What makes an antique box of tricks a kit for the slaying of vampires? Tom Swain spoke to curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds to find out.
Vampires aren’t real, are they? Hopefully not, but then what is so curious about a box that purports to be a vampire slaying kit? And why did the Royal Armouries decide to spend £7500 on acquiring one of the kits?
Jonathan Ferguson, 34, curator of firearms for the Royal Armouries, explained some of the reasoning behind the occult purchase.
He explained: “We love vampires as a culture, and have done for at least 100 years. It’s just cool, and why shouldn’t we display things that are cool?”
The Royal Armouries bought the vampire slaying kit in the summer of 2012 at auction, with a winning bid of £7500.
But before appearing in auction, the kit had been owned by a collector of the occult, and a resident of Leeds. Though his identity remains unknown, he was 93 when he died, and left three vampire kits to a daughter-in-law – just one was put up for auction. Another was sold privately, and the third was kept by the family.
The most interesting thing about the vampire slaying kit, arguably, is the fact it is acknowledged by Jonathan and the Royal Armouries to be a bona fide fake. But then no vampire slaying kit is authentic, according to Jonathan.
“The bits in the kit are old, from the nineteenth century. And the box is from the early twentieth century.
“It is possible there could have been wooden stakes meant for killing vampires in a shed in Romania somewhere at some point, but I’m sure they would have been used for something else by now – like building a fence.”
He added: “There are 90 kits of this quality, none are authentic, but this is one of the nicer ones.
“I call it an invented artefact.”
The first printed reference to any vampire slaying kit was in an auction catalogue in 1986 – disappointingly recent – on sale for bids starting at $800.
Jonathan points out, however, that there is evidence of vampire kits existing a decade or so before that.
“A man claims to have invented the kits in 1972, and I’ve no reason to believe he didn’t make one.”
He is hopeful that the Armouries’ vampire slaying kit might be earlier still, however.
“I don’t know exactly how old it is, it may prove to be older than all the others.
“I’d guess it is no older than 1920, but it is really difficult to say.
“Dating is still on-going. We’re doing dye analysis, we’re testing the glue and the paper, and we’re using x-ray to look at the construction of the kit.”
But why spend a large sum of money on something that is patently staged?
Jonathan said: “This is as close as it gets to the supposed real thing. We collect these sorts of objects in anticipation of future history.
“Fakes like this allow people in the future to discuss the history of folklore and fiction.”
Following their acquisition of the kit, the Royal Armouries has attracted some impressive international media coverage.
Jonathan explained: “We got a call from NBC in America and they ended up doing a segment about the auction of the kit, although they knew we would be the eventual buyers.
“To Americans, Leeds is vaguely near Whitby, so a strong link to Dracula was made.”
There seems to be an obsession with the supernatural undead in modern cinema, with films such as the Blade trilogy starring Wesley Snipes, I Am Legend starring Will Smith, or even the teenage fiction sensation Twilight series proving highly popular.
Jonathan said: “I don’t deny that some of the backing I’ve received is because of the Twilight films – it has meant there’s a new, younger audience interested in vampires.”
He added: “It’s a shame that Twilight is so far removed from what makes a vampire, but the range of depictions is interesting.”
For Jonathan, displaying the kit is about more than propagating the myth of vampires.
He said: “Museums used to cabinets of curiosity. That’s why we display the kit honestly – it was made for fun, and we ask that people maintain an open mind.
“There’s a balance between it being a tourist attraction, and an opportunity to learn about vampire stuff.
“For me, it is a film prop for a film that was never made.”
The vampire slaying kit will be back on display at the Royal Armouries in time for Jonathan’s lecture in October, and will be exhibited in the Armouries’ Hunting Gallery.
The lecture entitled How to Kill a Vampire takes place on October 30, and will give audience members the opportunity to hear about the kit, and to get up close with the contents. More information is available at www.royalarmouries.org/events/events-at-leeds.
By Tom Swain @tjoswain