DRACULA: between myth and reality
by Adrian Axinte
It was precisely a century ago that one of the masterpieces of Gothic horror fiction - and of European literature as a whole - was published in Britain: the novel "Dracula", written by Bram Stoker, a relatively unknown ex-Civil Service Irishman and tour manager of the great Victorian actor Henry Irving. Thus one of Western culture's most (in)famous anti-heroes was created, the blood-sucking Transylvanian vampire count, at the same time exotic and deadly, sexy and repulsive, now rejoicing in his eternal all-powerful evilness, now craving to find the true peace of the grave for his tortured soul, closely attached to his ancestral homeland and castle while willing to try his chances at the opposite end of Europe. Such a fearsome but fascinating character was poised to attract the attention of film-makers and the seven decades time-span between Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu" and Coppola's 1993 "Dracula" witnessed a profusion of vampire movies of various artistic standards, the count himself being played by famous actors like Hollywood's Bela Lugosi or Hammer Film's Christopher Lee.
As the main outlines of the Transylvanian vampire count Dracula's story as depicted by Bram Stoker are familiar to the horror genre buffs - as well as to a considerable part of the general public - it would perhaps be more interesting to attempt a quick review of the Irishman's major sources, that is the near-universal belief in the "undead" and the life and deeds of the historical Medieval prince Dracula of Wallachia.
Generally speaking the vampires are evil creatures roaming the earth particularly during certain nights - like St. Andrew's night, the East European "Halloween" - feeding on the blood of the living quite often to the extent of killing them, followed by their victims' resurrection as vampires themselves; as such the "undead" represent one of the dark symbols of the cyclical renewal of life through death described as the myth of the "eternal return" by anthropologists and historians of religions. Although well-known and feared worldwide, it appears that the most highly developed vampire mythology originates from Eastern Europe and the Balkans - including the word "vampire" itself - where traditional beliefs held that the body of an evil person will remain uncorrupt after death and as such ready to rise from its grave on certain nights to haunt and terrorise his familiar neighbourhood and its inhabitants until "helped" to find the final rest of his body and soul like any "normal" deceased by drastic methods such as impaling the corpse with wooden stakes, decapitating or burning it. Of course the "classical" vampire is only one of the footsoldiers in an "army of darkness" of "unclean" spirits marshalled by the great "enemy of mankind" - that is Satan himself - against not-so-unsuspecting humans whose defensive arsenal includes both preventive - like the garlic or the cross - and destructive weapons.
Exploited to good effect by Stoker in his novel, the erotic dimension of the vampire is present in the folklore as well by the fatal attraction he exerts over his victimes of the opposite sex which he - or she, as female evil spirits are often regarded as more dangerous - visits repeatedly at night-time with initially pleasurable consequences for them. On this bloodlust-fuelled eroticism are based the tentative medical explanations of historically-recorded cases of "vampirism" amongst the living which are attributed to "haematophilia", a form of sexual deviation where the sight and taste of the blood flowing freely from the "love-bitten" partner represent the main erotic satisfaction for the addict. Its more extreme form known as "haematodipsia" causes the afflicted to desire blood not only during coitus but at other times as well indifferent of the sex of the victim; thus biting and blood-sucking become such person's supreme pleasure and purpose of life. Of course - like for a gourmet and his favourite food - the visual feast predates the oral one at best and can substitute it at worst when the latter is impossible for various reasons; and it is this bloodlust that brings together the medical haematodipsiac, the mythical vampire - both folkloric and cult - and Stoker's second major inspirational source, the real Dracula whose life and deeds are no less fascinating - and fearsome - than those of his literary counterpart.
His name was Vlad "Dracula", that is the son of (also Vlad) "Dracul" - word meaning both "the devil" and "the dragon" in Romanian and used here with the latter meaning as a consequence of him wearing an insignia of this beast as a knight of the crusader Order of the Dragon - while the son's favourite method of execution earned him the additional nickname "Tepes" ("the Impaler" in Romanian). He lived - between ca. 1431 and 1476 - and, like his father, ruled as a direct descendant from the founding dinasty - three times in 1448, 1456-1462 and 1476 - the small principality of Wallachia comprising the southern part of modern-day Romania between the Carpathians and the Danube including Bucharest whom he first gave capital status (albeit secondary to his main residence located northwards at Tirgoviste).
