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?
Nuzum: Because it's taboo. The ability to toy with something that can kill you isn't new: it's like playing Russian roulette in a much more safe way. And this is perfect because it's a very powerful taboo, but people can get involved in it without really doing anything.
reason: The lifestyle vampires don't seem to be drawing inspiration from the original Dracula. What's inspiring them? Are they Anne Rice fans?
Nuzum: My guess is that Lazarus people probably don't know about Stoker. Actually, I was shocked at how little all of these people knew about Stoker. The people who went on the Romania trip all sat and nodded their heads as our tour guide spouted off crazy talk. Like: Stoker was gay and wrote this gay book about Dracula's brother Radu, who was a gay character, but Radu wasn't a scary name so he never finished it. Total bullshit. But nobody on that trip questioned it at all. Several people knew things they were hearing weren't true, but people didn't care.
reason: Why not?
Nuzum: They were on vacation.
reason: Were they illustrative of vampire fans in general? How much do today's fans care about Bram Stoker's version of the monster?
Nuzum: Bram Stoker would never recognize Count Dracula the way we portray him, not even in the clichéd Bela Lugosi version, because it's so dramatically different. That suave, sophisticated count wasn't in Stoker's novel. His social skills weren't very good. All the sorts of little inventions, like vamps being sensitive to light, that started when other people took their own spins on this. The light thing started in Nosferatu. In some of the early novels vampires got their power from moon but could still walk around during the day. Biting on neck was a new invention, because the traditional vampires drink from the arm or the chest.
reason: So people—authors, adults who call themselves vampires—don't have a fealty to the original vampire stories?
Nuzum: Very few creators of vampire stories, including Bram Stoker, realize the power of what they're creating, especially in their time. Stoker was clueless about many things in his life, and the power of that book was one of them. It was only after he died that it became a commodity. I think that if you look at for examples, go to one of the worst vampire movies I saw, Club Vampire, about a strip club of vampires who continue to do their strip tease for anyone who sticks around after the club closes. And then, you know, they drink their blood and kill them. There was a price to be paid for this kind of sexual freedom. For that movie to come out in the early 90s when AIDS was an hourly conversation tells you how deeply this stuff is ingrained. This was a terrible movie and the filmmakers had no idea what they were doing. They figured out the metaphor completely unintentionally.
reason: Would you say vampires are sort of a monomyth, that people understand them and their metaphorical importance from culture to culture without being told?
Nuzum: They're just like folk tales. Folk tales don't come about when a guy says "I'm gonna capture the zeitgeist of this moment in little story about a rabbit and little girl." The stories with the most resonance survive. Someone didn't say "we don't understand the effects of disease so let's create a monster that sucks blood." It just kind of happened, and it stayed because it works for people.
reason: The first European vampire myths started as a way of keeping people in line and obeying their church, an opium-of-the-masses sort of thing. People would defy dogma and die and come back to suck the blood of the living.
Nuzum: Yeah: "Your uncle Phil, he's the one who's making you sick because he was excommunicated."
reason: Is it strange that completely secular people in an increasingly secular culture cling to a myth that was spread that way?
Nuzum: Some people use religion to teach morals and control people, and some use it to make sense of the world. In that sense a story about vampires or a story about talking pumpkins has the same effect.
reason: I have to say, you seem awfully cold and equivocal about Vlad the Impaler's career. You say "our view of looking at the world is just too different to pass clear judgment."
Nuzum: It's same type of argument that you have about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves. That's always a hot debate after the second beer. And Vlad was working in a very similar context. He liked to position himself as the champion of people, and he had two problems. One was the political system he was in, which could bring down the leader if he was unpopular. I mean, imagine if we had presidential elections whenever the people got mad at the president. His other problem was that he was caught, physically and intellectually, between the Christian world and the Ottoman Empire. He quickly learned that the way to keep his country safe was by being fucking crazy.
reason: You'd defend that?
Nuzum: Obviously it didn't seem like such a good system if you were the family of one of his victims. But there was very little crime. He'd have his men leave money in cups in public places just to prove that no one would touch them for fear of his secret police. It's difficult to look at that say "you are absolutely wrong." It totally worked! The Communists actually thought he was a hero until Communism fell and they met these Westerners who wanted to buy Dracula merchandise.
reason: And you encountered vampire obsessives or self-identified vampires who didn't meet your expectations at all. When you started this book, what were you expecting?
Nuzum: I was expecting to talk to somebody sitting in an apartment with velvet curtains behind him, who'd say crazy shit like "If you pull that curtain back I will turn into dust." Not once have I met somebody who really defined themselves like that and claims that they if they walk outside they'll burn. Lots of people who've said they'll get dizzy if they face the sun. Nobody who died in 1866 and returned to feed on the living. What I found is lots of people who say this lifestyle just kind of works for them.
reason: Are you glad that we live in a country that can produce somebody like Jonathon the Impaler, the Minnesota fringe politician who claims to be a "sanguinary vampire?" Is that generally good or bad for society?
Nuzum: I don't think I'd say it's one or the other. Nobody took Jonathan or any of his ideas seriously, not that he had many ideas to be taken seriously. While it's easy to dismiss that—hey, the guy thinks impalement is a good way to curb crime!—it's not much of a step from saying "that guy believes in vampires" to saying "that guy believes in Allah! That's weird." If you create a culture that just mocks those ideas or mocks the people who believe them then you're in dangerous territory.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.