Above: Vampire Dispatching Kit Open, Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
It started at yet another department store closing sale in the 70s with my mother wisely steering me clear of the toy section. However, I managed to get there anyway and there it was, a James Bond Secret Agent Case, complete with all the (probably toxic) plastic weapons I could possibly want or need. There were even plastic cigarettes (I’m sure which shot poison darts). I was eventually tugged away to look at underwear or socks and life moved on. But the thought of that James Bond Secret Agent Case never left me.
Above: Secret Agent 707 Case from Japan C. 1960s
I was a morbid child. Writing my will (“…and to you I leave my Famous Monsters collection and 3D Dracula View-Master slides to...”) at 12, rallying the neighbourhood kids to stage our own slasher films. But I also had an overactive imagination, converting my bedroom into a study complete with horrible rec-room fake wooden paneling, climbing onto the roof at night, begging my father to build me a turret, a trap door, a submarine, an underground train, a Burmese tiger trap… etc. I knew to maintain my cache I needed my own Secret Agent case, so I made one out of cardboard found in the basement and a lot of tape.
Above: David Keyes, Coffin Cigarette Boxes, Japanese Paper, Silk Ribbon and Press Board, 1987
Gradually I grew more morbid and eventually went to art school. In the late 1980’s I was in an occult shop. I remember picking up a small jar of ‘Graveyard Dust’ and the owner – who I did not know at the time was the city’s celebrity go-to witch and subsequently a successful realtor – walked up to me and said, “Wow! You sure must be mad at someone!” I’m not sure how I replied but I bought the dust and went home. I started to haunt the shop and eventually got to know the owner. One day I mentioned I made coffins and boxes and she asked me if I would make her a Steamer Trunk so she could make house calls. “Of course,” I said, having never made one.
Above: David Keyes, Witch's Steamer Trunk, Pleather, Japanese Paper, Press Board, Brass Fixtures, 1989
I was cat sitting at the time in a palatial apartment 20 stories up with a view of the city. I brought my supplies to this grand space – I had always worked on the floor in my apartment, much to the consternation of my cat – and figured out how to make a steamer trunk. There wasn’t a world wide web yet, so all answers came from the ads in the backs of magazines. I found a woman in Texas who sold trunk parts. I bought clock parts from odd hobby stores and handles and hasps from ancient findings stores that still existed in the garment district. I wouldn’t use leather even then – the idea made me queasy – so I bought a few yards of black pleather. Gradually I made something that so entranced me I didn’t want to give it away. This was so much better than a Secret Agent Case, this was a secret trunk filled with magic
Above: Toland Grinnell, Pied-à-Terre, 2007
I became obsessed with Louis Vuitton and his trunk business and artists like Toland Grinnell, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, anyone really that made worlds within worlds, that took an ordinary rectangle and filled it full of magic. Chinese puzzle boxes! The lament configuration! My love of clockworks soon had me add moving parts to my boxes, my love of haunted forests had me lining them with moss.
And then Christie’s had an auction…
Above: Page from Christie's 2007 auction catalogue
A Vampire Killing Kit, 19th Century. Who cares if it was real. Here was the culmination of all my morbid obsessions in one box. Well, a few anyway. As there was no way I could afford even the selling estimate, I had to make my own.
A little history
The kits have been popping up on eBay and auction sites since the early days of the internet. There are a lot of obvious ‘fan’ made ones, which I am intrigued by. I’ve never thought any were made to be sold as ‘original.’ Bear in mind, ‘original’ means a kit created to slay an imaginary monster. Like saying, ‘This is a unicorn horn, a genuine one, not one made by a fan.’ After the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, the story is that these kits were distributed throughout the hotels of Victorian Europe and for safety’s sake, a well-healed traveler could ‘rent’ one for the night or might even purchase one if so inclined.
The true kits were manufactured by an obscure professor named Professor Ernst Blomberg. I believe the one in the Christie’s auction was one of his. He was apparently an expert on the subject, yet I have no memory of him being mentioned in Montigue Summers distinguished works, The Vampire, His Kith and Kin and Vampires of Europe .
No matter, I liked believing there was such a thing (like spirit rapping and faeries at the bottom of the garden) and in 1989, the Mercer Museum in Doylestown acquired one. There are also at least two known ‘original’ kits sold through reputable auction houses – Sotheby’s sold one for $12,000.
Above: David Keyes, Vampire Dispatching Kit (closed), Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
However, in 2005, Torquay antiques dealer, Michael de Winter posted an article online (the link is a relinking of it) stating that he was the Professor and began his hoax in the 70s as a way of offloading inferior or damaged antiques.
On the blog of the British Library, Jonathan Ferguson, the curator of firearms at UK’s National Museum of Arms and Armour puts it this way:
“I suspected that they were indeed novelty items but were rather more recent than many believed. I conducted a survey of the folklore surrounding 'real' vampires, that is, dead bodies exhumed by a troubled community and ritually 'killed' as scapegoats for whatever malaise might be affecting people. Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits. I persisted, revisiting the fictional stories and movies of my childhood and beyond, noting the development of the various ingredients in the typical vampire killer's toolbox.
It became clear that the "Blomberg" kits, with their focus upon silver bullets, were very unlikely to have existed prior to about the 1930s at the earliest. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they were most likely not produced until the era of the classic Hammer vampire movies. Other kits are harder to pin down in terms of date and could be older, but there is as yet no evidence of this.
To some this might come as a disappointment, or even as a reason to decry the kits as fakes as some do. Would-be buyers should certainly not purchase under the apprehension that they are buying a Victorian antique as my own research has shown. So why acquire such an object regardless? Museums do collect deliberate fakes as comparators and for their own artistic and cultural merit, yet vampire kits are not fakes per se, because there is no evidence of a Victorian original.
So, if they're not fake, and not reproductions, what are they? The answer is that they are "hyperreal" or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props.
Although I had set out to 'debunk' their very existence, I came to realize that these enigmatic objects transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic; aspects of our shared literary and cinematic passions made physical. Lacking any surviving artifact of vampirism either folkloric or fictional, fans of the gothic had created one to fill the gap. So whilst we at the Armouries still plan to scientifically test our vampire kit, and there is the possibility that it's early rather than late 20th century in date, for me the outcome has almost become moot. Vampire killing kits are genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction that still provides sustenance to our most beloved monsters.”
Above: Vampire Dispatching Kit Top, Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
And that to me is fine. Although my kit is an invented artifact, it is to me, and I hope to whoever purchases it, a magical work of art, a secret box to open and allow one’s imagination and whimsy free.
p.s. this kit is for sale, send me a note for details.