"Vampires: Painting the Town Red"

by Margaret Mittelbach & Michael Crewdson ("New York Times," November 24, 2000)

It's midnight, and we're in one of New York's vampire dens. The D.J. is spinning a band called Switchblade Symphony and a sexy black-clad vampiress with a bat tattooed on her belly is swaying to the music. Vampire couples are snuggling in the corners, and on the rare occasion that someone smiles we can make out the glint of white fangs.
We're in the epicenter of Long Black Veil, a gathering held every Thursday night at True, a club in the Flatiron District, where as many as 300 undead heads dance, drink and make merry late into the night. It is only one of a cluster of havens for the daylight-challenged. CBGB's, Downtime, the Korova Milk Bar, the Pyramid and the Limelight all hold vampire-friendly nights at least once a week.
With a small but dedicated legion of followers, New York's vampire scene has been going strong since the mid-90's. It's been fed by a profusion of Hollywood images celebrating the supernatural, a wave of dark-themed Internet sites and chat rooms, the city's undying tolerance for underground movements and, of course, a wicked desire to dress up. Although Halloween is long gone and even Fangsgiving has passed, Gotham's "vampire lifestylists" are always ready to don their capes and paint the town blood red.
There is a strict dress code enforced for Long Black Veil nights. When a young woman who looks as if she just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog somehow wanders past the doorman, the club's promoter, Father Sebastian Todd, ushers her out.
"This is a private party, sweetie," he says.
Although "gothic," "dark fetish," "faerie," "wiccan" and "Celtic" are all acceptable garb, patrons (most of whom are in their 20's and 30's) usually opt for "vampyre" or simply all black. And that's not your average New Yorker all black. We're talking head-to-toe coal black. Black nail polish. Blackbustiers. Black watchbands. The only person wearing white is a cocktail waiter dressed in drag as the ghost of Marie Antoinette.
No "mundanes" - the goth-vampire term for nonfabulous night people - are allowed. "We used to charge $20 to people who were out of dress if we deemed them worthy, but now we charge $50," Mr. Todd says. "We don't want people just sitting and staring. We want members of our community to feel comfortable."
Mr. Todd, who once worked as a dental technician, does not look much like your typical vampire. In his late 20's, with long, straight blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, he is wearing a flouncy maroon "poet's shirt" with studded leather straps, "Battlestar Galactica" combat boots and a silver ankh necklace. The ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, is also the symbol of the Sanguinarium, a nationwide network of vampire clubs that maintain the air of a secret fraternity, complete with ranks and initiation rites. In 1995 Mr. Todd founded the Sanguinarium (, the goal of which is to unify the vampyre subculture. (Vampyres like to spell their name with the "y" to distinguish themselves from literary or Hollywood vamps.)
Mr. Todd will not divulge what the rites are. (We do catch him performing a secret handshake with one of his brethren.) But we're able to glean the following facts: Vampyres are not affected by garlic or crosses, nor do they speak with phony Romanian accents. They do, however, strongly identify with the vampire mystique. They prefer night to day. They are drawn to vampire icons, like bats, capes and coffins. And they're particularly interested in seduction in all its forms.
While we're talking, Mr. Todd suddenly blurts out, "I love chaos, utter chaos." It turns out he is invoking Mistress Kaos, one of the bartenders, or "alchemists" as they're referred to. She is wearing a tight corset, as well as vampy black lipstick, and her forearms are covered with tattoos depicting scenes from Milton's "Paradise Lost." Goth Talk
In the club's subterranean lounge, the lights are kept low and the exposed pipes are festooned with winding ivy. Numerous club members wait patiently in lounge chairs for a Tarot card reader named Lost to tell them their fates. Down the bar, we notice a vampire with a mouthful of sharp fangs and devil horns attached to his forehead. When he glances over, we see that he is wearing special-effects contact lenses that make his eyes appear glaringly red. He is partaking of a mysterious-looking red liquid from a goblet.
Ms. Kaos says he was drinking a Blood Bath, the cocktail of choice among the vampire crowd, made of three parts red wine, one part Chambord (black raspberry liqueur) and a splash of cranberry juice, topped with a maraschino cherry.
Although it was hard to talk above the thumping drone of bands like Nosferatu, the Shroud, Inkubus Sukkubus and Cruxshadows, we work up the courage to ask our drinking companion where he got his ghoulish get- up. The horns, he says, came from a local fangsmith and the teeth are from New Jersey.
When a dark-haired vampiress with dainty fangs sees our horned friend, she shouts, "Shadow!"
"Rapture!" he responds with delight. "Come to me." They kiss theatrically, and she proceeds to show off her new floor-length black gown with mesh sleeves in a spider-web pattern.
Start With Fangs
So what does it take to become a modern-day vampire? Fangs and threads are a good place to start. At the Transformatorium, a specialty boutique inside the Halloween Adventure Shop at Fourth Avenue and 11th Street in the East Village, custom-fitted fangs can be obtained for $75 to $350, depending on the style. Poison Saige, a fang fitter there, says that while Halloween is busy the store is bustling year-round. "We sell 5 to 10 pairs a day," she said.