His foreign policy was dominated by the continuous struggle to fend off the unwelcome expansionist "attentions" of his powerful neighbours and suzerains, the Hungarian kingdom to whom the autonomous principality of Transylvania north of the Carpathians belonged and the redoubtable Ottoman empire on its way of acquiring superpower status after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. To this purpose he used subtle Byzantine-style diplomacy successively allying himself with one or the other in the hope of playing them against each other while preserving the independence and neutrality of his country. This diplomatic manoeuvering was at times complemented or supplanted by ferocious borderland raiding like the incursions carried out in 1459-1460 against the south Transylvanian territories inhabited by German settlers (Saxons) with whom he had a trade dispute: towns and villages were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants - men, women and children running perhaps into tens of thousands - were impaled or otherwise executed, earning Dracula the Saxons' undying hate with no minor consequences for his posterity. The Turks, Wallachia's main external threat, were by no means spared from his wrath: in the winter of 1462 a surprise raid along the southern bank of the Danube had the following results - in Dracula's own words -: "I have killed men and women, old and young...23,884 Turks and Bulgarians without counting those whom we burned alive in their homes or whose heads were not chopped off by our soldiers..."; this grisly head-count - further on detailed battle by battle - was accompanied by two sacks of "samples" (cut heads, noses and ears) and a request for future military help, all addressed to the Hungarian king of course.
On the home front his policies are best summed up by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally's - possibly his best biographers - succinct statement: "In essence, Dracula attempted to legislate virtue and morality through the use of terror" whose main instrument was the impaling stake. The visible end result looked like this through the eyes of a Turkish chronicler: "In front of the wooden fortress where he had his residence he set up at a distance of six leagues two rows of fences with impaled Hungarians, Moldavians and Wallachians (and Turks we may add(. In addition, since the neighbouring area was forested, innumerable people were hanging from each tree branch...". This was the hair-rising sight that greeted the sultan Mohammed 2nd, conqueror of Constantinople and well versed in the use of mass terror himself, upon approaching Dracula's main capital Tirgoviste during the 1462 Turkish punitive expedition following the above-mentioned raid: "Even the emperor (the sultan), overcome by amazement, admitted that he could not win the land from a man who does such great things and above all knows how to exploit his rule and that over his subjects in this way", says another chronicler, Greek this time.
Unfortunately for Dracula, the major consequence of his moral crusade for internal law and order and external independence based on the mass use of capital punishment - often accompanied by refined, Oriental-style tortures - was that in the end even his most loyal subjects, noblemen and commoners alike, grew tired of living continuously in fear for their lives and withdrew him their support in the confuse moments following the precipitated pullout of the Turkish army from Wallachia when their candidate and Dracula's younger brother Radu "the Handsome" made a successful bid for the throne. As for Dracula himself, he took refuge in Transylvania but instead of royal help for recapturing his throne what he got instead was near-instant arrest triggered by cleverly falsified letters - by his Saxon sworn ennemies - purporting betrayal of the king's cause by him. After years of detention in the royal castle of Visegrad - north of modern-day Budapest - and house arrest in this city, during which it was alleged that he married the king's sister (or close relative) and as a pre-condition had to abandon the Eastern-Orthodox faith and convert to Roman-Catholicism, he was reinstated in the royal favours and with Hungarian and Moldavian help he recaptured his throne in the autumn of 1476. But shortly afterwards he was assassinated in a forest near Bucharest and his body was supposedly buried inside the church of Snagov monastery; extensive archaeological investigations there around 1930 have failed to pinpoint the exact location of his grave.
