Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, takes place in Transylvania in a castle high in the Carpathian Mountains. The villagers are set in their superstitions; even the horses run faster as night falls. Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer, does not know what awaits him but makes a mental note to ask his host, Count Dracula, about the local folklore. The unfolding mystery of Dracula’s Castle begins with its enigmatic host, its forbidden rooms, and its centuries of history and legends.
Stoker never visited Transylvania. The castle in the novel is based partly on the author’s imagination. It is a combination of the various locations he visited in his native Ireland, England and Scotland, and his extensive research. The castle most commonly associated with the story of Count Dracula is Bran Castle in Romania.
The history of Bran Castle began during the early 13th century. The Teutonic Knights built a fortress in 1211 to reinforce their position at the entrance of a mountain gorge used by traveling traders. More than a century later, the people of Brasov built a stone castle with the approval of King Louis the Great of Hungary. It took 11 years, from 1377 to 1388, to complete the construction on a steep cliff. The castle was used to defend the area against the Ottoman Empire and as a customs office for goods coming in and going out of Transylvania.
The fictional Count Dracula is a vampire who is both erudite and evil. The name of the count comes from the Order of the Dragon of which the rulers, Vlad II Dracul and his son, Vlad III, were members. In the novel, Stoker writes that the count fought against the Turks. That places Count Dracula in the same time period as Vlad III, also known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad Dracula, and later as Vlad the Impaler. The author, however, never suggests that the count is really Vlad III.
In Romania and in other parts of Europe, Vlad III is seen as a hero because he protected Romania against the Ottomans. He had a reputation of excessive cruelty, often impaling his enemies. He waged campaigns against the German merchants who did not follow his orders regarding trading. They had to travel through Bran to get to the Romanian region of Walachia, where Vlad III was from, so heavy taxes were collected and stored in customs houses at the base of Bran Castle. In 1462, Vlad III was captured and imprisoned at the castle for two months.
Folklore and superstitions figure prominently in the novel among the villagers. Historically, the villagers around Bran have a strong belief in superstitions. One of those is of evil spirits called steregoi or ghosts. They seem to be normal human beings during the day but once they are asleep, their spirits leave their bodies and haunt the villages. They continue to do this until the first cockcrow is heard.
Bran Castle has been romanticized as Dracula’s Castle with a story that combines history and legends. Stoker has Jonathan Harker sum this up when he writes in his journal early in the novel. “I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvanian history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully.”
By Cynthia Collins
Stoker, Bram. Dracula, 1897, public domain, quote from Chapter 3. (print)