If you’re a history buff, a horror fan or both–and this blog has a lot of readers in these categories–you probably recognize the above picture. Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, more commonly known as “Vlad the Impaler,” is one of the creepiest figures in European history. A fairly minor prince from a small province in what is now Romania, Vlad Tepes Dracul, or Dracula, fought ferociously to keep his little province from being conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who at the time (the third quarter of the 15th century) had just swallowed Constantinople and showed no signs of stopping. Vlad got his nickname from his favorite method of torturing and killing his enemies and just about everyone else. Estimates of the body count during his three non-consecutive reigns go anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000. Four hundred years later, Bram Stoker borrowed Vlad’s name and some of his gestalt to create his undead vampire antihero, Count Dracula.
Back to history: in December 1476, one or more of the enemies Vlad hadn’t yet impaled assassinated him, shortening him by a head. Supposedly Vlad Tepes’s head was taken to Constantinople and presented to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (a similar story, probably apocryphal, was told about the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, whom Mehmet defeated in battle in 1453). But his body was buried at a monastery on a tiny lake called Snagov, which is still there and, thanks to the legend of being the site of “Dracula’s Grave,” is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Romania.
But is he really buried there? The reason for Vlad’s burial at Lake Snagov was stated, at least throughout the 19th century, that he founded the little monastery there, and it’s the only place a man of his horrific reputation could rest in peace. Historians, however, argued that Snagov Monastery was in existence at least as early as 1438. But Romanians, who rallied around the figure of Vlad as part of a resurgent nationalism in the late 19th and particularly the 20th century, insist that Dracula’s old bones are down there somewhere, historians be damned.
Snagov Monastery, pictured here, is a darkly romantic locale. It’s not, however, in Transylvania; it’s in Wallachia, which is one of the three historic provinces that eventually became the modern country of Romania.
In 1933 researchers decided to investigate in the hopes of solving the controversy. They dug up the slab that supposedly marks Dracula’s grave. The results were disappointing. Neither Bela Lugosi nor Max Shreck (or even Gary Oldman) popped up with bared fangs saying he vanted to drink your blood. No dusty vampire bones with a stake in the heart–and no headless skeleton either. The only bones found in 1933 belonged to animals. Vlad had flown the coop. Did he change himself into a bat? Or was he really undead?
Neither. Vlad Tepes is most likely buried at another monastery, called Comana. He really did found that monastery, in 1461, and archaeological evidence proving it was found in the 1860s. His grave hasn’t been found, but this seems a logical place for him to have wound up.
Although the absence of Vlad’s remains has been well known for 80 years, somehow the legend of “Dracula’s grave” at Lake Snagov persists. I found this blog, dating from this year, 2013, by a traveler who visited the monastery (which looks hella cool, by the way) and repeats the legend of Vlad’s burial pretty much uncritically, though he seems to acknowledge there is at least a theoretical question about its authenticity. Ah, well. If I was in Romania I would probably get a kick out of seeing the (fake) grave of Dracula at such an amazing and darkly romantic locale, even if I knew he wasn’t really there. After all, what makes history meaningful and fun is the human connection to the past, and that does not always depend on…well, literal fact. Sometimes the legend is more fun.