Like the creature itself, our fascination with vampires will never die

Cultures all over the world have their own legends of the undead. My Transylvanian ancestry has left me fascinated with the man behind one of those legends.

Vampires have been popping up in human history for almost as long as there have been humans telling tales to one another to frighten, amaze, entertain or, sometimes, ward off evil. There were stories of vampires rising from their graves at night to prey on the living, some deathly pale with piercing eyes, some wearing winding sheets or negligees, a few with scaly backs or leathery skin and bat wings; some consumed blood, others were flesh-eaters, many seemed highly sensitive to sunlight.

The ancient Hebrews told tales about Lilith who had become a “night monster.” Greek vampires were shape-shifters who tended to be covered in blisters. In Macedonia, the blood-drinking lamia lived in caves.

In China, the chiang-shih, usually covered in greenish white hair, preyed on the recently dead as well as the living. The body of the Greek vrykolakas did not decompose and its victims became vampires themselves.

Malay vampires, usually female, lived in trees and leaped upon the unwary to feast on his or her blood. In Northern India, vampires devour even the flesh of dead animals and, if very hungry, they will eat the liver of a fully conscious man.

Different countries adopted different techniques to get rid of vampires.

In China, some believe that cats must never be in the same room as the deceased and that the body must avoid both the sun and moonlight. Decapitation seemed to be a favoured tactic for disposing of vampires. In 1746, Antoine Augustin Calmet wrote that in Serbia the locals dug up the grave of a vampire only to find its heart was still beating, so they pierced its heart with an iron rod and threw its head into a limepit. Garlic, leeks and juniper wood are often used to ward off vampires and in some parts of Europe people claim the cross is effective.

It’s hardly surprising that writers have seized upon vampires for fiction.

There were numerous early bestselling vampire tales in Europe, but the first to really capture the public’s attention was John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre. It featured a handsome, elegant, somewhat mysterious nobleman who feasts on blood at night, but manages to remain perfectly charming during the day.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula features a considerably less-attractive nobleman. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie version, he has no redeeming qualities – not even a heroic history battling his country’s enemies. His bad breath, nasty incisors, extended fingernails and hairy palms would certainly not have attracted Winona Ryder’s Mina.

Perhaps because my own ancestors lived in Transylvania, I have always been interested in Dracula – not the fictional version in Stoker’s book, but the real historical figure who did, indeed, live, love and fight the Ottoman invaders in the 15th century.

He was named after his father, Dracul (Vlad II), and grandfather Vlad I. Dracul means dragon in Romanian and would have been considered a fearsome but flattering moniker, bestowed on Vlad I by the Emperor. He was inducted into the honoured Order of the Dragon.

Remnants of Dracula’s castle occupy the peak of a mountain in the Fagaras range, above the small village of Arefu, near the town of Poenari, on the banks of the river Arges. I once climbed the 1,400 steps hewn into the rocks leading to the castle. Legend has it that he forced the local nobles to carve the steps as punishment for their sin of pride. It was back-breaking work that killed many of the men unused to hard labour. Afterward, the humbled nobility had no problems following Dracula’s orders. It’s a tough climb but well worth it for the view that Vlad would have enjoyed from here, not to mention the frisson of excitement in the early evening. It grows dark too quickly in the mountains. But it is not vampires that send chills down the unwary tourist’s back. It is the dark corners in the crumbling ramparts, the feeling that some very unpleasant ghosts could be haunting this place.

While Dracula, or Vlad Tepes, meaning Vlad the Impaler (as he became known in his time), did not rise from his grave to feed on the living, he did establish a terrifying reputation for impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. There is a 1499 woodcut by Ambrosius Huber featuring Vlad cheerfully dining surrounded by the writhing bodies of his enemies. On this occasion, his enemies were local Saxons he suspected of having murdered his father and brother. Later, the enemies were Ottoman Turks. The forests of corpses served their purpose against Mehmed II Sultan’s invading army. The soldiers were so terrified of Vlad, they often chose the harsh punishment of their own commanders when they returned without engaging the enemy. In a letter to the Hungarian king, Matthias, Dracula boasted of having killed “23,884 Turks and Bulgars.”

His family’s princely court at Targoviste is still an impressive sight, not least because of the guides’ veneration of Dracula’s accomplishments as a warrior who saved his people. He died in battle in 1476. His head, wrapped in silk, was sent to the Sultan in Constantinople. His body was said to have been buried in the Monastery of Snagov under a slab of stone near the altar. When I visited, there was a portrait of Vlad Tepes over a carpet covering the stone. Built by Dracula’s ancestors on an island in Lake Snagov, the monastery would have been a perfect spot for him.

However, the monastery couldn’t save Dracula from his admirers. The bones found in the grave were transported to the Archeological Museum in Bucharest, whence they vanished.

When the last Communist dictator of Romania realized the end of his reign was near, he ordered a helicopter to fly him to Targoviste. Sadly, he never made it. The helicopter had to land on the road to the town and Nicolae Ceausescu was arrested. He was later tried and executed. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, the cult of vampires, including some with Dracula’s name, continues unabated. The Romanian government has floated the idea of a Dracula theme park. More than 600,000 tourists have flocked to Dracula’s historic stomping grounds. Movies, television series (I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and who could resist the world-weary vampire Lestat?), T-shirts, mugs, breakfast cereals, candles, chocolates and, each Halloween, a new crop of tiny blood-suckers reaffirm the enduring attraction of the night-prowler with prominent canine teeth.