For those of you who’ve followed along with Top Secret Writers over the past month or so, you know that I occasionally reproduce press blurbs that I pick up in the morning news wire that have to do with topics of interest here at Top Secret Writers.
In the process I occasionally include my own editorializing.
One of those blurbs was a news article that I assumed was about real life vampires – it was a blurb about a girl that ran away from home. Her step mother and the family investigator both mentioned she had an interest in vampirism, and I made the mistake of off-handedly commenting that this event shows the dangers represented by “vampire cults.”
No more than moments passed before my comment area was inundated with furious, passionate and intelligent posts from a segment of the population that I did not realize existed.
My Own “Awakening” About Real Life Vampires
I mean – I had the same stereotypical image of “real life vampires” that most Americans probably have – teenagers with painted white skin, black makeup, black clothing and fake fangs. These are the people I thought I was dealing with. I would soon discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After the barrage of the first round of comments, I was also contacted by a number of people via email, and I interviewed the first one that sounded the most intelligent and kind. I would soon learn that not only was I unaware of what it really means to be a “vampire”, but I was also grossly unaware of a divide within that underground community.
Through my interview with that self-described PSI-Vamp and her comments regarding the Sang practice of blood drinking, I fell into that divide and almost didn’t make it back out.
An Interview With a Fellow Outsider
So, after getting up and brushing myself off – I took the time to more carefully explore this underground community and look past some of the vitriolic comments from many of the Sangs that I’d encountered.
I decided to go directly into the group that seemed the most angry, to understand why. In my pursuit, I met some of the most amazing and level-headed people I’ve ever come across – the likes of Lady CG, Sphynx Cat, Vyrdolak, Lono, Merticus, Belfazaar, Wraiths, and many others (sorry if I missed your names!)
Before I could really understand what I was dealing with, I wanted to talk to a fellow outsider of the community that had already walked these same footsteps years ago. He was recommended to me by many within the community – none other than Mr. Joe Laycock.
About Joe Laycock
Joe Laycock is an expert on religion and sociology - with a Bachelors, MTS and PhD in Religion and Society. He is currently a lecturer at Tufts Experimental College on the topic of "Vampires in Civilization", and has been working as a Teaching Fellow at Boston University since 2009.
Joe is the author of the book Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism, and many scholarly articles including "Vampires as an Ascriptive Identity Group","The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty" and "Mothman: Monster, Disaster, and Community".
I mean - seriously, this is our favorite kind of researcher here at Top Secret Writers. Well educated, intelligent, and willing to explore fringe areas that other academics shy away from for fear of being ostrasized. Joe proves his courage as an academic by diving straight into the unknown.
Ryan: When you started investigating the vampire community for Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism, did you have any sort of preconceived ideas about modern-day vampires going into it? And if so - which of those would you say were the furthest from reality?
Joe: Religion scholars had noticed vampires and had basically decided they are a “new religious movement” with ties to Satanism. Case closed. What interested me was a survey project undertaken by the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA).
Religions generally do not need to survey all of their members in order to find out what they believe. What I discovered is that most vampires do not identify vampirism as a religion at all. The vampire community is an identity group, but there is a lot of debate as to what this identity actually means.
In 2007, I gave a paper at a religion conference where I argued that vampirism is not a new religious movement. This became an academic article and eventually a book.
Ryan: When you first started to approach the community, were you ever made to feel rejected, disliked, or scorned by any of the people within the community?
Joe: No. However, I definitely found that trust had to be earned. In anthropology there is always a period in fieldwork called "negotiating entry." This is especially true with this community, because too many scholars and journalists have contacted them and then produced sensationalistic stories.
The AVA wanted to know that I wasn't going to produce an article claiming they were mentally ill, criminal deviants, and so forth. I eventually gained their trust, but there were other vampire groups that were not willing to speak to me. That's the way it goes.
Some have commented on the vampires’ use of the word “mundanes” to describe outsiders. In one of Katherine Ramsland’s books, she finds this term to be pejorative. In my personal experience, I did not find that vampires looked down on outsiders. A few even expressed envy of “normal” people.
Ryan: In your book, do you come to a conclusion about any "cause" for someone to feel they need to drink human blood (referring to Sang vampires in particular) - whether it's psychological, medical, both or neither?
Joe: This is the question everyone wants to know: Why do sanguinarians crave blood? Even the sanguinarians themselves don’t seem to know. All of the medical explanations that have been put forward so far are quite poor. Sanguinarians clearly do not have porphyria, rabies, or similar known diseases.
The most common psychological explanation is that this is a sexual fetish. This doesn’t work either, because many sanguinarians find nothing sexual about their feeding. Also, there is now a clear distinction between vampires and “blood fetishists.” People who are sexually aroused by blood are able to articulate that they have a fetish.
There is some psychiatric literature, but it mostly concerns schizophrenics who drink blood. These people are not part of the vampire community. In fact, it is often the psychiatrists and the not the patients who describe this behavior as vampirism. At any rate, there is no theory as to why these people are fixated by blood. They are simply given anti-psychotics.
As a religion scholar, I think questions of “why” are a bit of a distraction. I can never know what it’s like to be a sanguinarian or to crave blood. I can also never know what it feels like to be a Pentecostal speaking in tongues or a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca. It seems arrogant to start theorizing causes to experiences I’ve never had.
