The Dead Travel Fast

Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula

by Eric Nuzum

Hardcover, 242 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $23.95 | purchase

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Title
The Dead Travel Fast
Subtitle
Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula
Author
Eric Nuzum

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Paperback, 242 pages, St Martins Pr, $13.95, published September 30 2008 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Dead Travel Fast
Subtitle
Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula
Author
Eric Nuzum

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

A cultural exploration of vampire lore and the lifestyles it has inspired in the modern world recounts the author's visits to convergence sites in New York clubs, darkened parks, and chain restaurants.

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Excerpt: The Dead Travel Fast

Chapter 1

Watching my own blood drip down the bathroom mirror, there’s only one thought running through my head: In a lifetime of questionable decision making, this is not one of my finer moments.

Like many things in life, it started off with the best of intentions. It was an experiment—a quest, actually. When I set out to write about the history of vampires, I decided to pursue three specific tasks. It seemed to make sense—in order to truly understand vampires and what they mean, I’d not only have to do the usual research and reading, but I’d have to find ways to experience vampires as well.

The gore sprayed all over my bathroom was the result of the last of these undertakings: to drink blood. The whole blood-drinking thing, as you can imagine, posed several problems.

Most of these difficulties were rooted in the particulars. In my book, to drink something means to take a mouthful of something and to swallow it—“tasting” or “sipping” wouldn’t be acceptable. This, of course, requires a sufficient quantity of blood.

Even though blood fetishists don’t advertise their gatherings in the Sunday paper, they aren’t particularly hard to find. However, anyone willing to let me drink their blood probably isn’t someone whose blood I should be drinking.

Then I got an idea: I could drink my own blood.

I imagine you are full of questions.

It’s pretty simple, actually.

If you look at every culture, throughout history, they’ve all had some variation on the vampire. Very few have been called vampires, but every culture has some type of a supernatural creature that comes back from the dead and draws its power by preying on the living. Are there such things as actual vampires in the world? I’ve never seen one—nor has anyone I’ve ever known or met. Yet you can go to just about anyone, anywhere in the world, mention the word vampire, or show them a picture of some ashen-faced bad guy with fangs and a long cape, and they’d know what you were talking about.

Vampires are a lot like Santa Claus—each culture morphs the lore to fit its own needs and values. England has Saint Nicholas, Greece has St. Basil, Holland’s Sinterklaas arrives on a ship, French children wait for Père Noël, Italy has the good witch La Befana, and in China, Dun Che Lao Ren brings presents to children every winter. That said, St. Nick doesn’t have a fondness for sucking blood out of the necks of virgins. Well, if he does, he’s done a good job of keeping it on the down low.

This all started one morning during breakfast. I was pleasantly munching on a longtime favorite, Count Chocula, while CNN played on the TV. A story came on about energy costs and President Bush was offering a solution: destroy all vampires. Energy vampires, that is. The president was blasting cell-phone and computer manufacturers who used power chargers that drew electricity regardless of whether the device was actually using or storing it. These were commonly known as “energy vampires” and the president was urging Americans to solve the world’s power crisis by unplugging their cell phones once they were finished charging.

Looking away from the screen and down toward a magazine I was pretending to read, I turned the page and saw a vodka ad featuring a woman with a cape and long fangs. The ad encouraged potential vodka purchasers to “drink in the night.”

Even in my early-morning sleepiness, I stopped to consider this for a moment: Within a five-minute period, I’d encountered three references to vampires, of all things. This might make sense around Halloween, but it was early July.

Why vampires?

As I pondered this over the following days, I began to realize that I saw direct or indirect mentions of vampires everywhere—in an interview in Rolling Stone, during an episode of Seinfeld, a song lyric, a conversation on a plane. Vampires are invoked as metaphors all the time. It’s hard to go through a single day without seeing some reference to vampires.

So if the vampire is that ubiquitous . . . how did this happen? Why did it happen? I wanted insight.

There are two basic ways to experience history.

Basic Way #1: Sit in a dark library and read old, smelly books that put you to sleep. I am not an advocate of this Basic Way; it isn’t very fun. Plus, this is definitely not one of those books.

Basic Way #2: History isn’t static. Most history reverberates through time, making things different than they’d otherwise be. Therefore, it’s important to understand it as it survives and resonates today. According to this Basic Way, to experience living history one needs to . . . live it.

