- Popular culture
The Vampire Killing Kit
A seasonal special on one of our spookiest and unique items
The belief in real vampires is age-old and even persists to the present day. As recently 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.
The Vampire Killing Kit was acquired by the Royal Armouries in 2012 and includes:
- A crucifix
- A mallet
- Rosary beads
- Prayer book
5 minute read
When you think of vampires, what comes to mind? Probably pop culture classics like Stoker’s Dracula, or the many movies and video games that have been produced in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, whilst vampires have of course been a staple in popular culture for centuries, the belief in real vampires is far older and even persists to today.
Folklore was transformed into entertainment when the Habsburg Empire invaded Serbia in 1718. They discovered the strange superstitions of Eastern Europeans and by spreading news of it, created a demand for vampire entertainment and literature in Western Europe.
In 2012 the museum acquired this vampire killing kit. The kit includes a crucifix, stakes, a mallet, rosary, a prayer book, and a pistol along with this note bearing the handwritten psalm:
“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them bring hither, and slay them before me”.
In order to ‘stake’ the body or to remove the heart a wide variety of tools were historically used, including iron implements like knives, nails, skewers, ploughshares and scythes.
A grizzly and bloody method, which rarely used a specialist weapon, was decapitation and/or dismemberment. The simple wooden stake is an iconic well known weapon but after that the sexton’s or grave digger’s spade would have been preferred.
However, as an even more gruesome step, the heart would be removed and burned, and/or the entire corpse would be cremated should these measures be insufficient.
The meaning behind the silver bullet
Using silver bullets to kill vampires may be a well-known concept in today’s culture, but this was not widely understood a generation ago.
In fact, there was no association with silver shot and vampires until 1928. Prior to this, it was recommended against supernatural creatures such as the werewolf.
This all changed, however, when the English author and self-proclaimed vampire hunter, Montagu Summers’, wrote The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. It is likely that there was confusion with werewolf folklore.
It is not until 1974 that a silver bullet was used in fiction. A silver cross can be seen to be melted down and moulded into a bullet by Peter Cushing in Hammer’s Satanic Rites of Dracula.
We can find reference to a quartered silver coin fired from a shotgun around the late 20th century. It is around then that John Steakley’s novel Vampire$ created a new trend for silver loaded pistols. This would then influence the use in movies, and the rest is history.
Is this a real kit…?
Our Keeper of Firearms and Artillery, Jonathan Ferguson, completed a thorough survey of vampire slaying in both folklore and fiction.
It was through this survey, he concluded that kits like ours, 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.
Although this may be a disappointment to some, and you may even be led to think this would affect the trade of these kits, if they are ‘fake’, quite the opposite is true. Even kits catalogued as pieces of art or whimsy rake in high prices.
‘Contemporary collecting’ is still recognised with importance in the museum world. Just like art galleries have been doing for centuries, we too at the Royal Armouries collect modern pieces, including those made for stage and screen, often to the same standards as medieval originals.
We also collect the odd and atypical. The vampire kits clearly fall into this category. However, they are still very much valid pieces of material culture. It is important to recognise that although they may be manufactured substitutes, they represent the historical conflict between people and imaginary creatures. They are significant in interpreting that lost part of history.
Further reading and credit
- History at Stake! Jonathan Ferguson
- Silver bullets and the vampire killing kit - Jonathan Ferguson
- 'To kill a vampire' - an article written by Jonathan Ferguson for the Fortean Times (FT288)