Sucking up the vampire craze
When a young girl named Howard Allen O’Brien walked into the former Grenada Theatre on Baronne Street many years ago, she was immediately transfixed by what she saw on the silver screen. The black and white film, Dracula’s Daughter, starred Gloria Holden as the lead character: “a beautiful, doomed countess who hated herself because she was a vampire and fought her desire for blood. I thought: How glamorous, how tragic, how beautiful.” The woman of mystique changed O’Brien’s life: Today O’Brien is better known as Anne Rice, the bestselling author of Interview with the Vampire, its sequels in “The Vampire Chronicles,” and multiple other cult classics involving the supernatural, a few of which have also been translated onto film (Interview with the Vampire, Exit to Eden and Queen of the Damned).
Now, in the humid summer of 2010, 34 years after Rice published Interview, vampires are experiencing blazing popularity. The current bunch of bloodsuckers is a far cry from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and even Dracula 2000, the campy “sequel” set here 10 years ago.
Our interest in the eternally undead is an addiction, seemingly insatiable. The pre-teen, pre-“Gossip Girl” sector swoons for CW’s “The Vampire Diaries,” based on the eponymous book series by L.J. Smith. And older TV viewers are anxiously counting down to June 13, when they’ll suck up to their friends with premium cable to catch the third season of HBO’s “True Blood,” based on the bestselling “Sookie Stackhouse Novels” by Charlaine Harris. On June 30, movie theater revenues will defy the recession during the third installment of the “Twilight” movies, Eclipse, based on the also-bestselling novels by Stephenie Meyer. While Meyer’s characters have been especially embraced by teenage girls, and often their older sisters and mothers (after all, her vampires sparkle when sunlight hits them, a glamorous departure from the popular belief that they crumble to ash), it’s undeniable that this genre is experiencing a new heyday.
Says Anne Rice, who relocated to southern California in 2005, “Vampires will always fascinate humans because vampires live forever, yet they were once human themselves. They continue to look like humans, to sound like humans and to have human memories. We all wonder: What would it be like if I was given eternal life and supernatural strength? … The latest vampire pop culture craze is entirely understandable, because the concept of the vampire is so rich. No wonder others are mining that richness for fascinating new stories and combinations of ideas.”
Harris’ series is a good example of how the vampire genre has been reinvented. “True Blood” characters come in a variety of supernatural forms: shape-shifters; vampires; and the heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, an endearingly sweet and sassy waitress who just so happens to read minds. The books and the show are set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., a deceptively sleepy town where everyone knows each other’s business. But the characters resonate with us. They fight the same basic battles: relationships (after all, it’s difficult to be a “fang-banger,” derogatory slang for a human dating a vampire), death, addictions, temptations and bickering with family members. Alex Woo, a writer for the show, believes “True Blood” surpasses boundaries, reaching out to all kinds of folks. “At the core, we are trying to write a real character show,” he says. “Sure, it has the vampire backdrop, but the characters are real and interesting and surprising and human – even if they’re not human. It’s a show that is simultaneously scary, funny, emotional, sexy, surprising and disturbing.”
Says Rice, “The vampire is a metaphor for the outsider in all of us, the outcast, the lonely one, the monstrous one. The concept of the vampire is so rich that one can make up endless stories exploring it.”
While the concept of the vampire is myriad, so too is the Bayou State as a setting, and vampires, like the rest of us, have a soft spot for New Orleans in particular. Although “True Blood” characters have yet to party in New Orleans, Woo says it’s possible that they might in the future; the books, which are the basis of the TV series, have scenes that take place here. Says Anne Rice, “Louis, my hero [of “The Vampire Chronicles”], loved New Orleans because it was a melting pot of a city, full of thieves, flatboatmen, pirates, would-be aristocrats, young Creole gentlemen on the town and lovely ladies of the night, in which he could easily conceal himself in the crowds and in the shadows and prey on the ever-shifting population.” Woo of “True Blood” notes that Harris, author of the series, lives in Arkansas but chose to set it here. “Louisiana has this great tradition of mysticism and the theatrical, the baroque and the Gothic; it’s a great natural setting.”
Locally, there are several places and an abundance of sources where one might go to learn more, or perhaps be immersed in, the vampire craze.
Suzie Quiroz is a bubbly blonde who’s quick to smile – not what you’d quite expect from someone whose title is president of the Anne Rice Vampire Lestat Fan Club, which she founded in 1988 with her sister, Melanie Scott; Teresa Simmons and Susie Miller. “My sister recommended the book [Interview with the Vampire], and I read it in two days – then I wanted more.” At a Rice book signing, she asked the author if she could start a fan club for the vampire Lestat. “She said Lestat would love to have a fan club,” says Quiroz, who eventually became Rice’s personal assistant. “We went back through the line and had people sign up.”
