Oct. 14, 2004
Halloween is a time when friendly neighbors pretend to be tricked by children dressed up as ghosts, goblins, superheroes, clowns, fairies, and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. And in return the adults--feigning surprise--pass out sugary treats; a tradition that has helped those in the dental profession for many generations. Unlike most of the characters that make an annual appearance on our door steps, Dracula is based on a real person. Most people are familiar with the fictional version of Dracula created by Bram Stoker, but they are only vaguely aware of the true Dracula from the history books. The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction applies here, and one with modern sensibilities also might add that the truth is more horrific than fiction.
Like the fictional legend, the real Dracula lived in Trannsylvania, now a province of Romania, but in the fifteenth century it was a battleground between the Hungarian Empire and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Dracula was a name picked by Vlad Tepes when he joined a fraternal order of knights vowed to protect Christians from muslim Turks. Dracula means both devil and dragon.
Vlad Tepes seized the throne of Trannsylvania in 1436 and tried to stay neutral when the Hungarians went to war with the Turks. Hungary lost the war, and they blamed Vlad who they forced from the throne. In contradiction to his vows as a Christian knight, Vlad allied with the Turks and regained power. However, to insure continued loyalty, Vlad had to leave his two sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages in Turkey--a common practice during this time period. Vlad, the son, is the one who the legend of Dracula is based on.
In 1444 Hungary went to war with the Ottoman Empire again, and this time the elder Dracula was killed and replaced with the Hungarian puppet kin, Vladislav II. The following series of events was like a game of musical chairs: Vlad, the son, returned with the support of the Turks in an attempt to gain power, Vladislav was afraid that he would lose, so he switched sides and joined the Turks, and Vlad switched sides and allied with the Hungarians. Vlad won.
As king of Trannsylvania, Vlad declared war on poverty. He invited all the poor people and beggars to a grand feast in a castle. He then locked all of the exits and burned the castle down. He even said, "I did this so there would be no poor in my realm."
His tactics for consolidating power were also very ruthless. He enslaved all of the land- owning nobility and forced them to build his castle which still stands today. He gave the former nobility's land to his friends.
Vlad earned his nickname, the impaler. Historians estimate that he impaled between fourty thousand and one hundred thousand people. Vlad would have big banquets and would enjoy seeing people being impaled, while he ate. The victim could be anyone, and the reason could be for any excuse or whim. He even had women and small children impaled for trivial reasons. He seemed to have a fetish for impaling. Later in life, he was chased from the throne and was forced to live under house arrest by the king of Hungary. Since he no longer had power over people, he liked to impale small animals instead.
Vlad, the impaler, is considered to be a great patriotic hero by most Romanians, because he helped Trannsylvania become independent from the Ottoman Empire. The Turks invaded his kingdom, and he defeated them in battle. He took twenty thousand prisoners and impaled them all. In addition, he burned down farms and villages and poisoned wells, so the Turks would be denied supplies. When the Turks saw the impaled prisoners, they became frightened, and they retreated.
A grisly ending was in store for Vlad as well. The Turks returned--this time with Vlad's brother, Radu. In the middle ages sibling rivalry could become quite bloody. Radu and the Turks were able to force Vlad from the throne and he had to escape through secret passages in his castle. He sought refuge in Hungary and was arrested by the king. His brother died of syphilis, and the king of Hungary allowed Vlad to regain the throne. His return was short-lived. He was defeated, captured, and beheaded by the Turks. The sultan kept Vlad's head displayed on a stick.
The true story provided ample material for Bram Stoker's fertile imagination though this was only a small part of his novel. He borrowed the character's name, his bloodthirstiness, and his location. What about the idea for vampirism?
Vampirism is one of many superstitions that were held by the illiterate peasants of Trannsylvania during the middle ages. The human mind needed explanations for the enigmatic occurences of everyday living.
Busy, exhausted peasants--one debatable step about slavery--didn't have the time or energy to dig deep graves. They buried their loved ones in shallow graves. During the warmer months, this practice could have disturbing consequences. Decomposition would cause the bodies of the corpses to fill with gas. The escaping gas from decaying, bloated bodies would make funny noises, and the peasants thought the bodies were becoming undead. The expanding gas could also make the corpses sit straight up, and because they were in shallow graves, they would break through the surface of the soil. This would not be a comforting sight for a feudal age peasant. The peasants would rebury the corpse and stake it to the ground. Sticking a stake through the bloated body would release more gas that to a fearful peasant might sound like screaming. Vampirism was the explanation for what we now know as a chemical process.
One can see how a writer gets his, or her ideas. Bram Stoker combined two different legends into one, and wrote a classic novel.
About the author Mark Gelbart: I've written a novel entitled Talk Radio. I'm still looking for a publisher.