Published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula launched an entire genre of literature and film about vampires, those sinister figures who use their supernatural powers to hunt humans and drink their blood. To create his immortal antihero, Count Dracula, Stoker certainly drew on popular Central European folktales about the nosferatu (“undead”), but he also seems to have been inspired by historical accounts of the 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. Born in Transylvania as the second son of the nobleman Vlad II Dracul, he took the name Dracula, meaning “son of Dracul,” when he was initiated into a secret order of Christian knights known as the Order of the Dragon. (In Romanian, Dracul means “dragon.”)
As the ruler of Walachia (now part of Romania), Vlad Tepes became notorious for the brutal tactics he employed against his enemies, including torture, mutilation and mass murder. Though he didn’t shy away from disembowelment, decapitation or boiling or skinning his victims alive, his preferred method was impalement, or driving a wooden stake through their bodies and leaving them to die of exposure. During his campaign against Ottoman invaders in 1462, Vlad reportedly had as many as 20,000 victims impaled on the banks of the Danube. Captured by Hungarian forces and imprisoned, he was finally able to regain his seat in 1476, only to be killed in battle the same year. Some particularly gruesome accounts claimed that Vlad liked to dine among the impaled bodies of his victims, and would even dip his bread into their blood. These gory details, as well as his legally adopted name (Dracula) and his birthplace of Transylvania, have convinced many scholars that Vlad the Impaler provided partial inspiration for Stoker’s famous vampire.