A blackbird flies in Père Lachaise Cemetery (all photographs by the author unless indicated)
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race.
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life,
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse.
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
- Lord Byron
Can one be afraid of what he does not believe in? It would seem logical to say no. But if the vampire has gone from legend to myth to even archetype, then it is probably because, though few would confess believing in a she, he or it, the vast majority is nonetheless terrified.
- translated excerpt from “Le Livre Des Vampires” by Jacques Sirgent
Romania might be dripping with vampire-themed shops selling wooden stakes and England may boast that it was Dracula’s transplanted home, but if you want the most intimate stroll through the literary, cultural, and sociohistorical life of the vampire, go to Paris, France, where vampire folklore and legend has been alive for many centuries and historian Jacques Sirgent, author of the French title, Le Livre Des Vampires (The Book of Vampires), can take you on an intellectual journey into the heart of Gothic Romanticism, still undead and well here, against the backdrop of a dark and stormy night in le Musée des Vampires.
Autographed photograph of Bram Stoker in the Vampire Museum
The Vampire Historian
Jacques Sirgent does not like Anne Rice’s vampire. Why? Because the cruelty portrayed in the author’s best-selling series is not, in Sirgent’s opinion, true to the character of a real vampire of folklore and Gothic literature. “You cannot be afraid of a vampire because a vampire gives you a choice. He is not cruel,” Sirgent, historian, author, and founder of le Musée des Vampires told me.
Sirgent has conceptualized a unique and interactive house of vampire lore, history, literature, cinema, and aesthetic in the quiet neighborhood of Mairie des Lilas in Paris. No other museum boasts a vampire collection quite like this and for its curator, it is very important for modern writers and moviemakers to get it right when it comes to a vampire’s character. His sympathy for this particular devil is quite touching and stems from decades devoted to vampire study, where Sirgent has seen cycles of demonizing and misunderstanding of the vampire that shows a very fragile relationship between humans and this mythic creature.
Sirgent believes the vampire has been around for thousands of years in one form or another. Although there are many depictions of vampiristic behaviors and likenesses in folklore prior to his, at first, ill-received story, Stoker’s Dracula birthed the modern iconic vampire. The inspiration for the novel may have come from the vampire hysteria of 18th century Prussia, where in 1721, accounts of vampire attacks were given and the tombs of two men (Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole) were exhumed, but then followed by more and more graves being dug up until calling vampire was quite a popular thing to do. Like most recorded hysterias, the vampire panic might have been a reaction to medical ignorance of some sort of contagion (scholars believe rabies might have been the culprit) or a diversion from economic stressors. Most of the cases documented took place in poor, rural areas. But even in towns, where government officials were giving orders to exhume graves, the social perception was that vampires did, indeed, exist and that the living were not safe from the dead.
How many rituals, religious and otherwise, were born from this phenomenon of fear? The practice of wearing garlic, an herb that we now know to be antimicrobial, might have been one of the rituals inspired by this particular concentration of vampire phobia but one can’t be certain where these traditions began. Beliefs on how a vampire behaves and rules for protection vary by culture, but some elements of vampire lore are fairly universal. Sirgent believes that a vampire only being able to enter a house after being invited is a very old pre-Christian element to vampire mythology.
It is certainly not uncommon in human history to create monsters, either to examine or reject parts of ourselves. What’s so enticing about the vampire is that this monster took on its own modern life — a highly erotic and somewhat controversial life at that — is what makes the vampire so fascinating. After all, “if vampires exist is not interesting,” Sirgent said, “but how we perceive them is what is interesting.”
