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Painting of Vlad the Impaler

3 real people behind the modern vampire myth

Image: Vlad the Impaler | Public Domain

The Mesopotamians, Hebrews and Ancient Greeks all had tales of blood-sucking demons and spirits, but the vampires that we know today originated in East Prussia in approximately 1721. The 18th-century vampire controversy soon followed and was as farcical as the earlier witch trials. Mass hysteria encouraged by the media and the Christian church swept across Europe and into the New World, leading to public executions and graves of the recently deceased being desecrated at an alarming rate.

So, grab some garlic and let’s meet three real vampire influencers who definitely didn’t sparkle at twilight.

1. Arnold Paole

In 1727, Arnold Paole returned from military service in Greece and settled in the village of Meduegna, Serbia. He soon confessed to his wife and most of the village that while away he had been stalked by the undead. Arnold assured one and all that he’d cured himself by eating the creature's grave dirt and burning its corpse, but he still feared an early death. Arnold also proudly announced that he had drunk the fiend's blood. It doesn’t take Van Helsing to know what that means.

As foretold, Arnold soon died following a fall on his farm. Within a month, people reported seeing Paole around the village and their homes. These people were soon found dead with no obvious cause, leading a group to exhume Arnold. Their report stated that, despite being dead for months, there was no sign of decomposition, he had colour in his cheeks and blood on his lips. He’s also reported to have screamed when those present staked him and surrounded him with garlic.

1-0 the vampire hunters. Well, that was until 1732 when the same thing started happening again. Town officials wasted no time acting and of the bodies they disinterred, 11 showed the same symptoms as Arnold Paole. Despite some of them being dead for several months, fresh blood was found in their arteries and hearts.

2. Vlad III (Vlad Drăculea)

Vlad III was not known for drinking blood. He may or may not have indulged in a spot of cannibalism, but one shouldn’t believe everything one hears. While his bloodlust was of a different sort, he did inspire Stoker’s fable which created the most famous vampire of all time, Count Dracula.

Vlad wasn’t a Count either, but he did follow in his Father’s footsteps and became Voivode (Prince/Military Governor) of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death in 1476. It’s from his father that the name Drăculea was passed as he was inducted into The Order of The Dragon, a faction created to fight the advance of the Ottoman Empire. It was in 1456, when Vlad gained the throne a second time, that his penchant for impaling enemies on stakes and leaving them to die earned the nickname Vlad Ţepeş (the Impaler).

In 1462, following an attempted invasion by the Ottoman forces, Vlad and his army chased attackers across the Danube and slaughtered them. They left a battlefield filled with thousands of impaled soldiers to serve as a warning. Vlad III spent nearly 10 years in a Hungarian prison where he was reportedly seen torturing rats before the rumours of his ferocity in battle reached Stephen III of Moldavia who commissioned him to fight in Bosnia. Vlad won back his beloved Wallachia in 1476 but was killed in battle within a year.

3. Elizabeth Bathory

Almost 100 years after the death of big bad Vlad, a 14-year-old Elizabeth Bathory, whose family ruled over most of Transylvania, married Lord Ferenc Nádasdy. Although Ferenc was one of the most powerful nobles in Hungary, Elizabeth outranked him and thus kept her family name.

Ferenc spent much of their marriage away fighting the Ottoman Empire, but they were both famed for treating servants horribly. However, accusations against the Countess went far beyond cruelty. Her staff went to the surrounding villages recruiting girls to work in the castle, but those girls never came home. Their torture reportedly included sharp implements being forced under fingernails, mouths sewn shut, or being forced to lie naked in the snow while cold water was poured on them.

Lord Ferenc died in 1604 entrusting his heirs and his widow to György Thurzó, a powerful Hungarian magnate, and Elizabeth’s sadism supposedly turned vampiric. She began having girls brought to her rooms so she could drink or bathe in their blood. After 30 years, the King of Hungary, who owed Bathory huge sums of money, sent Thurzó to investigate disturbing rumours. While there are no written complaints against Elizabeth, Thurzó apparently heard over 300 testimonies who claimed to have learned about torture sessions from others.

Elizabeth was arrested in December 1609 for the murder of 80 girls but never stood trial due to her social status. Her staff did, with one claiming to have seen a journal in Elizabeth's chambers detailing every victim, totalling over 650. Elizabeth, one of the few powerful and influential women at the time, was confined in Csejte Castle until her death, by people who gained the most from her downfall. Whether her victims tallied 650, 80, or 0, she will always be remembered as the Bloody Countess.