Documentary traces R.I. roots of the vampire motif

Documentary traces R.I. roots of the vampire motif

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — A 200-year-old vampire legend based in Exeter rises from the dead this weekend with four screenings of a new documentary, “The Tillinghast Nightmare.”

The gruesome tale of a father who dug up his daughter’s body, cutting out and burning her heart to save the lives of his remaining children, may have been the first case of vampire exorcism in New England. What’s more, the myth of Sarah Tillinghast and subsequent reports about a similar incident 100 years later in the same town are believed to have influenced Bram Stoker in writing “Dracula” in the late 1800s.

Film director and Westerly native Alec Asten said records show that Stoker read a New York World article about the exhumation of Mercy Brown in Exeter 100 years after the Tillinghast story while in the middle of writing his famous Gothic horror novel, which was published in 1897.

Asten and his Mystic-based filmmaking company, Historical Haunts, explore the facts behind the legend and its influence in New England folklore through the documentary.

Asten first learned about the Tillinghast story while reading “Vampire Legends of Rhode Island,” a 1997 book by Christopher Rondina. Even then, he said, the story stood out to him for a potential project.

“I thought it was so cinematic,” he said. “I’ve always had my eyes on it.”

Rondina is one of several local folklore historians interviewed in the film, as well as Michael Bell, author of “Food for the Dead.” As these folklore and vampire legend experts reveal, records and archives indicate that exhumation at one time played a role in the treatment of what were likely to have been communicable diseases. After Sarah Tillinghast became ill and died, four more of the Tillinghast children are said to have also become sick and passed away. Believing that Sarah was coming back to take the lives of her siblings, her father dug up her body and removed and burned her heart, creating a tea with the ashes that he gave to his remaining children to “cure” them.

Although the use of oral tradition to pass on stories may have led to some embellishment, Asten said that written documentation on similar cases in the area reasonably suggests that they actually happened.

“Up until the late 1800s, people had no knowledge of what germs were or where illness came from,” said Judith Nutkis, the movie’s co-executive producer.

Regardless, Asten said his goal is to share a larger picture of 18th century culture with the audience.

“We use the macabre to get an audience of all ages interested in history, science and literature,” he said. “The stories are meant to inspire and to teach. We have a lot to learn from history.”

Asten added that he would be happy if every person in the audience learned at least one new thing from the documentary.

In keeping with this goal, Historical Haunts also plans to produce a narrative film about the Tillinghast legend, and Nutkis said she is working with two teachers at Rogers High School in Newport to create two lesson plans. These would explore the social networks and oral traditions of 1799 in Rhode Island, and the history of medicine.

As for the vampire element, said Nutkis, “We’re using that hook as an entry point. Something macabre like that helps people remember the stories better.”

Each documentary screening will first feature a presentation by Dacre Stoker, the great-grand nephew of Bram Stoker and co-author of a nonfiction sequel to “Dracula” based on Bram’s recovered notes and unpublished journal. From the 125 pages of Stoker’s notes about “Dracula” that have been found, Dacre affirmed in an interview that Bram did in fact read an article published in the New York World about Mercy Brown and the practice of unburying the dead to remedy curses. While Dacre said that Bram was already about three-quarters done with writing his novel, the article served to solidify the truth about the culture and beliefs of the time.

Dacre’s presentation, “Stoker on Stoker,” will explore the influence of Bram’s own life, as well as Victorian culture, on his book.

“Dracula was sort of Bram Stoker’s perfect storm,” said Dacre, who lives in South Carolina. “It’s the point where the research, his working life, his personal life all come together.”

Dacre’s research indicates that several personal events and character traits directly influenced Bram’s published story. For example, records show that Bram experienced some sort of sickness for the first seven years of his life, which Dacre believes may have been asthma and respiratory allergies. Dacre said the condition made Bram form certain thoughts about mortality from a very early age, and gave him some personal trauma to draw on for his writing.

Furthermore, stories from his mother about an outbreak of cholera in Ireland while she was growing up may have had a part in Bram’s creation of a creature that rises from the dead. During the cholera outbreak, many misdiagnoses caused live people who were thought to be dead to be put into mass graves. And sometimes they would try to crawl out from those graves.

While Dacre said Bram’s work is fictional and that he did not believe in vampires, stories like these gave a very realistic element to his work.

“Bram took an idea that existed in myths and legends from all over the world and applied it to Dracula,” he said. “In doing so, he wrote a story that happened in real time, with real places, names and dialect.”

Both Asten and Dacre agreed that the role of vampires as a cultural phenomenon is significant.

“Bram Stoker invented the nostalgic, aristocratic vampire,” said Asten. “He set the tone for all of these subsequent vampire stories. The change of the vampire motif through time has been a reflection of society.”

Neither Asten nor Dacre confessed to being true vampire-lovers, despite their rise in recent pop culture through the “Twilight” book and film series and HBO’s “True Blood.”

“The Tillinghast Nightmare” and “Stoker on Stoker” debut on Sunday at the Garde Arts Center in New London at 7 p.m. Subsequent screening locations, also at 7 p.m., are as follows: Oct. 28 at the Columbus Theater in Providence; Oct. 29 at the Jane Picken’s Theater & Event Center in Newport; and Oct. 30 at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased in advance for any location by visiting


Latest Videos