Talking Travel with Eric Nuzum, Author of The Dead Travel Fast

I’ve never watched a horror movie from start to finish and I’m not a fan of haunted houses. Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes that I would make it through Eric Nuzum’s new book about stalking vampires. But the title intrigued me enough to start it, and then, well — when a book begins with someone attempting to drink their own blood, you just can’t help but get sucked in.

For Nuzum, it all started over breakfast one day when he noticed several vampire references pop up during the course of his morning meal. His curiosity at the ubiquity of vampires eventually grew into an all-out quest to discover what makes these fanged bloodsuckers so darn popular. The results of his research are gathered in The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula, an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining look at the world’s fascination with these mysterious creatures.

Tracking the history of vampires took Eric from his home in D.C. to a handful of U.S. cities, as well Romania and England. Along the way he made friends with a countess, spent time in a coffin, almost lost his lunch on a road trip through Transylvania, conducted crucial investigative research at the Las Vegas topless revue Bite, and watched a ton of horrible vampire movies (216 out of a possible 605 films that exist.)
Nuzum is a fantastic storyteller — his chapter about the Dractour he took in Romania is a hilarious travel memoir all by itself. But the entire book (a historical hybrid of cultural insight, quirky facts and useless trivia) is worth a read, even if vampires are not your thing. After reading this book, you may discover that in fact, they are.

Earlier this week Eric took the time to answer questions about his new book and the places he visited during his vampire-hunting expeditions. Here’s what he had to say:

You explain in the book why you embarked on this vampire quest, but what about the title – How and when did you come up with it?

“The Dead Travel Fast” is a line from a Gottfried August Burger poem called “Lenore” that’s quoted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the opening scenes of the novel, Jonathan Harker is traveling from England to meet Count Dracula. Once he arrives in Transylvania, just about everyone he encounters tries to talk him out of going, but he doesn’t listen. One of the locals utters the phrase in response to hearing about Harker’s headstrong journey. The translation Stoker used is a bit sloppy, with most translations of the poem using the phrase “the dead ride quick” instead.

In your travels from D.C. to the “ass end of Europe” in search of vampires, did you meet other folks who actually attempted to drink their own blood?

Their own? No, I seem to be the only dummy willing to admit trying that. Now, I am sure that many of the vampire-curious have sampled their own blood before possibly graduating on to the blood of others, but no one was stupid enough to admit that publicly. Except me, of course.

(Supposed) vampires congregate in some pretty bizarre locations. Any clue why many of them seem to prefer meeting at restaurant chains like Jillian’s and Ruby Tuesdays?

Not really. I think that whether they like to admit it or not, most people (vampires and otherwise) go to lousy chain restaurants.

So what is it with all these Dracula and Goth tours that combine fact and fiction? And why do folks love them so much, regardless of whether or not they know they are being told false information?

Because often times the fictitious version of history is much more appealing than the truth. It’s hard to blame the tourists, though, they are on vacation for crying out loud. They want something exciting. When they go to Transylvania, they want to see Dracula’s castle. Now, the fact that none of Vlad Dracula’s castles still exist (other than in ruins–and all the Stoker-invented castles are fictional) doesn’t stop them. They just find existing castles along major highways and say, “Hey tourists, look here, it is ‘Dracula’s Castle.'” Seriously, that is what happens.

What is your take on the tourism component of this global vampire phenomenon and the “tourist trap” aspect of it?

The people who are the most perplexed by the vampire tourism industry are the residents of Romania (Dracula’s Transylvania is now part of modern-day Romania). They know Dracula as Vlad Dracula, the 15th century tyrant who maintained control by impaling just about anyone who crossed his path. The notion that he was a vampire, or that the name Dracula would be associated with vampirism, was a completely unknown concept to Romanians until Communism ended there in 1989. The novel Dracula wasn’t even translated into Romanian until a few years ago. While stories of vampires are very common to Romanians, Dracula is simply something that is used to sell trinkets to tourists.

You describe both the Borgo Pass in Romania (shown at left) and the town of Whitby, England as idyllic places, although neither sounds that easy to reach. Should non-vampire enthusiasts make the trek for the scenery and landscape? Or are these strictly must-see spots for gothic travelers?

Hmmm. Whitby, definitely. Borgo Pass, maybe. While their descriptions in Dracula would lead you to think that they were both dark, foreboding places, in reality they are both quite the opposite. Whitby has a substantial tourist industry on its own, its (relatively) easy to go there, and there’s a lot to do. The Borgo Pass, however, is pretty remote. Outside of a Dracula-themed trip, there isn’t a whole lot to draw you there. Therefore, I’d hesitate to call it “must see.”

Some travelers draw inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” in Leaves of Grass. Should we be creeped out that Bram Stoker drew similar inspiration from Whitman for his classic Dracula tale?

Many are shocked to learn of the Stoker/Whitman connection. Stoker was acquainted with many famous literary figures of his day: Oscar Wilde (who was Stoker’s rival suitor for his wife’s hand), Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the widow of Charles Dickens. It wasn’t because Stoker was considered a great writer, but Stoker’s boss–the famous actor Henry Irving–was quite popular and attracted these people as friends.

Whitman was special, though. Stoker was obsessed
with Whitman going back to his days at Trinity College. Through his Irving connections, Stoker met with Whitman twice. You see lots of Whitman-esque ideas throughout Dracula, especially when a group of men band together in order to battle against their common enemy. Even weirder, if you look at Stoker’s description of Count Dracula, he looks like a hybrid of Henry Irving and Walt Whitman. Stoker imagined Count Dracula as the perfect man. When he was looking for models in his own life for that perfection, he thought of those two guys.

(Note: There’s plenty more about Whitman, Irving, Stoker and Count Dracula in Nuzum’s book.)

In the book, you refer to an American boy in vampire getup who “…could have performed his routine in front of people in Rome, Stockholm, Kinshasa, Moscow or Tokyo.” What are your thoughts on the universality of the vampire persona?

Just that. You can show a picture of a character wearing fangs, slicked back hair, and a large cape to just about anyone, anywhere, and they’ll know it is a vampire. Very few fictional characters have achieved that kind of cultural ubiquity.

Your vampire travels end with a visit to The Darkwing Manor in Oregon (shown below). Would you recommend it as a destination for die-hard Halloween lovers? And did you visit any other spectacular home haunts or freakish places during your travels?

Darkwing Manor is amazing. It is a couple I met on my tour of Romania who turn their home and property into a vampire-themed haunted house. It is bigger and better than most commercial haunted houses! Plus, you get a chance to explore the Rogue Valley area of Oregon, which is reason itself to travel to the area. Outside of when I am writing books, I general try to avoid freakish places. I don’t want to become a victim of whatever makes them freakish.

How many of the 216 vampire movies that you watched were viewed while traveling to and from your research-related trips?

Traveling to so many spots for research (Romania, Oregon, Los Angeles, New York, London), I spent a lot of time on planes. Therefore, I’d try to watch vampires movies for “research” during the flights. It didn’t work out so well. The problem was that after the first dozen or two movies they become very repetitive and boring. As a result, I ended up falling asleep on plane rides.

Beyond Europe and America, where else would you have gone in your search for truth about vampires?

You can find vampires anywhere–from darkened parks to foreign countries to chain restaurants to someone crossing their fingers to keep someone away. All you have to do is look.

All photos courtesy of Eric Nuzum. Check out additional vampire photos from Eric’s travels, read an excerpt from the book and learn more at The Dead Travel Fast. Eric will be appearing at Politics and Prose in DC this evening.