When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

23 Weird Laws You Might Have Broken

Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you've ever played a game of bingo in North Carolina, you may have been a party to a crime without even knowing it. And if you've ever eavesdropped on a neighbor in Oklahoma and shared any of that juicy gossip, you might just want to go ahead and turn yourself into the police.

From coast to coast, America is full of bizarre laws that you've probably broken at one time or another. Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she digs into the history of 23 of the strangest of them—like why you can't eat fried chicken with a knife and fork in Gainesville, Georgia. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

When “Weird Al” Yankovic Asked Kurt Cobain for Permission to Parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images
Erik Voake/Stringer/Getty Images

"Weird Al" Yankovic has gotten plenty of rejections throughout his career. Prince, Jimmy Page, and Paul McCartney have all denied the musical comedian the right to turn one of their hit songs into an irreverent parody. Even so, Weird Al was hesitant to ask for Kurt Cobain's permission to skewer the Nirvana chart-topper "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the early 1990s.

“I was very nervous, and I didn’t know how he would take my requesting the parody," Yankovic told Loudwire in 2014. The phone call would have been especially nerve-wracking because he wasn't planning to write a spoof that was divorced from the original artist, as was the case with previous hits like "Eat It" and "Like a Surgeon." His parody "Smells Like Nirvana" was going to make fun of the fact that no one could understand Cobain's incoherent singing.

But, as Yankovic recounted decades later, he had no reason to worry. "I explained it’s about how nobody could understand his lyrics. There was probably half a beat on the phone, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sounds like a funny idea.’”

Cobain would have been sympathetic to Yankovic's sense of humor. The Nirvana frontman had a reputation for being a serial prankster, pulling stunts like taping an upside down cross onto the drive-through window of his favorite fried chicken place. Other stories tied to the band's antics involved lighting tour bus curtains on fire, giving out a friend's phone numbers in a live interview, and inviting the audience on stage to escape security.

"Smells Like Nirvana" debuted in 1992 and it was an instant success. It topped the Billboard charts and earned a platinum record, and Yankovic credited the track for revitalizing his career after a brief slump. You can watch Weird Al channeling Cobain in the music video below.

[h/t Loudwire]

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