Oct 26, 2018

The Return of the Vampire King of New York

The wild goth subculture of the 1990s may be gone, but as long as there are people who want fangs, Father Sebastiaan will supply them.

Sam Kestenbaum
New York Times
October 26, 2018

In the dim corner of Halloween Adventure, a two-story costume store in Manhattan, a man called Father Sebastiaan sculpts vampire fangs by hand. A Ouija board hangs crooked on the wall, near a purple crystal and an uneven pile of occult books. His work stall, no larger than a broom closet, is barely visible behind pirate and cowboy masks.

A small gaggle had soon formed at the door, and Father Sebastiaan looked up. “The people who come to me are lost souls,” he said to a young assistant. “This is why I’m here. Fangs help them tap into their primal vampire nature. Fangs are magic.”

Two women squeezed in the stall to be fitted for fangs. “I’m a modern-day vampire who loves life,” said Christina Staib, a woman with leather boots and bat tattoos. Her friend Melanie Anderson had come for her first pair. “They give off an aura,” she said. “A spiritual vampire aura.”

Father Sebastiaan is just the man to help cultivate that aura. A 43-year-old with long hair, the fang maker once styled himself the king and spiritual guru of New York’s vibrant vampire scene in the 1990s. He hosted raucous parties, wrote books and launched product lines — jewelry, contact lenses and the fangs — with financial success. It was a good time to be a vampire in New York.

But he was toppled by critics and rivals and, ultimately, a city that outgrew its vampire moment. Fortunes rise and fall, but the fang maker’s travails are particularly unusual — and include spirit encounters in dance clubs, the disappearance of a young journalist and feuding gangs of self-professed vampires.

The New York vampire scene, like Father Sebastiaan’s stature in the city, is not what it once was. But the subculture — part alternative religion, part costumed role-play — is appealing to a new generation. Unlike their predecessors who had to seek out clubs or salons, these new vampires may simply go online. With galas and plans to expand his fang empire, Father Sebastiaan is looking to re-establish his place in the culture lest it pass him by.

Before his self-invention as a vampire guru, Father Sebastiaan was born Aaron Todd Hoyt and raised in the sleepy suburbs of New Jersey. An awkward teenager, he found solace in vampire fantasy games and New Age philosophies. He worked a series of odd jobs, mowing lawns and working, notably, for a dental surgeon. Mr. Hoyt enrolled in college but dropped out, and in 1994, he moved to New York City.

Here, he discovered an eclectic scene of drug-fueled club parties and scattered salons where eccentrics met to discuss occult spirituality. The vampire myth was enjoying a revival in those years, thanks in part to Anne Rice, whose “Vampire Chronicles” inspired a legion of superfans. The popular image of the vampire suddenly transformed from Old World castle-dwelling monster to svelte rock-star Lothario.

“The vampire is a powerful myth of the heroic outsider, of lost beauty,” Ms. Rice said. “There is a fascination with vampires always slumbering in our culture, waiting to flare up.”

In these heady times, Mr. Hoyt saw a business opportunity.

In 1995, he started selling a line of ultrarealistic acrylic vampire fangs that fit snugly over the teeth. He called his fang company Sabretooth and treated each new customer as a member of his own vampire clan with ritualized, if kitschy, ceremonies. For some it was playful dress up, for others it was a spiritual path.

“I realized that one thing we don’t have in America is coming-of-age ceremonies,” he said. “I made one for vampires.”

Mr. Hoyt also approached club owners, like the Limelight impresario Peter Gatien, about hosting vampire-themed events where the growing community could congregate.

If Mr. Hoyt had any doubts about his new ventures, an otherworldly experience assuaged his uncertainty. One night, he was wandering alone in a private room of Limelight, a club in a deconsecrated church notorious for freely available drugs. He recalled his body growing unnaturally warm. He felt a spirit wrap around him. “You will become the vampire king,” Mr. Hoyt heard a voice whisper.

“It was my Moses moment,” he said.

