The Terrifying Truth About Dracula
How a 15th-century Walachian prince became a frightening modern legend
by David Johnson
The rugged Transylvanian Alps provide one of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe. Hawks soar around the craggy, snow-covered peaks, while bears and chamois take refuge in the dense forests below. Medieval villages and the ruins of once-proud castles can abruptly materialize through the mist, as if daring outsiders to uncover their secrets.
Transylvania also produced a leader known as a defender of the Christian faith, a Romanian hero, and a subhuman monster. His name was Prince Vlad, but the world knows him by his nickname: Dracula.
The Order of the Dragon
Vlad, or Dracula, was born in 1431 in Transylvania into a noble family. His father was called "Dracul," meaning "dragon" or "devil" in Romanian because he belonged to the Order of the Dragon, which fought the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
"Dracula" means "son of Dracul" in Romanian. Therefore young Vlad was "son of the dragon" or "son of the devil." Scholars believe this was the beginning of the legend that Dracula was a vampire.
Warrior in Chains
Dracula lived in a time of constant war. Transylvania was at the frontier of two great empires: the Ottoman Turks and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Treachery, vindictiveness, and revenge ruled the day, as young Dracula soon discovered.
Dracula was imprisoned, first by the Turks, who hauled him away in chains, and later by the Hungarians. Dracula's father was murdered, while his older brother, Mircea, was blinded with red-hot iron stakes and buried alive.
Vlad the Impaler
From 1448 until his death in 1476, Dracula ruled Walachia and Transylvania, both part of Romania today. Twice he lost and reclaimed his throne, once by fighting his own brother, Radu. Although the Vatican once praised him for defending Christianity, it disapproved of his methods, which soon became infamous.
Dracula earned another nickname, "Vlad Tepes" (pronounced tsep-pesh), which means "Vlad the Impaler." Dracula's favorite method of torture was to impale people and leave them to writhe in agony, often for days. As a warning to others, the bodies would remain on rods as vultures and blackbirds nibbled the rotting flesh.
During one battle, Dracula retreated into nearby mountains, impaling people as he went. The Turkish advance was halted because the sultan could not bear the stench from the decaying corpses.
Another time, Dracula was reported to have eaten a meal on a table set up outside amidst hundreds of impaled victims. On occasion he was also reported to have eaten bread dipped in blood.
Defender of the Faith
At that time it was believed that religious charity, and a proper burial, would erase sin and allow entry to heaven. Dracula surrounded himself with priests and monks and founded five monasteries. Over a period of 150 years, his family established 50 monasteries.
Killed in December 1476 fighting the Turks near Bucharest, Romania, Dracula's head was cut off and displayed in Constantinople.
The Corpse Disappears
Dracula was buried at the isolated Snagov Monastery near Bucharest, which was also likely used as a prison and torture chamber. When prisoners prayed before an icon of the Blessed Virgin, a trap door opened dropping them onto sharp stakes below.
In 1931 archaeologists searching Snagov found a casket partially covered in a purple shroud embroidered with gold. The skeleton inside was covered with pieces of faded silk brocade, similar to a shirt depicted in an old painting of Dracula.
The casket also contained a cloisonné crown, with turquoise stones. A ring, similar to those worn by the Order of the Dragon, was sewn into a shirtsleeve.
The contents were taken to the History Museum in Bucharest but have since disappeared without a trace, leaving the mysteries of the real Prince Dracula unanswered.
Fact or Folklore?