21 Feb

Jeri Klein

Vampires are real and have taken up residence in the good ole U. S. of A. but fret not. There are two people right here in the states who have made it their mission to hunt these elusive creatures of the night. That’s the premise of Vampires in America, the 2-hour special on discovery+ and Travel Channel that has taken the internet by storm. 

Thanks primarily to word of mouth, this (not so) little program about the undead who walk among us is well on its way to becoming a cult-classic. After watching (and re-watching) the show, we can see why. It’s well-produced, (something we don’t always see in such programs) with solid pacing that mirrors a good old-fashioned horror film. But what really makes this show stand out amidst the sea of monster hunting programs is its focus on the vampire hunters themselves: Eric Streit and Marcel Von Tingen. 

We recently had the pleasure to chat with Eric Streit, who graciously indulged all our questions on vampires, vampire hunting, and other worldly beings that may or may not exist, with the storytelling prowess one would expect from a modern-day Van Helsing. 

A Vampire Hunter Is Born

Eric Streit and Marcel Von Tingen at a Vampire Burial Site

The Screening Space: How did you become a vampire hunter? Did you have an encounter with one? 

Eric Streit: I began seriously researching the possibility that vampires were real after an encounter with a vampire at Castle Menzies in Weem, Scotland in 1988. 

That being said, my inclination toward becoming a vampire hunter started much earlier in life. I was raised to be skeptical and question everything, while simultaneously holding forth the notion that anything is possible. 

I grew up in Kentucky and my family told stories of vampires, Bigfoot-like creatures, ghosts, haints (type of evil ghost or spirit), and the supernatural. When I’d question whether they were real, I’d be told to do the research. Often times, mythical creatures turned out to be real – or at least based on something real, but misidentified. 

For example: One summer, there was a frantic story that began circulating about a werewolf that lived at Island Creek, an isolated, wooded area not far from the house where I grew up in Paducah. People reported seeing it run across the street early in the morning or late at night. Adults talked about a hairy, monstrous creature that would sneak into their yard in the darkness of morning – always well after midnight. They’d claim to hear the werewolf howl – and people’s eggs and even their chickens, began to go missing. 

One morning, me and a gang of kids on our street decided to find the Wolfman. We set out for Island Creek. The oldest member of our troupe was Mark Helton, who was 12; I was the youngest, at 9 or 10. There were five or six of us – and we were looking all around Island Creek and the woods for clues. We found a campfire, eggshells, chicken bones, and a makeshift kind of lean-to shelter covered with branches and leaves. 

Just as we were getting ready to go into the shelter, we heard a ferocious howl. Of course, we all screamed and ran back home; sure, that we’d just survived an encounter with a werewolf – and told our mothers. When our fathers came home – several of them went down, my dad among them – to find the Wolfman. 

It turns out that he was a poorly dressed hobo, down on his luck, with long hair and a big beard who was living by the creek, taking some time off before heading off to wherever the trains might take him next. My grandmother started feeding him; several of the men gave him clothes, shoes and a razor – and pretty soon, our “werewolf” became quite human. He moved on fairly quickly, but always stopped to visit when he was passing through. MawMaw always fed him, and the men of Homewood Avenue always kept clothes and shoes for him. 

He turned out NOT to be a werewolf - BUT – it was me and the other kids on the block who did the investigation that figured it out. 

A story that I’d always thought was made up nonsense was one my mother told me about the “Kentucky Blue People” – a family who all had blue skin…not just a slightly green tint… but their skin was BLUE. I thought she was making it up – but she took me to their store when I was five or six years old, and all the Fugate family were, in fact, very blue. They sold postcards, posed for photos, and made quite a nice living by exploiting their blue skin. Decades later, I learned that they actually had an unusual medical condition that caused their blood to be brown, which in turn made their skin blue. 

Seeing with my own eyes, at a very young age, what I thought was a tall tale made me prone to believe that other tall tales, legends, and stories that were considered false, made up, or impossible – might also be true. 

