The city that bites you back? Vampire culture thrives in Philly
NINA AUERBACH is convinced vampire fascination is in Philly's blood. She's viewed it firsthand. In her 36 years at the University of Pennsylvania, the English professor and author of "Our Vampires, Ourselves," said the subject of vampires and the paranormal has never failed to excite her Ivy League students.
NINA AUERBACH is convinced vampire fascination is in Philly's blood. She's viewed it firsthand.
In her 36 years at the University of Pennsylvania, the English professor and author of "Our Vampires, Ourselves," said the subject of vampires and the paranormal has never failed to excite her Ivy League students.
Yet, take the same topic to the West Coast and the discussion deflates into indifference. That's what she found during her time teaching at California State University in Los Angeles.
"The California students weren't interested in vampires at all and here they always were," said Auerbach, who teaches 19th century English literature. "So I thought, it must be a Philadelphia thing. And it is, this dark little haunted city with a past."
Philadelphia is a hotbed of activity in vampire culture, which is currently undergoing a pop culture spike thanks to the smash teen movie and book series "Twilight" and, to a lesser degree, the HBO series "True Blood." Philadelphia, for instance, is home to some spooky real estate that resonates with the vampire-loving crowd: the Edgar Allen Poe House, 532 N. 7th St., and the Mutter Museum, 19 S. 22nd St., which is filled with medical oddities. (One of its most popular displays is the corpse of a woman who turned into soap. Cue the creepy organ music.)
The city's 19th century architecture and byzantine layout of secluded alleys is evocative of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula," the iconic work that is the template for subsequent vampire books, movies and fashion.
Indeed, the city's Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008 Delancey St., owns 120 pages of Stoker's handwritten notes used to develop and write his novel. The closely guarded notes (use of a ballpoint pen is forbidden in the same room as the Irish author's treasured outlines) is a de facto bible of vampire culture for academics, fans and international media.
Stoker, who died in 1912 at age 65, traveled the United States and Western Europe as a theater manager for actor Henry Irving, said Elizabeth E. Fuller, a librarian with the Rosenbach.
During the seven years it took for Stoker to complete "Dracula," he continued his day job and wrote other, shorter works. Stoker visited Philadelphia in the winters of 1894 and 1896, scribbling notes on stationary from the Stratford Hotel, which is now the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue.
When the novel was published in 1897, "nobody is saying 'yes, this is great literature,' but a lot of people are saying, 'it's a great story,' " said Fuller.
Its influence circulates through pop culture. Stoker's "Dracula" spawned copycats ("Nosferatu"), dozens of movies (notably 1985's "Once Bitten" and the 1931 original "Dracula"), TV (remember "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?), contemporary novels (among them the "Vampire Huntress Legends" by local author L.A. Banks and the "Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer), a children's cereal (Count Chocula), educational characters ("Sesame Street's" The Count) and memorable catchphrases ("I vant to suck your blood.").
Author Banks, who lives in West Philadelphia and writes the successful "Vampire Huntress" series, has shaped the genre to reflect her urban sensibilities. Originally, Banks wrote romance novels with a supernatural twist, but her agent wanted her to try writing a vampire story.
Banks was hesitant. "I got old ladies in my family, if I start writing about demons as being OK, they're going to be like, 'What, have you lost your mind?' They'll send exorcists!"
She wanted most of the vampires in her first book "The Minion" to be evil. The evening news is a metaphor for her story.
"Watching the news hurts my soul, the loss of life, young loss of life, in our community . . . ," Banks said. Her multicultural cast of characters is led by a young African-American woman, Damali.
Damali's boyfriend Rivera is in vampire limbo. "They seduce him essentially the way these kids are always seduced: you'll live forever, all the women you want, all the money you want," Banks said.
Banks finds hope in the older generation, also represented in her books, who bleach down the steps after a shooting or plant some flowers in the neighborhood when they can.
They keep fighting the battles, "they don't have many resources, they just have their own grit and determination."
While Banks' vampires are a metaphor for modern life, record and events promoter and self-proclaimed "psychic vampire" Patrick Rodgers just wants to have fun.
He says the Philadelphia vampire subculture has been thriving for a long time and he's doing his part to keep it entertained.
For the past 12 years, he's hosted weekly parties with a goth vampire theme. The Wednesday night gatherings, called Nocturne, have changed location through the years, but their current home is Shampoo, a nightclub on 8th Street near Willow.
Dressed in a long black leather trench coat, black leather pants and cowboy boots, he greets several hundred dark music enthusiasts who are typically fans of horror and the supernatural. Four times a year, Rodgers - who sports double fangs - hosts Dracula's Ball. The next one is New Year's Eve.
The Bahamian native says a psychic vampire feeds off the energy of other people.
"The energy feedback that I get from that - when I have a roomful of guests and they're having a great time, there's nothing else in the world that makes me feel better," Rodgers said.
Philadelphia is a good place to be whether you dabble in vampire culture or live it 24/7.
"We are a thriving modern city with rock and roll clubs and seedy dives and everything in between," Rodgers said. "There is a lot to do in Philadelphia after dark."
Just the way a vampire likes it. *