Inside a mausoleum in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (photograph by Allison Meier)
So the vampire in French history, much like the life of Gothic literature and culture in modern Paris, has had its ups and downs as well, depending on the strength of its opposition. There seems to be a deep, but very secret, belief still alive here in Paris. The French pride themselves on being very rationalistic, and that they are. But underneath, there seems to be a free-flowing and incredibly imaginative life of fear of things that go bump in the night. Sirgent says that the proof lies in Paris’ largest cemetery — Père Lachaise. “Most people here would say they do not believe,” Sirgent said, “but if they don’t believe, then why is there so much evidence of fear?” He means that, if you look closely, certain graves show evidence of superstition not just in the images on and appearance of the graves themselves but also in the traditions of grave-keeping and visitation. Many graves collect charms or flowers en memoriam, but what about a particularly desecrated grave — an angel whose right wing is continuously broken, on top of which one day is planted a garden of very specific apotropaic herbs with a silver spoon staked in the middle, an element of vampire protection in some folklore? Though it cannot be proven, these very subtle rituals continue to present themselves here. And these things are Sirgent’s specialty.
Studying the vampire feverishly since his first year at the University of Geneva in 1974. Sirgent also has the equivalency of an MA in French literature, a BA in Linguistics, a license in “physical embodiment of evil in Gothic literature,” and incredibly deep insights and impressive knowledge of a world one may not realize still exists in the witching hours of Paris cemeteries. And he can very literally take you inside that world, if you desire… (Remember, you have to choose.)
19th century vampire slayer kit in the museum
Like in all arts and vocations, there is a network of people with a collective understanding and like-mindedness that borders on mind-melding in the Gothic and Dark Romantic world of Paris. When “mon mari” (my husband) and I met Jacques Sirgent at the Mairie des Lilas metro station — assured we would recognize him by his all-black attire — he was joined by two charming and also darkly dressed companions, friends from the museum, one a Gothic symphony composer and the other a vampire enthusiast who became quick friends with Sirgent after his first visit to the museum. We walked in our dark entourage of polite conversation through the rain-slicked streets until we reached a small alleyway, where we ducked one by one under a barricade and stopped at a place in the old brick wall with painted marker stating simply: Musée.
Here, Sirgent introduced the gnarled tree above us, a fig tree standing as a sweet and ancient guardian of his private “cemetery” (this is an art installation of sorts, an outdoor corridor that includes real skeleton’s bone, a local artist’s mural, and graves made of old, broken cemetery stones). As Sirgent turned the heavy lock, the door of the museum creaked open, and a deliciously dark and opulent parlor was revealed that delighted the student of literature in me, forever intrigued by the infamous salons of Fin de Siècle Paris. And once inside we did fall into very natural conversation about all the important things — metaphysics, philosophy, and mortality (or immortality).
Elizabeth Bathory collection detail
The salon wall of local contemporary paintings and rare original poster art from cult classic vampire films was dazzling. There were various depictions of Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Countess” of Hungary, whose story is a special area of interest for Sirgent. A signed photograph of Bram Stoker sat on a table, just atop a mummified cat from a 19th century vampire ritual. Shelves upon shelves of rare texts lined one wall. There was even an original artwork by Paris’ notorious “vampire serial killer” Nico Claux, now a best-selling, but extremely notorious, author. From his many research treks through Paris’ legendary Père Lachaise Cemetery, Sirgent has gathered numerous mysterious items — tokens of vampire lore and superstitions that haunt the people of Paris to this day.
Rare demon sculpture and sliver of tree from a cemetery in the museum
There was a neat slice of tree trunk from a majestic old tree growing around an anonymous tomb, being slowly chopped down because of its unnatural swallowing of the grave, as one of many of Sirgent’s Père Lachaise secrets. Sirgent remarked that the city is remiss in not taking better care of this place of reflection and surmises this disregard could be due to the fact that there are things about its own history that it would sooner hide or destroy than remember. So Sirgent collects pieces that have been destroyed and documents evidence of life in the cemetery in journals and photographs and then holds all of this data against the vampire folklore and mythology he knows so well.
Take, for example, the section of the cemetery in which every name on every grave has to do with water. In collective vampire folklore and fiction, water is a weakness for vampires. The names are not common French surnames at all. Could it be there were those who feared the undead so much that they created a protected plot for loved ones? It’s also the area of the cemetery nearest running water. “And this, I think” said Sirgent, “is not a coincidence.”
