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Where to begin? Obviously, I had to find out what Susan Walsh had been doing when she disappeared. From photos, I could see that she was a pretty blonde, tall and thin, with pale skin and long hair, and she had a way of getting people to talk. However, few of her acquaintances wanted to discuss her disappearance for fear of further endangering her should she still be alive, or because it was still an active investigation. One person, who refused to be identified, thought she had some serious mental problems. Only days before she disappeared, she had complained of mood swings. Don't bother with her relatives, I was told. They won't talk. So I had to do some digging.
In the New York Times, on August 10, 1996--some three weeks after her disappearance--reporter Frank Bruni decided to interview some vampires to see what kind of people Walsh had encountered. He went to the East Village, where she often hung out, to keep an appointment with a twenty-year-old vampire who calls himself Ethan Gilcrest. Surrounded by blood-red drapes of silk brocade in Ethan's apartment, Bruni took the typical (and tiresome) journalistic approach of playing up the sinister atmosphere by writing lines like, "There are sepulchral notes in his laughter and undercurrents of menace in his smile"--a smile that revealed elongated canine teeth. Ethan was quick to point out that he is not immortal and takes no prey, but he's "definitely" part vampire. He likes blood--which he calls "liquid electricity"--and dislikes the sun. He also has an unusual overbite.
In this article, Bruni went on to estimate the vampire population nationwide at several thousand, composed mostly of people underthirty. For some it's just a game, he wrote, for others a religion or a kinky sort of sexual identity. Briefly he described the custom-made fangs, Goth jargon, vampire clubs, bands, clothing, and special-effects contact lenses.
The only thing I learned from the article that might provide clues about Walsh's activities was the fleeting mention of her research--including an article on vampires that was never published. Eventually I would meet people whom she had interviewed, but for the moment, I had little to go on.
I heard from mutual acquaintances that Walsh had been talking with some vampire "squatters" in an East Village park for the article that was subsequently rejected (allegedly for being too sympathetic to the vampires). Although she was trying to change her life by breaking into journalism, she had danced in a New Jersey bar where she could have run into trouble, and she sincerely believed that dangerous people were after her. She told friends she was being followed, her phone was being bugged, and "they" were closing in. A few people thought she was just being paranoid. Others who had met with her on a regular basis perceived some truth in what she was saying. In her unpublished article, I learned, she had extensively quoted a man who ran a local vampire theater. I needed to find him.
Before she disappeared, Walsh had delivered her research notes to Sylvia Plachy and James Ridgeway for their book called Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry. They worked for the Village Voice, where Walsh was trying to place her own article. The book was about the pornography trade, seen through the eyes of insiders. It was easy to assume that Walsh's contributions had been for the chapter on "Blood Sports," as well as those about the go-go scene. In fact, the authors named Walsh as an invaluable guide into this transgressive arena and included several photographs of her. From these pages I learned not only about the kinds of people she had met, but also much more than I had known before about the lower circles of this realm of dark energy and heat.
The sex industry provides fantasy and atmosphere--which draws people of all kinds who seek the trappings of altered identities and a heightened sense of life. They can explore hidden aspects of themselves and fully indulge in whatever they discover. It goes just as far as the numinous edge of one's fantasies. Red Light presents the vampires simplistically (and incorrectly) as Goths in their mid-twenties, white, middle class, and having a taste for pale makeup and Victorian clothing. They hang out in clubs, predominantly in New York or San Francisco, where they congregate in back rooms and slit one another's skin to offer--or take--blood. For the most part, this is seen as an exchange of life energy. It's not so much about blood per se as about intimacy and excitement. Some of these vampires even form communities and screen new members for their HIV status.
In this book, Walsh described the go-go club as a place where the tensions between the sexes were dramatic. She admitted that she hated the way she was viewed and treated, and that her fantasies increasingly featured men she could mutilate. To her, it was a conflict between desiring power and also wanting the more familiar lack of power that came with being female. She both craved and despised the attention. She seemed confused.
Nothing in this book offered clues about Walsh's whereabouts, except perhaps a cryptic remark from one manager of a go-go club to the effect that the girls you "don't see around anymore" are the ones who "found something out that was going down." In other words, there are some dangerous customers, and dancers who get too close may end up sorry . . . or worse.
I was soon to learn from asking around in Manhattan's East Village that Walsh had been friends with a man named Christian, who had some association with the vampire world. I eventually read an article that he had written about vampirism that warned, "If you begin to hunt for vampires, the vampires will begin to hunt for you." He mentioned that Walsh had been trusted by the vampire community because she took them seriously, yet he thought that it was that very lack of skepticism that eventually had worked against her. He explained that she had revealed her activities among the vampires to club patrons who in turn confided to her that they were assassins for the Mafia and were involved in a government-connected vampire conspiracy that secretly controlled the world. According to Christian, they filled Walsh with paranoid thoughts and exploited her gullibility. Even so, Walsh grew ever more fearful, believing she had access to dangerous secrets that someone wanted. Then a customer at the bar where she danced began to stalk her. She thought he was a vampire connected with this conspiracy, and she talked to friends about going into hiding. She made calls only from pay phones and narrowed her sphere of trusted associates. Then on that fateful day, she walked down the block from her home to go make a call . . . and never returned.
According to Christian's account, since her disappearance, Walsh had been seen by streetwalkers who claimed she had said she was hiding from the vampires. Another person, who also wanted to remain anonymous, told me she had been seen being shoved into a car. After asking around, I discovered that many in the vampire community are certain that she's alive, and some even think she's safe, while others insist there was some basis for her paranoia--although not about them.
The vampires, they insist, were Walsh's friends. They cared about her. There were others who were after her. Yet I did find people who warned me about another possibility: that the vampires created the rumors about Mafia figures and drug runners to deflect attention from themselves. Most of these vampires will admit there are some predatory types among them, and none to whom I spoke really knew anything concrete about Susan Walsh--or at least would not reveal anything. I wasn't sure what to believe.
The police investigated and cleared the vampire community on the Lower East Side, but entertainment and talk shows like Sightings and Jenny Jones continued to play up the danger: If you seek out vampires, you'll come to harm. Beware. There may be no evidence against them, but there's no evidence that entirely absolves them, either.
What really happened to Susan Walsh? And would my own hunt for vampires provoke them to hunt for me? More important, where were they?