It’s become a tired cliché, but since I was a teenager I’ve been intrigued by the figure of the vampire. The trope has been overdone in film and television to the point where it seems impossible to make an original vampire tale (though Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive is a brilliant exception). Yet when I started reading Anne Rice’s dark and decadent trilogy The Vampire Chronicles, I developed a passionate obsession. In typical adolescent fashion, I was seduced by the dangerous, brooding creatures and the dark forces that animated them beyond the grave.
These figures had begun their existence as humans, but had morphed into something impossible, incomprehensible and morbidly magical. The books included a host of characters my teenage self was drawn to: the angst-ridden Louis, the flamboyant Lestat, the tragic Claudia and the ethereal Armand. They grappled with some of the deepest, most perplexing binaries imaginable: life and death, good and evil, strength and surrender, humanity and monstrosity. But what I loved most about Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned was their evocation of beautiful, dark and mysterious settings.
The crumbling plantations outside New Orleans, the scorched lands of Ancient Egypt, the perilous wilderness of Medieval France, the whimsical beauty of San Francisco at night… these locations were vastly different from one another, but all felt perfectly suited to the protagonists of Rice’s novels. But no setting was more engrossing and fantastical than the Théâtre des Vampires. According to The Vampire Chronicles, in nineteenth-century Paris, the Théâtre des Vampires was where vampires would play at being humans… impersonating vampires. Believing themselves to be watching a horror play, human audiences would flock to the theatre to see vampires consume a human being onstage, not knowing the murder to be far from fictional.
In the halls of a Belle Epoque structure, tucked away in a passage couvert of the second arrondissement, the Théâtre des Vampires encapsulated everything that makes vampires so addictive and horrifying. Playing with humanoid surfaces and monstrous interiors, duping and manipulating with flair, the vampires of Théâtre des Vampires were experts at appearing human while being far from it.
The Théâtre des Vampires does not exist. But nestled down a shadowy, mosaic-tiled, nineteenth-century passage couvert, in the very same Grands Boulevards area, behind red velvet curtains and through gilt doors, lies a museum that captures its essence. Paris’ wax museum, le Musée Grévin, is not dedicated to vampires, and there are certainly no displays of murderous rituals. Instead, the museum is home to a collection of impossibly realistic figures, sculptural artworks rendered in wax. But as the leering wax figure peeking through the red curtains that greets visitors at the entrance reveals, the Grévin shares some of the darkness, deathliness and debauchery of Rice’s imagined Undead theatre. The Grévin and Théâtre des Vampires are not one and the same (the celebrities being one key difference). But each plays deftly with the uncanny experience of gazing upon a human-like figure that is, in fact, not human at all.