For the discriminating vampire, the selection at the Transformatorium is inviting. A glass case displays dental casts with multiple fang styles, and we debate which are the scariest, the "Lost Boys" or the "Nosferatu." Most fledgling vamps start with two standard fangs, and some work up to a full mouth. "We call those the piranha sets," Ms. Saige said.
All the fang fitters at the Transformatorium have some dental training, and the fangs are hand-carved out of dental acrylic. "We'll take an impression of your teeth, and the fangs will be pre-carved to the mold," Ms. Saige said. Afterward, clients come in for a fitting with a fangsmith, which can take as long as an hour. Once they are fitted, no adhesive is needed. "A little groove goes up the gum line," she says. "And they can be pulled on and off."
Fangs, however, are just the beginning of the vampire aesthetic. The Transformatorium also sells hand- painted special-effects contact lenses, which give vamps a range of looks from impish to downright sinister. One of the most popular styles is an all-black contact that covers the whites of the eyes and was made famous by the Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland.
Although Ms. Saige declines to share her real name ("only my parents know that," she says), she obligingly lifts up her shirt to show us a tattoo of a comic-book-style vampire woman on her back. "I live the lifestyle," she says. "But I'm not a real vampire. Nobody can live forever."
Ms. Saige estimates that there are 1,000 vampire lifestylists in New York City and thousands more worldwide. "There's a clan in Europe, one in California and a huge clan in Texas," she says. "We all know each other. That's what the Sanguinarium's all about."
Bites and Bytes
Next door to the Transformatorium, a clothing store called Gothic Renaissance is devoted exclusively to Goth-and-vamp wear. A black hooded cape made of velvet, with a purple satin lining, sells for $199.99. And there are also plenty of accessories, like a tube of "Pallor Protector" (S.P.F. 45) for $11.95, which instructs, "Apply to face and neck before daybreak to avoid the ravages of the sunrise and preserve your preternatural power."
Higher-priced Edwardian- and Victorian-style clothing - in the spirit of Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire" - can be found at stores like Religious Sex in the East Village, as well as Underbelly, an online emporium based in Queens, which, in addition to capes, sells handmade black brocade parasols for sun-phobic vamps.
And while a New York City-based vampire can do most of his shopping in the East Village, countless vampire accessories can be obtained via Internet shopping. A Los Angeles company, Vampire Cosmetics (, offers eye shadow in colors like Tombstone and Drained and lipstick in shades of red ranging from the Hunt to Deadly.
And if you really want to go gung- ho in the netherworld, you can get the ultimate vampire luxury item, a custom-made coffin, which doubles as a coffee table. It is available from A mahogany coffin (retail value $2,700) was recently raffled off at Zenwarp, a weekly event billed as a "sanctuary for the unusual night creature" at the Limelight, the nightclub on the Avenue of the Americas housed in a desanctified church.
But being a modern-day vampire is more than just accessorizing. It's an attitude, a fascination with the dark side to the point of fetishism.
The vampire scene is a subset of the goth scene (black trench coats, white corpse paint, Edward Scissorhands haircuts, PVC - or vinyl - clothing). It is also inspired by Hollywood and literary images that have their roots in Bram Stoker's 19th- century novel "Dracula" and Bela Lugosi's unforgettable portrayal of the menacing count in the 1931 film version.
Highly Visible Vampires
While vampires have become an indelible part of American iconography, they are always being tweaked, most notably in Ms. Rice's seemingly eternal vampire series (her most recent vampire chronicle, "Merrick," is on The New York Times best-seller list) and countless vampire-themed movies and television shows, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its spin-off, "Angel," about a brooding do-gooder vampire who fights the forces of evil. During the next month alone, two vampire movies are to be released: "Shadow of the Vampire," with John Malkovich as F. W. Murnau, director of the silent classic "Nosferatu," and Willem Dafoe as a vampire who really gets into his role, and "Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000," an updated version of the tooth-and-fang tale with Christopher Plummer as Van Helsing, the vampire hunter.
In the theater, Rod Barnes is the writer and producer of "The Gotham Chronicles," a soap-opera-style play that had a short run at the Raw Space Theater on 42nd Street last month. His play is loosely based on the real-life doings of New York's vampire clans.
Mr. Barnes, who said he did extensive research for the play at the city's vampire clubs, describes their appeal: "When you go out to a club, the atmosphere is very gothic, very dark. It's creepy but at the same time sensual and hypnotic. These people are able to live two lives, the life of a vampire and the life of a regular person. They like to be out at night. It makes them feel alive. They believe, `I'm an immortal being, at least for the time I'm here.' "
The music played in the clubs feeds the mystique. One local band, Unto Ashes, appeals to vampire scenesters because of its dirgelike, medieval sound and dark lyrics. On the band's most recent CD, "Moon Oppose Moon" (Projekt), the lyrics of "The Viper Song" include:

