Slaying Vampires: Romantic Origins, Theatrical Afterlives

but those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither and slay them before me’ Luke 19.27

Vampire slaying kits, in my opinion, date back to around the time of British vampirologist Montague Summers (1880-1948) and have been in circulation since the 1920s.  It is my belief that such kits are tied to a form of entertainment in the theatre but the contents point to darker, more unsettling undead issues. The boxes generally contain a crucifix, Bible, holy water, wooden stakes and a mallet together with the book of common prayer (1851 edition). Inside many there is an unnerving handwritten passage from Luke 19.27 which reads: ‘but those mine enemies, […] I should reign over them, bring hither and slay them before me’.

Over 100 kits are known to exist, and many of them are antique in appearance. I have heard that there are nineteenth century examples (I mention this in the video, but I fear they are put together from antique parts at a much later point in history). It is sometimes stated that vampire kits in general, are late Victorian novelties, sold to tourists in eastern Europe in the wake of the publication of Dracula in 1897. However, there are some ‘Professor Blomberg’ kits in circulation and these are very recent creations, c.1970s. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they are most likely produced in the era of Hammer Horror.

We have 2 kits at OGOM and they look surprisingly similar, rather plain and naïve looking (very unlike the more ornate ones that include antique pistols). The first was donated by an antiquarian bookseller in Oxford and the story is that it was left there by a travelling theatre company in the 1930s and the second, which has pliers for defanging the vampire, is a contemporary kit that was made as recently as 2011 from parts.  I often get asked whether the kits are genuine. This is a very complex question to answer. Vampire kits are not fakes or reproductions, because there may be no evidence of an original. They are I think invented artefacts, akin to magic sets, but also art objects, that offer themselves up for display and become the preserve of galleries, archives or museums of curiosity.

As curios, they transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic in which our shared anxieties are made manifest.  They are also extremely theatrical. It is worth noting that on 18th May 1897 the first and only performance of Stoker’s play Dracula, or The Undead was performed at the Lyceum Theatre (the novel was published on 26th May). The book thus began its life as a theatrical performance. These kits were sold to capitalise on the popularity of vampire theatricals. Surprisingly, Vampires appeared on stage from the 1820s onwards due to the vogue for reading and creating phantasmagoria and Polidori’s Vampire archetype enjoyed an extensive afterlife in the theatre.

The vampire kit’s connection to the taste for Phantasmagoria links them to Diodati and the story writing competition of 1816 involving Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and William John, Polidori. Mary recalls that the party read and discussed a volume translated from the German by a Frenchman entitled Fantasmagoriana, or the history of spectres, revenants and phantoms which had been published in 1812. Amongst its varied material is the story of a sinner who is doomed to return as a vampire to suck the blood of his descendants.

 

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
This entry was posted in Critical thoughts, MA Reading the Vampire module news, OGOM Research, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Slaying Vampires: Romantic Origins, Theatrical Afterlives

  1. Needless to say Sam, I totally agree. Although my Fortean Times article was limited to the ‘Blomberg’ kits, there’s really no evidence that any of them are older than c.1970. I live in hope of more evidence, but as you say, in many ways I don’t think it matters – they are wonderful pieces of material culture regardless.

  2. Thanks J. Well, I can trace the history of one of our kits back to a travelling theatre company in the 1930s. Though the evidence is a little scanty I do have a link. I would like to do more research on their connections to the theatre with a theatre historian. I believe they were used for vampire theatricals – vampires were box office very early on and even the first play version of Frankenstein featured vampires. We must talk sometime and exchange notes though as you were the first to research them and talk about them. It’s a fascinating topic!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.