Back in October in one of my many wanderings through Barnes & Noble for my latest literary fix a book in the Culture section caught my eye. Eric Nuzum’s THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008) described itself as a “far-reaching look at vampires in pop culture, from Bram to Bela to Buffy, and at what vampires and vampirism have come to mean to us today.” With a title and description like that I knew I had to explore this book and join the author in his journey.
Eric Nuzum is a pop culture critic and author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America. He is the winner of the 2002 Edward R. Murrow Award for News Writing and has been a pundit on VH1 shows such as Behind the Music. An Ohio native, Nuzum is a programming executive for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. You can learn more about Eric and THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST at his blog. After some discussion with Eric and his helpful publicist, Katy Hershberger of St. Martin’s Griffin, the following interview came together.
TheoFantastique: Eric, thanks for making time to discuss your book. How did an award winning writer, and one with connections to VH1 and National Public Radio come to develop a personal interest in the vampire phenomenon in pop culture internationally?
Eric Nuzum: Well, I’d argue that I don’t really have a deep personal interest specifically in vampires. I tend to pursue things that interest me over a wide range of subjects. That said, one fateful morning I was sitting eating breakfast–Count Chocula cereal–when I saw President Bush make a reference to “energy vampires” (computer and cell chargers that draw power even when they aren’t charging). Then I looked down at a magazine and saw a vodka ad featuring a scantily clad vampire girl. I thought to myself, “Wow…three vampire references in less than a minute…I wonder why that happened?” Four years later I’m answering your questions.
TheoFantastique: No one can accuse you of not committing to your subject matter. At the beginning of your book you describe drinking your own blood, and set the goal of watching every vampire movie ever made. Why this level of intense immersion in your research?
Eric Nuzum: Short answer: Because I’m an idiot that has no ability to set limits. Longer answer: It’s still largely because I’m an idiot. But ask my wife–who I was convinced I’d marry and be with for the rest of my life about 22 seconds after I met her–when I commit, I really commit. In all seriousness, I figured that if someone is willing to plop down some of their money and time to listen to what I have to say, I really have to be willing to go after a story they won’t find anywhere else. In this case, it meant being willing to drink (my own) blood and sit through 100s of hours of terrible movies.
TheoFantastique: In one of your chapters you discuss a trip to Transylvania to research Vlad Tepes, the historical figure which may have influenced Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula. To make things even more interesting, Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster from the television series The Munsters) was part of the Dracula tour you were a part of. What stood out for you on this trip as you separated historical fact from fiction in vampire folklore?
Eric Nuzum: What stood out was I was the only person I met in Romania willing to make that distinction at all. Seriously, everyone in the tourist industry in Romania (modern day Transylvania) and every tourist I met seemed completely and openly willing to entirely discard known history and fact–openly mixing truth and fiction. I mean, can you really blame them? They are on vacation. They want to have fun. I found it a little annoying, though.
TheoFantastique: Part of your research involved speaking with people who identify themselves with the vampire subculture. What categories of people did you find involved in this, and what impressions do you you have of those who identify with the vampire in pop culture on the level of an ideology or spirituality?
Eric Nuzum: There are three categories of human vampiroholics. Psychic vampires–those who feel they have the ability to fuel some degree of super power by drawing energy off other living people. Poseur vampires: People who work at State Farm 9 to 5–or some other similar “straight” lifestyle–then dress up as goth vampires on the weekends. And Lifestyle vampires: people who feel so much kinship with the undead that they conduct their life as if they were actual vampires–only go out at night, drink blood, sleep in coffins, etc.
TheoFantastique: One part of your book struck me when you dialogued with someone over how vampirism has permeated our pop culture in everything from figures of speech to breakfast cereals. This might be lost on more casual observers, but can you provide some examples of of this and why you think the vampire has penetrated cultures so strongly?
Eric Nuzum: I think my favorite example is the blessing “Gesundheit.” Originally this phrase (meaning “good health”) was offered as a protection against vampires. Many old vampire tales do not involve the drinking blood. In those tales, vampires attacked psychically. The sign you were being attacked? You sneezed. The protection? A blessing of good health. That blew my mind when I first learned it.
I think the reason vampires are so deeply embedded in culture has everything to do with their ubiquity. There have been vampire legends for thousands of years, in almost every culture. With that kind of placement, they are bound to make an impression.
TheoFantastique: As a pop culture critic you are no doubt aware of the increasing popularity of the zombie, as demonstrated in any number of films, video games, and zombie walks/crawls. Do you think the zombie will replace the vampire in terms of being the “monster of choice” that we grab onto in exploring various facets of our selves and our culture?
Eric Nuzum: We make monsters to fit our times. Perhaps, zombies just feel like a better fit for people right now. However, I think it’s a fad. Vampires will be back. The undead are all about comebacks, literally.
TheoFantastique: Eric, thanks again for your entertaining book, and for the opportunity to discuss it with you.