The Vampire Killing Kit: Object of the Month for October

In this new monthly blog series, one of our curators will write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. To start us off, Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson has picked a very unique item indeed… our Vampire Killing Kit (perfect for Hallowe’en!)

Visit our collection online to see more images and discover more about this object ext-link

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Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson, with the Vampire Killing Kit

Vampire Killing Kit

Our Object of the Month is a Vampire Killing Kit that was acquired by the museum in 2012. The kit includes a crucifix, stakes, a mallet, rosary, a prayer book, and a pistol along with a range of other items to ward off or kill vampires.

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The Vampire Killing Kit, which includes a crucifix, a mallet, rosary, a prayer book and a pistol alongside a range of other items to ward off or kill vampires.

Vampires, the myth…

Vampires have been a staple of popular culture for two centuries, from the publication of Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819 to Stoker’s 1897 classic ‘Dracula’, to the many movies and video games produced in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The belief in real vampires is of course far older, and even persists to the present day. As recent as 2004, a Romanian family exhumed the body of a relative, cut out his heart with scythe and pitchfork, and burned it. This was a continuation of folklore that existed elsewhere in Eastern Europe for centuries.

When the Habsburg Empire invaded Serbia in 1718, it encountered these strange superstitions and spread news of them, providing the demand for vampire entertainment and literature in Western Europe.

How to kill a vampire…

The business of killing vampires was deadly serious, and historical accounts emphasised the need for particular methods and tools. Historically iron implements like knives, nails, skewers, ploughshares and scythes could be used to ‘stake’ the body or to remove the heart. The wooden stake through the heart was perhaps borrowed from fictional interpretations.

Decapitation and/or dismemberment was another common method, but rarely was a specialist weapon used. Next to the simple wooden stake, the sexton’s or gravedigger’s spade would have been the preferred vampire slaying weapon. If these measures were insufficient, the heart would be removed and burned, and/or the entire corpse would be cremated.

None of these typical vampire-killing weapons survive in museums or private collections today. As everyday items, they would have been discarded or returned to their normal domestic or agricultural use.

The rise of the killing kit…

In 1986 an unusual cased pistol was offered for sale in the United States as an ‘anti-vampire kit’ of the nineteenth century. It contained a percussion pocket pistol with accessories, a combined cross and stake in wood and ivory, and two silver bullets. A dog-eared label in the lid attributed this fascinating object to a Professor Blomberg and the gunmaker Nicholas Plomdeur of Liège.

A series of kits came to light in the years that followed, and values began to climb as the big auction houses got involved and speculated on their likely provenance. The consensus reached was that they were expensive novelties for enlightened western travellers to Eastern Europe. This seemed plausible enough, especially as real vampire killers were not wealthy and did not use expensive weapons.

Opinion in the antiques world remained divided, however. Many scoffed at the very idea of such a thing. One auctioneer in 1994 stated definitively that ‘there was never a vampire kit’ and that the lot in question had been created ‘to make money’. Yet others were prepared to pay into tens of thousands of dollars for these curios.

Some pieces were obviously of recent manufacture, exhibiting tell-tale signs of being put together from genuine antique parts and materials. Even those appearing absolutely ‘right’ could easily have been put together recently.

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The Vampire Killing Kit, which can be seen in the Hunting Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds

Is this a real kit…?

To answer this question, I completed a thorough survey of vampire slaying in both folklore and fiction. In the process it became clear that kits like our one could not have existed until the era of ‘Hammer’ horror films in the 1950s – 70s. Our kit is inspired by the movies, not Victorian stories and folklore.

This may come as a disappointment to some, and one would think this would affect the trade in these kits, if they are increasingly known to be ‘fake’. Yet in reviewing sales, something curious becomes apparent. Even kits catalogued as pieces of art or whimsy command high prices.

We in the museum world recognise the importance of ‘contemporary collecting’; after all, art galleries have been doing it for centuries. At the Royal Armouries we also collect modern pieces, including those made for stage and screen, often to the same standards as medieval originals.

We also collect the weird and unusual. The vampire kits clearly fall into this category. However, I maintain that they are valid pieces of material culture in their own right. With no other physical means of representing the historical conflict between people and imaginary creatures like vampires, these manufactured substitutes, themselves a good generation or two old already, are a way to interpret that lost part of history.

It is fitting, therefore, that the Armouries should preserve this example for the nation. It was purchased in full awareness of its uncertain origins, shortly after I published my research on the ‘Blomberg’ kits in ‘Fortean Times’ (see issue #288). It’s not impossible that it, and others, could pre-date the cinematic golden age of vampires. Chances are, though, that it’s a product of the 1970s or 80s.

Whatever its age, it remains an invented artefact that reflects our cultural obsession with the vampire and tells the story of the people that believed in, and tried to fight, our favourite monster.