So to truly undertake my quest to understand vampires, I’d have to go out in the world and encounter them firsthand. This required a little prep, which led me to these tasks.

Which led me to drinking my own blood.

Which led me to vomiting all over my bathroom.

Which led me to the first thing I’ve learned in this quest: I am a total fucking idiot.
 
People are afraid of the dark.

It isn’t the absence of light that messes with your head, it’s the possibility contained in darkness. In the shadows you can find anything. You could step right up to a grizzly bear, evil marauder, or four-hundred-foot cliff and never know it’s there. Not knowing is what makes your heart beat faster.

That’s where monsters come in. There is no evidence that monsters exist—vampires or otherwise. Yet despite this, we all cringe in scary movies. Clearly, there is nothing hiding in the closet, but we still make sure the door is closed before going to bed.

Monsters always start off in darkness: a strange noise, a feeling of presence. We imagine them at their most horrific. That’s why good horror movies never show you the monster during the first act—what we imagine them to be is infinitely scarier than what they actually are.

Eventually, the monster leaves the darkness and comes into full view. And what do we see?

Ourselves.

We create monsters for all kinds of reasons. They’re often the result of our own misguided ways. They offer vengeance for our follies. They are metaphors for our worst fears: The Blob represents concerns about pollution and the spread of Communism, the Swamp Thing symbolizes the cultural separations between the North and South, Frankenstein stands in for our fear over the clash between medical innovation, ethics, and religion. King Kong embodies the fear and helplessness of the Great Depression. Godzilla signifies concerns over the danger of nuclear technology. The most ubiquitous monster of all isn’t the one who fills the darkness around us, but the darkness within ourselves: the vampire.

The vampire is the only monster that people actually want to be. You won’t find much desire to be a mummy or zombie. You’ll never experience envy at the powers of the Frankenstein monster. No one ever wants to become a ghost or werewolf. Becoming any other type of monster is a curse, becoming a vampire is a key to power and a way to control what we fear.

When I started on my quest’s first task, it wasn’t fear I felt, but dread.

This questing nonsense started out as an attempt to discover vampires the way that most people do, through movies. I decided to watch every vampire movie ever made—all six hundred and five of them. It surprises many people that not only is Dracula the most adapted story in film history (there have been forty-three sequels, remakes, and adaptations of the story), but Count Dracula recently surpassed Sherlock Holmes as the character portrayed in film more than any other. On top of all those, there are several hundred films and TV movies featuring other vampire characters. All told, six hundred and five—and I planned to watch every one.

I started with the easy choices that everyone knows, Dracula and Nosferatu, along with some more contemporary fare like Interview with the Vampire, Near Dark, and Blade. However, only thirty-six movies into my viewing the quality of the movies was becoming a bit thin, including such gems as The Little Vampire, My Grandfather Is a Vampire, and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. To compound things, as is my usual idiotic style, I announced this task to almost anyone who’d listen. While I may have been able to back out if I’d kept my mouth shut, on this one, I was committed.

Today’s selection: the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter, which seems appropriate since yesterday’s selection was Son of Dracula (the 1943 ham fest starring an aging Lon Chaney, Jr., as Count Alucard, the son of the infamous count). Dracula’s Daughter was the sequel of the 1931 original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, literally picking up where Dracula left off. In Dracula’s Daughter, a mysterious countess, named Marya Zaleska, arrives in London to claim Dracula’s now completely dead corpse. When the authorities go to retrieve Dracula’s coffin, it comes up missing. At the same time, bloodless bodies are discovered nightly around London. It’s the countess—who, once discovered, hotfoots it back to Transylvania in a 1930s version of a high-speed chase with Scotland Yard. The countess eventually takes a wooden arrow through the heart and all are safe once again (though no explanation is ever given for what happened to Dracula’s corpse and coffin).

Dracula’s Daughter was one of the original horror movie sequels and is on about the same cinematic level as Halloween 5 or Bride of Chucky. On almost any aesthetic scale, Dracula’s Daughter bears no similarity to the original. Gone are the originality, dark gothic imagery, eerie passages of silence, and subtexts of sexual repression and fear of technology. Replacing it are campy attempts at humor, melodrama, and painfully obvious sexual innuendo. The pacing is slow, with long bouts of over-the-top dialogue. The so-called suspense scenes are anything but, due in large part to the overly schmaltzy soundtrack that gives everything away.

Watching all these films has led to my first major discovery about vampire movies: They suck.

