for May: Count Dracula, the world's most famous vampire. Such is the enduring power of Bram Stoker's classic horror story, first published in 1897 and never out of print, that modern-day Transylvania in Northern Romania has become a tourist Mecca.

Fans of the fictional count flock there by the coachload persuaded that in the land of mist-shrouded mountains, they will find clues to the source of the greatest vampire of them all: the Transylvanian nobleman who left his remote homeland to spread his evil plague.

For the true believer, the boundaries between Stoker's creation and historical fact have become blurred, like all great legends. Many people believe that the immortal count was based on a real person: a medieval Romanian warlord called Vlad Tepes, also know as "Vlad the Impaler" and "Vlad Dracula."

Was this famous national hero the man behind the legend? That was the first question we were going to investigate during our stay in Transylvania (I am of course referring to our TV investigation, for this and other questions have already been dealt with and answered by some good historical work done in the past by researchers such as Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally).

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Bram Stoker's Dracula was by no means the first vampire story. It was the culmination of a writing tradition of Gothic horror stories that had begun nearly eighty years earlier with "The Vampyre," by John Polidori. (Was he a relative of mine, I wonder?) Others followed, like "Varney the Vampire" (1847), a serial that ran in magazines called "penny dreadfuls" for more than two years, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1871), which centered around a lesbian vampire.

But Dracula was a departure. In Stoker's hands, the vampire became all-powerful, the embodiment of evil-and a creature whose immortality was bound up in a rich cocktail of blood, sex, and death.

Ironically, though the novel was first published in English in 1893, Romania's most famous fictional resident, Count Dracula, was almost unknown there until 1992. Only with the fall of communism was Bram Stoker's classic finally translated and published in Romania.

But the question remained, could Vlad Tepes have been the model for Stoker's infamous Count?

What is known of Vlad the Impaler comes from a series of lurid stories dating back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They depict a man surrounded in corpses, a tyrant and madman, who literally drank the blood of his enemies. There are good reasons to think that Stoker was struck by this evil character and borrowed his surname, "Dracula," because he thought it meant "son of the devil," to create his own vampire. In fact, it meant "son of the dragon," and this was because Vlad's father had joined an order of knighthood called the Order of the Dragon. Dragon is written dracul in Romanian, and so Dracula literally means "son of Dracul."

But to many Romanians, Vlad is a national hero, a saviour. They reject the tales of a psychopathic tyrant as vicious propaganda promoted by Vlad's enemies. They honour him as the legendary king who, like Britain's King Arthur, will one day return to save his country.

Part of the reason for this lies in places like Sigihisoara, a town built by Germans, or better, Saxons, who had moved to Transylvania to become merchants. They took hold of the region and didn't even let Romanians enter the town-they had to pay a toll first. Vlad resented this and sided with the Romanians. In his lifetime, he also fought bravely against the Turks, who had conquered parts of Europe already, and this spread panic among the Christian kings. So Vlad was considered a crusader. Europe, then, first knew him as a hero.

However, Vlad lost his battles and was defeated by the Turks, and his legacy was set by the victors. There are still many pamphlets surviving, printed by the Germans soon after his death, in which his exploits are recounted in gory detail and he is portrayed as a devil-like figure.

It's ironic that the man whose name helped inspire one of the most famous fictional horror stories of all time, written in the nineteenth century, was also the subject of some of the very first printed horror stories in the fifteenth century. And this also shows the power of propaganda: for a brief moment, he'd been the hero of Europe; then, after his death, his enemies destroyed his reputation.

During the reign of communist dictator Nicholae Ceausescu, Vlad Dracula was again venerated as a hero. They portrayed him as a nationalist icon, a man who united and protected Romanians from their enemies, imperialist Turks and capitalist German merchants.

His brutal methods were either dismissed as enemy propaganda or, when they couldn't be explained away, as a necessary evil. In fact, Ceausescu was so enamoured of Vlad that he is even reported to have once said: "A man like me comes along only every 500 years."

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Having ascertained that the real figure of Vlad Tepes was only a loose inspiration for Stoker's fiction, we wondered if local folklore provided the inspiration for his haunting descriptions of vampiric rituals.

Stories of vampires are, in fact, very old in Romania; however, they prefer to call these creatures strigoi. They are seen as ghosts, undead, immaterial things; they are usually a recently buried member of the family, who returns to haunt his relatives and drain their life forces, sometimes in dreams. In order to bring peace to the family and to the undead itself, some "rituals" need to be performed.

These are very secret practices that, I was surprised to learn, still continue today. In January 2004, one such episode became public and created a scandal.

After Petre Toma of the village of Marotinu de Sus died in a field accident in December 2003, his relatives complained that a child's illness was to blame on Toma, since some neighbors claimed they had seen him posthumously walking in his yard. Something had to be done.

Six local men then volunteered to enact the ancient Romanian ritual for dealing with a strigoi. Just before midnight, they crept into the cemetery on the edge of the village and gathered around Toma's grave.

It seems that the destruction of a strigoi has some parallels with the methods used by Stoker's heroes to destroy Dracula. But rather than drive a stake through the creature's heart, the six men dug Toma up, split his ribcage with a pitchfork, removed his heart, put stakes through the rest of his body, and sprinkled it with garlic. Then they burned the heart, put the embers in water, and shared the grim cocktail with the sick child.

For a little while, it all seemed to have worked well. Eventually, the sick girl got better again, so the ritual must have worked, or so many in the village thought.

Local police appeared to be less understanding. After Toma's daughter complained, they arrested the men and charged them with illegally exhuming the corpse. They were sentenced to six months in jail, but did not serve the time.

What really surprised me, however, was why Toma's daughter was angry at her relatives. It was not because they had desecrated the body of a dead person that deserved more respect, but because she had not been invited to the ritual!

"These are very ancient practices indeed," anthropologist Fifor Mihai, who served as a consultant during the trial, told me. "And they are about communicating with the dead, laying the dead to rest. The media and newspapers have made much of the gory aspects, but these people have been doing this sort of thing for many, many centuries, and in the past, the authorities have turned a blind eye."

These beliefs are very different from those held by people who are Dracula fans; with them, it's all about image, the immortality, and sexiness of vampires. But for the people in Romania, these are deeply held views, as strongly held as religious faiths. Whether that means customs such as digging up a body and removing its heart should somehow be preserved, I'm not so sure.

In the end, our investigation found Romania to be a country of striking contrasts and rich traditions. We've examined the character of Vlad Dracula, but found the evidence that Bram Stoker based his fictional vampire on him wanting. Certainly, he used the name. There are also some uncanny similarities, such as the use of stakes, Vlad's bloodthirstiness, and his victories against the Turks, that suggest Stoker knew something about the real Dracula, but probably little more than what was given in the tour books of his day.

And today, so long as tourists want to go to Romania, and filmmakers want to make Dracula movies, that confusion between the real and fictional Draculas will continue, and for many Romanians, that's not a bad thing.

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and cofounder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His Web site is at article appears courtesy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Nigel Miller, Shaun Trevisick, and Alex Obradovich for their invaluable help in the research and documentation for this article, and Tessa Dunlop, Ronald Top, Peter Harvey, and Mick Duffield for being great partners in the investigation.