A binder of vampire fanfic cast my mother’s struggle with AIDS in a new light

I often joke to my friends that I’m a second-generation vampire nerd. My mom filled our home with Anne Rice, Vampire: The Masquerade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plastic fangs, Gothic art, and ironic pins declaring a willingness to suck blood. I was destined to become a vampire-loving geek — the first Halloween costume I chose myself was a Nosferatu-inspired black dress, ghost-white face paint, a trickle of blood applied by Mom, and red-pink hair to complete the look (I was 5). For years, talking about my vampiric lineage was a fun explanation for my growing fascination with Twilight. But in 2010, after losing my mom to AIDS-related complications, the inherited vampire obsession became a lens, one that helped me understand how she dealt with a world hostile to her existence.

My mom’s fascination with vampires predated her diagnosis, but not by much. She wrote her master’s thesis on the literary treatment of vampires in the 20th century. It was 1988, and only one professor in the department at Winthrop University believed vampires were worthy of literary study (an unbelievable claim today, given the continued relevance of Anne Rice’s work). Vampires became my mom’s safe space, and she cogently argued her points anyway, during a time when her own future seemed so uncertain. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, HIV was often a death sentence.

Her own fear of stigma and discrimination means I’m not completely sure when she contracted HIV. Her first husband, Peter, died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, but I only found out about her status by accident, and just two months before her death. So I never outright asked why she loved vampires; at the time, it would’ve been like asking a flower why it loves the sun. Her small smiles turned conspiratorial whenever we’d find a new vampire novel in a store, and her eyes were focused and attentive when I ranted about how much I loved Jonathan Lipnicki in The Little Vampire. The outright contempt she had for glittering vampires gave way to rants about the meaning of “creatures of the night,” full of gesticulations making her seem much taller than 5-foot-3. Vampires became a language in our home to explain fears, anxieties, dreams: I told her once I wanted to live forever, and she asked me if I thought I’d be lonely. The way she buried herself in every form of vampire fantasy she could find after losing Peter, and then my father, Geoffrey, passing away a few short years later, has led me to believe that their mythical tales were her way out of reality.

One world I keep returning to is the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. My mom, Geoffrey, and my godparents regularly played Dungeons & Dragons, but her fascination with the Vampire: The Masquerade drew her into online RPG forums and a larger community of like-minded vampire enthusiasts. Vampire: The Masquerade’s story extrapolates from our known world, embracing the dark, horrific aspects and encouraging players to embrace sex, violence, and danger as elements to play with rather than shy away from. The game has a confrontational streak; in the most recent edition of V:TM, released in 2018, its “Mature Content Warning” actually names AIDS first in a list of “darkness[es] in the real world.” My mom struggled to talk about her diagnosis, and these online communities, I think, gave her a space to sit with her feelings in ways she couldn’t otherwise.

Mom’s laptop went with her everywhere. Everyone knew she journaled most days, but she wasn’t forthcoming with the content. But toward the end of her life, I think part of her felt compelled to leave a piece of herself behind, as I inherited over 100 pages of role-playing-based fanfiction in a black 2-inch three-ring binder. The short-lived Kindred: The Embraced, a Vampire: The Masquerade TV series, was her backdrop. In a series of role-playing fanfic stories written back and forth through AOL chat, my mom recast herself as Julian Luna, one of the show’s protagonists (although pointedly gave him Geoffrey’s birthday: Aug. 14). Her online role-play partner inhabited the Kindred character Cash, a Gangrel vampire in Kindred. They both alternated voicing Morgaine and Joe, original characters created by my mother. In exchanges between vampire lovers pulled from both the television show and her own life, there are lines here and there that feel like her trying to rewrite her own life. “He’s never felt so vulnerable,” she writes, “and paradoxically never so free.” The risque text lines up with another moment from my own memory. When I was in my teens, I admitted to her that I was feeling embarrassed over reading and enjoying Twilight slash. She reassured me: imagination is a good thing.