I’m not trying to make some clever use of puns here; by and large vampire films are not good movies when viewed today. Watching almost any vampire movie in a contemporary context, even the 1931 original Dracula or the first vampire film, the silent Nosferatu, is an exceptionally disappointing experience. There’s a reason for this: Vampire films capture the fears, desires, and values of their time in a way that doesn’t age well. It’s like platform shoes or beehive hairdos—things that seem hip and cutting edge at one time, end up looking ridiculous in hindsight. What once was horrifying, now seems overblown, melodramatic, and kitschy.

Vampire films, books, and the undead’s appearances in contemporary culture are the same way. Most vampire lore suggests that vampires don’t cast reflections in mirrors. Yet, vampires are reflections. Vampires reflect our desires, dark ambitions, fears, longings, and despair. Vampires equally represent what represses us and what sets us free. The blood-drinking undead provide a stark example of what makes societies and cultures unique and different. They are the perfect metaphor. As vampire scholar Nina Auerbach wrote, “Every age embraces the vampire it needs.” However, none of these deep thoughts are making Rape of the Vampire any easier to watch.

Rape of the Vampire, along with films such as the 1952 Bela Lugosi stinker, My Son, the Vampire, leave viewers puzzled as to how the movie they’ve just viewed has any connection with its title. In My Son, the Vampire, Lugosi plays an evil vampire scientist building a killer robot to take over the world. While there was a character named Mother Riley, there appears to be no son in My Son, the Vampire. Likewise, in Rape of the Vampire—there is no rape.

I’m not sure what Rape of the Vampire is supposed to tell me about life, culture, or the filmmaker’s view of the world. That is, besides that he must have had a thing for breasts. From what I was able to follow, the film apparently tells the story of a group of beautiful vampire women. These vampires, who feed only from other women, can’t seem to manage a bite on the neck unless everyone involved is naked from the waist up first. One of the vampires falls in love with a mortal man who wants to become a vampire himself. Then it seems everyone is desperately trying to find a cure for vampirism. All this nonsense apparently upsets the head vampire woman, who looks and dresses more like an aborigine than a vampire. The characters run around screaming and crying for a while, and then everyone dies.

It’s a 1960s French film, which should explain everything.
 
My second prevampire-hunting task was to understand what it means to be a vampire. I wanted to walk in his shoes, wear his cape, sleep in his coffin—whatever.

This quest was easy to accomplish, because I’d already done it. I was a vampire, once. Well, for a weekend, more or less.

I was thumbing through the car ads in the paper one late summer morning and a classified caught my eye. It featured a poorly drawn Grim Reaper over the bold-faced headline monsters wanted. It was an ad for the House of Terror, a haunted house located in an unused school building. The want ad promised “fun, excitement, and $$$” for “responsible actors” interested in portraying characters in its facility.

After reading the ad, I went on with my day, but I kept thinking about it. As a kid, I loved going to haunted houses and had always thought it would be awesome to actually work in one. Whenever I’d catch a glimpse of the people working in haunted houses, they always wore chain wallets, Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin T-shirts, and looked pretty mean and frightening even without the masks and props. The coolest of the cool were the kids who played vampires. They got to scare the hell out of visitors by jumping out of a closed coffin, grabbing a hot-looking girl (another haunted house employee), and biting her neck. They were scary and cool, and I fantasized about being one of them. Specifically, I wanted to be the girl-grabbing, neck-biting vampire. Now, more than twenty years later, here was my big chance.

After dinner that night, I fished the paper out of the recycle bin and called the number listed. The recorded message indicated that interested applicants should show up at the House of Terror at exactly 8:00 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend with proper ID and a social security card. It informed callers that the process would take the better part of the morning. The message warned that no one would be admitted before eight and anyone showing up late would be turned away. Without discussing it with anyone, I just scooted out of the house that morning and headed over.

I figured that since it was a holiday weekend, turnout would be light. I further assumed that the “responsible actors” would be other fun-loving haunted house enthusiasts like me looking for something interesting to do as well as a part-time paycheck. As soon as I was within sight of the House of Terror, I began to realize how mistaken I was. It wasn’t even 7:30 a.m. and there were at least two hundred people lined up outside the building. To someone driving by, they might sum up the assembled crowd as people you’d expect to respond to a “free tattoo” or “free mullet trimming” offer rather than an employment ad. They didn’t look like vampires, werewolves, and ghouls—they looked like carnival ride operators.

