A Night of 'Dracula' and the Farmer's Daughter
Just in time to give you Halloween goose bumps and raise the hair on the back of your neck, a Rhode Island vampire tale that deeply influenced the man responsible for conjuring literature’s most famous bloodsucker is coming to Newport.
The Jane Pickens Theater, in association with Historic Haunts, will present “The Tillinghast Nightmare,” a documentary that explores the folklore of vampire exorcism in New England, and in particular, the little-known story of an 18th-century Exeter farmer with a very bad case of the heebie jeebies.
How bad, you ask?
In the interest of a spoiler alert, let’s just say that the eponymous nightmare suffered by Stutely Tillinghast drove the troubled farmer to exhume his daughter’s corpse and barbecue her tell-tale heart.
Made possible in part by grants from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, “The Tillinghast Nightmare” was directed by Westerly’s Alec Asten and filmed at various locations in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Historic Haunts produces films based on American folklore that interweave supernatural elements with actual history to create "edutainment" events targeted at audiences that enjoy a good scare. Historic Haunts is based in Old Mystic, Conn. Along with vampires, Asten’s documentary also examines the limitations of colonial medicine.
According to legend, Stutely Tillinghast, a prominent farmer, was disturbed by a dream that his orchard was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, his beloved daughter Sarah became ill and died, likely from tuberculosis, historians conjecture. One by one, a number of his children also became ill and followed Sarah to the grave. To save the lives of remaining family members, Tillinghast dug up the body of Sarah — believing her to be a vampire — and cut out her heart and burned it.
“The Tillinghast Nightmare” also explores the gradual evolution of vampire mythology from stories concerning people afflicted with wasting disease to the figure of “Dracula,” the aristocratic count created by novelist Bram Stoker. Concerning the latter, the evening’s entertainment will also feature a special presentation by Dacre Stoker, the author’s greatgrandnephew. Stoker will share rarely seen historical images that provided much of the writer’s underlying source material and inspired the themes of “Dracula.” Among Bram’s possessions was an 1896 newspaper clipping referencing... wait for it. Vampires in Rhode Island.
Dacre’s work includes the 2009 best-selling novel, "Dracula the Un- Dead," a Stoker family-endorsed sequel to "Dracula," and "Bram Stoker’s Lost Journal," a nonfiction book he co-wrote with Dr. Elizabeth
Miller, based on Bram Stoker’s unpublished journal.
“What’s interesting about vampires is how our conception of them has continuously evolved over time,” stated Asten. “Originally, vampires were zombies. They weren’t handsome. Then Stoker created a character who is a person of power and who possesses wealth. Fast forward to Anne Rice, and now vampires are glamorous and sympathetic. However, they have always reflected society’s preoccupation with youth and beauty.”
According to director Asten, there were more than 80 exhumations that occurred across New England towns beginning in the late 1700s through the early 1800s, as colonial physicians struggled to find the cause of the contagion that would later be identified as pulmonary tuberculosis infection. The fact that tuberculosis sufferers often exhibited a fierce will to live, but because of illness were fed at the hand of living relatives, many of whom also succumbed to the disease, formed the basis of the New England vampire belief.
Christopher Rondina, the author of “Vampires of New England,” was born and raised in Newport and appears in the documentary. Rondina is an expert on things that go bump in the night.
“The story of Tillinghast is one of the oldest pieces of vampire folklore in American history,” Rondina told Newport This Week. “But it’s a tale that is surprisingly unknown to most people.”
Asked to explain our culture’s continuing fascination with vampire lore, Rondina stated, “It’s the seduction of immortality, of achieving life beyond death by any method. It’s also very frequent that when we hear of a vampire bite — a kiss penetrating flesh— that there is seductive connotation.”
Asten read Rondina’s book approximately fifteen years ago and found the story haunting. Eventually, he also recognized an opportunity to blend history education with good storytelling and began production on the documentary about year and a half ago. Rogers
High School teachers Coleen Hermes, Newport Public Schools 2013 District Teacher of the Year, and Steve Ferris created lesson plans on the social network of 1799, and on the history of colonial medicine, respectively, which are themes explored in the film.
“The Tillinghast Nightmare” and Dacre Stoker presentation at the Pickens Theater is a one-night only event. Attendees are encouraged to wear garlic around their necks. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.