Down for the Count: Nuzum spent three years writing Dead.
Down for the Count: Nuzum spent three years writing Dead. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Before delving into the world of vampirism for his latest book, author Eric Nuzum needed to know what immortality tasted like. He figured blood would go down better cold, so he drew a vial of his own type A-positive using supplies purloined from his doctor’s office, chilled a jigger of it in a cocktail shaker, poured the shot, and tossed it back.

Fortunately, the ritual was sensibly undertaken in a bathroom, which made for easy cleanup following the projectile vomiting.

“It was terribly disgusting,” Nuzum says of his gory tipple. “Like iron or dirt. But what made me get sick was the mental picture of what the inside of my mouth looked like, all this blood all over my teeth.”

It would be among the first of many strange scenarios Nuzum—a programming executive at National Public Radio during dreaded daylight hours—would find himself in while researching The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires From Nosferatu to Count Chocula. The book examines vampirism’s history in popular culture, from Bram Stoker’s homoerotic fan mail to Walt Whitman to Bite, Las Vegas’ premier “erotic and sensual topless review.” It is also a chronicle of Nuzum’s own transformation during the three years it took to write Dead.

“Giving up your life for a time to writing a book has a lot in common with vampirism,” says the 41-year-old author, whose first book, Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America, landed him a gig as a VH1 talking head on censorship issues.

The search for “real” vampire subjects took Nuzum far from his Rockville home: to a fetish party in New York City, on a bus through Transylvania, and to Whitby, England, where Stoker set Dracula. He studied “the Vampire in Contemporary Society via a Worldwide Census,” a survey of more than 700 self-identified vampires conducted by Jeanne Keyes Youngson, a New Yorker whose work Nuzum calls “ground zero for vampire research.” (According to the survey, 84 percent of vampires polled report being sensitive to sunlight; 71 percent drink blood of some type.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nuzum found modern-day vampires reluctant to talk, difficult to categorize, and nowhere near as terrifying as anything Bela Lugosi portrayed. He spent a decidedly unscary afternoon in a Hanover, Md., chain restaurant talking shop with a group of vampires he located through Against typical goth stereotypes, the members didn’t cloak themselves in dramatic clothes, and they didn’t wear white pancake makeup. In fact, they were all African-American. On another occasion, Juno, a Fairfax, Va., vampire, expressed his own disenchantment with the younger generation to Nuzum: “[T]here are a lot of fucking dudes who like to say, ‘Ew, look at me, I’m a vampire.’…But they don’t even go out to clubs or talk to other people, they just sit at home, play video games, and jerk off.”

Frustrated by the small pool of available ghouls from whom he could gather research, Nuzum obtained a booklet containing step-by-step incantations on turning himself into a vampire. Among other things, the instructions called for eggs, string, 12 grains of rice, a black hair, and an owl figurine. “I decided I would do exactly what it said to,” says Nuzum. “One of the problems was that I work full-time…I had to kick a guy out of my office at one point so I could chant over chicken liver.”

More frightening than handling giblets in the workplace, says Nuzum, was the off-chance that the ritual might damn him to an earthbound eternity alongside fantasy role-playing gamers and overzealous Buffy fans.

“There was a little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘If this works, you are really screwed,’” says Nuzum. “You might worry about the risk of handling raw chicken liver, but that’s nothing compared to, oh, becoming undead.”