It was a dark and cloudy day in Transylvania as I climbed the hill approaching Bran Castle; home to the legend of Dracula. The centuries old fortress jutted out on the rocks overlooking Bran; it’s stone walls ominous and foreboding. There was a definite chill in the late September air and I could imagine myself as Jonathan Harker, the lead character in Bram Stocker’s famous novel, on my way to visit the Prince of Darkness, Dracula himself.
Although, as exciting (and maybe a bit terrifying) as that sounded, I knew it was never going to happen. Sadly the legen of Dracula is just that; a legend. Dracula doesn’t exist and he never did. In fact, during my day tour to Bran and Peles castles, I learned that the world famous legend of Dracula isn’t even a part of Romanian folklore.
Surprised? Me too.
But don’t worry, there is still a cool Romanian story behind Bram Stoker’s tale, and yes it’s bloody; just not in a blood-sucking way.
The Truth Behind the Legend of Dracula
While most may not know that vampires were never a part of Romanian traditions, most people know that the basis for the world’s most famous vampire is actually based on a Romanian leader by the name of Vlad Tepes, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler but also nicknamed Dracula. He got the nickname from his father, who returned to Romania after battles wearing a crest depicting a dragon eating it’s own tail. The people of Romania had never heard of or seen a dragon before, so they started called Vlad’s father ‘Dracul’ which translates to the devil, making Vlad ‘Dracula’; the devil’s son.
Now we all know that Vlad the Impaler was (obviously, given the name) brutally violent. But he was also much loved by his people. He was a religious man and fair to his people, but should someone break the law, or turn against him, he has no problems extracting severe punishment.
The title ‘the Impaler’ can be pinned to his torture technique of choice; spearing men through the anus, running the spike along their spine so it came out through their neck or mouth. If done properly, none of the vital organs would be hit meaning that these impaled men, left to rot in the sun, could still live for up to two days.
Of course not everyone received this punishment; it’s use is best known when the leader of the Ottoman Empire came to attack Vlad. Vlad didn’t have much of an army, but he did have 2000 muslim prisoners and he executed them all in this way so that when the Ottoman army arrived they saw the terrible sight of their own men brutally tortured and dying.
Likewise, Vlad was known for turning against his own should they not support him, and did so when a Transylvanian town refused to send him weapons for an impending battle. He rode in with his armies and slaughtered half the town in revenge. A German merchant witnessed the violence and wrote back to his homeland about the violent leader, who impaled people and drank their blood.
It was from these merchant writings, read by Bram Stoker, that the idea for the legend of Dracula came to life; a bloodthirsty monster in Transylvania. As for Bran Castle though, it’s not officially Dracula’s castle. Bram Stoker never named a specific castle in Transylvania (he had never been) but based on the description tourists began to ask locals if Bran Castle was the one linked to Dracula, and as a boost to tourism, they decided it was. Funnily though, there isn’t any evidence that Vlad the impaler, inspiration behind the legend of Dracula, was ever even at Bran Castle. Historians assume that he was as he battled his way through the region, and it makes no sense to leave an enemy castle at your back; however, there is no proof that this was the case. Which leaves the legend of Dracula nothing more than a story with very few real ties to Romania.
The Real Monsters of Romanian Folklore
However, while Romanian folklore does not include traditional vampires as we think of them today, it does speak of a few other spooky creatures in Romanian folklore such as the strigoi and moroi.
The strigoi can best be compared to the English version of poltergeist, but much creepier. Strigoi are said to be the troubled souls of the dead, rising from the graves. Originally it was thought that they were too terrible during their human life to be able to enter the afterworld, and sent back to the human world where they would wreck havoc amongst the living. However, the myth has evolved over time so that some believe that strigoi have become known as ‘immortal vampires’. Along with having the powers to be invisible, and change into animals, it is said that strigoi can return to their family from the grave, behaving normally, but will slowly weaken those in the house and finally kill them by draining their blood.
The other Romanian monster of myth are the moroi, which are considered to be the ‘mortal vampires’. These are said to be spirits that leave the grave to feed upon the energy of the living. Moroi can also possess animals; they are frequently associated with possessing bears, and can be controlled by the strigoi.
While these tales are considered to be myths and legends in the Romania of old, some rural parts of the country still believe that these spectral beings exist. In the early 2000s a woman reported seeing her late uncle, who had died a year before. In fear of what he had become, his family dug up the grave and removed the heart before burning the body. Since this incident, a nearby village started stabbing the dead through the heart or stomach of the dead to save their soul and prevent them from becoming either of these evil spirits.
Are moroi and strigoi any more real than vampires? Probably not. But if you are wandering through Transylvania on a ominously cloudy day, just like with Dracula, it’s easy to believe that they could be.