Interview with a vampire

by Alison Benney

Printed in Irish Eyes, November 2005

Apprehensively following in his shadow after meeting at the Porte des Lilas, turning the corners and stepping through the twilight streets of this obscure village on the borders of Paris, we arrive at a dark alley and he points a finger to where a tree droops its branches over the crumbling wall. "That's the museum," he said darkly. "The house has been in the family for over 100 years."

Alas, the creator of the Musées des vampires (Vampire Museum), Jacques Sirgent, is neither as mysterious nor as ominous as may justifiably be expected. He has an irresistible grin and an enthusiasm for and expertise in his subject, and when he inaugurated the museum in April, the Irish ambassador at the time did the honors.

What exactly constitutes a vampire museum? Well, as no one has managed to catch one and validate their existence, it is not likely that the visitor will find, for instance, authentic vampire teeth, Count Dracula's coffin, or a fading portrait of the lovely vampire Carmilla as described by the Hibernian horror writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu. In fact, there are none of the typical vampiric icons, no garlands of garlic, or dirt tainted with the Black Death that make up a vampire's bedding, not even a rat or spider from the Nosferatu ghost ship.

There is a suitably ancient mirror, however, in which Sirgent's reflection did appear, as well as a dragon in the garden (referring to the origins of the name Dracula), a skull grinning from the bookshelf, and a bust of a modern vampire; pinned to the wall is a signed document by Vincent Price, with scores of vampire posters papering the walls. Indeed, Sirgent's pride possessions are his more than 420 vampire movies (out of 7,000 films he owns) and a mouth-watering collection of rare and ancient books on the occult. He also displays the same model typewriter that the Irish author Bram Stoker used to type up his seminal novel, Dracula.

The public is invited to reserve time for a 2-hour guided tour, to take part in a Sunday brunch, or attend a movie screening. I visited just before a special birthday dinner, and Sirgent offered me the choice between a vampire kir or a Bathory cocktail with tequila. And then in true Irish fashion - although he is actually half-Canadian and half-French - he pitched into his storytelling. He explained that this is a living museum, and as such advises against bringing young children because frankly they just won't get it.

For instance, in one of the more pertinent bits of vampire lore we discussed, he talked about blood as the source of life, and the not too distant belief in Argentina that mixing human blood into baby's milk made it more nutritional. As for him, "drinking blood? Yes, I've tried it," he said. "If I do something, I do it all the way." He described how he was told that Vlad the Impaler, the supposed inspiration for Stoker's Dracula, was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, and described his bloodcurdling adventures staking out the tomb.

On the other hand, he said, "I love vampire stories, but I don't understand people who tell me they love vampires. Some women dream of being swept away by vampires, and I say, 'doesn't it bother you that he takes, he doesn't seduce?' There's no love with vampires. Even Christopher Lee, probably the sexiest vampire in cinema - he never kisses, he always hypnotises." And Sirgent advises readers to watch out for vampires who spell it as "vampyre", because "they're the mean ones."

In other words, we didn't just talk about the literature, although there was plenty of that, from Baudelaire's "Les métamorphoses du vampire" to de la Mare's "The Listeners". Linguist and English prof, Sirgent can delve into the philosophy and symbology of vampires as well. But do vampires really exist? That is, does he think they really exist? Absolutely, he said. "I worked for 25 years in the human resource departments of big corporations, and I can tell you that monsters who prey on the innocent, who destroy lives and suck the lifeblood out of the weak, yes, they still exist."

Musée des Vampires, 14 rue Jules David, tél: 01.43.62.80.76, see: www.musee-des-vampires.com/.