Looking for Lugosi

The best thing about traveling while a vampire is that the red-eye is actually preferred. The only tricky part is fighting the taxi line before dawn breaks at your destination. Yet the question really must be asked: If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself “undead,” where the hell should you go on vacation?

The following is written, therefore, from the vampire point of view, 1.) to pay homage to my favorite TV show (True Blood) which takes place in the deep Louisiana bayous, 2.) because of my general if not pathological interest in the literary-historic phenomenon known as vampirism, and 3.) because Expedia pays vampires far too little attention in terms of summer specials. I would also like to note that my somewhat intense interest in this subject has little to do with blood and a lot to do with being aristocratic and immortal, but I would hope that goes without saying.

For the past few hundred years, the presumptive epicenter of vampire life has of course been the Carpathian Mountains, but the myth of the mysterious vampire actually dates back to the earliest human civilizations. By the time the first caveman stood erect and realized he had blood, he was accusing his creepy neighbor of drinking it. Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, and Albanians all had their vrykolakas, vetālas, and lugats (and don’t get me started on Catholic communion… hello?) The bottom line is that vampires have been with us for a while – and forever is a long time to rack up frequent flyer miles. No they don’t want your bags of little peanuts, thank you. But they do need to pick their travel stops with care. Nowhere too balmy or obnoxious (i.e., Sandals), nowhere with too many vegetarians (residents low in iron), and nowhere like Zurich where all the shops close at 4:59pm. Supposing that this was…say my…first vacation as a newly minted and fragile-fanged young vampire, I would also want to go where I could meet more seasoned and drop-dead sexy vetālas, for there does seem to be an enormous difference in temperament between vampires who are lonely and those who are not. In other words, I would go where all the other (civilized) vampires seem to be hanging out, making friends, learning the ropes and jokes, and waiting for film crews to arrive and yell Action: new fangled New Orleans or good old Transylvania.

And make no mistake, this is not just a theoretical exercise. My desire to become an enchanting blond vampire will one day come true if I have to break into the coffin of the tormented kid from Twilight and shove a body part at him before he has time to wake up and get all Puritanical on me. I believe this is known as nosferatu asexual assault, but in exchange for living forever I’m more than happy to wait out a short prison sentence.

Transylvania

No geographical locale, real or fictional, carries with it more misconceptions or strikes more terror in heart of god-fearing man than “your local Walmart.” Running a close second would be Transylvania.  The word itself comes from the Romanian phrase for “land beyond the forest,” which is strange given that it’s mostly wooded and technically not beyond the tree line whatsoever. But it is far away from everything if that helps. Its largest city is a place no one has heard of (Cluj-Napoca), most of its leaders have been clinically insane (see Ceaușescu), historians have yet to agree on its people’s true ancestry, and its only UNESCO world heritage site is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – a man who, despite the cheery moniker, wasn’t as pleasant as you’d think.

To start, it does get disconcerting because technically everyone in Romania is named Vlad. You will deplane to find your skycap named Vlad, your cabdriver, your bellboy, Vlad the Concierge and the married guy in the lobby bar – and they will all tell you “Hello, I am Vlad” and that there’s nowhere within 600 miles to convert your dollars to LEU. Vlad the Impaler, however, told people very little except “Please jump onto this sharp stick.” While we know he was a Prince of Wallachia, experts don’t seem to know if he was a Magyar, Visigoth, Dacian, Hun, Gepid, Bulgar, Avar or an Avatar. That’s how many tribes have ruled the area throughout its long history of violence, war, conflict, land grabs, minority rule, majority flip flop, name changes, and general “who runs this joint” confusion. If being Transylvanian was like being married, they’d all be Elizabeth Taylor. For ease of reference, however, Vlad was sort of Romanian-Hungarian and despite being an impaler he at least had the good manners to opt for the horizontal rather than vertical form of the torture. This is a man who once littered a field with 20,000 impaled (yet alive) enemy soldiers for the sole purpose of discouraging the advancing brigade behind them. Needless to say the tactic worked and the phrase “conscientious objector” was born.

To be clear, however, Vlad was not a vampire. He was not a count. He never occupied Bran Castle (marketed to tourists as Castle Dracula) and even had Vlad lived there, “Bran” the Castle has zero to do with “Bram” the Stoker, who was simply a British novelist who one day found himself wildly upstaged by Mary Shelley. Coincidentally, this was also around the time that all of Enlightened Europe was being overrun by displaced Romany gypsies who carried with them a long history of folkloric oral traditions (otherwise known as mumbo jumbo) involving ghouls, witches, and creatures that drank your blood if a virgin horse mounted by a virgin girl wouldn’t walk over a fresh gravesite. (This is all true, so please make sure your horses get busy.)