Visit our collection online to see more images and discover more about this object ext-link

Explaining the unexplainable…

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, reveals how he aims to explain the unexplainable in his How to Kill a Vampire seminar.

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, holding the Vampire Slaying Kit

Here at the Royal Armouries, we have a Self Defence gallery, detailing the ways in which civilians have protected themselves, and been protected, by arms and armour. Knives, guns, swords, even walking sticks, have all been weapons of choice. This Halloween, we’re going to tackle a new area of self defence, against a threat that most of us no longer believe in, but a lot of us remain fascinated by…Vampires.

Vampires are everywhere; even zombies haven’t quite managed to topple them from their position as our favourite fictional monsters. Movies, books, and games have all given us varied and often contradictory ways in which to defend ourselves from their fangs and claws, but what about people that really believed in vampires? What about the ones that still do? What did they use to ‘slay’ the vampires they thought were a genuine threat to their communities? Who did the slaying? Was there any basis to their fears? We will answer all of these questions, as well as giving you an insight into the vampire killing kits that vampire fans may already have heard something about…

Five years ago, someone gave me a link to an eBay auction for a supposedly 19th century ‘vampire killing kit’. It wasn’t very convincing –  one of the giveaways being a rather cheesy, stainless steel fantasy dagger, which as a student of arms & armour stuck out to me like the proverbial sore thumb. Like many people, I wondered whether there might be a ‘real’ kit out there somewhere, so I set out to find it, initially online, and then out in the real world.

The more I looked, the more I realised that whilst the truth remains fixed, ‘real’ can be a flexible term. Some kits appeared old, but how old? Could some have been made for people that really believed, or still believe, in the supernatural? At least one is owned by someone who claims to be a real-life vampire slayer! But how many of the kits are lighthearted pieces of fun, or more troublingly, were made to deceive unwary buyers? I had aired my initial thoughts on a blog, but wanting to make a more scholarly study of the kits, presented a paper last year at the ‘Exploring the Extraordinary’ conference in York. I believe that I now have the answers to all of these questions and more, and look forward to sharing them in this talk. The evidence points to a more recent, but no less interesting, origin and still leaves room for an air of mystery to these fascinating objects. I wrote about this in a Fortean Times article earlier this year, but since then we at the Royal Armouries have acquired our own vampire kit – the only one in a UK public museum. You will also have the chance to get your hands on the real thing.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries Leeds

How to Kill a Vampire takes place on Tuesday, 30 October, doors at 6.30pm. For further information, and to book tickets, visit our website.

Count Factula…

Ahead of the How to Kill A Vampire seminar hosted by Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, we are sharing what you never knew, thought you knew and wished you didn’t know about Vampires!

Vampire Slaying Kit purchased by Royal Armouries

Unusual Slaying Techniques
If myths are to be believed, a clove of garlic, a stake through the heart or a strong Christian belief and cross in hand would be the weapons of choice to fend off a vampire. However, one way you may not have heard of is to throw seeds (usually mustard) outside the door or place a fishing net outside a window. Vampires are compelled to count the seeds or the holes in the net, delaying them until the sun comes up.

Never invite a vampire in
Thresholds have historically held significant symbolic value, and a vampire cannot cross a threshold unless invited. The connection between threshold and vampires seems to be a concept of allowance. Once a commitment is made to allow evil, evil can re-enter at any time.

Not even the fruit bowl is safe!
Certain regions in the Balkans believed that fruit, such as pumpkins or watermelons, would become vampires if they were left out longer than 10 days or not consumed by Christmas. A drop of blood on a fruit’s skin is a sign that it is about to turn into a vampire.

Vampires on screen
By the end of the twentieth century, over 300 motion pictures were made about vampires, and over 100 of them featured Dracula. Over 1,000 vampire novels were published, most within the past 25 years.

Dracula Disease
Vampires are said to have pale skin, not have a reflection in mirrors, and grow fangs. Doctors believe there may be a medical explanation for the proliferation of vampire stories in Eastern Europe. Porphyria (also known as porphyric haemophilia or Dracula disease), a hereditary blood disease, was once widespread among the aristocracy. Patients were sensitive to light, developed brownish teeth, and had skin lesions. They were often told to drink blood from other people to replenish their own.

Come along to the How to Kill a Vampire seminar to delve deeper into the history of slaying vampires in both folklore and fiction, and discover the real story behind the mysterious vampire killing kits. Get up close to the kit and join in a discussion with Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at Royal Armouries in Leeds, who has a particular interest in the mythology of arms and armour as well as popular culture and the supernatural.

With Halloween just around the corner, what better way to prepare than with a crash course in protection from the undead…just in case!

How to Kill a Vampire
The Bury Theatre, Royal Armouries Leeds
Tuesday 30 October, 7pm

For more information and to book tickets visit our website here.

Facts courtesy of www.facts.randomhistory.com