MISSING, PRESUMED UNDEAD

Susan Walsh appeared to be just another ordinary, aspiring American journalist.Then she stumbled upon what looked like being the scoop of a lifetime: a network of genuine, blood-drinking vampires. Her career seemed made. Then she disappeared
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Nutley, New Jersey sleeps a deep summer slumber. It is not a large place, yet its streets appear widened by the sunlight, their white-fronted buildings seeming to separate ever further as the sidewalk warms towards noon. On Washington Avenue, the expected sounds of modern American towns - police sirens, road drills, gunshots perhaps - are quite absent. Above the repair yards and hairdresser and lonely delicatessen, the rusting railway tracks and vast bleached crossroads, you can almost hear the telegraph lines swing.

People always used to spot Susan Walsh on the Avenue - on the sidewalk, cracked with weeds and puddled with oil, that kept passing trucks from her apartment door. With her sandals and sheet of blonde hair, she would stride by, leather jacket hanging open. As if from a less anxious age, she never felt the need for a car.

Yet somewhere on this strip of sidewalk, six weeks ago, Walsh suddenly slipped from view. Dressed in black on a blinding mid-summer Tuesday morning, she left her 11-year-old son David locked in with the air-conditioning, her purse and her keys, and stepped out to make a phone call and "meet a guy". She was seen for a few moments: walking past the next-door garage and the depot of wheezing buses, under the telegraph poles and over the crossroads, towards the nearest pair of public phones, which stood, unprotected by glass, right between the road and a truckers' car park. But no one saw her make her call.

Just beyond the phones, there is a grey and white building with no ground- floor windows. It is a bar; Walsh worked there. At 36, though, she had been looking beyond sticky late shifts and a single bedroom over a tarmac yard. On the mornings when she could, Walsh used to catch a bus on the Avenue and escape across 20 minutes of freeway to New York. She was halfway through a master's degree in English at New York University. Between seminars, she darted down the block to the offices of the Village Voice, the city's prestigious weekly paper. There, she scrabbled for reporting jobs, research jobs, fact-checking, anything. Sometimes David came too, and did his homework on the computer in the next newsroom cubicle.

In the year before she disappeared, all of this had been starting to pay off: a couple of stories published, a summer of work experience, even a credit as "research associate" on a book by two Voice staff that came out in June. Walsh was so thrilled by this last that she hawked a sack of copies along Washington Avenue, swinging in and out of the sparse-shelved Nutley shops with a slash of a smile beneath her wary blue eyes. A fortnight later, when the Missing Person posters for her went up in the same shops, some people thought they were part of the book promotion.

Walsh had acquired a project of her own as well. James Ridgeway, her mentor at the Village Voice, had heard that blood was going missing from New York hospitals; he suggested she look into it. Walsh spent days on the phone, and weeks criss-crossing the shadowed Victorian streets of the East Village. Eventually, breathlessly, she came to him with the strangest explanation: vampires.

The story she sent Ridgeway read like bad horror. Walsh claimed, astonishingly, to have found actual adults, with office jobs, drinking other adults' blood in their cramped New York flats. Sometimes they stole it from the hospitals; most of the time, they bit and sucked - with fangs - just like Bela Lugosi. Ridgeway had hoped for a credible scoop; he was disappointed. "She got totally absorbed with the vampire thing, the theories, the energy flows. The article she wrote wasn't very astute." Walsh was asked for a rewrite.

Then, over the winter, the pager she carried around started going off. Not just a few times a day, but every few minutes, a trill amplifying from irritation into menace. Men had always clung to Walsh, with her fine hair and easy talk; her former husband, David's father, still lived in the apartment below. This time, though, she got scared. She told friends, yet would not identify her caller. As she struggled with the rewrite she developed a stomach ulcer. On 14 July, Walsh's pager rang halfway through an interview. "Oh, that must be my stalker," she said. Two days later she was gone, and has not been seen since. Failing to hear from her, Walsh's mother called the Nutley Police Department. Four weeks ago, in their slow- spoken country way, they announ- ced that they were investigating vampires.