It was also, of course, the time of disease. Disease, disease, and more disease – and of the lovely kind like consumption, rabies, and the plague – make that several kinds of plague – all of which involved bodily fluids being unpleasantly in places they shouldn’t. Consumption (otherwise known as tuberculosis, otherwise known as “for God’s sake hack into a hankie”) was the main culprit and its victims often perished coughing so hard they were found dead with blood around their mouths. We all know what rabies is about (um…they bite you) but your average 17th century European did not. Where’s Dr. House when you need him, pointing out that rabies sufferers are often seriously and painfully averse to bright light. Add all this together and you end up with most of Western Europe so thoroughly wrought with vampire mania that citizens were banding together nightly to disentomb the recently deceased in order to take general attendance and drive stakes through the hearts of the dead…just in case.

 To underline the obvious, however, all of this still has jack to do with vampirism. The only connection…I repeat only connection…between Transylvania and what we hold so dear in the trope of vampire history is that Vlad of Wallachia occasionally signed his name on Latin-language documents as Wladislaus Dragwlya or Drakwyla – as in “Dracula meets Daffy Duck.” How disappointing. If I already had a boarding pass, I’d by now be quite depressed. Would I really arrive in Transylvania to find porcelain-faced prospects in all-night cafes drinking plasma-flavored lattes? Or would I simply find a bunch of confused ex-Communists who’d never heard of Count Dracula in the first place? While Bram Stoker’s novel was a raging success in England (think Harry Potter with fewer volumes and far more Marxist undertones) not many people in contemporary Transylvania were even aware of the book. Those who did manage to get their hands on a copy tended to read five pages, scream “Wtf!” and immediately move to Palm Beach. The entire Dracula story could have, quite honestly, been set anywhere distant, mountainous, creepy, and constantly dreary. All Stoker was really trying to do was scare the British, and nothing does that more than a place with worse weather than Leeds. This one-hit wonder of a novelist might have put Transylvania on the map, but he likely couldn’t locate it on a globe – and the only thing we know with certainty is this: He was about as good for Transylvanian tourism as FEMA was for the 9th Ward.   

NEW ORLEANS

Which brings me to New Orleans, where absolutely no further Katrina jokes will be made because nothing about it screams funny-ha-ha. I will say only this: If the government had just had the good sense to call upon Louisiana’s vampire community when the hurricane struck, everyone could have been rescued within hours – and for humanitarian reasons (or if asked very nicely) they wouldn’t even have bitten anyone in the process. I’m just saying.

Now, as much as I hate to give away endings, I had by this point in my studies already chosen New Orleans as my undead destination of choice. The football team is called the Saints; they clearly have something to hide. There’s a town called Sulphur and a town called Sunset – and while the humidity will be a bitch, I assume my hot roller curls will hold for eternity because I will have vampire-powered hair. It’s the land of Anne Rice, the land of Eric from True Blood (could you die?!), and the entire state is full of the descendants of Creole slaves who swear blind that their people have been hunting vampires for generations and that their food is much better than Cajun fare. This is all nonsense of course (Creole and Cajun food are basically the same damn thing) but the vampire part is accurate. Unlike Bram Stoker, Anne Rice actually lived in the place she wrote about – and according to her 963 best selling Lestat novels, vampires are not goth-looking losers with pasty miens and the tendency to turn into bats. They’re handsome, charming, can pass for anachronistically human, and occupy every third house in the French Quarter. (I went around knocking, it’s true.) Stray a little outside the main city and you’ll also discover that vampires run every bar and strip joint from Meraux to Lecompte to Bayou Blue. If the name of the town is French-sounding enough (see Jean Lafitte) immortals can even run for mayor. (Go figure it’s a “Red State” but vampires tend to register as Independents.) Add to this things like Mint Juleps and Mardi Gras and you’ve just found yourself a holiday where you can quench your thirst for drunken debauchery and find college coeds willing to let you bite them for little more than a string of cheap beads and a shot at the DVD cover of the next Girls Gone Wild.

Yet this isn’t about wholesome American fun. It’s about a profound heritage of uniquely southern factors and a decidedly colonial conflagration of shocking facts. Put more simply: all the stuff from the 1700s that made New Orleans New Orleans. (Please note that you’d better be hearing this in your head as New-Or-Luns.)  And here’s where it gets highly cool, because here’s where Transylvania and New Orleans – as opposed as they might seem – begin to line up on all the particulars necessary for a flourishing vampire community.

First, you need a horrendous clash of cultures and people. I don’t mean horrendous as in bad, but horrendous as in overwhelming enough to prevent the establishment of a dominant way of life. The birthplace of modern jazz, yet named for a French regent in 1718, La Nouvelle Orleans was founded on land already occupied by the Chitimacha, who’d been there for 3,000 years. Its initial utility lay in smuggling guns from the South to the North to fight the British, until some raving fool gave it to the Spanish before Napoleon stole it back because he was short. The Irish went there in droves, as did the Germans and Greeks, who were all struggling in New England because the people in New England were all fleeing to America to escape the vampires planted in Leeds by Bram Stoker. Everyone brought African slaves and after the Haitian Revolution of 1804 the influx of refugees from Haiti and Cuba was so massive it made the Elian Gonzalez debacle look like a CNN blip (although it will unfortunately and forever look like U.S. Special Forces aiming machine guns at a 5-year-old…even the moody vampires were appalled). The Brits, fought off only by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, tried to wrestle New Orleans back at some point because nobody told them the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed – and suddenly you had this city, as newly “American” as they get, that had no idea what it actually was.