Prince Vlad Dracula was not only a destroyer - of men and property - but also a builder: apart from an unspecified number of churches, his major architectural creation standing to this day - albeit only as an impressive ruin - is his alpine castle, incorrectly located by Bram Stoker in north-eastern Transylvania not far from Bistrita. Located in northern Wallachia - not far from the Transylvanian border - in the foothills of the Fagaras range of the southern Carpathians, upriver from Curtea de Arges, on the narrow plateau of a remote rock ridge overlooking the river Arges near the village of Poenari, Dracula's "eagle's nest" was built around 1459 as a place of refuge in times of need. The workforce was composed of Wallachian aristocrats ("boyars") suspected of complicity in the murder - more than a decade earlier - of his father and elder brother: "So when Easter day came, while all the inhabitants (of Tirgoviste) were feasting and the younger ones were dancing, he surrounded them...he led them together with their wives and children, just dressed up as they were for Easter, to Poenari where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked". Dracula's stone castle, of an irregular polygonal shape ca. 100ft wide and 120ft long and provided with four round curtain towers and a larger rectangular keep, a chapel, well and probably a princely house as well, plus of course a secret escape tunnel, fell into disuse and disrepair shortly after his founder's death; its remains have been partly restored a quarter of a century ago and today it is open to visitors.
It is very difficult nowadays to pass a truly accurate judgement upon the extent to which Dracula's systematic use of mass terror was a response to the unforgiving home and foreign political realities of mid-15th century Wallachia or the product of a deranged psychopathic mind. The answer is probably both: methodical terror mixed up with irrational cruelty best describes Dracula's attempt to morally reform the country and eliminate any potential political opponent in the hope of thus strengthening its defenses in the face of the ever-increasing Turkish threat (and of course preventing an early end to the prince's reign - and even life - like in the case of so many of his predecessors). In any case, while none of the three major sets of popular and cult narratives about Dracula - Romanian, Russian and German - makes any attempt to hide his cruel excesses, the first one emphasizes the justness of his cause and the treacherous nature of his ennemies in a national hero-style approach, while the third one - stemming from the intense campaign of villification started by theTransylvanian Saxons and which generated quite a number of German printed pamphlets during the half-century following Dracula's death - describes him as an irrational blood-thirsty monster in the service of Satan rather than God.
Even though Bram Stoker inspirational sources for his literary imagination will probably always remain obscure in detail, it is quite likely that he was familiar with at least some books mentioning the Romanian folklore about vampires - the most famous being James Frazer's "The Golden Bough" -, while in William Wilkinson's "An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia" some details about the historical Dracula were included. Also one cannot underestimate the extent to which Stoker's conversations with the Hungarian orientalist Prof. Arminius Vambery helped shape the historical, anthropological and geographical background of the future novel in the mind of its creator. But ultimately, above and beyond all his debts to previous literary traditions and published sources of all sorts - like Emily Gerard's book "The Land Beyond the Forest" (the meaning of the word "Transylvania") from which he plagiarised entire sections included in the novel - the vampire count Dracula is entirely the product of Bram Stoker's imagination for which he thoroughly deserves a place of honour in the gallery of horror and fantastic fiction writers.
And finally - last but not least - remains the thorny question whether Stoker's creation can find acceptance with the Romanian general and educated public beyond the level of interested touristic manipulation of the Westerners' fascination with the character. On a purely personal oppinion level, if as a trained Romanian medievalist I feel rather uneasy in the face of such a gross distortion of a relatively well-documented historical character - the first Romanian to have a quality Renaissance-style portrait preserved to this day - who also happens to be something of a national hero as well, not to mention all the Westerners I've met for whom the vampire Dracula virtually sums up their knowledge about Romania, on the other hand as an open-minded European-educated intellectual - and a fantastic fiction buff - I cannot but admire Bram Stoker's creative genius and regard the wretched count more as a literary curiosity off a "freak show" than as a national affront. What matters ultimately is to realize that even if everyone who has heard or read about the vampire Dracula can be turned into a reasonably well-informed person about the real prince, the Transylvanian "undead" count cannot be erased off people's minds and imagination. And also to have the serenity to take "with a pinch of salt" the irony of history or twist of fate turning the Romanians' cruelest "Impaler" prince into the blood-sucking prince of the "undead"; on who else but Dracula could such a fate befell?
IP rights held by Adrian Axinte.