A woman in her late 20s with short hair, black t-shirt, and shorts smiles for the camera while standing on a rock in the middle of a creek
The writer’s mother, photographed in the late 1980s
Photo: Courtesy of Eliza Alexander Wilcox

For my mom, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was major, and she hosted regular watch nights during its original run at our house. When Sarah Michelle Gellar walked into Sunnydale High for the first time in 1997, my Mom was two weeks shy of 37 and twice a widow; the premiere was only two years after Geoffrey died from AIDS-related complications. Most weeks, I stayed at my grandparents’ for a night to let her socialize, but on Buffy nights when I was home, my mom’s voice flew over my head — she sat on the couch, and I laid on the floor in front of the TV. Every episode was the The Rocky Horror Picture Show: She wolf-whistled when Spike sauntered on screen and chimed in on the believability of Giles’ historical rant. I was fascinated with Willow and Tara, naming two hamsters after them, which tickled her. I’ve dedicated many hours trying to wrestle those memories out of my brain, commit them to paper, and to try and make sense of them knowing now how much weight she carried then. I always come back to her feelings toward Angel and Spike.

Spike was a Billy Idol vampire fantasy come to life, and Mom loved Billy Idol. “Dancing with Myself” played on every car ride, becoming the first song I fully memorized, and the song whisked her back to memories of bouncing around the college concert scene with Peter. That love for Billy casts Spike in a fond light for me. His demeanor, his complicated relationship to love and sex, and his desire in his human life to make beautiful art in a horrifying world remind me of her. Spike, too, makes meaning for himself as life, as he knows it, is ripped away due to government intervention. There is not a simple one-to-one analogy, but the desire to annihilate vampires through government intervention resonates with a fear and isolation my mom faced.

My mom was a queer woman with AIDS. She spent her days working for a newspaper and unable to escape the reality that many saw AIDS as a moral punishment for their sexuality. AIDS became attached to gay men in ways that created shadows for a woman like her to hide in — even if it meant being forgotten there as well. She formed and lost her relationships with two queer men, and found herself parenting a child she was terrified would be taken away from her if people knew her HIV status. Her heteronormative privilege from her marriages only lasted if she never lived openly and got treatment. It’s hard not to see Spike’s willingness on the series to undergo experimentation to become part of Buffy’s world as an echo of my mom’s fears of being open with her sexuality and status: Would she have been told her existence was dangerous to me and become a medical guinea pig to quell the unease?

Rewatching the show after its initial run, she also volleyed criticism at Angel and his pained pining for Buffy. Her mouth would turn down, and she’d roll her eyes, perched in the left corner of our overstuffed couch and balancing a Dell laptop on her knees, likely on chat with her friends. I never got the fascination with Angel, so her disdain for him made sense to me — but I wonder if her dislike of Angel-Buffy grew from a season 1 sex-soul change. After the “true happiness” of having sex with Buffy, Angel transforms to Angelus, a mindless, bloodthirsty fiend with no regard for anyone or anything but his own sadistic pleasure. The choice sparks debate, even now, about how it portrays sex and love, and I see my mom struggling to enjoy a plotline geared around equating sexual desire with a demonic transformation.

But I worry most that she believed she was Angelus, and I was an innocent mortal caught in the fallout. I hope she knew that I could never fear her. I wish she’d seen that her death wasn’t going to save my world.

Rewatching the famous episode “The Body” now feels like an eerie prediction of the night my mom died. After a night out with friends for the first time in a month, my mom died quietly in her room, shortly after 10 p.m. that night. In “The Body,” Buffy discovers her mother, Joyce, lying in her bed, prone after an aneurysm. I came home to my own mom, too, alone in her room, gone in all the ways that mattered. The episode pierces the vampiric fantasy with the quiet tragedy of mundane human death, and it’s one of the few pieces of media that captures the utter everyday tragedy of the hours after someone is gone.

Vampires began for my mom, I think, as a way to never think about those hours, having lived them after losing Peter and Geoffrey. Now, sifting through my memories with my mom, holding the plastic fangs that used to sit on her bookshelf, paging through her Vampire: The Masquerade playbooks, it all grounds me as I work through what these stories can and should mean. I rewatch Buffy and picture her scowling, followed by her familiar laugh. I write about New York by Night and wonder how she’d compare Julian Luna to Aabria Iyengar’s Margot Fuego: Which Ventrue vampire would she like more? Every bookstore visit is an opportunity to find new vampire stories, each one letting me believe there’s one more message from her waiting for me if I just look hard enough.

My mom cannot sit next to me, physically, but there is a sureness in me that she sits somewhere close. When I’m ready to see where the next vampire story takes me, I know she’ll be with me.