Bram Stoker, deviant burials, Fortean Times, Hammer Horror, Jonathan Ferguson, Mercer museum, Michael De Winter, Montagu Summers, Professor Blomberg, Real or fake?, revenants, Royal Armouries, Royal Armouries Leeds, Silver bullets, Slavic folklore, Vampire, Vampire Killing Kits, Vampires, Victorian or Edwardian Novelties
In today’s guest post, Jonathan Ferguson of the Royal Armouries in Leeds discusses the authenticity of the Vampire Killing kits.
In 2007 I wrote a blog post pretty much scoffing at the very idea of a ‘vampire killing kit’. During 2012, I published the definitive article on the subject in Fortean Times (#288), was interviewed for US TV about them, and found myself sitting at the back of an auction house in Yorkshire, actually bidding on one for the Royal Armouries collection. Why the change of heart? It’s not because I’ve gone from sceptic to believer. Let me explain.
If you’ve never come across one, vampire killing kits are what they sound like; boxed sets of tools for self-defence against the undead. One thing we know for sure is that they are not rare. So far, I have documented the existence of 100 kits that either purport, or appear to be, real. What do we mean by ‘real’? Well, ‘real’ can be a tricky concept, but most would probably suggest that it means ‘old’. Some might also say that it would include genuine purpose, as in kits created to actually slay vampires. As all evidence points to an American or western European origin some time in the twentieth century, it’s unlikely that they were made by, or for, believers in vampires. The vampire is a Slavic monster, and belief in it was roundly scoffed at by the English-speaking world as soon as stories from the east began to emerge in the 18th century. We also know from folklore that vampires were killed with improvised weapons like gravedigger’s spades, not expensive specialist tools like this, and that historical ‘slayers’ don’t really fit the profile of the professional, pseudoscientific vampire hunter created by Bram Stoker.
The most common claim, often made by auction houses, is that they are period novelties, something to buy a friend before a trip to eastern Europe. This is certainly plausible, but even this is lacking in evidence. I have yet to come across any advertisement, letter, diary, or other connection to any known retailer or purchaser, though I live in hope! The only physical evidence we do have are the kits themselves, and it is remarkably easy to take an antique box, refurbish it with antique innards, and fill it with antique objects. Only invasive scientific techniques could begin to tell you how old the result really was. As each kit is different, for every kit ‘debunked’ there would be dozens of others to which the same conclusion couldn’t be applied.
To overcome this difficulty, I did two things. Firstly, I selected the most high-profile subset of kits and the first to be spotted ‘in the wild’; those supposedly made by ‘Professor Blomberg’. These kits come with a label and a more-or-less standard set of contents. Whilst the gunmaker mentioned on the label did exist, the good Professor was a fabrication. In itself, this didn’t point to a later date; these could easily be Victorian or Edwardian novelties as suggested by those in the antiques industry.
The second weapon in my toolbag to assess the likely date of this group of kits was vampire lore. Whenever they were produced, the design of the kits would have been informed by the type of vampire and vampire hunter current when they were made. To sell to any customer, they would have to have recognition factor, to include tools known to the public. For this reason, I embraced fiction as well as folklore. I assessed each component, from stake to silver bullet, and determined when it first appeared in print or film. The most useful features proved to be the pistol, and the cross-marked silver bullets. Whilst firearms were recorded in folklore as a viable weapon against vampires, it was little known in fiction until the Hammer movies of the 1970s. Meanwhile, the earliest written reference to silver bullets against vampires was somewhat earlier, in 1928 (Montagu Summers), but no-one was talking about marking them with a cross until 1965 (an issue of ‘Penthouse’!).
This agreed with the historical and scientific evidence. The Mercer Museum in the U.S. had their kit tested and determined it to be no later than 1945. A London man, Michael de Winter, claimed online to have created the first kit in 1972 as a way to draw people to his antiques stall; I contacted him by post to confirm his story, though of course he may not have been the first. Finally, I researched the first written reference to a vampire kit, which turned out to be a militaria catalogue from 1986. This version of the kit was small, with all the usual ‘ingredients’, but the pistol was clearly the main feature. The kits seem to have become more elaborate in their casing over time. All of the dates I could come up with were late 20th century. I discovered that even some of the auction houses were selling kits as pieces of modern art, or reserving judgement on their antiquity, yet they were still selling for thousands of dollars.
So are vampire killing kits real? That depends. No doubt some have been created and many more sold in order to deceive, but if there are indeed no ‘real’ vampire kits, then it is not technically possible to fake them. After seven years of exhaustive research, I still can’t tell you that there’s no such thing as vampire killing kits. There are various ‘non-Blomberg’ kits that could easily be older. I do suspect that all of them are late twentieth century in origin, but I think they are important artefacts regardless. At the Armouries, our kit, however old it proves to be, lets us represent and talk about the hidden history of self-defence weapons that we could not otherwise, and has been a big hit with visitors. The kits reflect the real weapons used to ‘slay’ vampires as much as they do the fictional versions that we have all now grown up with. The only physical evidence that we have for supernatural creatures like vampires are the ‘deviant burials’ of people that may have been seen as revenants of some kind, and the stones or rusty pieces of iron that were used to stop them coming back. This fascinates us, but fails to meet our fictional expectations of what a vampire-slaying weapon should look like, and so we as a culture have addressed this shortcoming. I think kit creator Michael de Winter was right when he told me in 2011 that he was ‘not making a fake, merely inventing an item’. Inspired by our own folklore; the classic horror movies of the 60s and 70s, we have invented artefacts of our beloved monster, the vampire. That has to be worth preserving.
Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. His research interests include their use, effect, and depiction in popular culture. His sceptical interest in the paranormal is more of a hobby, stemming from the gift of a Ladybird version of ‘Dracula’ at a young age. However, he is especially enthusiastic when the two things overlap! He has made several television and radio appearances, including National Geographic’s ‘How Sherlock Changed the World’, and BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Lifecycle of a Bullet’.
The Royal Armouries holds in trust for the public one of the finest collections of arms and armour in the world, from exquisite pieces of the gunmaker’s art, to the most functional military weapons, and from the medieval period to the present day.
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