The club, which also operates under the moniker Les Temps des Vampires, hosts an annual party around Halloween, and Quiroz is working on putting together a convention for all things supernatural called The Undead Con. “We’re sort of underground right now,” she says. But the convention, which will be held at the Hotel Monteleone, will most likely draw the droves this year, as Quiroz has been contacted by vampire fans near and far. (Recently a fan from Poland tracked her down to become a member, and last year author Harris was a celebrity guest. Quiroz crowned her as the Vampire Queen of Louisiana, a nod to one of Harris’ characters.) The convention will feature seminars, including one on “Real Vampires.” Quiroz says these are individuals who feed off energy, not blood, leaving the victim feeling “drained.” Guest speakers will also include parapsychologist Dr. Larry Montz and Daena Smoller, producer, author, physical medium and empath for the International Society for Paranormal Research. Quiroz says, however, that this is purely for entertainment’s sake. “It’s more of a romantic thing now,” she muses. “It’s not creepy: We do it because it’s fun, and we like what vampires personify – the everlasting life. I think if I was around people who think they’re actual vampires, it would be very unsettling. We don’t think we’re vampires – we might wear fangs and dress up and do our makeup, but it’s really just fantasy.”
Quiroz collaborates publicity with another group, which puts together a party called “Endless Night.” Then, too, there’s the annual Vampire Film Festival. “A vampire virus has spread all over the city,” she says with delight. The “virus” has been spreading to unlikely places – even the New Orleans Zephyrs, the city’s minor league baseball team, hosted a Vampire Baseball-themed evening in March, featuring several members of the cast of Twilight and some from “True Blood.” (New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley also made a cameo.) On May 15 the Central Business District-based Metro club hosted a “Heaven & Hell” party, encouraging partygoers to dress up as their favorite dead – or undead – character.
The hub of local vampire culture is the French Quarter, where Rice sets much of her scenes. “I always loved its architecture, its atmosphere and the beauty of the French Quarter and its long legacy of ghost stories, haunted houses and bizarre legends,” Rice says.
The city’s famed “Haunted History Tours” began in 1995. Several blocks away from the tomfoolery of upper Bourbon Street, 300 years of folklore and history are discussed on the tours, which meet – appropriately enough – after nightfall in front of St. Louis Cathedral. A popular tour guide named Jonathan – who could have stepped out of the 1800s himself, with his flowing hair and pirate-like attire – theatrically tells tall, and short, hair-raising tales of the supernatural. Much of the tour is also filled with a signature “only in New Orleans” sense of dark humor – people who live here tend to be a whimsical bunch even while discussing things that go bump in the night.
One of the tour’s missions is to spark the imagination, which isn’t entirely difficult with the timeless backdrop of the city’s oldest neighborhood. Most of the walk is lit only by the moonlight and the streetlamps. “Predators work best when nobody sees them,” says Jonathan.
“A lot of our early founding is a mystery,” he says, pointing out places of alleged unsolved murders and other strange circumstances. The tour also stops in front of Madame John’s Legacy, a beautiful French building on Dumaine Street wherein a scene from Interview with the Vampire was filmed. (“Before Tom Cruise started jumping on couches, he played the vampire Lestat,” Jonathan reminds the group lightheartedly.)
Also situated in the French Quarter is the Boutique du Vampyre, owned by Marita Jaeger and her boyfriend, Steven Crandle. Collections of homemade local wares are found within, and Crandle says, “just about everything is made by local artists.” The couple opened the shop eight years ago, and it’s the only vampire boutique in the country.
Among the curiosities to marvel at are art, crafts, accessories, candles, charms and clothing. The shop also sells custom-made fangs, crafted by a local “fangsmith” by the name of Maven. Jaeger also helped with the distribution of “Vampyre” wine, which can be found in stores all over the city.
The current television shows, books and movies have stimulated interest to the store, she admits, but it’s always drawn shoppers in the French Quarter. And, if anyone doubts the popularity of vampires, Crandle says that recently two nuns came into the shop and purchased T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Sin like you mean it.”
Crandle and Jaeger are also putting together a “Vampire Cabaret,” which will take place six times a year at various clubs, though the same bartenders and doormen will be employed, giving it a “familiar” feel. Jaeger says that perhaps vampires, though fictional, would be especially drawn to places like New Orleans where the nights are long – “it’s the easiest place to prey, and it’s a very romantic city.”
As vampires become more popular throughout the world, we can agree that New Orleans, with its timeless atmosphere and carefully preserved historic buildings, makes for a great setting. “When I decided to write about a vampire, it was only natural for me to place him in New Orleans, with its Spanish architecture and graceful Greek Revival mansions. It was the perfect place for his tragedy, his glamour, and his beauty. Would he not love the baroque cemeteries? Would he not love the wild nightlife? After all,” Rice muses, “Why would a vampire hang around Tombstone, Arizona?” Says Jonathan the tour guide, “Vampires could be symbolic especially of New Orleans – age, beauty, and the fact that they can eat you up – but you’ll enjoy it.”