My love of the original 1931 film, Dracula (which I watched as often as it came on with my father), piqued my interest in vampires. I would go to the library to read every book on the subject. It was interesting to me that most cultures have tales of vampires – and that governments, the Catholic Church, law enforcement and the general public commonly believed in them until the 19th century. The publication of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – and the legend and lore that came from that book - quickly led the world to stop believing in the undead. 

TSS: You mention that you carry around a dental mold from an old vampire given to you by your mentor. How did you meet him or her? 

ES: My mentor is a man named Jack. We always called him “Captain Jack.” I don’t want to give his last name publicly, because he’s still alive and recently turned 96. I met him through word of mouth – and eventually connected with him in 1993. He took me on investigations for four years, then I decided to move west, and he retired from actively hunting for vampires. He gave me the molds, which were given to him by his mentor. 

Stalking the Undead in the Southwest

Vampire Hunters in America Poster

TSS: Vampires in America focuses on vampires in Arizona. What is it about that particular state that attracts them? Is it something about the soil? Since they require earth with a higher ammonia content and Arizona does have quite a bit of agricultural areas, could this be the reason why they have their hunting grounds there?  

ES: Starting in the mid-20th century, with the decline of river and train travel and the rise of the automobile - vampires travel routes migrated from the Mississippi River and other major waterways to Route 66. Vampires in America needed to be able to hunt their prey without being caught; so solo travelers along the “Mother Road” drew them from St. Louis and New Orleans – and they began to follow Route 66. 

It’s interesting how ghost stories, legends of hauntings and other lore tend to grow over centuries sometimes – but soon after Route 66 became the primary way to travel across the country by automobile – ghost stories, tales of strange sightings, unusual activity and disappearances began almost immediately. Vampires discovered that Route 66 was the perfect place to find solo travelers. 

They thrived along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles from the time it opened in 1926 until it closed down in 1985. Then, Interstate 10 became the primary route. Fewer people traveled along the old two-lane highway; businesses closed – and vampires who had long enjoyed easy pickings suddenly found themselves in a bind. Many went into hibernation; and are only now beginning to awaken and regroup. 

Tucson isn’t the only city. There are vampires along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Route 66, and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. 

As far as soil goes; Arizona’s soil has little to do with why vampires are there. We have found out of place soil, inconsistent with the terrain we are investigating, in spots where we believe there are vampires all over the world. Testing reveals that this out of place soil is consistent with the soil in Romania. We do not know yet why vampires travel with their “home soil.” It’s not always large amounts. We are not sure if it is like a teddy bear or security blanket, or if there’s a physical need for them to have it. But it’s an interesting thing that we often find. 

Of Myths and Legends

Close Up of Bela Lugosi as Dracula

TSS: Besides soil content, what else attracts vampires? Apparently, they have a period of hibernation. How do they know when it is time to "feed" again? 

ES: We think that vampires come out of hibernation when they have depleted all the nutrients and moisture that keep them alive while they are hibernating. The closer they are to a body of water, the more nutrient rich and moist the soil will be – and the longer they can survive while hibernating. 

TSS: According to legend, vampires are incapable of reproducing. However, has there ever been an instance where you have run into a hybrid species? If so, where? 

ES: You have to remember that a lot of the legends were created specifically because they wanted to make the human race believe that vampires are fictional creatures. We are not entirely convinced that vampires cannot re-produce. We haven’t yet been able to prove that they DO reproduce; but a lot of the legend and lore were created by vampires to make them appear to be myths, legends and fiction. 

TSS: There are many other creatures like vampires such as Bigfoot that have become a part of popular lore. In your opinion, are there any other cryptids that exist?  

ES: Scientists discover “new” insects and animals all the time. It’s important to remember that these creatures are not actually “new” – they are simply “undiscovered” until now. Scientists have recently discovered skeletal remains of yet another type of hominid that existed as recently as 10,000 years ago. 