Bram Stoker’s typewriter in the Vampire Museum
The Golden Book and Cemetery Secrets
After pouring over rare copies of obscure vampire literature like French writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Camilla and examining century-old oddities, I wondered what Sirgent might consider his greatest treasure housed in the museum, so I inquired. Maybe Bram Stoker’s typewriter, displayed beautifully, or the 19th century vampire slayer’s kit, believed to be genuine? Perhaps his perfectly preserved vampire bat? But it happens that the curator, a man very serious in his studies, most prizes “The Golden Book,” a thick, heavy guestbook of museum visitors from all over the world.
Within are heartfelt messages from classes of school kids, celebrities, close friends, Bishops, practicing witches, travelers, seekers, Dark Romantics, Goths, and curious passers-by alike. What is most inspirational about this space is its ability to bring about warm, engaging conversation within its walls over a topic and a creature that most might consider cold or frightening.
A bat in Père Lachaise
The next day, Sirgent offered a complimentary vampire-specific tour of his beloved Père Lachaise Cemetery. Knowing direct, but obscure, paths through the maze of more popular gravesites, Sirgent could lead one blindfolded to sections of the cemetery less traveled, yet more mysterious for their nearly forgotten tales. Along the way, he drew tourist attention with his charm and wealth of knowledge. He offered up possible signs of present-day cemetery rituals one would not be able to spot without being incredibly well-versed in the occult. And for the Dracula lover, Sirgent could take you through a constellation of the “Fourteen Bats of Père Lachaise Cemetery” that are hidden in stone and iron gates, and put you directly in front of the grave he believes the original Dracula was transported to a long time ago.
Jacques Sirgent leading the Père Lachaise Vampire Tour
Sirgent’s published translation of Dracula to French has given him layers upon layers of insight into the imagery and more cryptic themes. For Gothic aesthetic enthusiasts, Sirgent can show you the four most beautiful stained glass windows in the cemetery yet to be smashed or damaged, the only likeness of a Griffin present in gravestone carving, and the legendary grave of the cousin of Elizabeth Bathory, a countess who requested a living man be buried with her for one year when she died and whose grave is covered in dark images that possibly spell out a deadly message concerning revenge for her family.
Though Sirgent does not believe in vampires (that’s right, the vampire specialist does not believe in vampires), he feels it is important to understand the human relationship with the mythic creature — the psychology of it. Sirgent maintains there are still people who believe in vampires, so much so that they continue very old traditions and rituals here. And he alone, so it seems, documents these things as thoroughly as any anthropologist.
The public tours he gives and the very reasonably priced museum experiences he curates are only a part of his life’s work. Sirgent does group therapy sessions with children who struggle with nightmares. He leads classes of kids on his magical cemetery tours. He, with his network of Dark Romantic artists and professors, hopes to extend the invitation to travelers in all-inclusive Esoteric Paris tour packages in the near future, unique and personalized to the open-minded individual. “You can take the tours they’ve been giving here for years and learn about the lives of big people. But I can show you the life of the cemetery,” he explained.
Jacques Sirgent in Père Lachaise
Rare Texts & Lost Tombs
The vampires of today, like characters from the Twilight series or The Vampire Diaries, seem to have very little to do with that of romantic Gothic literature, such as Sirgent’s most loved French vampire portrayal, the rarely published Isobel the Undead, also known as Isobel the Resurrected, written by the wife of French occultist Eliphas Levi (pseudonym of “Claude Vignon,” himself buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery).
At the end of our tour, Sirgent bestowed a souvenir — a piece from the same mystical cemetery tree he commemorates in his museum. This totem kindly reminds that there are still places in the world, perhaps down its darkest alleyways, where the fantastic and the real come together harmoniously in a place of shared perspective. The dichotomy of Paris’ identity — the shrewd intellect with that dark river of imagination and romanticism beneath — is quite evident to me now. When we returned to our flat, which we’d rented from a very sweet but no-nonsense young Frenchwoman, I notice a copy of the French translation of Dracula on her bookshelf. And this, I think, is not a coincidence.
Bat in Père Lachaise (photograph by Allison Meier)
LE MUSEE DES VAMPIRES, Paris, France
PERE LACHAISE CEMETERY, Paris, France