Millenial bloodhounds 

Katherine Ramsland and I are chatting, about guys, blood drinking, Keanu Reeves, the ring she inherited from a murderer who killed himself to become a more powerful vampyre.

You know, girl talk.

It could be a slumber party -- scary stories, giggling, she lets me try on her clothes, insists she's not sleepy and invites a boy over. Well, she's pretty daring. Her idea of fun is to walk through woods with a possible killer and party with people who crave blood.

You say potato.

As a kid, Ramsland slept with her arms folded across her chest and told people she was 403 years old. As an adult she became Anne Rice's biographer and penned companion works to her novels. But it wasn't some made-up Dracula story that would bring about Piercing the Darkness, Undercover with Vampires in America Today, her exposé of this labyrinthine subculture. It was a vanishing.

Susan Walsh was a go-go dancer trying to break into journalism (you try telling them, BA first, go-go later, but they never listen) who disappeared while researching New York's vampyre circuit. Ramsland was fascinated by the case and began integrating with the groovy ghoulie set to try to find Walsh.

Ramsland took vampire classes online, went to parties where strangers offered her their blood, and took nocturnal phone calls from a confessed blood drinker who refused to meet her, fearing he would harm her.

Yes, "refused to meet her." She's the one who asked.

Ramsland had a thirst that kept her up at night, seeking, soliciting, finessing strangers for information.

"I'm very interested in people and their stories," she says. The feeling that she was in danger, and the freedom of a recent divorce, propelled her.

The result was a cultural catalog that brings vampyres to light: Who are they? Where do they hang? Do they hang upside down? What are their politics?

Vampires are "the image of dangerous sex," Ramsland says. Fetishists, with their slave-master dynamic, corseted Victorian look and sexual role-playing, naturally overlap with vampires.

I thought a goth club would be the place to look, but Ramsland says they look similar but seldom blend. In fact, vampyres (the "y" indicates they are practicing) avoid goth theatrics to stay camouflaged.

Ramsland says Detroit has a large vampire culture and a lot of people came to her book signing when she was in Ann Arbor.

The camouflage aspect, she says, causes many gay men to identify with vampires -- they play to community standards while feeling outcast by day, and feed their desires by night.

Ramsland knows a gay vampyre who became a conservative minister as a cover. She wishes she had a camera when some fang-wearing bloodhounds told her sincerely, "We are the future of the Republican Party."

The clearest line is this: Goths and fetishists don't claim to drink blood. Most vampyres, Ramsland says, do not drink blood, but they will role play it. Some indulge, but it's for bonding, not nourishment, in groups called "feeding circles" which screen for disease and only drink from each other or themselves.

Most want no part of it.

Ramsland is a Ph.D. psychologist who wears fishnets and says, "I usually go out with the vampires at night," the way other people say they play racquetball.

I like her and don't want to appear cynical, but I wonder, the $75 custom fangs, the personas, the period drag ... isn't it just dress-up? Is being a vampyre just costuming?

"Yes," she says, "Vampires are about beauty, sensuality." They'll go to great lengths to get perfect detail in their elegant lifestyle, which amounts to community theater with the whole community participating.

Vampire games have replaced Dungeons & Dragons, but role-players don't end up tragically engulfed in it.

Ramsland sees the current vampire fad (see "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") as not only proof of its romance and a filler of the GenX spiritual deficit, but also as millennial.

At the century's end, this penchant for darkness will ebb away and more hopeful themes will take over. She's hit the vampire thing at just the right time and she knows it.

She's also convinced she has found Walsh's captor, but seems unafraid that "once you begin to hunt for vampires, the vampires will hunt for you," as she read early on.

She enjoys their flamboyant society and invites me to a social gathering, which I decline. Nothing personal, I tell her, I'm just not very trusting.

"Then why are you alone in a hotel room with me?" she asks.

I study her eyes for menace. They're solid black, constantly dilated. She admits, without being asked, that they're special effects lenses, a common vamp accessory. She loves a charade.

Still, she got me. Why did I trust her? Why did I put myself in this position? The therapist/vampyre hunter says it's the same reason she followed a possible killer to the woods. It's that thirst to take other people's stories -- and to hand over your trust to do it.

So, who is a real vampyre?

The greatest romance of it all, Ramsland says, is that you never, ever know.

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