Like most people who find themselves wrestling with vampires—Jonathan Harker, Robert Neville, Buffy—Eric Nuzum was leading a perfectly normal life until the monsters came along. He was an audiophile and pop culture journalist with an expertise in how the state and cultural watchdogs try and trammel creativity. In 2001 he published Public Advisory: Music Censorship in America, a civil libertarian's history of musical nannyism from the Beatles' "butcher baby" cover to the Gore family's war on the heavy metal band W.A.S.P. Nuzum's next project was going to be a history of the American burlesque show.
But vampires got in the way. As Nuzum crunched Count Chocula one morning in his Washington, D.C. home, he flipped on his TV and caught President Bush warning against the soft fascism of plugging in too many appliances and becoming an "energy vampire." Flipping through a magazine, Nuzum saw a model with fangs and a cape enticing him to buy some vodka and "drink in the night." He had his project. "If the vampire is ubiquitous," he wondered, "how did this happen? Why did this happen? I wanted insight."
The result was The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. Nuzum encountered neither of those fiends, but his reporting ping-ponged him around the Western world, to a vampire bar tour in San Francisco, to a fetish night in New York, to Bram "Dracula" Stoker's old stomping grounds in the English town of Whitby. He accompanied sickly vegetarians and Munsters star Butch Patrick on a fact-challenged tour of Vlad the Impaler's Transylvania. He Netflixed more than 200 vampire movies, hating most of them. (Nuzum argues that the John Malkovich-Willem Defoe thesp-fest Shadow of the Vampire is the best the genre has to offer, and that 1994's Interview with the Vampire was the last to impact the culture in a real way.)
Two years and 240 pages later, what did Nuzum learn about the secret world of the vampyr? It was both weirder and less shocking than you'd imagine. The vampire myth itself is ancient, indelible, and didn't come out of Transylvania. Most civilizations actually have a fantasy creature who sucks blood, and Christendom's version started with Greek churches telling parisheners that their dead relatives would rise up and start drinking the red stuff if they misbehaved. And followers of that myth, the people who call themselves vampires, are generally sort of nice. Some are reclusive, some are younger than they say they are in chat rooms, and none of them will prove to a journalist that they actually drink blood. (Nuzum drank some of his own and got very sick.)
"All of the vampire folks I met," Nuzum writes, "are all at least marginally aware of the darkness in their own lives. The only difference between them and us is that they've styled their physical world to match their inner one."
reason spoke with Nuzum in a bar not far from his NPR office in Washington, D.C.
reason: This seems like a strange follow-up to your first book. What's the connectivity between music censorship and vampires?
Eric Nuzum: There's much more than you'd think, if you buy into my central premise. Vampires are the perfect metaphor. You use them to express things you fear, things you find exciting. Music plays the same role in some people's lives. When you look at some of the issues around music censorship, you're controlling what someone can and can't listen to, or what they can and can't say.
reason: And you write about some of the frenzy from parents who think vampire mythos are turning their kids weird.
Nuzum: It's the same situation that comes up with music—people will say "Ozzy Osbourne is responsible for my kid shooting his head off," or overdosing, or killing himself. Ozzy must be the problem! But the reality's that Ozzy is a symptom, not a cause. People who are of extreme emotions, who hold extreme views of the world, pick extreme music to represent that. I write in the book about "Vampire: The Masquerade," this full-on role-playing game that has been blamed for driving kids to violence. Well, no. That game did not turn otherwise good kids into bad kids. It was just another example of many things that were wrong with their lives.
reason: It doesn't change their behavior?
Nuzum: No. That argument is just like how Marilyn Manson is responsible for Columbine. It's silly. If you look back to Tipper Gore and the PMRC, everybody remembers three of their four areas of concern. They remember drugs, they remember violence, and they remember extreme sexuality. And there was a fourth category—the occult. Nobody remembers that, but at the time it was a commonly held belief that musicians were devil worshippers. If we look back now it seems unbelievably silly. So we've decided that one of those pillars was complete nonsense. What's that mean? Probably that all of those pillars were nonsense.
reason: You visited a fetish club called the Court of Lazarus, this darkly lit place that serves blood-colored cocktails, where people watch murder simulated onstage. Is their obsession is making those people more dangerous?
Nuzum: If it wasn't vampires it would be something else. They'd be running around in diapers whipping each other with a cat o' nine tails. Nefarious Wrath, the main guy in Court of Lazarus, kept saying over and over to me that "this is an archetype for us." And I totally believe that. Many of people who I spoke with really couldn't answer deep questions about why they liked to play this way. They'd say: I look at this, and it makes sense to me.
reason: But as you point out, there are surges in the amount of vampire literature or films when people are worried about disease. The last big spike was during the height of the American AIDS scare. Why would people choose this as their fantasy?