NEW YORK is a vampire's kind of town. It has a Vampire Museum, Vampire Research Centre (22 years old), the largest Count Dracula Fan Club in the world (5,000 members), even an after-midnight cable talkshow for the fanged and blood-seeking. There are vampire club nights (The Realm, The Bat Cave) and bands (Nosferatu, Type O Negative). The tidemark left by this decade's wave of vampire product - Anne Rice's novels, the film of Interview With The Vampire, Coppola's Dracula - seems higher here. Black capes and pale skin are close to fashionable in the soupy summer air of the East Village, its blood-red apartment buildings reputedly the vampires' favourites. Ask a resident, and they say, "There's one on my block ..."

Most of this is rather silly. Among brace-straightened teeth and tans all things gothic have their tritely rebellious appeal. The queue for The Realm three Fridays ago had yards of cobweb tattoos and black foundation - and not a trace of vampire deadness in all the eager student eyes. Inside, it was like the Rocky Horror Show, or bad mid-Eighties MTV: dry ice, drum thuds, boys leaning proudly by the bar in their "God Is Dead" T-shirts. After an hour, the DJ took off his leaden doom rock and put on a perky bit of Blur. Everyone rushed the dance floor.

Finding actual vampires requires better contacts. I tried a shop selling gothic clothes in the middle of the East Village. "Yeah, we get lots coming in," said the woman behind the counter, oddly wizened and not entirely convincing. A rack crammed with capes in velvet and satin stood by the door; they were $250 each. "My boss makes them to order," the woman said, "but people don't always remember to pick them up. They're not very good at keeping scheduled time."

Across the street, her boss's own shop was better. Gold-painted bannisters dropped away from the pavement glare and twisted through a sunken doorway into cool darkness. Water dripped from a blister in the ceiling; past a smoulder of incense, the corner turned to reveal an abandoned basement theatre, painted black and piled with a witch's chaos of glazed skulls, old clothes, occult books, capes and coffin-shaped jewels. At the back, where the old backstage tunnelled away into the shadows, stood a middle- aged woman with red hair and a shiny grey blouse. "I'm the witch of the East Village," she said.

The Reverend Lady Armida has many vampire products. She stocks their pewter blood vials, and tiny ceremonial knives for breaking the skin. When Susan Walsh disappeared, a local television station came and interviewed her about her customers. "You're wasting your time looking for them during the day," she told me, wrinkling her nose. "They work at night. Some of them work in hospitals - conveniently." I felt a queasy thrill, equal parts anticipation and anxiety. She paused, and let a croak into her voice: "They do kill people, you know. I think Walsh got done in by a degenerated man. I'm working on trying to find out where she's stashed." Her assistant, a hairy man in shorts, cut in over her: "If someone was nosing about in my business and I didn't want it, they might disappear. Maybe she stuck her nose in the wrong place. In New York it's pretty easy to disappear."

Lady Armida rang up a vampire for me. It took him two hours to arrive (he called to say "traffic"). The basement's fan clicked back and forth; the jittery afternoon bled away. Then Sebastian was there in the doorway: a coal-black top hat, a beard, a dandyish flop of hair, and the most enormous frilly red shirt. He bounced lankily on to the sofa beside me. He gave me a business card, for his fang-making and vampire-networking company ("Sabretooth's Vampire Event Line - Your Connection To The Underworld"). He was from California and planning to vote for Bob Dole. "There's fashion vampires and there's real ones," he said, "who are very few. I haven't transcended [sic] into real vampire yet."

Sebastian did not appear to have fangs. He lectured away about the "dark passions" expressed in vampirism, its relevance to "all cultures". The rest of the interview yawned ahead. Then I asked about blood. He slowed down: "I've tried the blood-drinking thing ... And it's really overwhelming ... It's like drinking Ecstasy, plus every sexual sensation." No hint of a joke crossed his face. A blurred line had been crossed from kitsch into creepiness. "I was a real preppie; I went to boarding-school. Then I came to New York, and look what happened to me." He smiled, opening his mouth wider. Towards the back, about half an inch long, and sharp, his fangs were ready.