At a few minutes after eight o’clock, a guy emerged, identified himself as Tom, and led us into the old school’s cafeteria to fill out our applications. Before we started, Tom told us we were to stay in our seats while we filled out our applications. We were not to get up and move around, not even to go to the bathroom. Once we were finished with the applications, we’d be taken out—one table at a time—to the interview area, where we’d be individually interviewed by one of the house’s managers. Another manager, named Sue, told us that anyone who turned in an incomplete application, left the room, got up to talk to others around the room, fell asleep, smoked, drank, or ate, would be immediately rejected and sent home. Sue also gave a rundown of what was expected. Most of the rules would be covered at orientation, she said, but going over the basics might save us all some hassle. The houses would be open 8:00 p.m. to midnight on Thursday through Sunday and every “actor” would be required to work both Friday and Saturday nights plus one other night. Each actor would have to show up one hour before work and stay one hour afterward. Pay was sixty dollars a week, paid only if the actor completed all their assigned shifts. Lastly, actors wouldn’t be employees, but independent contractors.

“And another thing,” Sue said. “You can pick the role you play, but forget about being a chain saw guy—those roles fill up with returning actors.”

I wanted to ask about the demand for vampires, but I was too caught up on the sixty dollars. Three nights a week, six hours a shift—that’s barely three dollars an hour. So much for the promised “$$$,” which was apparently as subjective as the “fun and excitement” and the definition of “actor.”

There were eight guys sitting at my table. I had completed my application in about five minutes and was the first one finished by at least ten more minutes. The task seemed very difficult and taxing for my tablemates. To be honest, it looked like almost any task would be taxing for my tablemates. It seemed that the act of getting out of bed and being here at 8:00 a.m. had sucked all the energy out of them. Three of them had violated the “no sleeping” rule within the first twenty minutes.

Our table was in the back corner, and since people were being interviewed table by table (starting at the other end of the room), we knew we’d be there for quite some time—well more than an hour at the rate things were going. After my tablemates had struggled through recalling their names, addresses, and meager employment histories, we started to chat among ourselves. Our applications finished, a conversational hierarchy soon emerged at our table. Our moderator was a guy named Steve, who decided what we’d discuss, for how long, and passed judgment on who was “full of shit.”

Steve raised his hand and was reluctantly acknowledged by Tom.

“Say, how do you want me to list my service—by assignment or branch, or the time I was in the army?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter, just write it down,” replied Tom.

Steve turned back to us and interrupted the conversation to tell his third military story in the past ten minutes.

“I was over in Iraq for the Gulf War, you know.”

Yes, we did know. He had told us this at the beginning of every story.

“The whole time I was over there, all I could think about was eating fried chicken,” he said.

“I kept thinking that the thing I really missed about home was fried chicken and I kept asking the mess guys if they would ever make fried chicken. They never did. Then, right before we headed home, the cooks made some shitty fried chicken. I figured, ‘What the fuck,’ and got a huge plate full of fried chicken.

“I was so happy to have fried chicken and told all my buddies to chill while I ate some. My one buddy thought he’d be real funny and moon me while I was eating. So he walks right up to me, right, and drops his pants and spreads his butt cheeks—right there in front of me. And I said, ‘Man, what the fuck, all I want to do is eat my fried chicken.’ He just laughs and wiggles his butt in my face.

“I was so mad, ’cause I had been looking forward to eating fried chicken for weeks. So I picked up a chicken bone and stuck it up his ass. Right up there. Man, was he mad.”

We were all laughing when Tom came over to settle us down. He warned Steve that using profanity could get him ejected and he should consider that his warning. He told us to just sit down, shut up, and wait.

Around the room were several photocollages of actors from past seasons in their costumes. Basically, all the characters were a collection of weapons, torn clothing, stage blood, and various foreboding props. In each group there would be one or two people who stood out—white skin, slick hair, black clothes, and fangs. The vampires.
 
Vampires are so easy to pick out because there isn’t any other horror archetype that’s so immediately recognizable. Not simply by look, but actions as well.

The vampire we think of today came from the undead legends of Slavic nations such as Serbia, Hungary, and the infamous Transylvania. Most people assume our contemporary vampire originated there, but that isn’t entirely true.

Our modern understanding of vampires did flourish in Eastern Europe, but got its start in Greece.

