Interview with the Vampire Expert

Eric Nuzum on censorship, panics, and bloodsucking fiends


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. In 2001 he published Public Advisory: Music Censorship in America, a civil libertarian's history of musical nannyism from the Beatles' "butcher baby" album cover to Tipper Gore's war on 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 his Count Chocula one morning, he flipped on his TV and caught President Bush warning against plugging in too many appliances and becoming an "energy vampire." Then he picked up a magazine and promptly saw a model with fangs and a cape enticing him to buy some vodka and "drink in the night." Suddenly he had a new project. "If the vampire is ubiquitous," he wondered, "how did this happen? Why did this happen? I wanted insight."

So he wrote The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula (Thomas Dunne), a wide-ranging survey of vampire stories, vampire metaphors, and a subculture of people who consider themselves vampires. The last, he learned, are 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."

Associate Editor David Weigel spoke with Nuzum in October.

Reason: This seems like an off-kilter follow-up to your first book. What's the connection between music censorship and vampires?

Eric Nuzum: There's much more than you'd think. 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. 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 is that Ozzy is a symptom, not a cause. People who have extreme emotions, who hold extreme views of the world, pick extreme music to represent that.

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 [Parents Music Resource Center], everybody remembers three of their four areas of concern. They remember drugs, they remember violence, and they remember extreme sexuality. 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 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 the 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: The first European vampire myths started as a way of keeping people in line and obeying their church. Is it strange that 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.

Very few creators of vampire stories realize the power of what they're creating, especially in their time. Look at one of the worst vampire movies, Club Vampire, about a strip club of vampires who continue to do their striptease 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 '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: 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 a good or bad thing for society?

Nuzum: I don't think I'd say it's one or the other. Nobody took Jonathon 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.