In the distant past, humanity was a lot more diverse. 300,000 years ago, homo sapiens (us) lived alongside an estimated eight now-extinct species of humans. We are convinced there is a 9th species that is still with us today – we call them “Hominid Vampyrus” - and they have done a masterful job hiding in plain sight. 

The Further Adventures of Vampire Hunters in America

Eric Streit and Marcel Von Tingen Showcase Their Vampire Hunting Kit

TSS: Assuming Vampires in America gets picked up for a full season (and we hope it does!) what can we expect to see in the series that we didn’t see in the special? 

ES: In my perfect world, we will be able to interview a vampire on camera. 

If we are fortunate enough to get a full season, our dream scenario would be to follow their original U.S. migration route down the Mississippi River, from St. Louis down to New Orleans – and there’s also a lot of value to being able to travel and investigate Route 66. 

Either one of those options make sense, and there are pros and cons to both. The advantage of going down the Mississippi is that it’s more populated, cities are closer together – and I think we’d find more stories; older stories that could lead us to a coven or lair. Route 66 is more spread out, much more sparsely populated and might be more challenging.

On the other hand – Vampires made the Mississippi River their primary route in the 19th and early 20th century. They were on Route 66 from the late 1920’s until 1985, which is more recent. 

I could keep listing advantages and disadvantages to both options for a long, long time. We would obviously welcome any opportunity to investigate vampires, wherever the trail might lead us. 

Since Vampires in America aired – we have received emails, messages, and communications from hundreds of people. Some want to share leads and believe they know where vampires might be located. 

A young man in Kansas has presented what we think is enough credible evidence to investigate. Kansas City is the geographic center of the United States, and it was a major hub for train travel in the 19th and 20th century – which we have not explored in great detail and should certainly be looked into. There are some interesting things happening in Wichita that should be explored. 

There was a man in his 70’s in Cave City, Kentucky that reached out and shared experiences very similar to things I discovered in Kentucky decades ago. The state has a lot of wide-open spaces, caves, many rivers and excellent terrain that appeals to vampires. 

Of course, there have been a lot of crank messages, people saying what we do is crazy, that we are nuts… typical things that don’t surprise us. We try to ignore those folks and focus on our research and investigations. 

There have also been calls from those claiming to be working for vampires, suggesting that we stop searching or we might find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position. When I say calls, I mean telephone calls. It’s not hard to find us on the internet – but it’s interesting to me that the only phone calls have been from people who claim to work for vampires. Somebody is interested enough to track down our phone numbers and make a phone call, or several menacing phone calls – which suggests we are on the right track. 

My hope is that we’ll receive a message from an actual vampire inviting us to sit down and talk. 

So...You Want to Be a Vampire Hunter?

Charlie Brewster and Peter Vincent of Fright Night

TSS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a vampire hunter?  

ES: Vampire hunting is not really a career; it is a calling. One does not make money researching and investigating vampires. It’s important to find a career that requires travel – preferably company-paid travel, in order to conduct global investigations. It’s a big world, and there are stories and clues in every country. There are not a lot of believers, and those whom we most need to convince – law enforcement, politicians, civic leaders – are pre-disposed to believing vampires are fictional creatures that only exist in books and movies.

If you are going to become a vampire hunter, develop thick skin, because there will be constant ridicule from almost everybody. 

That being said, it is fascinating to connect with people all over the world who believe they have encountered a vampire; every time we uncover a tale, a legend, or a potential sighting – it is quite exciting and gives us a boost. 

People who search for vampires are doing it for the same reason folks search for buried treasure, hidden gold, and lost fortunes. It is an adventure, and although we come up empty handed more often than not – when we DO find evidence or clues – there’s nothing more exciting. 

You can stream Vampires in America on discovery+, Travel Channel, Sling TV, Yideo, Amazon Prime, and DirecTV.

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