It was a dark and stormy night – or, at least, I had hoped it would be. The quaint and sleepy residential streets appeared an unseemly location for some of the most terrifying creatures imaginable to reside, until I arrived at a rusted cast iron gate overrun with foliage that also claimed every inch of garden and most of the building behind. A small, crooked sign reading “Musée” pointed cryptically with a wonky arrow to the end of the street. This was it.
The entrance to the Musée des Vampires et Monstres de l’Imaginaire is down an unnerving unlit back passage among private garages, which is where its founder, writer, historian and self-styled “vampirologue”, was awaiting me by torchlight.
As he fiddled with the keys to the lock, he told me, in a hushed voice, “my neighbour hates me: he’s scared of vampires. He’s the only person in town with metal bars on his windows because he thinks it’ll keep them out” – at this, he gestured with his torch to reveal the prison-like window mods on the house next door – “I told him it won’t”. This was Jacques Sirgent, and he was here to dispel myths about vampires.
The museum is situated in an artist’s atelier, which was constructed illegally in the family’s back garden by Jacques’ grandfather, a notable sculptor. For the past twenty years, however, it has housed stacks of leather-bound tomes, framed vampiric paintings and assorted blood-curdling curios. It is a hoarder’s paradise – provided that the hoarder has a penchant for the occult.
After a few minutes of being left to rifle through the bits and bobs – a severed hand here, a wooden stake there – I was ushered to take a seat and it dawned on me for the second time that evening that this was it. How could a tour of this single room possibly take the allotted two hours? That’s when Jacques began his supernatural spell.
It became immediately apparent that what I had come to was a one-man theatre production masquerading as a museum. Jacques’ performance was well-rehearsed, recounting personal anecdotes of coincidences beyond coincidence, occasionally brandishing a tatty book to read a quote, or pointing to works on the walls to illustrate a story.
Jacques’ conviction was captivating, especially when talking about the mummified cat he’d found in a cemetery that he claimed had been placed there to ward off evil spirits, or how children are more attuned to the supernatural world “because they have more time to observe [it]”. Many of his explanations were tenuous, but he energetically deflected all scepticism with complex rhetorical questions whose logic could rival an M.C. Escher print.
If any one thing stood out as more surprising than the rest, it was the romantic nature of the evening. Throughout his long career as a writer and translator of vampire literature, Jacques has drawn a number of conclusions about how the creatures can represent forbidden human desires, as well as loneliness. After all, as he put it, “what is a kiss? It is a bite without teeth.” The theme was so embedded in the discourse that this tour comes in just as recommended as an alternative Valentine’s date destination as a Halloween hang-out.
Did I mention you’re meant to wear one of the host’s top hats during your visit? Because that’s a thing:
Does he actually believe in vampires, though? Apparently not. But Jacques does believe that by studying mythical creations of the human imagination, we can learn a lot about human nature. It is an admittedly unusual approach to anthropology, but you can’t deny that the way Jacques chooses to share his passion is, as the website describes it, “unique in the world”.
The Musée des Vampires et Monstres de l’Imaginaire is open from 10am until midnight, seven days a week, by appointment only. Métro porte or mairie des Lilas. Tours are available in English and French.