Sebastian said he liked to bite necks. He drank a few ounces at a time: "It's like a very special wine. You sip it. You can taste different ethnic types." He got tested for HIV "every 35 days"; he did not like to be bitten. With 900 others, he belonged to an organisation called Vampire Connection. It had "covens" in, among other cities, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles. In New York, he said, "we have a Catholic priest, two pastors, lawyers, one of the top executives in Citibank, Republican politicians, people who just like the blood fetish." The Citibank building was next to my hotel; I pictured white shirts with crimson stains. "There's one guy who works in a medical facility, and he brings in bags of blood, right after it's been tested."

The vampires gathered in secret every few weeks for "feeding", he continued. The basement where we sat had shrunk to a bubble of strange words: I was writing them down, but barely absorbing them. Sebastian smiled to himself: "You wouldn't even notice - the back of movie theatres, in restaurants. We have one particular Italian restaurant here, where the owner is ... sympathetic." There was a strict hierarchy: the vampires who fed, the "minions" who facilitated the feast, and the "herd", who were bled. There were four or five members of the herd to each vampire. All consented: "It's like dominants and submissives," he said, as if explaining the rules of American football. "It's a free feeding pool."

There was worse. Sebastian described his first visit to a "sanctuary" feed. "They had a girl strapped to a bar, all tapped up with a tube coming out of her arm, and people could just drink from it ..." His big eyes went distant; I did not want to look at them. "She was so into it. I'm still wondering about it - I'm a normal guy. I was." He was a foot from me on the sofa, broad-shouldered and pale. Lady Armida had disappeared into the back of the shop. Customers had stopped coming in. "I'm dating a girl who's very conservative," he went on. "I haven't tested her yet. I'll go to bite her and she'll freak out." He laughed. Five minutes later, he said he had to leave for a vampire role-playing evening that he was organising; did I want to come along? I called a friend to come with me.

The gathering was in a hotel in New Jersey, a few miles from Walsh's last sighting. Sebastian drove his clanking old Mustang fast across New York as dusk crept into its canyons. Rattling over the old roads of the meat-packing district, he sensed "a smell of old meat". After half an hour we pulled off the freeway into the hot, half-empty car park of a Holiday Inn, clicking with cicadas. Inside, in the freezing air and surgery lights, a noticeboard by the stairs announced a "Dark Carnival" in the Hickory Room (Empire Investment were in the Oak Room).

The hired room was long, dark, and entirely empty of menace. Torn strips of muslin hung from the ceiling; under them, two dozen people stood around in small, stiff groups. A stereo in one corner played comically unthreatening music - all muffled baritone and guitar fog. There were crisps and Coke. "It's not happening yet," said Sebastian, and walked off. A woman in a balldress asked me if I knew Morrissey back in England. A few young men stalked around, arms crossed over their chests, Dracula-style, trying out bad Transylvanian accents. Sebastian explained that this was role- playing, not a real vampire feed, and that not enough people had turned up to play properly. He sat outside the room, carving fangs from dental resin for a teenage girl with red hair. A wedding party from downstairs drifted by, bulky Italian-American men in tight suits. A teacher dressed as Christopher Lee began telling them about Dungeons and Dragons. At 11pm I told Sebastian I was phoning for a taxi.

"Do you want to see how to bite?" he said quickly. He and the red-haired girl, who was suddenly smiling, got up. He gestured to follow, and they walked off along a bright corridor. The girl's best friend wanted to come too; Sebastian waved her away, and bundled us through a fire door on to a concrete stairwell. His voice was quite even as he held the girl, who leant deliciously into him and rolled her head to expose the neck: "The jugular runs here." He traced the blue beneath the flesh. "Break that and she's dead." The girl leant further into him; he towered over her, still playing the instructor. "They usually just lay there. You can tie them up if you want." He rubbed her neck, which was very white, and pointed at its base: "Biting down here is a lot more concealable. You don't go down at an angle. You sharpen your teeth first." His eyes caught the stairwell lights; they glistened. He was slightly breathless now, a catch in his voice: "Can you excuse me for a minute?"

