A portrait of Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula

A portrait of Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

From "Nosferatu" to "The Vampire Chronicles," "True Blood" and "The Twilight Saga," vampires have captured the world's imagination in books, movies and television. Bram Stoker got the bloodsucker ball rolling with his 1897 novel "Dracula," which incorporated elements of Transylvanian folklore and a notorious 15th century ruler of Wallachia known as Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler.

But who was he really? Did he actually suck the blood of his victims?

Answers to those questions and others came to light on a recent trip to Romania, where a tour of Bucharest and a lecture about the Dracula legend aboard the Viking River Cruise ship Rinda separated fact from fiction. Here's what we learned:

1. The vampire is not part of Romanian folklore, and the word is not from the Romanian language; it's of Serbian origin ("vampyr").

2. Vlad III's father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of Dragons, a Christian chivalric order of nobles, similar to the Knights Templar. "Dragon" in Romanian is "drac," which also means "devil." Therefore, the son of drac is Dracula, or little devil.

3. Vlad III was born in Sighisoara, Transylvania in 1431. There is now a restaurant at the site of his birthplace.

4. Vlad III's main court was in Targoviste, the former capital of Wallachia, 64 miles northwest of Bucharest. He moved there as a child in 1435.

5. Behind a gate on a narrow street in Bucharest, a statue of Vlad III marks the ruins of the Palatu Curtea Veche, or Old Princely Court, his headquarters from 1456-1462. A fire long ago reduced the building to partial walls, arches and a Corinthian column. The dungeons below it held prisoners awaiting their gory fate.

A bust of Vlad Tepes in Bucharest

A bust of Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century ruler of Wallachia also known as Vlad the Impaler, stands in Bucharest, Romania. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

6. Located in Transylvania 84 miles north of Bucharest, Bran Castle has been promoted as Dracula's home, but Vlad III never lived there. But that hasn't stopped travelers from visiting it and other Dracula-associated sites in present-day Romania. While Romanians welcome the influx of tourism, the notoriety that depicts Transylvania as the heart of evil disturbs natives. "We feel pretty terrible about it. It gives us a bad name," says tour guide Victor Stanciu. "We're not that superstitious."

7. Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania (which translates as "beyond the forest") and may not have even been aware of Bran Castle when he wrote his novel.

8. The vampire blood lust stories may have arisen with the Hindu goddess Kali, often depicted holding a blood-filled pot. The peripatetic Roma people, originally from India, may have brought this legend with them to Europe.

9. Vlad III earned his "Impaler" moniker by killing thousands of Turks and others by the grisly method, learned during his teens, when he was a political hostage of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. A sharpened stick was inserted into the prostrate victim next to the spine but avoiding internal organs, to prolong suffering. Then, upright, the doomed person would bleed to death or die of thirst. 

10. Impaled corpses were displayed as a warning to others, and their white, blood-drained appearance with a visible neck wound perpetuated the notion that Vlad III was a vampire. There's no proof, however, that he ever drank his victims' blood.

11. Vlad III died in 1476, of unknown causes, and his burial place is a matter of dispute. Some historians say it's the Snagov monastery, north of Bucharest, but others claim the Comana monastery in Giurgiu, south of Bucharest, is the more likely gravesite.

Bela Lugosi12. Some Romanians view Vlad III as a hero because he was in favor of national independence from both the Hungarian and Ottoman empires, which variously ruled at the time. Former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist ruler of the country from 1965-89, promoted the idea of Vlad as patriot to further his nationalistic agenda that targeted Hungarians and other ethnic minorities in Transylvanla while downplaying the grislier aspects of his reign.

13. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (left) became famous — and forever typecast — for playing Dracula in the movies. According to Viking program director Tatjana Bojovic, that was clear at Lugosi's funeral, where one mourner said to another, "Do you think we should get a stake and put it through his heart just in case?" Not surprisingly, Lugosi was buried in the Dracula cape he wore on screen.

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Who was Vlad the Impaler really? Did he actually suck the blood of his victims?