CHAPTER FOUR: DRACULA, THE BLOOD COUNTESS AND BLUEBEARD
I have asked my friend Arminus, of Buda-Pesth University, to make his record; and he must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his fame against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey. If it be so, then he was no common man; for in that time and for centuries after he was spoken of as the cleverest and most cunning as well as the bravest of the sons of the “land beyond the forest.” That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to the grave. The Draculas were, says Arminus, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, amongst the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due. In the records are such words as “stregoica” – witch; “ordog” and “pokol” – Satan and hell; and in one manuscript this very Dracula is spoken of as “wampyr”, which we all understand too well. There have been from the loins of this one great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell. For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good; in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest.
Dr Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
In the annals of vampirism three real life monsters of sadism are inescapable, even though none has ever seriously been accused of being an actual vampire in the sense of having risen from the grave to feed upon the blood of the living. They are the original Vlad Dracula, Elisabeth Bathory and Gilles de Laval, more famous as Bluebeard.
All three were demonic in their behaviour and at least two dabbled in black magic, but there was nothing else supernatural about them. They were mortal humans like you or me, though their behaviour was monstrous on a scale that almost defies belief and this is why they stand out so sharply. The horrors they inflicted for amusement on those in their power exceed almost any nightmare or work of fiction so they stand as both warnings and examples of a certain wild extreme of human behaviour that has come to be personified in the fictional vampire.
Here they are presented in order of their relevance to the vampire mythos rather than chronologically. Bluebeard came first, dying in France while Vlad Dracula was still a child; while Elisabeth Bathory was born about 84 years after her distant cousin Vlad’s death.
VLAD DRACULA: THE IMPALER
Bram Stoker based his fictional Dracula partly on the historical one but it is noteworthy that in the novel he describes him only in heroic terms, leaving the reader to guess how the evil crept in later. Yet Stoker must have known about the real Vlad the Impaler’s fearsome reputation, even though it was glossed over in the Romanian and Russian accounts which concentrate on his very real achievements as guardian of the gateway of Europe against the Turks.
Perhaps he did this for dramatic effect, to make some point about how easily virtue can change into vice. All characters in the book are equally liable to become monsters once infected with the taint of vampirism. Virtue alone is no defence; it takes either physical means like garlic or a wooden stake through the heart, or sacramental ones like the crucifix, the Communion wafer or Holy Water to keep Dracula at bay. Even going to war with Dracula has its contagion, as we see in Van Helsing’s increasingly manic and ruthless behaviour during the chase, which at times almost mirror the actions of his quarry.
In the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with many other loose ends of the plot that Coppola ties up is his suggestion for why Dracula changed. Taking up Stoker’s position, the film portrays Dracula at the beginning as a hero embittered in his moment of triumph against the Turks by first a trick which drives his beloved wife to suicide, then her rejection by the Church because of that suicide. This is what turns him to evil in the film. Coppola juggles with the facts but it makes great dramatic sense and probes deeper into the same good/evil question that Stoker was playing with. While he remains a monster, we are drawn to sympathise with Dracula by seeing things from his point of view. He becomes more a tragic figure like Macbeth than a simple psychopathic demon, and a whole new dimension is added to his pursuit of Mina Harker.
It also puts a finger on one attraction of vampires. We can relate to them because most of us recognise that at some stage we too have shifted into monstrous behaviour through justifiable rage at some injustice or other. Or we at least know people who have. Lurking here is an insight into the nature of evil – that grinning, murderous psychopaths who delight in evil for its own sake are in fact few and far between. Most of the great wrongs in the world are perpetrated by people who genuinely believe themselves to be on the side of the angels, putting right some injustice or ridding the world of what they perceive to be wrong. The original Dracula was a great example of this, even if his story was not quite as portrayed in the film.
The historical Dracula, known also as Vlad Tepes or the Impaler, prince of Wallachia, was born around 1430 in the ancient German fortress town of Schassburg. Now called Sighisoara in Romania, it lies some hundred kilometres southward of Bistrita (where Bram Stoker’s novel opens) and between the converging Transylvanian Alps and Carpathian Mountains. His birthplace survives as the house of a modestly rich burgher. Its only distinction from the rest in the street is a plaque declaring it to have been the home in 1431 of Vlad Dracul, Dracula’s father.
By a strange coincidence ‘dracul’ in Romanian means either dragon or devil, so Dracula means the son of whichever you wish. Many had every reason to consider Dracula the son of Satan in his day, though few dared even whisper this. In the uncertain spelling of the time, Dracula’s name also appeared on official documents as Dragulya, Dragkwlya, Dragwyla or, in Hungary, as Dracole; some of which survive as surnames today. His father received his name as an honour from the Holy Roman Emperor who bestowed on him the Order of the Dragon in 1431. This bound him to defend Christianity against the Turks who were then determinedly trying to invade, and who for a while seriously threatened to colonise half of Europe.
Dracul was also given two duchies in Transylvania as his power base and crowned Voivode or Prince of Wallachia, modern Romania’s southern province running from the Transylvanian Alps down to the Danube. This last gift, however, only meant that the Emperor gave his blessing for Dracul to seize the principality by force from his half-brother, which he succeeded in doing five years later. Once on the throne, Dracul began playing one side off against the other, signing a pact with the Turkish Sultan and even at one point joining the Turks for a murderous raid into Transylvania, overlooking that the victims were his own subjects. The Turkish Sultan Murad (Mohammed or Mehmet II) still had his suspicions though and forced Dracul to hand over his two younger sons, Dracula and Radu, as hostages for good behaviour.
Vlad Dracula remained a prisoner in Asia Minor for four years until he was about eighteen. His conditions seem to have been comfortable enough, but his father’s political machinations meant that life for the hostages often hung by a thread. It has been suggested that this is what led to Dracula’s legendary sadism later, and it certainly can’t have helped, but it had no such effect on his brother Radu. He happily accepted the Turkish yoke and customs, particularly the pleasure-loving ones, became a favourite with the Sultan and later a willing pawn in his power games.
Continued in the published book . . .