SUSAN WALSH went looking for vampires the same way as I did. She heard about The Realm, queued with the students, and searched the corners away from the dance floor for someone more sinister. "Are you guys vampires?" was her opening gambit.

The first one she met, around September, was a skinny, sleepy man from the East Village called Vlad. He was older than Sebastian, about 40, and preferred to use a razor blade and the soft underside of the arm. Walsh followed Vlad to his apartment, out beyond the East Village among the great grey towers of public housing. Up under the eaves with his skulls and rottweiler, five shuddering flights of failing stairs from the street, no one else could hear them talk. And Vlad always kept his curtains drawn.

"Cities are a good place," said Vlad when I met him. "If you get hungry there are a lot of willing victims." As a child, he said, he drank blood from his friends' cuts: "It always tasted so good." He sat very still as he spoke, in his bedroom, drawing out the syllables. "Some blood tastes very sweet, very sweet nectar. I just drank last night." His rottweiler padded in from the next darkened room and began licking my wrist. "You seem a little nervous," said Vlad.

Walsh told him her article would be published on Hallowe'en. Then her editors at the Village Voice baulked at what she wrote; eight months later, Vlad appeared in print somewhere else, in Red Light, the book for which Walsh had acted as researcher. The chapter was called "Blood Sports", and was illustrated by a captioned photograph of Vlad and his razor. A few weeks later Walsh was gone. What did Vlad think had happened to her? "She lived out in Jersey..." His drawl slackened. His bedroom curtains flicked in the evening breeze, children still rushing about in the street below. "Why would a bunch of East Village vampires go all the way to Jersey when there are 8 million people to feed off here?"

Walsh, he said wearily, was in hiding, or had killed herself, or was in an institution. Then he changed the subject. Despite his hastiness, his faraway gaze, and his warnings, delivered quite straight, not to "let me get to your head", I was inclined to believe him. The Nutley Police Department had not ruled out vampires, but nearly everyone else - Walsh's parents, her friends, her editors, the vampires themselves - had done so. Only Lady Armida, with television crews sniffing around and capes to sell, had seriously suggested kidnap or murder by horror movie means. Vlad let me leave too. I took the stairs fast, though.

THE LIFE was more likely drained from Susan Walsh, in whole or part, by vampires of a less theatrical sort. They did not haunt the East Village or have fangs or even wear black, but sat, squat and everyday, on barstools in New Jersey. Walsh may have been a devoted mother, aspiring and open, but she also made a less wholesome living, as a go-go dancer, stripped to a jiggling bikini so others could feed from her.

Walsh's path to the windowless bar on Washington Avenue was a long plummet she could never quite arrest. Born in 1960, she grew up middle-class a few towns away. When she was still at school, her mother took her on Women's Lib marches. In 1979 she gained a place at a state university in New Jersey to study English and Communications. She wrote for the college newspaper: "She had a lot of promise," says Al Sullivan, who was the editor. "She was always looking for bigger stories - not that there were Watergate- style stories there."

But Walsh had another, more double-edged quality: "People don't stop falling in love with her," says Sullivan. "People get addicted to her. Her boyfriends won't leave her alone." She left college in 1984 with a head full of crises and a belief, according to Sullivan, that she was being stalked by an ex-lover who was in the CIA. She was also penniless. Quite quickly, for reasons none of her friends precisely understood, Walsh decided to seek a solution to both these problems in what seemed the well- paid anonymity of the sex industry.

"When I first started stripping," she wrote in her contribution to Red Light, "I thought I was something really special ... I practised slick moves in the mirror ... The men's smiles were my payment: the dollar bills they stuffed between my breasts were just extras. I was a dancer, and they liked me." In 1985 Walsh starred in a live sex show on 42nd Street in New York; she invited her old classmates and professors.

