When people research the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s infamous villain, the name Vlad the Impaler almost always comes up. Renown for his cruelty and the number of his victims which number in the tens of thousands, Vlad was also called Dracula, his patronymic (a component of a personal name based on the name of one’s father, grandfather or an even earlier male ancestor. Dracula literally means ‘son of the dragon.’)
But Vlad may not have been the only inspiration. Based on certain components of Dracula’s background and character, it can be safe to hypothesize that Bram Stoker was also inspired by the legends of the most prolific serial killer of all time: Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Born in 1560, Elizabeth Bathory was a noblewoman, and a member of one of the most powerful Hungarian families of the time. So powerful in fact, that they were more affluent in both money and property than the King of Hungary himself. Not surprising when your uncle is the King of Poland, and your nephew the Prince of Transylvania. Renown for her beauty and intelligence, Elizabeth could speak and write in four languages (Hungarian, Greek, German, and Latin) while the Prince of Transylvania himself was barely literate. She wanted for nothing and when she was married at the age of fifteen to Ferenc Nádasdy it solidified an incredibly powerful union, combining vast estates and wealth. Elizabeth was said to have been very happy with her life and her marriage.
Note: the following paragraph is strictly legend. There is no core evidence that Elizabeth drank and or bathed in blood. I just want to show the stories that may have inspired Bram Stoker.
When she reached her forties, Elizabeth began to fear that advancing age would rob her of her beauty. As the fear grew, so did her vanity. One day, a servant girl accidentally pulled Elizabeth’s hair while brushing it. Elizabeth struck the girl, drawing blood in the process. Several drops landed on her hand and when it was wiped away, Elizabeth thought her skin looked more youthful. She drained the servant girl of the rest of her blood and bathed in it. That unfortunate girl is said to be one of over six-hundred that Elizabeth killed in order to drink and bathe in their blood. Her actions eventually earned her the nickname “Countess Dracula.” (1)
While Elizabeth’s blood drinking cannot be factually proven, there is evidence and eyewitness testimony that she was very cruel to her servants. Reportedly, she beat them, burned them, cut them, and even sexually molested them.
You may be wondering how she could have gotten away with such treatment, and the answer lies in the time period. As an author who likes to note her inspirations, Elizabeth’s story and the dark secrets of medieval Hungary were what caused me to give vampire Shadow, one of the main characters in my self-published series Evanescence, a medieval Hungarian background. As an Outcast in vampire society, he lives at the whim of the elites and is treated with great cruelty. In an ironic twist, that’s no different from his previous life as a human peasant in sixteenth century Hungary.
While Elizabeth’s life may have been fairytale-like, outside noble walls was a society severely traumatized by war. When Elizabeth was born, Hungary had been at war for decades with the Ottoman Turks to the south. There were also several more personal wars being waged even closer to home. In the 1500s, Hungary was ruled by Austria, and each country constantly vied for land and power. The Hungarian noble families were always at each other throats for more power and even the villages were divided into Hungarians, Croatians, and Slovaks who couldn’t stand each other.
“The greatest cruelties in sixteenth century Hungary, however, were those inflicted on the peasants by the aristocrats and nobles who ruled them.” (2)
If a nobleman or woman ever grew bored or wanted someone to take their anger out on, they could torment or kill Slovak peasants to their hearts content.
“The social hierarchy was absolutely fixed and immovable and someone like Elizabeth Bathory had enormous power, power literally of life and death over the commoners.” (2)
The nobles took full advantage of their power.
“So you grow up in an atmosphere where torture and cruelty are part of everyday experience. It’s no wonder that she thought of that as normal.”
As mentioned before, Elizabeth’s marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy unified vast estates. And, of course, vast estates need to be cared for. The couple hired several Slovak peasants in nearby villages to work for them. Nádasdy, already noted for being a ruthless warrior during the Hungarian/Turkish war, was a very strict “disciplinarian” at home.
“He taught her a little trick called star kicking. Here’s what you do: take the servant girl, you take little pieces of paper soaked in oil and you put them in between the toes of the girl. And then you set the little papers on fire, and she kicks, and she sees stars from the pain. And then she’ll have been taught a lesson, and really be a very good servant after that.” (2)
After Elizabeth’s husband was killed in the war, her cruelty toward her servants reached its peak. Unless her diaries are found and translated (she was said to have documented every death in them), we may never know the actual body count. And for those of you wondering how Elizabeth was guaranteed a steady supply of victims—
“It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone would willingly go and work in a household if there had been rumors of even one girl dying, but the situation for many people in Hungary at that time was so desperate, the only way to guarantee a living wage would be to virtually sell your children into servitude in the great houses, and that’s exactly what happened.” (2)
She was stopped only when she went after the daughter of a local Protestant Minister. Had she only killed Slovak peasants, no one would have cared. The girl escaped, shared her gruesome experiences, and Elizabeth was imprisoned. Her own torture chamber became the cell where she lived the remaining four years of her life.
Vlad the Impaler was a Romanian prince, but it is curious that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a Hungarian count. And, despite his cruelties, Vlad never developed a literal thirst for his victim’s blood. During the course of the novel, Dracula also seems to appear younger the more blood he drinks. Coincidence? Doubtful.