Dracula was a real person, though he wasn't a count, didn't live in Transylvania and didn't bite people in the neck.
His name was Vlad, and he was an exact contemporary of Joan of Arc, being born around 1431 and dying in 1476, either assassinated or killed in battle. During his short but violent life he enjoyed one longish stint and two short ones as the elected prince ("voivod") of Wallachia, the southern province of modern Romania. There are various explanations of how he acquired the nickname of Dracula, which he used to sign his documents: one being that his father, another Vlad, was known as "Vlad Dracul": "Vlad the Dragon"; so his son naturally became "Vlad Dracula"; the "Little Dragon". He was also know as the Devil, the Blood-Drinker, and the Impaler ("Tepes"), all of which testify to his fearsome reputation.
These were violent and frightening times. The Ottoman Turks had occupied Greece and destroyed the Serbian kingdom in the previous century, and were now advancing through the Balkans. In 1526 they were to overwhelm the Hungarians at the battle of Mohacs and extend their empire as far as the gates of Vienna. Dracula's grandfather, Mircea the Old, had been defeated by the Turks in 1396 and forced to recognise the Sultan as his overlord. Wallachia was allowed to remain self-governing, but paying an annual tribute of 10,000 ducats. And the Turks were not the only problem, for the Kings of Hungary ruled over Transylvania and wanted a client of theirs to rule Wallachia, and Stephen of Moldavia, to the north, was also a rival.
Facing all these different pressures, Dracula's father attempted to remain neutral, and in 1443 he had to send Dracula and his younger brother Radu as hostages to Istambul. Four years later he was murdered by the Hungarians and his eldest son Mircea was buried alive. Dracula was freed by the Sultan Mohammed II and tried to establish himself in Wallachia by swearing oaths of obedience to both the Sultan and to King Mathias of Hungary. He established Tirgoviste as his capital and built or seized a number of castles.
In 1461 the Turks demanded a new annual tribute of 500 boys, to be raised as Moslems and trained as Janissaries; the elite slave-soldiers of the Ottomans. Dracula's response was war. He launched a great raid across the Danube, but his appeal for support was ingored by the Hungarians, and when the Turks counterattacked, his own brother Radu joined them. The Turks failed to take Tirgoviste, and Dracula was able to stage a night attack on their camp, inflicting heavy losses.
When Stephen of Moldavia supported the Turks, and Dracula's own nobles recognised Radu as their prince, he fled to Brasov in Transylvania, where he was arrested by the Hungarians. He was held for several years, after which he decided to throw in his lot with them. Accordingly he converted to Catholicism and took a Hungarian princess as his second wife. King Mathias then restored him as Prince of Wallachia, but in 1476, fighting against the Turks near Bucharest, he was either killed in battle or possibly murdered. His descendants survived as members of the local nobility for the next two centuries.
Dracula would have been soon forgotten, but for the fact that his reign was marked by a degree of savage cruelty exceptional even by the standards of the time. His favourite technique for dealing with those who offended him was to impale them on a sharp stake, with the other end planted in the ground, and there they would remain until their bodies rotted away. There were many stories about this. In 1459 he invited 500 nobles to a banquet, accused them all of treason and impaled them. The Abbot of Snagov monastery, who protested, was also impaled. Soldiers with wounds in the back were impaled for cowardice. When the Turks attacked Turgoviste in 1462, they were so horrified at the spectacle of 20, 000 impaled bodies planted outside the town in a great forest of stakes that they withdrew. Other people who aroused his wrath were burnt alive, flayed, or dismembered by teams of horses. There were even rumours of cannibalism. Some of the tales about him had a certain grisly humour, such as the man who complained about the stink of rotting corpses, and was impaled on an especially high stake, to place him above the smell; or when Turkish envoys refused to remove their turbans as a mark of respect, saying it was against their religion, and he responded by having the turbans nailed to their heads. If we add up all his supposed victims, it reaches a total of at least 100,000; but since the population of Wallachia at the time can hardly have been more than half a million, this seems unlikely.
How did stories from distant Wallachia reach Bram Stoker in late Victorian England? The local peasants sang ballads about Dracula, portrayng him as a hero who resisted the Turks, and his name became known in Hungary and Germany. As the Turks were driven out from Romanian territory in the mid-19th century his reputation as a local patriot resurfaced.
Vampire legends, about the undead who walked at night and drank blood, were widespread, and vampire stories were written long before Stoker's famous work was published in 1897. Even in England there were instances of suicides being buried with a stake through the heart to prevent the ghost from walking (see footnote). Stoker himself never visited Romania, but merely combined the name of Dracula with the vampire legends and the sinister reputation of bats (though the vampire bat is a native purely of central America, and unknown in Europe). Stoker, incidentally, made little or no money from his book, and it was largely forgotten until made into a film in the 1920s.
Stoker's book wasn't translated into Romanian until 1973. It was about then that I visited the country, and the Communist regime had just cottoned on to the idea that the Dracula legend could well form the foundation of a profitable tourist industry. Already there were tours of sites associated with Dracula, and the shops sold his a great many items carrying his face or name: plaques, textiles, and even bottles of the lethal plum brandy.
Since then, explotation of the Dracula legend has really taken off.
This is Castle Bran. Its link with Dracula is tenuous, but it looks good and is well-preserved.
This is Dracula's principal stronghold, in the mountains above Curtea de Arges. The view down the valley was splendidly spooky for our visit. Dracula's first wife committed suicide here, by hurling herself from the battlements.
The vast majority of Dracula's subjects would have been peasant farmers, and would have lived in huts like this
This is Snagov monastery, near Bucharest, where he is supposed to have been buried.
Traditional fears of the ghosts of suicides walking, and how to prevent it, are shown in the poem "Faithless Nelly Grey" by Thomas Hood. A crippled soldier, home from the Napoleonic wars, hangs himself in despair, so:-
"They buried Ben at four crossroads
with a stake through his inside".