Vampires stalk our collective imaginations. The stars of books, movies, and even role playing games, they are at once both dangerous and alluring. No Halloween celebration would be complete without wax teeth, fake blood and a black cape.
But were there ever any real Vampires? Probably not, although there are any number of historical figures whose bloodthirstiness may have provided a basis for the legend.
COUNTESS ELIZABETH BATHORY
Countess Elizabeth Bathory certainly stands as a prime example.
Born in Hungary in 1560, Bathory was married at age 15 to a warlord who apparently spent much of his time away fighting the Turks. Left at home, Bathory satisfied her own bloodlust by torturing and killing young girls.
Her victims at first were peasants, but as her sadistic urges grew, Bathory expanded her prey to include the daughters of minor gentry.
It was this that proved to be her undoing. Missing peasant girls is one thing, but the gentry were wealthy and educated. Local priests brought their suspicions to Emperor Matthias II, and an investigation was launched.
George Thurzo, the Palatine of Hungary, led the inquest, and on December 29, 1610, caught Bathory in the act. The Countess and four suspected accomplices were arrested.
Over the next three years, more than 300 people were interviewed and a chilling story emerged. Always a harsh mistress, Bathory apparently came to truly enjoy the pain she inflicted on her servants. Her cruelty was regrettable, but certainly not unheard of.
One day, a servant pulled Bathory's hair while brushing it. The Countess raked the girl's cheeks with her long nails, spilling blood on her wrinkled hand. Bathory imagined that the drops of blood smoothed away her wrinkes, and concluded that the blood of young girls could restore the beauty of her youth.
That's when the horror really began. Bathory began to kill young girls to bathe in, and drink their blood. Evidence at the trial put the body count at more than 600.
Following the trial, Bathory's accomplices were burned alive. Because she was nobility, Bathory escaped execution, and was instead walled up in a room in her own castle, where she died three years later.
But horrible as it is, Bathory's story is usually overshadowed by that of another Eastern European noble.
Vlad III was a Romanian nobleman who lived from 1431 to 1476. Held hostage by the Turks as a child, Vlad later came to rule his father's kingdom, which has variously been identified as Transylvania and Wallachia. He was also known as the Son of the Dragon (Dracula) in reference to his father's position as a Knight of the Order of the Dragon.
Because his kingdom served as a buffer zone between Moslem Turkey and Christian Europe, Vlad's life was one of constant warfare. Leading frequent raids into Turkish territory, he burned crops, pillaged, and poisoned wells. Legend has it that one of these excursions resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Turks.
Both home and abroad, Vlad gained a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. His father was murdered in a political intrigue, and Vlad apparently was determined not to suffer the same fate.
In one story, he is said to have invited his political enemies to a meeting at his castle. Vlad then locked the doors and burned it to the ground.
Another story tells of the visit of an Ottoman ambassador. When the ambassador refused to remove his turban as a sign of respect, Vlad had it nailed to the poor man's head. That surely did not do anything to improve relations between his Kingdom and the Turks.
But the cruelty for which Vlad is best known also gave him his nickname: Tepes, which means "impaler."
To serve as a warning to his enemies, Vlad would impale his prisoners on long poles, leaving them to twitch and rot in the sun. It is said that the roads to his kingdom were lined with these poor unfortunates.
So much of Vlad's history is mixed with legend that it is imposible to know how many of these stories are true. But contemporary reports seem to verify many of them.
Accounts vary as to the circumstances of Vlad's death. Tradition holds that he died in battle with the Turks and that his head was sent as a gift to the Sultan of Turkey. Another version claims that he was killed by the Hungarians. It's also possible that he was killed accidentally by his own troops.
Strange as it may seem, Vlad Tepes is seen as a folk hero to many in that part of the world.
Vlad may have been lost to history, except for the research of a writer named Bram Stoker. Planning a novel on vampires, Stoker rediscovered Vlad and made him the central figure in the novel that bears his name: Dracula.
In more modern times, several serial killers have been dubbed "vampires" by the press.
Fritz Haarmann committed at least 24 murders in Germany between 1919 and 1924. He killed his victims by biting their necks. During his trial, which became a media circus, Haarmann was variously called a werewolf and a vampire. He was beheaded in 1925.
Haarman wasn't the only "vampire" in Germany at that time. Peter Kurten, a serial killer who was beheaded in 1932, was known as the "Vampire of Dusseldorf." He was charged with nine murders and a variety of other offenses, including sexual assaults.
It is said that Fritz Lang's movie "M" was based on the Haarmann and Kurten stories.
In England, John George Haigh, the infamous "Acid Bath Murderer," also was known as the "Vampire of London." Haigh, who was hanged in 1949, claimed to have drunk the blood of his victims before destroying their bodies in a vat of sulfuric acid.
Are there real vampires?
Again, probably not. But there are those whose monstrous crimes make us wonder about the terrible creatures of night and legend.
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