|By Larry LeMasters
Eastern Europe has always had a dark, shadowy past. Nearly 50 years before Bram Stoker published his famous novel Dracula (May 26, 1897), rumors of “other worldly things” began to drift out of the foggy valleys of Transylvania (now Romania). And humans, easily led by ghostly tales of vampires feeding on the blood of the living, quickly embraced the legends of vampires and Dracula.
Vampiric beings have been recorded in most civilizations on earth, but the term “vampire” was first popularly used in the 18th century mass hysteria of Eastern Europe, in and around Transylvania.
Contrary to popular opinion, Stoker did not create the vampire genre of literature. It was born in 1819 when John Polidori published The Vampyre. Polidori’s work led vampire novels until Stoker published Dracula in 1897, influencing all future vampire works and movies. Stoker’s Dracula successfully fueled a vampire genre still popular in the 21st century with Count Dracula the dominant figure in the horror or vampire genre.
Dracula tells the story of Count Dracula’s attempt to move from Transylvania to England so that he might find new blood and spread the undead curse, and of the battle between Count Dracula and a small group of men and a woman led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing.
The introduction of Dracula led to vampire hysteria throughout England and across the Atlantic to America. As Victorian Era Americans boarded ships bound for Europe, one thing was on their minds — how to avoid becoming one of the undead that roamed England, seeking the blood of new victims each night. And wealthy Americans traveling in Eastern Europe near Transylvania often returned to America with horrifying tales of vampire attacks and the ruined bodies of young virgin women..
These stories may sound like nothing more than Gothic horror stories today, but in the 1890s the mass hysteria surrounding vampires had American travelers clamoring for safety from Dracula. And enterprising entrepreneurs responded to the call for safety with Vampire-slaying Kits.
Vampire-slaying kits, originating in the 1880s (some dealers advertise much earlier kits), were intended to help travelers fight off vampires. After Dracula was published, no red-blooded American who wanted to keep that red blood would travel without a vampire-slaying kit.
Kits include wooden stakes, hammers, crucifixes, Bibles or other religious tracts, garlic bulbs, axes, vials of Holy water, and pistols in varying degrees with silver bullets. The idea was simple, hold a cross up so the vampire attacking you sees it and turns away, toss Holy water on the vampire to burn him, and then drive a wooden stake through his heart to kill him. Having a pistol in a vampire kit is a little confusing since bullets do not harm vampires (silver bullets kill werewolves, not vampires). In a clever advertising ploy, vampire-slaying kits were often packaged inside wooden boxes resembling miniature coffins, which added to the overall ambiance of the kit.
Authentic Vampire-slaying kits don’t come cheap. It has been reported Sterling Associates, Inc. (of Closter, New Jersey), on October 22, 2014, sold two vampire-slaying kits at one of its auctions — a “Vampire Hunting Kit in Coffin Box” (Lot 337) for $9,000 and “Vampire Hunting Kit in Hand Painted Box” (Lot 338) for $6,500. Both of these vampire-slaying kits were listed as “19th century European Vampire hunting kits” and came from Sterling’s Danse Macabre collection.
Not long after this auction ended, Anthony Hogg published an Internet essay, listing his “6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Buy an ’Antique’ Vampire Killing Kit.” Hogg stated, “Many 19th century vampire killing kits are sold through auction houses and purchased by museums or private buyers. But I’m here to tell you that whoever’s bought these should’ve held onto their money.” In order, Hogg’s six reasons are:
1. You can make or buy your own cheaper kits
2. Buying them encourages more to be made, sold, and displayed
3. Someone’s confessed to faking the original kits
4. They’re composites — genuine antiques paired with artificially-aged items
5. They’re not as “rare” as you’d think
6. They’re not properly authenticated
In short, Hogg and other historians do not believe vampires exist, so they believe all vampire-slaying kits are hoaxes perpetrated on a naïve and superstitiously-stupid populace.
Sterling Associates responded to complaints about the reality of their vampire-slaying kits by stating, “We believe that the boxes and the elements contained in the boxes to be 19th century. We are not experts on vampire-slaying kits. We are unaware of any manufacturer that fabricates these boxes so the amount of research and the ability to research is limited. When they were assembled and if they were ever used to kill vampires is beyond our expertise.”
Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums reportedly owns the largest collection of 19th century vampire-slaying kits in existence. Of its collection, a press release by Ripley’s in 2009 stated in part the kits were created in the Boston area and were available by mail order for people preparing to travel in Eastern Europe and anticipating trouble with vampires.
Whether you believe in vampires or not, these slaying kits make excellent icebreakers at parties, macabre displays, and, depending on your mother-in-law, a sturdy vampire-slaying kit may also have practical applications today in the 21st century.