There is a growing body of scholarship about the vampire community from a variety of disciplines. I think we need to spend less time analyzing why vampires are the way they are and more time listening to them talk about their experiences.
Ryan: Was there a person within the community that you interviewed or spent time with that had the greatest impact on your understanding of what it means to be a vampire?
Joe: Yes, my primary research was with the AVA. I did a lot of interviews and participant observation with this group and got to really know them. The AVA sometimes describes itself as “a working house.”
They pride themselves on their hard work gathering data that will help the community to become more self-aware and counter negative claims made by outsiders. Merticus is an ad-hoc leader within the online vampire community and he became my closest contact. Through him I was able to do phone and e-mail interviews with other vampires throughout the country and around the world.
Ryan: Are PSI Vampires - or those that take part in "energy play" - similar to modern day "psychics?"
Joe: They are psychics. Being aware of the presence of energy could be considered a psychic ability. Many psi-vamps feel they have a special intuitive power or similar abilities. Michelle Belanger is a psychic vampire who also works as a psychic on the show Paranormal State. Her book, The Psychic Vampire Codex describes how a vampire’s psychic abilities require energy, which requires feeding.
In my research I found a book from 1853 called “Spiritual Vampirism.” Essentially, the author accuses a female acquaintance of being a psychic vampire. The woman in question did not identify as a vampire, but she was a holistic healer who worked in New York City.
The book basically claims that her healing abilities only worked because she was stealing energy from those around her. I found this incredibly interesting because it is so similar to the model described in The Psychic Vampire Codex.
Ryan: With Sang Vampirism in particular, do you think that it's ever possible society will no longer consider drinking human blood to be such a taboo, and that the community might be accepted - or do you think they will forever be rejected by the mainstream in general?
Joe: I’m not optimistic. First of all, some people have such a strong aversion to blood that they feint when they see it. It is hard to imagine such a person being comfortable with sanguinarians.
Second, some people thrive on an “us versus them mentality.” Not only can they not tolerate those who are different, but they can’t seem to function unless they are locked in a holy war against some group that threatens their entire way of life.
I am thinking of families who gave away their children’s college funds to support Proposition 8 in California. This instinct was probably quite useful when civilization consisted of warring tribes, but it has no place in a modern democracy.
It is likely that as the general public becomes aware of the vampire community, evangelicals will attempt to garner social capital by calling for a moral crusade to protect teens from vampirism. We have already seen attempts at this in the wake of the Twilight craze. This means that things may get worse for vampires before they get better.
In 2000, there was actually a law proposed in Wisconsin that would have outlawed consuming the blood of teenagers. There actually had been a case where someone was convincing teenagers to cut themselves and feed him their blood. (Such as person would not be welcome in the vampire community, at large). The law didn’t pass because no one considered it to be a serious problem.
However, as awareness of vampirism grows, anti-vampire laws might become an easy way for conservative legislators to pander to evangelicals. This has already happened with anti-microchip laws.
I think it is inevitable that there will be an important court case involving a self-identified vampire. Either someone will be fired for being a vampire and file a wrongful termination suit or, worse, Child Protective Services will take a sanguinarian’s children and demand that they prove they are not abusing them.
When this happens, the US legal system will have to set an important precedent about what vampires are. Right now, the only way our society can understand vampirism is as a religion or a mental illness. Of course, most vampires claim that they are neither of these things, but the law does not have a third category to put them in. Under the Constitution, vampires would have much better protection if they claimed to be a religion.
Ryan: If you focus only on the blood-drinking segment, how large do you believe the vampire community is in relation to the general population?
Joe: The best source for this is the AVA’s survey data. In a sample of 748 vampires, there were 110 sanguinarians and 377 hybrids (both blood and energy). That makes 487 vampires who drink blood or about 65% of the sample. We know there are vampires who did not participate in the survey, but it’s not clear how many. It seems reasonable that there may be a thousand or so blood drinkers in North America. Maybe more.
Ryan: Do you have any advice for people that are interested in getting a more realistic picture of modern day vampirism? Obviously reading your book would be a good start - but are there other writers, books or resources that you recommend as well?
Joe: First of all, using Google is not a very good way to get a fair and balanced assessment of a subculture. Anyone who has ever tried online dating knows that real life is not like the Internet. I am frankly appalled that so much scholarship on vampires has been published that was researched entirely online without ever speaking to a single vampire.
I would recommend Vampires in Their Own Words: An Anthology of Vampire Voices, edited by Michelle Belanger. This is a collection of essays from a variety of different vampires. I showed some of the essays to my students in my course Vampires in Civilization at Tufts University.
Again, if we are going to be critical of self-identified vampires, we must first listen to what they say about themselves.
I would like to thank Joe for taking the time to talk with us about real life vampires. I think it's safe to say that not many people in the mainstream are truly aware of the reality of this community. And those who are, very likely share those stereotypes that I, myself, had when I first encountered these individuals online.
I think there could be no other statement quite so wise as Joe's last comment - that before we are critical of self-indentified vampires, we should first listen to what they have to say about their experiences and their lives.
After my interview with Joe, I took his advice and accepted an invitation to take part in a very enlightening conversation with a group of sanguinarians over at the group chatroom on the IVA website. I'll be posting some excerpts from that informative group interview shortly.
And to those leaders within the community that have been so patiently sending me contacts and offering interviews and information about the community - I especially thank you.