Interview with the vampire hunter 

Katherine Ramsland and I are chatting, about guys, blood drinking, Keanu Reeves, the ring she inherited from a murderer who killed himself to become a more powerful vampyre. (The "y" indicates they are practicing.) You know, girl talk. It could be a slumber party -- scary stories, giggling, she insists she's not sleepy and invites a boy over. Well, she's pretty daring. Her idea of fun was to walk through woods with a possible killer and party with people who crave blood.

You say potato.

As a kid Katherine slept with her arms folded across her chest and told people she was 403 years old. As an adult she became Anne Rice's biographer and penned companion works to her novels. But it wasn't some made-up Dracula story that brought about "Piercing the Darkness, Undercover with Vampires in America Today," her exposé of this labyrinthian subculture. It was a vanishing.

Susan Walsh was a go-go dancer trying to break into journalism (you try telling them, B.A. first, go-go later, but they never listen) who disappeared while researching New York's vampyre circuit. Fascinated by the case, Katherine began integrating with the groovy ghoulie set to try to find Walsh. She took vampire classes, went to parties where strangers offered their blood, and took nocturnal phone calls from a confessed blood drinker who refused to meet her, fearing he would harm her.

Yes, "refused to meet her." She's the one who asked. Katherine had a thirst that kept her up at night, seeking, soliciting, finessing strangers. "I'm very interested in people and their stories," she says. "I was in danger." But that, and the freedom of a recent divorce, propelled her instead of daunting her. The result was a cultural catalog that brings vampyres to light: Who are they? Where do they hang? Do they hang upside down? What are their politics?

Getting to them

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Vampires are "the image of dangerous sex," Ramsland says. And fetishists, with their slave-master dynamic, corsetted Victorian look and sexual role-playing, naturally overlap with vampires. I thought a goth club would be the place to look, but Walsh says they look similar but seldom blend. In fact, vampyres avoid goth theatrics to stay camouflaged. She says Orlando has a large vampire culture but it's underground because of religious conservatism.

She mentions Firestone and Cairo as places they go -- places everyone goes. This camouflage, she says, causes many gay men to identify with vampires, playing to community standards while feeling outcast and feeding their "unnatural" desires by night. She knows a gay vampire who became a conservative minister for cover. She wished she had a camera when some fang-wearing blood hounds told her sincerely, "We are the future of the Republican party."

The clearest line is this: Goths and fetishists don't even claim to drink blood. Most vampyres, Ramsland says, do not drink blood. "They will role-play it. A lot of them are repulsed by it." Some indulge, but it's for bonding, not nourishment. It's often done in groups called "feeding circles," who screen for disease and only drink from trusted members or even themselves. Most want no part of it.

Getting to you

Katherine is a Ph.D. psychologist who wears fishnets. She says, "I usually go out with the vampires at night," the way other people say they play racquetball. I like her and don't want to appear cynical, but wonder, the $75 custom fangs, the personas, the period drag ... Is being a vampire just costuming?

"Yes," she says, "vampires are about beauty, sensuality. They'll go to great lengths to get perfect detail," in their elegant lifestyle, which amounts to community theater. Most separate the romanticism from the monsterism. She sees the current vampire fad (see "Buffy") as not only proof of its romance and a filler of the Gen X spiritual deficit, but also as millennial. At the century's end, the penchant for darkness will ebb away and more hopeful themes will take over.

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She's convinced she found Walsh's captor but seems unafraid that "once you begin to hunt for vampires, the vampires will hunt for you," as she read early on. She enjoys their flamboyant society and invites me to a social gathering, which I decline. Nothing personal, I tell her, I'm just not very trusting.

"Then why are you alone in a hotel room with me?" she asks. I study her eyes for menace. They're solid black, constantly dilated, an indication of sexual arousal. She admits that they're special-effects lenses, a vamp accessory. She loves a charade.

Still, she's got me: Why did I trust her? The therapist/vampire hunter says it's the same reason she followed a possible killer to the woods -- that thirst to take other people's stories, and also to close your eyes and let them take you there.

So, who is the real vampire? The greatest romance of it all, Katherine says, is that you never, ever know.

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