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Vlad & the Epic Mythology of Count Dracula

Etched into popular consciousness by countless horror films, Count Dracula is best described as a mythical figure loosely based on blood-drinking rituals known to have occurred in certain Balkanic regions. However, Bram Stoker's anemic somnambulist is most fittingly linked with a Wallachian warlord nicknamed Vlad Tepes -- Vlad the Impaler -- in honor of his penchant for bloodletting and cruel tortures. In fact, his real-life atrocities were far more terrifying than anything conjured up by Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman. As young boys, Vlad and his brother, Radu the Handsome, were sent to the Turks as hostages by their own father, who was nicknamed Dracul, or "Devil," because of a knightly order to which he belonged.

Undoubtedly witnessing all sorts of terrible tortures and abuses, and living in fear of his young life, Vlad remained in Adrianople until he was 17, when his father was assassinated by the Hungarians, and the Turks gave him an army in order to reclaim the Wallachian throne. It took him almost 10 years to finally capture the Wallachian throne convincingly and establish his court in Târgoviste. There he earned his reputation for dire cruelty; in one popular story, he set fire to a sealed castle filled with sick, poor, and destitute people, "to rid them of their troubles," as he callously put it. He ruthlessly did away with any perceived threat and enjoyed watching his victims die, often setting up banquets from which to observe the spectacle of suffering. Impalement was favored because the torment could go on for days, and he took great pleasure in mass executions; some estimates place the number of men, women, and children who died at his hands at 500,000.

Eventually, it was his brother, Radu the Handsome, who caused Vlad to flee to Hungary where he was first imprisoned, but then converted to Catholicism. After Radu's death, he once again took control of Wallachia, but was killed in 1476 in a battle with the Turks who displayed his head in Constantinople to prove to the world that he was indeed dead, while his body was supposedly buried at a monastery on the island of Snagov near Bucharest. Apparently, excavations there in 1931 found no sign of his coffin.

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