Following a long Christian tradition of coopting pagan and folk traditions, the Greek Orthodox Church took the country’s various legends of blood-sucking undead and used them to reinforce Church doctrine. As a result, for many centuries there was scarcely a Greek village that didn’t have some sort of local vampire story.

In the eighth century, the Greek Church declared that the bodies of those excommunicated by the Church would not decompose until they had been granted absolution. While former members were in this state, they were doomed to wander through the world, feeding off the blood of the living. Very frequently, the graves of suspected vampires were opened and the bodies were found with ruddy complexions and veins distended with blood. When lanced, large quantities of blood would pour out of the body, blood presumably drawn from the bodies of young, fresh human beings.

The belief became so popular in Greece that the Church expanded the declaration to murders, suicides, those guilty of heinous sins, practitioners of the magic arts, and anyone cursed by their parents. Whenever something bad happened or an unexplained illness or death fell upon a friend or neighbor, people would immediately cast about looking for a recently deceased local black sheep to blame. Their only course of action would be to campaign for the Church to grant absolution or dig up the offender, drive a stake through his or her heart, and burn the corpse. Until recently, the Catholic liturgy for excommunication still included the sentence, “After death, let not thy body have power to dissolve.”

Fueled by the endorsement of the Church, vampire lore began to spread throughout Europe. Most of the early tales weren’t created through folklore, but by bragging priests and bishops. Many Church officials of the time wrote of their experiences encountering and dispensing with vampires who were once excommunicated pirates, thieves, murderers, harlots, and other undesirables.

Logical assumptions started to emerge in the lore. If the vampire’s fate was controlled by the Church, the belief surfaced that vampires would cower when confronted by crosses or other religious symbols.

As the belief in vampires spread throughout Europe, the lore became more sophisticated. The blood-sucking undead became the scapegoats for all types of misfortune, including stillborn children, unexpected death, bad weather, disease outbreaks, and even impotence. Maladies such as severe nightmares, migraine headaches, and wasting disease were all blamed on vampire attacks. As the beliefs and abilities of vampires grew, so did the methods that could turn someone into a vampire. In addition to excommunication, evil deeds, and untimely death, it was commonly thought that vampirism could be spread like a disease. Once one person in a community rose from death, it was thought that his curse could be spread through his attacks, especially his bite. Some stories stated that the curse could be spread by consuming meat from cows fed upon by vampires. Some thought that vampirism was hereditary—after one member of a family turned, others in the same family would meet a similar fate after death.

Once otherwise unexplainable happenings were blamed on a vampire, oftentimes a village or city would fall into a vampire hysteria, attempting to link almost any unusual happening to their undead interloper. For example, in the spring of 1727 in the Serbian city of Meduegna (near modern-day Belgrade), a young man named Arnod Paole, about to be married, died shortly after falling from a horse. Within a few weeks of his death, several young women in the town died. The locals were convinced that Arnod had come back from the grave as a vampire, due to his untimely and unfortunate death, and was spreading his grief among his neighbors by feeding off their blood. Fearing the worst, the villagers dug up Arnod’s body and found that his body looked pink and lifelike, and his hair and nails had grown longer. There were also traces of blood around his mouth. Local authorities quickly staked and burned Arnod’s body and returned it to his grave. Just for good measure, they also staked four other recently deceased townspeople, fearing that they may have been Arnod’s victims and might soon come back to wreak havoc as well. Over the next five years, the villagers logged more than a dozen incidents that they attributed to Arnod’s brief tenure as their local undead. Two women dying of what is now known as tuberculosis claimed to have drunk Arnod’s blood and were eventually staked and burned after their deaths. Family members of a deceased eight-year-old child dug him up after a few months and drove a stake through his heart after finding an unusually healthy-looking corpse. Three other men were found with large quantities of blood in their corpses after death and were staked for good measure. Things got so out of hand in Meduegna that almost all of the deceased locals were dug up, staked, turned facedown in their graves, or had their mouths stuffed with herbs and garlic to prevent them from spreading their evil among the living.

The residents of a nearby village became so freaked out that vampirism might spread to their town that they were forced to gather together in two or three houses every evening, burning candles and taking turns watching over the others. In order to make sure everyone kept to their anti-vampire routines, some of the village leaders would cast their shadows against the buildings, howl and shriek in the night, and leave spatters of blood and cow dung in abandoned houses.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Eric Nuzum. All rights reserved.