Vlad Dracula: inside the psyche of one of history’s bloodiest tyrants

Many of us enjoy the literary genre of gothic and psychological horror, though we generally accept the villains of gothic literature to be over-dramatized works of fiction, created by the writer as a means of inspiring fear and driving a gory plot forward. However, inspiring perhaps the most famous gothic character of all time – Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire, Dracula – is a real life villain, known historically for impaling tens of thousands of his enemies onto sharpened stakes in a cruel and slow form of execution. This man was known as Vlad Dracul, with Dracul meaning both ‘dragon’ and ‘devil.’

Born in Romania in 1431 to Vlad Dracul II, Vlad the impaler is often considered one of the most important rulers Wallachia possessed, despite actions that lead the rest of the world to view him as little more than an evil man and a cruel tyrant. While the story of Vlad’s life is fascinating in all respects, and while perceptions of him have always varied culturally, what interests me is what could have resided within the mind of a man so quick to order some of the most horrific acts of violence that the world has ever seen. While it seems impossible to apply the phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ to a man who slaughtered tens of thousands mercilessly, it is possible to ponder what may have caused such intense evil in a person, and whether we can route it back to any significant life events.

At a young age, Vlad’s father travelled away to Germany to be inducted into ‘the order of the dragon’ (which is unfortunately much less Tolkien-esque than it sounds) and so Vlad was likely raised by a constant parade of wet nurses and servants who would all eventually disappear from his life, leaving no consistent caregiver during a critical period of development who he could form an attachment to. Experts believe that this may have caused a failure to establish basic trust in others and an inability to establish emotional bonds, as well as a general sense that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place. Vlad may have infact developed an attachment disorder known as disengaged attachment in his youth because of this inconsistent child-rearing, resulting in permanent emotional damage, and violent outbursts. While it’s difficult to compare the experiences of an impoverished orphan to that of royalty, examples of this disordered attachment have been seen in recent history in the Romanian orphans of the eighties and nineties, who would lack both attention and stimulation in mass orphanages. These children became cognitively impaired and emotionally damaged, to the occasional extent of psychopathy.

Vlad’s education consisted of the standard teachings given to high-born boys, that he was “different from ordinary mortals,” establishing a in-built sense of superiority, and teaching him to devalue other human beings. Whereas babies have been found by Hoffman to have an inherent bias towards kindness and fairness, this can be easily conditioned out of an impressionable child. Traditionally, empathy is taught by a child’s parents, by asking the child to adopt the perspective of a potential victim, with questions such as “how would they feel if you took their toy?” or more topically “how would you like it if you were impaled on a twenty foot stake, Vlad?” These are known as empathetic prods. However, Vlad received none of these, whereas the average child receives anywhere from 500-2000 a year between the ages of 2-10. He was instead taught that he was morally privileged, and that regular rules of compassion and empathy did not apply to him.

According to local lore, Vlad began to show signs of a troubled mental state from as young as 10 and 12, as he showed great enjoyment and enthusiasm in watching executions, showing a morbid fascination with death. He was also witnessed mutilating small animals such as rats and birds, by beheading them, or skinning them and setting them free; though it is debated whether this sadistic habit actually began in later years. These actions are, however, indicative of psychopathic personality disorder, which can originate from a cocktail of genetic predisposition, poor nurture during childhood, and trauma. The conditions of Vlad’s youth may have resulted in psychopathic traits such as suspiciousness, emotional detachment, and an absence of empathy, all of which may have been inflamed when he and his younger brother Radu became hostages in the Ottoman court; the enemies of Wallachia, in order to maintain control over Vlad’s father.

Vlad was actually a middle child, and the least favoured of three brothers; significant due to the fact that inheritance of royal title did not immediately pass to the eldest child at this time in history, but could be claimed by any heir of the king if supported by a council. His elder brother Mircea however was notably the favourite son, groomed to be his fathers successor from a young age, and his younger brother Radu was historically an exceptionally beautiful and manipulatively charming young man loved by all who met him. (Radu actually went down in history as ‘radu the beautiful’, which is a rather far cry from ‘vlad the impaler.’) This placed Vlad in a position where he was arguably not only unloved by his father and frequently compared with his siblings, but perceived himself as being left with few means of grabbing power but fear and ruthlessness.

As political prisoners in the Ottoman court, Vlad was forced to undergo circumcision, practice Islam, and speak Turkish; an indoctrination process designed to create loyalty in any future heirs to the Wallachian throne. Though he was treated reasonably aside from this, and well educated, his brother Radu was favoured by the sultan, who famously established a homosexual relationship with him. Vlad, therefore, was forced to bear the brunt of any corporal punishments that the two brothers received.

Radu in fact began to support the Ottomans political cause and even converted to Islam, all whilst quite literally ‘sleeping with the enemy.’ This was arguably a source of great frustration and anger for Vlad, who upon receiving news of the deaths of his father and elder brother Mircea, took over Wallachia at the age of only 19, declared war on Sultan Mehmed, and became sworn enemies with his own brother. It is without a doubt that this conflict – coupled with years spent living as a hostage in an environment of great tension, where it has been suggested that his first ever formative sexual experiences may have been forced – will have shaped his psychological development by worsening the distrust and hatred of others that Vlad experienced, particularly those he saw as enemies. He became a constant, paranoid observer of those around him in the court, having to become devious and cunning to make it by, and he possessed an overbearing sense that he had been wronged. To illustrate this, it is possible to imagine Vlad’s mindset transforming into a black and white binary, between human beings he deemed as worthy of life, and those he did not. By this stage in his life, he was undoubtedly emotionally damaged and stunted, as well as filled with unvented rage.

