After midnight on a Chandleresque Hollywood side street, a glitteringly bizarre crowd gathers beneath a neon sign that beckons down a candle-lit passage into a hidden courtyard. Pale men in frock coats and women in torn lace and old velvet mingle with gorgeously androgynous beings in black. Extravagantly lined eyes and darkly painted lips create a surreal beauty that becomes disturbing when an unexpected smile reveals . . . fangs.
This is the thriving "other world" of Southern California, where denizens of the dark relish preoccupations with death that range from the playful to the pathological, where joy is derived from cruising in vintage hearses, collecting taxidermy specimens, partying in cemeteries and acting out scenarios from role-playing games. This is a world of all things Gothic.
"We are all caught up in the drama of darkness," says Ed Fitch, writer, occult expert and Gothic salon-ist whose Victorian house is a popular gathering spot for the doomed but fabulous. "Mystery, magic and the dark side of beauty intrigue us." Fitch is the Great Gatsby of Goth: many practitioners find their way to parties on his lawn in the small Orange County town of Midway City. "It's good to exercise your psyche by stepping into another world. It gives you the numinous feeling of being on the edge of eternity."
"Catrina Coffin" (her nom de tomb) lives closer to the edge of eternity than most. She is strictly nocturnal. President of the L.A. Hearse Society, she drives by night in either a '68 Cadillac hearse she calls "Charon" or a '48 Packard she's dubbed "Hades." Her turn-of-the-century L.A. house is decorated as a "horror museum." Each dawn, she beds down in a closed coffin. "It's quite comfortable," she insists.
One of the fastest-growing elements of this fascination are Gothic and vampire nightclubs. Any night of the week, somewhere in Los Angeles, black-clad crowds gather to drink Vampire wine (truly, it's imported from vineyards in the Transylvania region of Romania), dance to moody music and indulge their love of the macabre. In clubs like Bar Sinister, Coven 13, Absinthe, Vampiricus, the Fang Club, and Stigmata, it is eternally Halloween.
The realms of Gothic and vampire fantasists overlap like a Venn diagram: not all Goths are vampire fans, but everyone agrees that vampires are very Gothic. "Vampires represent the quest for eternal beauty" explains "Lucinda," president of the Loyalists of the Vampire Realm, an international fan club. Gothic is harder to define. It's complex and multilayered, like the nacre on a black pearl. It's a style, an aesthetic, a state of mind that encompasses everything ethereal, secretive and deliciously chilling.
Tricia LaBelle and Gavin Decker conceived Bar Sinister in Hollywood last summer as a "vamp alternative," cultivating a slightly older, mellower crowd. They have created a club with a vampire bordello theme, populated by otherworldly beauties in corsets, plunging decolletage and fishnet stockings, escorted by roguish lords of the danse macabre. "We're more Gucci and Prada with fangs," laughs Decker, 35.
Jack Dean, 31, considers himself a vampire, but by a rather loose definition. "On Jan. 28, 1993, I died in a motorcycle accident," he recounts solemnly. "I was resurrected, brought back to life with transfusions of other people's blood. That's the mythological definition of a vampire." The aftermath drew Dean into the vampire fantasy world, with its nihilistic hedonism, mysticism and doomed romance, and led to his creation of the Fang Club early last year. It's one of L.A.'s best-known fetes noir. "We're not racing toward the millennium; we're trying to step off that train," he says. "We're making our time here more exciting because we know death waits at the end."
Not all vampire fans are club-goers. Some pursue their interests privately, or act out their love in role-playing games like "Vampire: the Masquerade." Others haunt Dark Delicacies, a Burbank bookstore devoted to horror, or surround themselves with mementos mori: art from Galerie Morpheus in Beverly Hills, which represents "Alien" creator H.R. Giger and other eerie visionaries, or kitsch from Skeletons in the Closet, the souvenir shop of the county coroner's office.
Nancy Smith, 38, is L.A's doyenne of death. Her Melrose Avenue shop, Necromance, offers natural history specimens, casket-shaped jewelry boxes, preserved bats, reptile skeletons framed in shadow boxes, even human skeletons. For those who prefer a less biological approach to decorating, Patrick McGuire, 38, of Panoptikum in North Hollywood, has horror movie props, such as Bill Pullman's zombie coffin from "The Serpent and the Rainbow," spooky wrought iron chandeliers and funeral statuary. Panoptikum also hosts events for Goths and horror fans, including appearances of the League of the Vampiric Bards, an Orange County-based literary performance troupe.
Psychologist Katherine Ramsland, whose latest book is "Piercing the Darkness: Undercover With Vampires in America Today," is an authority on vampires, real and imagined. In her opinion, most people drawn to the darkness are not evil. "People who are attracted to this world are frequently very sensitive," she says. "They feel the world's pain. They are fantasy-prone personalities who have found an arena where they can exercise their imaginations in a spectacular way."
What could be more fitting in a city whose leading export is make-believe?