After you sink your teeth into my neck
Will you cry out in the passion of the moment
Or writhe around the bed to free yourself?

Michael Laird, the Unto Ashes singer and founder, says his band performs live at vampire clubs and frequents vampire havens in the East Village like the Korova Milk Bar, on Avenue A near 12th Street. Although he describes himself merely as a tourist on the vampire scene, he says: "Vampires have an extreme obsession with beauty that takes the form of body worship and blood worship. They wear clothing that delights the eye - baroque styles but also PVC fetish-wear with lots of accessories like black boots and collars. They get piercings and adorn themselves with fangs. They're celebrating humanity through the blood coursing through their veins."
A fellow Unto Ashes band member, the keyboardist Natalia Lincoln, says she first saw vampires creeping into the edges of the city's goth scene in 1996, when she spotted Mr. Todd selling prosthetic fangs at a nightclub. "I thought, that's really cool," she says. "Since then, I've thought a lot about the vampire mythos and what makes it attractive. One thing is the transcendence of death, taking the worst thing that can happen, dying, and getting incredible power out of it. There is a real hunger for the mystical in this movement."
Many vampire lifestylists are reluctant to talk to the media. Partly it is because they aren't always "out of the coffin" with their friends, family members and employers, and fear that their morbid interests may be misunderstood. One vampire known as Davyd Ventru, who often goes out with fangs, black trench coat and a skull-topped staff, identifies himself as a member of the Sabretooth clan and the director of the Sang Avis (Blood Mind) Guild, which essentially means that he is the director of publicity for his clan of vamps.
"The vampire mystique gives me a sense of empowerment," he says. "It lets me pretend to be someone different for a while. It's also a way of having a secret that I share only with those I choose to share it with."
Drink of Choice
But here's what we really want to know: do vampires drink blood? "Ahh, the blood question," says Mr. Ventru. "Blood is icky. There are a few who indulge in blood-drinking, usually among a small circle of donors that are carefully chosen. But the vast majority of us aren't into that."
Mr. Ventru says he wants to let people know that vampires are not out to hurt anyone. And he is eager to point out the good vampires do. "Last month we donated five cases of school supplies to the Children's Aid Society," he says. "And last Christmas we gave about 20 cases of toys to Toys for Tots."
Although none of the vampyres we interviewed claim to be actual vampires - i.e. immortal, murderous and predatory - we hear about shadowy figures who refuse to go out during the day and sleep in coffins, and others who insist they are 400 years old. Indeed, the Internet is rife with Web sites of vampires who say they cannot survive without drinking blood, whether obtained from carefully screened human donors or the local butcher. There are also countless sites devoted to "blood fetishism," "blood play" and "bloodletting," complete with tips for avoiding blood-borne diseases. Yet on the Internet, it is hard to know when people are joshing or deadly serious.
A little Van Helsing-style sleuthing brings us to Julian Ravage, a semi- retired vamp with whom we dine over a sushi lunch. This former host of "Shadowside," a Manhattan cable-access show, is the director of a forthcoming series, "Cyber Dark Infection." He wears all black and sports tiny bat earrings. He tries to explain why some New Yorkers may be drawn to emulate vampires.
"If you dress up as a vampire, you're challenging everybody's perceptions," Mr. Ravage says. "People who do this want something a little surreal and they like to experiment."
Mr. Ravage says he gave up the intensive night scene and hard-core dress because it became too expensive and too much work: "There was a week I tried wearing the fangs all the time, but it was a pain. I kept biting my tongue."
Still, enough new blood seems to join in to keep the scene going. At Long Black Veil every week, D.J.'s work two crowded dance floors late into the night. And here, at least, the macabre nightclubbers have something in common with their movie counterparts. At 4 a.m., when the club shuts down, the lights are turned on. And this glaring illumination reveals black makeup smudged by a night of dancing.
"When they turn on the lights," Ms. Kaos said, "they all shriek in horror." This is the dawn most feared by Gotham's vampires.