The vampire parties took off. Mr. Hoyt’s galas were experimental affairs, rotating through a series of clubs, with coffins splayed out on the dance floor, performances by goth bands and leather-clad vampires who might flog one another with kink whips. Going by Father Sebastiaan or another pseudonym, he pranced through as a vampire playboy, dressed in leather pants and a top hat.

As the decade wore on, Mr. Hoyt’s business expanded. He ran a full vampire emporium, with half a dozen contractors, casting thousands of fangs for aspiring vampires. He wrote books — metaphysical how-to texts — that were stocked at the Hot Topic retail chain.

“New York was mine,” Mr. Hoyt said. “I ruled from my shop.”

But there was trouble in Father Sebastiaan’s world. Controversy erupted in 1996 when a reporter for The Village Voice named Susan Walsh went missing while working on a story about the city’s vampires. Mr. Hoyt had met her (by some accounts she was last seen at one of his galas), and the vampires were plunged into the spotlight. Police ultimately found no vampire leads, but the story brought a media circus. Ms. Walsh’s case was never solved; her story was the subject of a book, television specials and a flood of articles. Cosmopolitan magazine dubbed the vampires Manhattan’s own “sexy, scary new cult.”

Meanwhile, internal schisms broke out. Did one have to literally drink blood to be a vampire, or could you feed off invisible human energy instead? Some vampires drank small pricks of human blood in private, but the matter remained unresolved.

And Mr. Hoyt also earned the scorn of vampires who said he had abused his power and capitalized on their subculture. “Sebastiaan was using magic and spirituality as a guise,” said Michelle Belanger, a writer who would later split with Mr. Hoyt over accusations of plagiarism. (She never took legal action.)

The city was changing, too. Clubs were shuttering as rents rose. And following arguments with his contractors, in 2001 Mr. Hoyt sold the shop amid much acrimony. The community fractured. “They knocked the crown from my head,” he said. Later that year he left New York.

Gradually, the scene dissipated in the city, spreading instead to places like New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Mr. Hoyt then drifted around European and American cities. In the next years, Mr. Hoyt took his fang-making and events company, called Endless Night, on the road, holding galas in Berlin, Paris, New Orleans.

As past feuds quelled slightly, Mr. Hoyt quietly returned to Manhattan around 2006 to reboot his fang business in a more modest state at Halloween Adventure. These days he is based in Los Angeles but makes several trips to Manhattan each year to fill fang orders. In the lead up to Halloween, he is booked back-to-back making specialty teeth. Standard fangs go for $150, a price that includes a pendant, a book and a ritualized renaming ceremony.

Finished with a client, Father Sebastiaan put down his tools and tidied up his little domain. Sober for seven years, he has yet to give up cigarettes and stepped outside for a smoke. Father Sebastiaan’s fangs poked out as he took a drag and flipped through old photos on his phone. “The glory days,” he said.

“All I wanted was for my tombstone to read: ‘Best vampire dad ever.’”

The feuds still linger. But by some measures, the Father Sebastiaan brand has grown larger. His online following has swelled in recent years (on Facebook he has more than 90,000 followers) as younger seekers discover him. There are plans for a mass printing system for fangs, an autobiography and a series of esoteric guides for aspiring vampires. “I feel like my next big moment could be coming,” Mr. Hoyt said.

On a Friday night, a dozen young vampires gathered at what was once the Limelight for dinner. The club shuttered years ago and is now home to a gym and an upscale Asian restaurant, where Mr. Hoyt’s clan sat at a long table.

The vampires all wore black and bared their fangs theatrically. Sabrina Santiago, originally from the Bronx, said she discovered vampire culture on social media. “I wanted something that took me out of the spectrum of the normal,” she said and pointed to her fangs. “These bad boys do it.”

Father Sebastiaan had come here because it reminded him of the heyday of the New York vampire. Over dumplings, he regaled the table with breathless reminiscences.

“I did my magic rituals in that room.”

“This was sacred ground.”

“You could suck the energy right off the dance floor.”

The young group listened politely, but several faces were blank. Those galas were the old days, well before their time. Plates cleared as the vampires discussed an after party, but Mr. Hoyt decided against it. It was late, after all, and Father Sebastiaan needed his rest.

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 28, 2018, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Vampires, Your King Has Arisen

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