As an adult, Vlad therefore became progressively more prone to violence. He was now ruler of an entire region, and the only person who could dictate his moral standards was himself; an individual who had been raised without a shred of human empathy. The only limits on his behaviour were self imposed, and Vlad had very few. He began to explore at this stage the method of execution and torture that gave him his namesake; impaling. Some psychologists theorise that he may have used this to act out the sexual abuse he endured in the Ottoman court, though others disregard the theory of rape entirely. Regardless, it is a method of death designed to be agonising, and so its purpose was undoubtedly to create fear.

His propensity for using the method of impaling shows all the features of obsessive compulsive disorder, as Vlad insisted that the stakes used to kill his victims were proportionate to their rank and status, and had the bodies arranged in complex geometric patterns to create a visual spectacle. He was also known to obsessively practise impaling small animals when he could not impale human beings.

While some of Vlad’s victims were killed relatively quickly by being stabbed with the stake through the abdomen, others would be killed over the course of several days in a gruesome process that I’m certain google can provide plenty of gory details on. He seemed willing to find any cause to enforce this cruel punishment. Vlad once had a man’s wife impaled after noticing that his shirt was too short, and forced him to be married to another woman who would take ‘better care of him.’ He famously discouraged thievery by placing a golden goblet on a public fountain, stating that if it were stolen, the entire village would be impaled including women and children, supporting the theory that Vlad used impaling as a tool to rule with fear. Although, Vlad was prone to other methods of violence, too. Convinced that there were too many beggars in the country, he rounded them up into a barn for a ‘free feast,’ only to light the barn on fire, in an act that could have easily been a fabrication of the writer of Game of Thrones. Furthermore, he once cut open the belly of one of his mistresses to ‘prove to her that she was not pregnant,’ demonstrating an inability to show mercy and compassion to even those closest to him, and a total absence of regular human emotion and restraint.

Most notably, his compulsion to impale reached it’s height with the creation of the famously horrific ‘forest of the impaled.’ Sultan Mehmed, a hardened warrior, is written as having turned back in fear upon arriving to find Vlad’s palace surrounded by a vast ‘forest’ of 20-30,000 impaled Turks in the path of his advancing army. The scale of such brutal violence is near inconceivable, but Vlad was notably numb to it. Despite some calling this a genius act of psychological warfare that enabled him to avoid open battle with a much larger army, he was said to have eaten his dinner among the corpses, dipping his bread into their blood; a detail that paints a picture of little more than a deeply twisted and sadistic tyrant, ruling with fear – feeling he could maintain power with little else – and greatly enjoying it.

Vlad the impaler’s absence of empathy ultimately emerged in merciless displays such as the forest of the impaled, amongst many others. He once ordered with eerie calm for a group of Ottoman soldiers presenting a peace offering to have their turbans physically nailed to their heads when they refused to remove them, and allegedly had a package of thousands of severed ears cut from his enemies sent to rival territories as a warning not to attempt an invasion. Brutality was common amongst 14th century leaders all over the world, yet Vlad the impaler stands out even among the most murderous rulers in history for his apparent love of not only killing, but causing suffering. It was not a necessary evil to Vlad, but a process he is said to have taken enormous pleasure in. Some attribute this to a long and relentless revenge against those who had caused him to suffer so much pain and humiliation during his time as an Ottoman hostage, driven by an affectionless childhood where he was bred to feel entitled and superior. However, much of Vlad’s threats to violence were either indiscriminate, or directed against his own people; suggesting a more habitual, compulsive violence ingrained deeply within him.

Ultimately, it is impossible to diagnose Vlad Dracul with any modern mental afflictions because of how different the world was in the 14th century to today. However, were I to venture guesses, it’s possible to make several suggestions as to what may have contributed to him being capable of such evil. While these illnesses are all in themselves not indicators of violence or cruelty, they are heavily demonstrated by testimony written about him and in his documented actions. Primarily, a number of people have suggested that Vlad may have possessed both psychopathic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, for reasons I have discussed. According to the DSM-5, people with paranoid personality disorder suffer from a pattern of behaviours derived from a persistent mistrust of others and a belief that others are out to get them. They are vengeful, jealous, hold grudges, are prone to sometimes violent retaliation, and will manipulate social cues to justify their bias.

Vlad’s obsession with impaling, however, may have culminated in OCD, causing a deeply routed revenge plot to transfigure into a persistent, perverse desire to kill and inflict pain; enabled by his psychopathic and paranoid personality. Psychic numbing isolated Vlad from an early age from experiencing the emotional consequences of his actions, and so a man with a otherwise brilliantly intellectual mind – capable of mastering the complex political game of alliances and warfare – was unable to properly comprehend or exhibit human emotion, illustrating distorted logic as to why such intense and unforgiveable acts were necessary, and becoming obsessive-compulsive.

Vlad’s diagnosis, however, is secondary to the fact that he was a deeply evil man, who will forever be remembered as one of histories worst tyrants; a reminder of the consequences of putting absolute power in the wrong hands. Whether Vlad suffered from a disorder as a result of his upbringing, genetics and life events does not justify the masses of pain he caused throughout his reign, snuffing out lives that may have gone on to reshape the world we live in today.

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