Books, Films, Clubs, Clothes and Fangs for the Memories

A sampling of vampire films, videos, television series, books, Web sites, nightspots, CD's and stores:

"WES CRAVEN PRESENTS: DRACULA 2000," directed by Patrick Lussier. Opening Dec. 22.
"SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE," starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Opening Dec. 29.

Films on Video
"DRACULA" (1931), starring Bela Lugosi. Directed by Tod Browning. MCA Home Video. 75 minutes. $14.98.
"INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE" (1994), starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Directed by Neil Jordan. Warner. Home Video. 123 minutes. $19.98.

Television Series
"BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER," WB network (Channel 11 in New York), Tuesday nights at 8.
"ANGEL," WB network (Channel 11 in New York), Tuesday nights at 9.

"DRACULA," by Bram Stoker (Signet, 1997), $4.95.
"INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE," by Anne Rice (Ballantine, 1994), $7.99.
"MERRICK" by Ms. Rice (Knopf, 2000), $26.95.

Web Sites
FOR VAMPYRES: was created "by vampyres for vampyres." It is a place to learn about the vampire subculture, with a lexicon of vampire terminology.
FOR CLUBS: offers extensive listings of goth and vampire clubs.

Nightclubs and Bars
LONG BLACK VEIL at True, 28 East 23rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 615-6666. Don't come dressed in khakis if you want to make it past the velvet ropes for a night of dancing to goth and vampire-inspired music. Thursday nights at 11. Entrance fee, $10. Web site:
ZENWARP at Limelight, 47 West 20th Street, Chelsea, (212) 462-9343. Held in the H. R. Giger Room (decorated by the artist who designed the creatures in the movie "Alien"), Zenwarp features dark wave and trance music. Suggested dress includes vampyre classique, lusty android and fantasy warrior. Saturday nights at 11; admission, $10 before 12:30 a.m. and $15 after 12:30 a.m.
KOROVA MILK BAR, 200 Avenue A, near 12th Street, East Village, (212) 254-8838. The Korova, inspired by the film "A Clockwork Orange," is decorated with unclothed mannequins and is also said to be a popular watering hole for East Village vampires. Occasionally holds D.J. nights; no cover or minimum.

Clothing and Fangs
TRANSFORMATORIUM at the Halloween Adventure Shop, 104 Fourth Avenue, at 11th Street, East Village, (212) 260-5939. The place to buy fangs, special-effects contact lenses and horns for those special occasions.
GOTHIC RENAISSANCE, 108 Fourth Avenue, at 11th Street, East Village, (212) 780-9554. For the latest goth and vampire gear.
RELIGIOUS SEX, 7 St. Marks Place, between Second and Third Avenues, East Village, (212) 477-9037. PVC fetish-wear is sold alongside Victorian- and Edwardian-inspired gowns;

"MOON OPPOSE MOON" by Unto Ashes (Projekt, 2000), $16.97. This neo-medieval dirge band provides the perfect soundtrack for the vampire lifestyle.
"MUSIC FROM THE SUCCUBUS CLUB," (Dancing Ferret, 2000), $16.97. A compilation of vampire-theme music featuring goth, dark wave and synthpop.

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