If you mention the word “vampire” to most people, they're likely to conjure up images of Bram Stoker's blood-lusting Transylvanian nobleman Count Dracula. Or of the Hammer Horror films, Christopher Lee and dark, imposing castles nestled deep in the Carpathian mountains.
But the home of the modern vampire is undoubtedly New Orleans, the state capital of Louisiana, and the place where a vibrant melting pot of religious beliefs, cultures and languages has emerged to create an exotic backdrop for the myth of the American vampire.
This is thanks in no small measure to the New Orleans-born novelist Anne Rice, who penned the best-selling "Vampire Chronicles", a series of modern gothic novels made famous by the very first instalment, the Louisiana-set "Interview With The Vampire". First published in 1976, it finds a vampire, Louis de Pointe Du Lac, telling the story of his life to a reporter, and how in 1791 he was turned into a vampire by the charismatic Lestat de Lioncourt.
In the book, Rice describes the city vividly as the perfect environment for vampires. “This was New Orleans. A magical and magnificent place to live. In which a vampire, richly dressed and gracefully walking through the pools of light of one gas lamp after another might attract no more notice in the evening than hundreds of other exotic creatures.”
The book was written as Rice was grieving over the death of her six-year-old daughter Michele of leukaemia. It's thought that Rice created the child vampire Claudia in the book as a coping mechanism. Though initially rejected by many publishers, it was eventually signed and became a bestseller, and then in 1994 made into a Hollywood film with Tom Cruise as Lestat and Brad Pitt as Louis.
Writer Charlaine Harris set her Southern Vampire Mysteries (which were adapted for the series ‘True Blood’) in the fictional town of Bon Temps in Louisiana, creating echoes of the sticky heat of New Orleans, and keeping her vampires most definitely southern. (Harris's heroine Sookie Stackhouse even travels to New Orleans in the book ‘Definitely Dead’, which she describes as a "city of the night").
Meanwhile 2009's ‘Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant’, adapted from Darren Shan's Vampire Blood trilogy, was shot in New Orleans and neighbouring Baton Rouge.
Other writers to have embraced the notion of the southern vampire are New Orleans-born Poppy Z Brite, whose debut ‘Lost Souls’ finds in it a cast of vampires, and Jewelle Gomez with her ‘The Gilda Stories’ also hailing from Louisiana.
But no one has taken the idea of New Orleans being the vampire capital of the U.S. more to their hearts than the people of the city themselves. There's the Vampire Film Festival which takes place in October, while the Boutique du Vampyre at 633 Toulouse Street has been described as "the Macy's of all things netherworld" and sells vampire wines and even a vampire hot sauce. And if you're in the city in October, you can hit Endless Night, a sumptuous "vampire ball".
It all fits remarkably well with the city's history of embracing the macabre, of voodoo, black magic and the supernatural. Their cemeteries are known as "cities of the dead", as from the times of the early settlers in the 1800s, bodies could not be buried in the ground due to the high water table. As the coffins would fill with water and float, they had to build above-ground mausoleums instead.
With such imagery, it’s hardly surprising that Rice was inspired in the way she was to make New Orleans so central to her re-telling of vampire myth. And doubtless, she won't be the last to do so.