Who was the real Count Dracula?

Vlad the Impaler

A painting of Vlad (Dracula) Tepes, the 15th-century prince who inspired Bram Stoker's fictional vampire
A painting of Vlad (Dracula) Tepes, the 15th-century prince who inspired Bram Stoker's fictional vampire
Imagino/Getty Images

Bram Stoker's fictionalization of Vlad Tepes spurred scholarly research into the real man. Research has attempted to show the motives for his murderousness. Tepes desired a unified Romania -- free from the outside influences of Germany, Hungary and the Turks.

His consolidation of local power was harsh. On Easter Day, 1456, Tepes invited regional nobility to dine with him. Following the meal, he had the old and infirm murdered and marched the remaining guests 50 miles to a dilapidated castle, which he took as his own. There, he put the nobility to hard labor restoring it. Most died during from maltreatment and exhaustion; those who didn't were impaled alive on spikes outside the castle when restorations were complete [source: Carroll].

Vlad's father, Vlad Dracul, ruled Wallachia from 1436 to 1442, was unseated by his countrymen and regained the throne from 1443 to 1446. Vlad Tepes served in the same position from 1456 to 1462 [source: Tacitus]. When he was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a secretive organization of Christian knights, he took the name "Dracula." The name would be replaced by the nickname "Tepes" from those who feared and hated him.

Vlad Dracula's social ideologies were contradictory. He wanted to be remembered as a saint -- he murdered a Catholic monk who denied that Tepes would be canonized (sainted) [source: Carroll]. Yet his behavior was hardly saintly. Having come to view destitution as a scourge on his domain, Tepes invited his poverty-stricken subjects to dine with him. At the end of the dinner, he had the dining room locked, and his guards set fire to it, killing those inside [source: Marinari].

His foreign enemies suffered equal (if not worse) fates than his subjects. For four years, Tepes and his younger brother were imprisoned by Turks after their father sent them as tribute to the sultan Mehmet. Tepes' father had become a puppet leader of Wallachia for the Turks, and his sons were imprisoned to guarantee their father's continued loyalty [source: Fasulo]. Tepes was meant to become a future puppet leader like his father. But rather than keep allegiance to the Turks, he resolved to fight them.

When he became prince in 1456, Tepes took strides toward Romanian independence. He developed biological warfare, sending subjects disguised as Turks, stricken with infectious disease, to live among the armies in their camps [source: Marinari]. For those Turks who survived, when they invaded the capital of Wallachia, Tirgoviste, they found a forest (about one-half mile by two miles in dimension) made entirely of corpses of captured prisoners impaled on spikes. The invaders left quickly [source: Carroll].

Impalement, the method of execution that gave Tepes his name, is an extraordinarily painful way to die. Tepes ensured maximum pain when he impaled his victims by rounding the ends of spikes and oiling them to reduce tearing. Spikes were introduced into the victim's anus and pushed in until the other end emerged from the victim's mouth. The impaled victim was then hoisted vertically, and left to writhe in agony, sometimes for days [source: Fasulo].

The aged vampire in Stoker's novel required blood to stay alive; Tepes shed blood by the bucketful to promote his lifelong goals. Conservative estimates put his victim count at 40,000 [source: University of Louisiana]. It's also significant to note that eating and death were so intertwined in Tepes' life. He often dined with guests before killing them, and he was reputed to have taken meals outdoors, among impaled dead and dying [source: Martin]

Why is blood such a significant symbol of vitality and power in fiction, allegory and reality? Find out about the symbolism of blood on the next page.