Oh yes – and factor number two you had disease. At one point in the 1820s, everybody in New Orleans was dead. Everybody. Including the vigilantes who were sitting up all night with shotguns keeping watch over the dead in case the dead rose from the dead and oozed disease onto them in the form of phlegm, goo, and psycho-sexual hypnosis. (It’s quite stunning how sexually paranoid these people were over creatures that have no pulse.) The Europeans from New Hampshire were still telling the story of poor Mercy Brown, a girl who died of TB only to be dug up and beheaded because someone thought they saw her corpse sucking on her cousin’s cat with one boob out. They even made her little brother drink blood from her dead body for protection, yet he somehow wound up with tuberculosis anyway. If you think the vampire frenzy in England was intense, its manifestation in the colonies was downright Salem-ish. Maybe it was all the smallpox or the fact that they occasionally buried people a bit too soon, only to wonder why they heard banging and screaming coming from inside the coffins. Perhaps it was the fact that, indeed, a person who died pale and frail in the 110° Louisiana heat would inexplicably appear more bloated and purple after three days of everybody sitting up to watch over the body. When you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense that people started taking precautions and beheading their dead relatives. If you’re terrified a diseased corpse can hurt you, by all means skewer it with the same shovel you use to plant cabbage.

 I could go on. Did I mention that the Eastern Europeans who made the long journey to America often did so in such a state of poverty that they didn’t even have luggage? The only thing they could get their hands on to transport their meager belongings….were coffins. Those looked just dandy being unloaded off the ships at port. Some of these coffin-émigrés were even Romany gypsies whose long list of “Things We Have Spells to Protect You From” was rivaled only by the voodoo priestess’s list of  “Things You Didn’t Know You Needed Protection From to Begin With.” Cajuns had superstitions even spicier than the Creoles’ (this being known as gumbo mumbo jumbo) and all of them had been screaming “Vampire!” since Vlad the Impaler was in diapers ripping the heads off his sisters’ Barbie dolls and mounting them on swizzle sticks in the backyard. No wonder they all changed their names to Nadia and ran off to Romanian gymnastic camp.

Yet…to all of this human-induced horror and uncertainty…vampires are totally immune. They are very tidy and very dry. They neither cough nor suffer (except existentially) and they cannot be killed by ordinary means. They are perpetually well-dressed and always clean-shaven, and they don’t even break a sweat in the swampiest dog days of Belle Rose. They might steal your soul and cast you to hell-fire metaphorically, but compared to the daily torments of plantation life, or one more spear-first invasion by the Magyar Huns…suddenly an Interview with a Vampire doesn’t sound all that bad. Which might mean (on a more positive note) that vampires are everywhere – or at least everywhere that history has blessed with the right ingredients: Take a lot of displaced people of staggeringly divergent backgrounds, provide rounds of plagues that kill everyone they love, throw in some unwashed old ladies who claim ancient wisdom, and – most importantly – foment mistrust and social isolation for a few hundred years and watch what happens to all of these scared and sickly people who for the love of Christ just want it to stop raining.  

When a death you don’t understand is a lot better than the life you do, the combination of dread and appeal is quite bewildering. And when you live in a war-torn land with a power vacuum just waiting to be filled by a well-heeled villain who speaks all languages, rises above earthly pain, and fulfills your every desire…who cares if the sun never shines again? Who could possibly refuse that extended icy hand, offering you wine that looks a little too viscous but comes with a passionate kiss?  

Not this romantic.

So there you have it – the reason “vampire me” would vacation (and perhaps even set up shop) in the bayous of Bon Temps, with a second home nestled in an ivy-covered nook of the French Quarter,  and definitely with a hot Vlad I’ll have dragged back from Braslov in a coffin.  And FYI, while there is currently a small pocket of vampires living in the suburbs of Seattle, this clan consists only of the cast of Twilight, whom I’d bring with me to Louisiana anyway because the cast of True Blood is having a whole lot more sex. In fact, if these doe-eyed teenagers don’t stop going on and on about one another’s purity and take their clothes off soon, I’m going to send my Vlad to kill the head writer, just on principle. Life’s too short and the entire point of being a vampire is the promise of eternal pleasure.

Although, given than much of pleasure is really just the avoidance of pain, I’d say the real takeaway is this: In every twist and turn of all these stories – real and fictional, historic and contemporary, nasty or scary, both lore and alluring – each and every good guy and bad guy, living or dead, conquering army or virginal beauty spellbound and terrified by the radiant full moon…each and every one of them was looking for exactly the same thing: a place to be safe and belong.

Except for the Impaler. He was just an asshole.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Looking for Lugosi

  1. Jamie M.

    As always, you never disappoint! I laughed my ass off at so many different times while reading this. I get a kick out of how you weave historical facts with your dry sense of humor in a way that I find oh so charming. I look forward to your next installment and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us!

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