My first full day in San Marino’s Old Town back in June 2015, was like the start of a classic Hammer Horror movie: a (not so) young lady finds herself lost in an unfamiliar place. She desperately wants to get out of the rain and runs to the front door of a strange looking house where a mysterious old man invites her in. The door shuts behind her and it is then she realises the dreadful truth: she is all alone, in a house full of vampires!
I was indeed alone with a coven of vampires, albeit mannequins dressed up to look like them, because I was standing in the middle of San Marino’s Museum of Vampires. The weather was awful that morning and the “mysterious old man” who sold me my entrance ticket was mysterious in as far as it was a mystery why he chose to wear such a garish looking tie that morning. I have to say, most of the displays inside the museum were actually “dreadful”, but overall the experience was rather educational.
There were no vampire movie posters, no vampire memorabilia and hardly any related artefacts on display anywhere in the museum. The greatest disappointment of all was that there wasn’t even a commemorative photograph of Christopher Lee on display considering he had died only a few days earlier to my visit. It was just a windowless, sulphur-scented room full of humanoid mannequins covered in dribbles of red paint and put in poses that were presumably meant to appear frightening, but left me in a fit of giggles due to how ludicrous they actually looked.
Without being too harsh, the museum wasn’t a complete waste of time and money. The collection of real life vampire stories and legends detailed in the museum booklet was really interesting. The mannequins may have been laughable, but the stories and personalities they represented were absolutely fascinating.
Someone who was accused of being a real life vampire in the seventeenth century was Erzsébet Bathory, a sadistic and depraved countess who is considered to be the most famous Hungarian serial killer to this day. Left alone by her military husband for months at a time in Castle Cséjthe – north-east of what is now Bratislava, Slovakia – Erzsébet would often appease her boredom by torturing her servants.
According to legend – and the museum booklet – the blood of one of Erzsébet’s young servants once splashed on her arm and her hand suddenly appeared to look younger and tauter. Convinced this was the secret to eternal youth, Erzsébet embarked on a murder spree, collecting the blood of her young victims to bathe in and drink. Rumours started to spread in the surrounding towns and villages that Erzsébet was a real life vampire and in December 1610 she was arrested whilst sitting in a bath of blood.
Although the evidence against her was overwhelming with the discovery of at least fifty bodies within the castle and several girls imprisoned in the dungeon awaiting their fate, Erzsébet was surprisingly not sentenced to death. She was however, sentenced to immurement: the windows and doors of her castle bedroom were bricked up with her inside it. Only a small slit in one of the walls remained to pass her food, and it was four years before Erzsébet finally died in that room.
I grew up and still live only a few miles away from Highgate Village in North London, famous for its cemetery where several famous figures are buried, notably Karl Marx, George Eliott and (ahem) Jeremy Beadle. In all my years I had never heard of the “Highgate Vampire” until my visit to the Museum of Vampires. He was a blood-thirsty criminal who roamed around Highgate in the 1960s attacking locals before apparently disappearing through the walls of the cemetery. Although no one was ever caught for the attacks and there was no proof of any super-natural activity other than the remains of a black magic ritual in the cemetery grounds, self-proclaimed vampire hunters say they exorcised the vampire from the area. No further sightings or similar incidents have been recorded there since 1969.
It was not surprising that the museum booklet was more like a library volume due to the many paragraphs dedicated to the gory details of each legend included. It was also not surprising that the booklet was full of those gory details because after a visit to another museum in the Old Town – the Museum of Torture – I was convinced that San Marino has a rather insatiable appetite for the cruel, bloody and gruesome.
There is a seating area – of sorts – on the lower ground floor of the museum.
I can’t help but admit how fascinated and curious I am of the darker side of human nature, how sadistic and cruel we have been in the past and how entertaining we found inflicting pain on others to be. The pieces on display here at the Museum of Torture hopefully illustrates how we once were and how most of us at least find these tactics and tools unacceptable today.
The curators of this museum added a great deal of explanation in their literature on how each tool and artefact was used in the art of torture. As with the Museum of Vampires’s booklet, the slightly excessive detail and focus on the gruesome and the inflictions caused by their collection seemed a little too enthusiastic… but then this is San Marino, a country that seems happy to obsess on the darker things in life.
Neither the Museum of Vampires nor the Museum of Torture have dedicated websites to date (2016). Both museums are easily found within the Old Town. The Museum of Vampires is along Contr. dei Magazzeni on the way up to Rocca Maggiore, and the Museum of Torture is right next to Saint Francis’s Gate. Both museums are open daily until around 7pm depending on the time of year, and tickets cost around €5-€8 each (2016). Both are especially worth visiting when the weather on top of Mount Titano is just too bad for sightseeing elsewhere on the Mount.
A mysterious train line, an obsession with the female form and an even greater obsession with replica guns. A different side to San Marino
The other Statue of Liberty, festive guard uniforms, two famous clifftops towers and the third one hardly anyone knows about. Trying to capture the perfect picture postcard shot of San Marino
Finding pleasure inside Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments