Interviews | Interview With The Vampiresby Carol Lloyd
They violate one of our taboo-devouring culture's last prohibitions: drinking human blood. They sleep during the day and have their teeth sharpened into fangs. But what's really weird about today's high-IQ bloodsuckers is their perky rhetoric of personal growth.
"i extract the blood and drink it on the spot." Lounging in tight black clothing on her black couch, self-styled vampire Danielle Willis displays an array of syringes and pamphlets on the "art of drawing blood." Breezily, the pale, icy-eyed woman offers to extract a little of her own and give it to me in a vial with a drop of anti-coagulant.
In the vampiric underworld, I know this is a gesture of generosity, but I decline.
When Bram Stoker wrote "Dracula" in his Dublin home 100 years ago, chances are he never dreamed his monster would one day return as the godfather of a burgeoning youth subculture on the other side of the world. Yet in the past decade -- thanks in large part to Anne Rice and her millions of insatiable readers -- the vampire has beat his bloody trail across the Atlantic to become the preeminent mythological creature of late 20th century America. In literature, "live action" games like "Vampire: the Masquerade," films, magazines, fashion, rock music and academia, the vampire thrives as one of the most mutable and consuming symbols of our time.
But beyond the well-worn paths of mass culture, a small clan stands apart. These people, who range in age from their late teens to their mid-30s, claim their passion for vampirism predates the fads inspired by Anne Rice. They sleep by day and work by night. Some of them have had their teeth revamped into permanent "fangs." And they engage in one of the last intact taboos of our taboo-devouring culture: blood drinking.
occupying the dark cultural capillaries that connect Gothic death rock, S&M pornography and black-magic occultism, modern vampires -- they call themselves "self-made vampires" -- dispute the idea of a unified "vampire community." They do, however, have a micro-industry catering to their gory tastes. The Atlanta-based Gothic erotic magazine Blue Blood offers a medley of fiction, amateur porn photo spreads of fanged, eye-shadowed lovers, "how to" articles about the joys of blood drinking and safe-sex guidelines for practicing vampires. Catalogs like Vyxyn's and Sabretooth Inc. sell vampiric paraphernalia including leather accessories, enamel fangs and full-sized coffins. They even have their own blood-drinking celebrity: vampire novelist Poppie Z. Bright.
As Danielle fixes tea in her kitchen, I peer hungrily at the array of objects strewn across her San Francisco apartment, seeking clues to this life that rarely meets the light of day. Video games, books, scarves, posters, necklaces, talismans and mirrors adorn her floor, walls and the curling thorns of her wrought-iron bed. There is a picture of her dressed to the Gothic nines and glaring into the camera with a cruel, preternatural beauty. When she comes back, she notices my roving eyes and apologizes for the mess.
The daughter of a university professor, Danielle grew up on Long Island, where she often hung out in pre-revolutionary graveyards with her best friend, who wanted to be a werewolf. "I was terrified of the concept of dying as a child. I figured vampirism was a way to cheat death." Her voice has a rough, inhaled timbre -- as if part of her is holding her breath while the other rattles off answers with a matter-of-fact efficiency. At age 10 she and her friend made a pact that by 13 they would either be vampires or werewolves. But after years of waiting in vain, Danielle decided to take matters into her own hands.
"Finally, I realized that if I wanted to be a vampire, I was going to have to do it myself. So I went to the dentist." She smiles, revealing a set of gleaming white fangs. "Only time will tell whether it's worked." For Valentine's Day four years ago she and her boyfriend, Violet Hemlock -- a phlebotomy technician -- visited the dentist to have their incisors capped. "I didn't get these to be trendy. I don't have any piercings or tattoos," she informs me, leaning forward to let me touch the sharp porcelain points. "Of course, I don't have the jaw strength to really use them. Besides, the human mouth is filthy. And there's always the possibility of slipping with scalpels or razors. Needles provide the minimum mess and the maximum out-take," Danielle declares with nonchalant enthusiasm. "With a butterfly needle, you can hook up a tube to somebody's vein and literally suck it out like a straw." While many vampires admit they only drink blood in small sacrilegious sips, she claims to drink as much as a cupful at a time.
Unlike many of her kin, Danielle maintains that the act of drinking blood is more intimate than erotic. "Sometimes it means friendship bonding, or romance, or drawing strength from somebody. I've had blood offered to me as a gesture of friendship when I was down, and it definitely perked me up. It's saying that you trust a person enough to take a bodily fluid that's potentially lethal into your system."
After dropping out of Barnard College, Danielle moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she began a career as a stripper, dominatrix and writer of Gothic fiction. Her collection "Dogs in Lingerie" is a treacherous cocktail of dark fairy tales, sex industry reportage and drug poetry. While her writing still oozes with the adolescent alienation so common to most vampire literature, it also deromanticizes the old-fashioned glamour of the myth.
As we share honeyed cinnamon tea, Danielle seems like a nice enough young woman, with her mix of cautious vulnerability and perfunctory good manners. But clearly there is more to her than meets my eye. The last page of her book features a copy of a police report recording her arrest for biting a policeman. Her friends and acquaintances refer to her heroin habit in casual passing. Sometimes, for quick cash, she'll participate in a "blood orgy" at a local S&M club -- the vampiric equivalent to prostitution. Evidently, blood drinking is only one of many taboos Danielle toys with.
Toward the end of our visit, she brings out a tiny, leather-bound journal, filled with delicate pen-and-ink drawings, painstaking script and blood drippings. "Sometimes I'll create little keepsakes from the blood. Or use it later in magic rituals." When I ask what she means by magic, I am surprised by her definition's undertones of self-help pragmatism and its lack of supernatural haze. "Magic is whatever form of theater that gets you charged up enough to enact your will on the physical world. When I live as a vampire, I feel more powerful. If you want to be something, you have to go out and do it."
"Blood drinking is an emotionally healthy expression of intimacy," David Aaron Clark's voice rumbles across the phone lines in a comforting, almost fatherly baritone. Like his friend Danielle, David explains his vampiric tendencies in psychological terms, employing the rhetoric of healthy selfhood and positive transformation. "It means embracing our corporeal beings."
Later that week, as David ushers me through his dark apartment lined with graphic blood photography, porn videos and other Gothic paraphernalia, I am shocked -- not so much because of the lurid contents of his home, but because he is not the same man I imagined on the phone. As he drinks his morning coffee (at 4 p.m.), I marvel at his appearance. He is dressed in black leather, his ample flesh mapped with Gothic tattoos and scars. A crown of thinning black curls hangs around battered features; a split goatee suggests the horns of Satan upside down. While his voice betrays no signs of eccentricity, his body exhibits every mark of the 15 years he has spent in S&M clubs and Goth parties.
David was raised in southern New Jersey in an Irish-Italian neighborhood. He first became fascinated by the connection between blood and love when he discovered Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in the sixth grade. "I read it over and over and over. Sometimes it feels banal when we can trace our progressions too simply, but the scene where Dracula comes into Nina's room and opens his shirt and has her drink -- 25 years later, that's still what I do."
David studied journalism at Rutgers University before moving to New York City. After a bevy of unsatisfying jobs in mainstream dailies and a stint with the Dow Jones News Service, he began working as a writer for porn magazines. He now writes articles for the Spectator, a small adult newspaper, as well as disconcertingly funny, unsentimental Gothic erotic novels. He's currently writing the text for "True Blood," a photo book by Charles Gatewood, which documents contemporary trends in vampirism and current S&M practices known as "blood sports."
David says that working in the world of adult entertainment led him to explore his own private fantasies, but the turning point came when one of his girlfriends killed herself and he was left to clean up the mess. "All my Catholic roots came into play. I needed to work out my guilt for not saving her. I wanted to spill my blood because she had spilled hers; I wanted to bleed; I wanted to suffer. I was very lucky to be with some extraordinary people who helped me transform it from a flagellation ritual into an affirmation of life. Blood drinking was a healthy turn in that process. That's when it changed from an S&M thing to vampirism."
Like Danielle, David keeps to a vampiric schedule, avoiding the daylight and living the greater part of his life at night. Unlike Danielle, who prefers the act of "drinking," David gets his rush from being a donor. "It's pure ecstasy. You just don't want them to let go, you have this feeling: Keep going, I don't care."
Like other vampires I spoke to, David guards against AIDS solely by trusting that his playmates have tested negative. In fact, the specter of AIDS seems to inspire blood play rather than discourage it. The risk intensifies the intimacy. "People are tired of being afraid and tired of having a latex barrier between them and revelation," David explains. "They have a desperate need to feel something." Only Amelia G, editor of Blue Blood, came down firmly on the side of safe blood drinking. When asked whether the fear of AIDS has made the vampire scene more monogamous, she replied bluntly, "No, but it should."
David shows me a videotape of a blood ritual he did in a SoHo art gallery with an ex-girlfriend, an exotic 19-year-old dressed in a dominatrix outfit. After a prelude involving urine, death rock and a shouted invocation, he assumes a crucified pose. She cuts him on the palms and chest and drinks from him as his blood runs down his spherical belly like plum juice. He throws his head back in ecstasy. By contrast, she seems business-like but careful -- a nurse just doing her job. The scene teeters between riveting and tedious. With his voice tinged with nostalgia, he tells me that the woman has since moved to Chicago, married a cook and gotten pregnant.
David shakes his head when people assume that his sexual predilections are somehow related to violence. "It's a very childish, uninformed attitude to think that to simply open a hole in somebody and let the blood out is a violent act. If that were true, then how many violent acts are committed everyday in hospitals? Bleeding is a part of life." He offers up his pale, round forearms as proof. "You aren't made of iron. You naturally bleed."
I nod sympathetically, even as my own blood curdles. Bleeding is natural with car crashes, I think, not intimate relationships. Yes, most of us have a certain fascination with blood -- the scarlet streamers issuing from our bodies or the bodies on television remind us of all that we are not: immortal, invincible, stable. But isn't this just the stuff of insomnia? How can well-educated, reasonable people derive so much pleasure from simulating horror? Which is, after all, exactly what vampirism is. Mythic vampires were never "self-made" beings engaged in consensual intimacy. Born themselves from acts of violence, they were doomed to be violent rapists/murderers preying upon innocent victims. Even if David and his kin partake in mutually pleasurable exchanges, isn't the lure of violence essential to the myth and therefore the experience?
With a jubilant gleam in his eye, David recalls a recent birthday party in a private room at a local sex club. "My roommate and I invited 20 of our close personal friends and they came and hacked us up. It was a wonderful, decadent little ritual. At one point this woman was doing a series of intricate cuttings on my stomach and I was reading selections from Rimbaud." He blushes. "I know this is all very predictable, but it makes me happy."
Eager to move on to less visceral topics, I ask about the recent boom in vampire literature. "'I, the Vampire,' 'You, the Vampire,' 'The Vampire Detective,' 'The Vampire Garbage Man,'" David grumbles. "The strength of the symbol is being sucked away. And that's why people are making it happen in reality. They're saying, 'I don't want to be a role-playing dork with a cape, I want to find my way back to the heart of the matter.' It's not fangs, it's not black clothes, it's the search for self-knowledge."
I've heard all the theories about the meaning of contemporary vampire mania -- drug addiction, AIDS, closeted homosexuality, artistic impulses, childhood sexual abuse, the fall of the Soviet Union and the adolescent yearning for a family of kindred spirits -- but never have I heard the vampire interpreted as a symbol of self-knowledge. Yet consistently, these self-made vampires talk about their vampirism in therapeutic terms. However deviant its practices, self-made vampirism is rooted in the very American belief in the power of conscious self-transformation -- Norman Vincent Peale with fangs. Taking the notion of the self-made man one step further, self-made vampires embody the belief that with concerted effort, you can transform yourself into absolutely anything, even a mythological creature. "It's like the whole 'don't dream it, be it' thing," Danielle Willis told me at one point, without a scrap of sarcasm.
Yet despite their fertile imaginations, these self-made vampires are not crazy. They understand that vampirism, immortality and freedom from human society will always be more fantasy than reality. Fictionalizing their own lives is not an absolutist religion, but a path to self-empowerment.
None of the vampires I spoke to articulated this ambivalent faith in the healing powers of self-fashioning more explicitly than Clint Catalyst. Like many enthusiastic 25-year-old graduate students, the androgynous, angel-faced young man veers between jargon-laden malapropisms, deft philosophical observations and quotes by famous artists. "I am a self-made vampire because blood represents the life force and I am trying to reclaim my own flesh," he drawls with open, childlike vowels. "For me, blood is a metaphor for the strident rasp of a vampire."
Molested for years by boys in his childhood neighborhood in Jonesborough, Ark., Clint took to cutting himself at an early age as a "ritual of self-mutilation and celebration." After attending Hendrix, a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, he moved to San Francisco, where he found kindred vampires to share his pain and his blood. "It's a very sacred thing to me," he says, emphasizing that he's only drunk from two lovers, though he's been a donor in numerous public rituals. "Basically, I'm disgustingly monogamous."
Now Clint is working toward a Master's degree in creative writing. "I hope to get a Ph.D.," he pipes. "I've gotten all A's so far." He also hosts a weekly Goth club called Roderick's Chamber, attracting 200-500 leather-and-lace clad youths to dance and mingle in "The Gallery," which features filmmakers, sculptors, painters and photographers involved in vampirism and related proclivities. "These artists are young and articulate. It is a little more than Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' or a book of Anne Rice. They explain: This is why I am a vampire. This is why it's erotic to me. This is why it's political to me."
For Clint, the journey from secretly slashing himself with razors in his childhood bedroom to performing his vampiric rituals before a crowd of admiring peers has involved years of soul-searching. When he says vampirism "represents freedom," he's careful to explain that freedom -- like vampirism or immortality -- is a great fantasy but one that would be intolerable to live with. He means the freedom to re-create the self from scratch, and in doing so rewrite one's history. He speaks of blood as a kind of ink that allows him to tell his own story on a body scarred by others.
Though Clint's logic is murky, he seems genuinely interested in the ironies inherent in his path. He uses phrases like "false authenticity," "finding the truth within the fiction" and "living on the barrier where fiction ends and truth begins." He even manifests an awareness of the limitations of his writing to capture his past. He says he must, finally, be satisfied with the appearance of truth rather than truth itself. When asked why so many self-made vampires are writers, he answered: "Writing and blood play both involve digging for answers and splattering them out on the page. It's very confessional -- or at least it's made to look that way."
Despite these qualifications, Clint maintains that his vampiric identity is his best ticket to self-determination. "In this age when veins are viewed as venomous, it comes as no surprise that involvement in blood play is often perceived as filthy or vile," he writes in his autobiographical essay "Blood Binds." "But truth is purity and the blooming of blood from my body is clean and raw and honest when unleashed, when innermost desires splatter out as adornments on my skin ... I am alive only by accident. The moves I make are determined: This is what it is to be complete."
It's all very high-flown: Kafka's "Penal Colony" meets Georges Bataille meets Nosferatu. But is it all an elaborate intellectual rationalization for an obsessive desire to get attention in the most transgressive way possible? No matter how hard I try, I can't reconcile the contradiction between these well-spoken individuals with their well-reasoned arguments and my visceral revulsion at the thought of actual blood drinking.
Daniel Lapin, a therapist who specializes in something he calls "psychic vampiric sexual abuse" and author of "The Vampire, Dracula, and Incest," warns that intelligent people have the capacity to justify just about any dementia. He says that many vampiric rituals simply reenact abuse, thereby retraumatizing the victim. "The reason so many vampire myths are dripping with erotic tension is because they derive from sexually abusive experiences," he explains. Blair Murphy, director of the soon-to-be-released "Black Pearls," a documentary about vampire subculture, concurs that there is a high correlation between child abuse and vampirism. But unlike Lapin, who sees the world through a clinical scrim, Murphy thinks that the vampire scene expresses a wide range of human behavior -- from the sane and healthy to the stark raving mad.
In any case, Clint's deliberate self-consciousness, and that of Danielle and David, hardly resembles the broken neurosis that Lapin describes in his patients. If there is pathology lurking in these souls -- and one would assume there is -- it isn't obvious.
And even assuming the vampires' choices are pathological, there's something strangely resonant about them. Simulating torture in emotionally healthy relationships, reaching for freedom that they admit would be insufferable, aspiring to immortality by way of highly dangerous practices, these self-made vampires capture -- admittedly in a really weird way -- the contradictory yet relentlessly self-conscious psyche of our time. Their stories ignite our imagination not only because of their bizarreness but because of their familiarity. Like many contemporary identities, from reborn Christians to New Age Sensitive Guys, the identities of the self-made vampires are cobbled together from private pains and untenable fantasies. And no matter how nauseated their practices make me, it's hard not to admire them for coming out of the coffin.
But while "being the dream" has a noble ring, I can't help but think that someday the vampires' dreams will betray them -- landing them in a hospice, connected to a permanent, not-so-sexy IV, facing their own mortality in the form of hepatitis or AIDS. Will they still find blood so tasty?
Real vampires, we remember, were doomed to wander the earth forever, cast off from God and humanity but armed with supernatural powers of strength and stealth. In our atheistic age, the fate that hangs over today's vampires is equally appropriate: to hasten an inevitable death armed with no special powers save identity, pleasure and self-esteem.
Salon.com, Interviews With The Vampires, by Carol Lloyd, Feb. 25, 1997