In the quiet Parisian suburb of Les Lilas, down an anonymous side street, is a scarlet door. I knock on it three times; no one answers. I wander around the corner to look for another entrance. Beyond a wrought iron padlocked gate is a thickly overgrown garden; beyond that, a frosted window dimly illuminated by a flickering light. A wonky sign saying ‘Musée’ is stuffed between the foliage and the bars of the gate. This is definitely the place - Paris' Vampire Museum.
I raise my hand to knock again when the door swings open. Standing before me is what appears to be a completely unremarkable man: in mid-middle age, on the short side, with thick glasses and clipped dark hair. This is Jacques Sirgent, France’s pre-eminent vampirologist and the proprietor of what he claims is the world’s only vampire museum. Long black leather jacket aside, you’d never guess.
Jacques greets me cheerfully and leads me through the small, neglected garden into his museum: a gloomy room stuffed from floor to ceiling with decades’ worth of accumulated vampiric and demonological curios. It immediately strikes me as a strange combination of the kitsch and the genuinely creepy. Rubber werewolf masks and plastic skulls jostle for space on a dusty bookshelf with a vampire bat, stuffed and encased in glass. One wall is pasted with Dracula film posters and signed photos of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and other actors to have portrayed the world’s most famous vampire. As I’m scanning them, my eye is drawn to something else: the mummified remains of a cat, spray-painted gold.
“I specialise in the physical embodiment of evil in Gothic literature, and the devil in European literature,” Jacques tells me. “I was raised in a harsh Irish Catholic school in Canada, and I discovered very young that vampires can be nicer than Christians.”
Jacques’ expertise in the worlds of folklore and mythology have seen him give talks in universities all over the world, but his interest is not merely academic. Jacques is on a mission to give vampires a PR makeover.
“The first nasty vampire is Dracula,” Jacques says. “Dracula feeds his vampire wives babies.” Nasty indeed – but the story goes back a long way before Bram Stoker’s 1897 creation crystallised the modern archetype of the suave, villainous vampire. Stories of undead bloodsucking creatures go back thousands of years, and crop up in most cultures across the world. Often, they have been feared, demonised and despised – but Jacques prefers to see things differently.
“Vampires are the nicest creatures ever,” he says. “The vampire gives you his immortality – and most people died aged around 50 until the 18th century. Everything pertaining to the vampire is beautiful. Vampires can’t force your door open; they cast no shadow.” At this point, to my shame, I catch myself scanning the wall over his shoulder, hoping to count no fewer than two humanoid silhouettes. It’s too gloomy to make anything out.
“The vampire is the only creature where, by taking your blood, he gives you life and not death. He is the only one! Let’s be positive for once.”
Jacques believes that the modern world has lost connection with folklore, and is suffering as a result. “Legends are love and friendship and respect stories. Little peasant girls in legends marry princes because everybody’s entitled to happiness in a legend. And that’s subversive, because we’re not taught that we’re here to be happy.”
He thinks a shake-up of the school curriculum is in order. “Battles, treaties – who cares? If you tell them about how people lived, how they loved, how children got together in the evening and talked about witches around the fireside, they’ll love it. [Schools] are not here to make kids happy; they’re here to make slaves.”
Tourist boards are missing a trick too, he thinks. “I hate whisky, but I love the way they sell it. All moors and castles… I could get drunk just off that image. Scotland knows how to sell its whisky, but not its legends. It’s as if they think it gives a primitive image of people. ‘Superstition is for peasants – we’re modern.’”
I look around the room. The rusting jaws of a 19th-century Serbian wolf trap yawn menacingly on a wooden dresser. Disembodied plastic hands lie limply on a red velvet chair. Ancient demonological texts, stacked precariously on tabletops, look like they could crumble to dust with the slightest touch. Jacques points one of them out. “I paid €4; it’s worth €4,000,” he says. “I buy all my books at the Montreuil flea market. They don’t know the value of what they’re selling.”
Jacques picks up a cross-section of a gnarled tree trunk, which he claims is imbued with healing powers. In the middle, at his urging, I can make out a vague likeness of a woman’s profile, wearing a Puritan-style coif. If I’m honest, it’s all a bit Jesus-in-a-slice-of-toast. “They cut this tree down five years ago. It was an awesome tree that had grown over a tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery,” he explains. “I had two Sioux tribesmen come to visit me – two witchdoctors. One of them had a bad leg; he couldn’t walk. I gave him a piece of the bark of the tree, and said ‘Let’s go have a coffee.’ One hour later, the pain disappeared. So this tree does have something.”
Père Lachaise – resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and countless other luminaries – is one of Jacques’ favourite haunts, and the venue for many of his guided walks on the esoteric history of Paris. “I spend all week in the Père Lachaise. Yesterday I did the witch craze – the first and last witch burned in France were burned in Paris. Tonight I’m doing Satan and the cult of the devil in Romantic literature from the 19th century.”
How to explain Paris’ connection with the mysterious and the macabre? Maybe, Jacques suggests, it’s indicative of something in the French character – particularly when it comes to vampires. “French is the only language where ‘I am bitten’ means ‘I am in love’. What’s the strongest verb in English when you don’t like something? Hate? Detest? Loathe? In France when you don’t like someone you simply say ‘I will never bite you.’ Deep inside, we are very romantic people.”