Neither Dracula nor vampires are, strictly speaking, real — at least so far as we know — but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their basis in reality. While writing his endlessly influential novel Dracula, author Bram Stoker was inspired by Central European folklore in general and Vlad III in particular, whom history often remembers by a more colorful name: Vlad the Impaler. The son of Vlad Dracul, he’s believed to have been born in Transylvania, eventually became voivode (ruler) of Wallachia (a region of Romania south of Transylvania), and more than earned his nickname by impaling his enemies. Vlad Dracul took his name when he joined the Order of the Dragon, a secret cabal of Christian knights; “dracul” is Romanian for “dragon.” As fate would have it, “Dracula” means “son of Dracul.”
Stoker called Transylvania “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe” in the book’s first chapter, an evocative description based on his research into the area and 19th-century travel literature (though the author never actually visited Romania’s spookiest region). Before falling in battle in 1476, Vlad III earned a reputation for brutality. Impalement was his favorite means of torturing and dispatching his enemies, but he was also known to decapitate, disembowel, and skin them; some claim he even dipped his bread in his victims’ blood while using their impaled bodies as morbid dinner guests. Whether such gory details are true may never be known, but it’s easy to see how he inspired one of the world’s most fearsome fictional characters.