"How do I explain it without sounding like a sap? We decided to be vampires together and drink each other's blood. We drank it first with alcohol, because we were worried about AIDS, and then we were just like, 'Fuck it, we're already having sex.' "
Heads look up from tables at an outdoor tea house in Hayes Valley. Danielle Willis is speaking -- quite loudly -- of her vampire à trois relationship with a male named Violet and a female named Dharma. She remembers the three sitting in her Richmond District apartment, drawing blood from one another's arms with big syringes, then smearing it all over each other, squirting it in mouths and other body openings. She unwraps an oat cake, tosses it to her 3-foot-tall Belgian wolfhound, and continues.
"I'm a writer, and I drink blood. It's such a Californian, like, 'That's my lifestyle,' kind of thing. But I don't want to go on record as saying I'm a vampire, in the full mythological sense of the word, because that would be stupid and pretentious, and then I'd have people coming up to me and going, 'Why don't you turn into a bat?' "
Although New Orleans, home of novelist Anne Rice and horror author Poppy Z. Brite, has some claim to the name, San Francisco is considered Vampire Central by most participants in the phenomenon. Nearly every night of the week, ghouls can be found twirling on dance floors of the city's goth clubs ("Death Guild," "Roderick's Chamber," "So What?," and "The Matrix" among them). Goth clothing boutiques dot Haight Street. Role-playing vampire games are acted out in the shadows of the Palace of Fine Arts.
But few take the concept to such public extremes as Danielle Willis and other members of the San Francisco blood sports scene, notably David Aaron Clark, Clint Catalyst, and, of course, Steven Johnson Leyba, whose bloodied backside was sodomized in front of San Francisco's elite, making a birthday party for a political consultant a nationally (in)famous event. The people who participate in blood sports have bodies that are lined with scars; their lives are lined with experiences that seem unbelievable. But they are, after all, people. They sleep, eat food, pet the dog; they had childhoods and continue to make their way through the ordinary routines of daily life. The reasons they perform publicly with blood are varied and deeply individual.
Danielle Willis may be familiar to some San Franciscans via her critically acclaimed 1993 one-woman autobiographical theater show Breakfast in the Flesh District, based on her 1990 book Dogs in Lingerie. Others may remember her from the Cafe Babar readings of the late 1980s, the beginnings of the local spoken-word renaissance. And lonely men may recognize her from 10 years of dancing at the city's strip clubs. But her parents will remember her as a nerdy little girl who brought home report cards that noted a need for great amounts of attention.
Her mother forbade her to play make-believe with the other kids, she says, because she would remain the characters she had assumed for days. When Willis was 12, her family followed her father, a noted economics professor, from Palo Alto to New York City.
"I was terrified of death at a very early age -- death and aging -- and I discovered that one could avoid that through vampirism. I think that aging and death might be voluntary," says Willis, who's wearing a purple velour catsuit that clings to her lanky figure, knee-high go-go boots, and a lavender biker jacket. "So far so good!"
She admits sinking her teeth into horror novels during her adolescence, especially ones about female vampires. She wore bone necklaces and handmade medieval clothing to school in Long Island, went to Jethro Tull concerts, and visited graveyards with girlfriends. "We were our own little Ren Faire," she says.
Expelled from Barnard College, and recovering from a nervous breakdown (over her first love, an older woman), Willis moved to California and the fringes of society, tripping on hallucinogens on the weekends at Disneyland. In the mid-'80s, she was working as a poodle groomer in Oakland, at a boutique called Poodles a la Pamela, when a writer friend suggested she could make more money as a stripper. She started dancing at the Market Street Cinema. The idea of slumming was intriguing to a child of privilege.
"I thought I had died and woken up in a John Waters movie. It was so sleazy that I just loved it!"
Her observations on sleaze wound up as material for Dogs in Lingerie and her subsequent show at the Climate Theater, where she painted a satanic pentagram on her bare chest in menstrual blood.
She appeared in articles about "sex-positive women" in Penthouse, Spin, and Esquire, at the height of the media fascination with white girls who spoke freely about sexual issues. She hosted spoken-word nights at Slim's nightclub South of Market, which featured such female transgressive writers as Kathy Acker and Lydia Lunch, darlings of the literary underground. But in the past few years her public appearances seem to have been confined to "blood orgy" shows in clubs, starring herself, her boyfriend, Violet, and a third party, usually a woman.
"For various reasons, our veins are too burnt out for performance purposes. Rather than sit there stabbing and hacking for two hours, we needed somebody with fairly virginal veins. The performances would last about five minutes. Basically, we'd take the blood out, spatter it all over the girl's tits, then we'd do this sort of like blood-smeared, faux lesbian thing, and then we'd get offstage, and folks would be happy. It was good clean fun! Usually there were catcalls, but the blood made 'em quiet. People would faint. Or throw up."