"She enjoyed the sensationalism of her life," says Jill Morley, a documentary film-maker who interviewed her for a programme on the sex industry. "She created this drama." Being exposed on stage required armour of a kind, though, and Walsh took to drinking. She was already being prescribed lithium for possible manic depression. Then the beery gazes of her customers lost their appeal, and became hateful: "I lie on the dressing-room stools staring up at the ceiling," she wrote, "running images through my mind ... me taking a blade to a swollen cock and slicing it up like a cucumber for salad."

She would escape by writing. Walsh had always produced poems and odd short stories about brittle, determined women; now she learnt to churn out copy for management magazines and engineering journals. She stopped drinking. "She wanted to deal with the situation," said her father, who had moved away but still saw her frequently. By 1987, she was married and working at home in her narrow Nutley apartment, watching her son grow.

The need for money undermined her. She could see the bar along the Avenue from her window, with its pink sign ("FANTA-ZEE'S GO-GO LOUNGE"), and its promise of $200 every night, the same money she got from the magazines for a week - when they got round to paying her. Walsh began to splash around the shallows of the porn swamp again, writing dirty tales for a New York magazine called Screw. When her marriage died, she began a relationship with its publisher, Al Goldstein.

Her efforts to escape only sank her further back in. The master's degree Walsh began in 1994 was expensive: she needed dancing to pay for it. Magazines and newspapers wanted stories about sex, as usual, and she had tales and contacts to sell. When James Ridgeway, a journalist on the Village Voice, began researching Red Light, which was mostly about the New York and New Jersey sex industry, Goldstein introduced him to Walsh. For three years she guided Ridgeway to dancers, dominatrices, prostitutes and porn actors. Meanwhile the gap between her writing and other activities shrunk to nothing: she wrote for the Village Voice about strippers at bachelor parties in the first person.

"We started saying, 'You can edge out of all this,'" says Ridgeway. "I tried her on a couple of political things at one point, but they didn't work out." When his book was done, she hired herself out to do the same for a German documentary crew making a film about Russian immigrants becoming go-go dancers. She was about to start work for the BBC on a similar programme when she disappeared.

The danger was clear: earlier this year, Walsh was twice threatened by "agents" for the dancers she was putting on television. Go-go bars in New Jersey, which has more than any other state, are usually taken to be under Mob control. Dancers are sometimes used as bait in Mafia deals, making them more vulnerable still. As Marty, a go-go club manager, put it in Ridgeway's book, "The girls you don't see any more, it's because these girls found something out or were let in on it, or maybe overheard a conversation about something that was going down. Then if that girl wants to turn around and get out, they'll get rid of her or whatever."

Most dancers use a driver to take them to clubs and, if needed, protect them. Walsh was too poor - and too sure of herself. An ambush by the naked phone booths on the Washington Avenue sidewalk is not hard to imagine. Yet the threat to her had become as much internal as external. Last year she developed an eating disorder; pounds fell away from her. She began taking Xanax, a new tranquilliser; mixed with alcohol, it can cause delusions and hallucinations. Then she stopped taking her medicine altogether. One day in New York, Ridgeway says, she just collapsed in the street. He paid for her to see a psychologist: "She was getting worse and worse. I had to try something."

It failed. Six weeks on, Nutley police say their Missing Person investigation is at a dead end. The best Walsh's friends hope for is that she has had some kind of breakdown, leaving her wandering the streets, disoriented; the worst, suicide, or a deliberate embrace of one of the fatal possibilities her life had acquired. When Walsh's father says, "She was struggling," his voice has an unsurprised flatness, a resignation born of years, not weeks, fearing for his daughter. "Her mood was reflecting the stress she was under."

It would be more comfortable, perhaps, to attribute her fate to the aberrant act of some unspeakable vampire. Blood and violence and a shiver of the taboo distract from a more prosaic, relentless decline. Like the men with fangs who so drew her, Walsh played a role, but hers was her whole way of life, her work - not just a diversion after work. All those corroding hours in the pebbledash cell of Fanta-Zee's, locked in by economics and the wants of ordinary men, were more horrible in their way than the ordeal of the herd in any sanctuary. !

Comments