Vampires are a hot topic today, thanks to a number of recent books, movies, and role-playing games. But what’s life really like behind the media masquerade?
by Larry Mastbaum
At four, “Elizabeth” already knew that she was different from other people, though she didn’t necessarily understand why or how. She first tasted blood at age 11. It wasn’t until later that she became familiar with the term vampire. By 15, she was drinking blood regularly, thanks to her first steady donor. Nearly a quarter-century later, she still imbibes about once a week. She doesn’t suck blood from the necks of her willing food sources, however, which is but one of the things you may find surprising about “Elizabeth” and others like her.
Perhaps no other cultural figure has inspired such a wide variety of emotions as the vampire, ranging from fear to arousal, revulsion to envy. The image of this mystical figure has changed over the years, transforming the bloodthirsty revenant monster said in myth to stalk Eastern European villages, into the ur-bane Victorian icon popularized by Hollywood and authors such as Anne Rice.
Vampiric culture runs deeper than the films, literature, and television shows that compose modern myth, however. It encompasses a variety of other influences, such as a resurgent interest in the Victorian and Gothic cultures populated by fictional and mythic vampires, the Internet, piercing and bloodier forms of body art, a new generation of role-playing vampire games, and night clubs and galleries catering to those with a taste for hard-edged “goth” or “industrial” music, blood fetishes, or sado-masochism.
Ironically, a number of people who claim to be vampires describe a lifestyle that frequently contradicts the popularized images, blurring the lines between “real” vampires, and those seeking to emulate them, feed them, or become one of them. I interviewed about two dozen people for this article by telephone, email, and Internet chat — hardly an exhaustive survey, but enough to discern some common characteristics and viewpoints, as well as some important differences.
Members of this group were mostly eager to preserve their anonymity since they lead largely “normal” lives. As a result, some names have been altered. Others provided their own names or online nicknames that may or may not reflect their true identities.
Some readers may question the credibility of anonymous interviews. But in the end, those who responded to my questions had no obvious incentive to lie. Moreover, their decidedly unglamorous depictions of modern vampirism were consistent on some key points, even if they didn’t fit the sexy, urbane stereotypes that draw many of us to the vampire in the first place.
Historically, the drinking of another’s blood was considered the vampire’s main characteristic, but some contemporary observers have added a second type of vampirism — feeding on the psychic energy of others. Under this expanded definition, vampires are people who find sustenance in the life force of others, sometimes known as “pranic energy,” which can be found in blood, or ab-sorbed on a more ethereal level.
Most interview subjects described themselves as blood-drinking vampires, or sanguinarians, though some professed to practice psychic vampirism as well. All but one said they only accept blood from willing, aware partners. Some are members of the numerous “feeding circles” across the United States — groups of self-identified vampires who feed from each other or from willing donors. In some cases, circle members may undergo blood screens to avoid passing along diseases like hepatitis or HIV.
“We are subject to the same laws as everyone else,” explains Sangbuveur, 45, who says she was born a blood drinker and disdains media depictions of vampires in general. “We would undoubtedly be prosecuted for assault if we took the fictional actions of a vampire…. And there are pleasurable methods of being fed. They are worth cultivating — so why accost someone who is not agreeable?”
But there are still other vampires who hunt for their pranic meals, according to Allura, a blood drinker in Florida. Allura doesn’t quite consider herself a vampire, though others like her do. Allura does not enjoy drinking blood, which she accepts only from willing participants, she says, but she finds it more effective, and less expensive, than the blood transfusions she underwent for five years after a near-death experience involving her severe anemia.
“You really want people to give it to you [voluntarily], unless you’re some kind of sadist,” says Allura, who one night was stalked by an unknown vampire. “It’s better than accosting someone in a dark alleyway, which I’ve had happen to me before.”
Members of the sanguinarian group say they imbibe anywhere from a few tablespoons up to about a pint of blood at intervals ranging from two or three times a week to once every several months. Most don’t find feeding to be sexual, and a few find the act uncomfortable, or even repellent, though it satisfies some very practical needs.
“[Without feeding] I get shaky and very fatigued,” notes 18-year-old Sarasvati, a college student in the northwestern U.S. “I have trouble concentrating on what’s going on around me. My hand shakes as well, [and] I get irritable.”
Others describe similar effects, sometimes combined with overwhelming fatigue or coldness. Once they feed, they say, such symptoms rapidly disappear.
“I am more energetic after feeding,” continues Sarasvati. “I can concentrate better because I am not consumed by the thought of getting the blood my body says it needs.”
In addition to satisfying deep cravings, the act of feeding seems to bring its own satisfaction for some vampires. “It is deeply gratifying,” says Hollow, for whom feeding can sometimes be arousing. “I am overcome with a sense of fulfillment.”
For those who may not find drinking blood erotic, feeding is still a powerful experience, inspiring feelings that seem to parallel sex, even if the satisfaction produced is not the same.
“I get a sense of euphoria and physical peace [or] well-being — relief,” says Sanguinarius, 28, who realized she had vampiric tendencies as a teenager. “I feel an intense pull to be feeding. The house could cave in and I would still be feeding until I have been satisfied.”
The most common methods of obtaining blood involve cutting the donor slightly or puncturing the skin with a surgical knife or similar instrument. The blood can then be drunk directly from the resulting wound or directed into a cup or other vessel.
Other methods of blood feeding in-volve biting or techniques similar to giving a “hickey,” but they must be done carefully to avoid excess bleeding or depriving the brain of oxygen by interfering with the carotid artery. Sometimes this is done during sex or sado-masochistic activity, which for some can increase the intensity of the experience.
Fangs are a popular accouterment among vampire roleplayers, and anyone who wants can have special teeth made, or have their incisors filed to sharp points. But they are mostly a fantasy item, according to the interview group. Though some real vampires may have or use fangs, most agreed they are not necessary, and they rarely if ever occur naturally.
Interestingly, in some cases the sexual aspect of feeding may be more important to those who give their blood than to the vampire who takes it. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering the wide array of sexual images associated with vampires.
At times, notes Allura, this can work to the benefit of both parties. “Sometimes it helps to kind of dress the part,” she explains, playing on the fantasy aspect for non-vampires. “It’s sexual to them, even if it’s not sexual to [us] — it’s sustenance for survival [to us].”
Nonetheless, there are apparently some vampires for whom feeding is every bit as erotic as it is portrayed in films and popular literature. In Piercing the Darkness, psychotherapist and author Katherine Ramsland chronicles a wide range of sexual practices in vampire culture, including erotic role-playing, S&M clubs and rituals, and homosexual vampiric encounters.
“There is a connection,” explains Roz, 21, a student who runs a vampire information Website (New Jersey Association of Real Vampires, fly.to/njarv). “We are great lovers because sex involves a lot of energy and we know how to manipulate it.”
“Psychic” feedings are another way for vampires to get this much-needed boost. It seems relatively few vampires are purely psychic feeders, but it isn’t uncommon to practice both types of feeding, and several vampires say they supplement their blood intake with psychic energy.
“I absorb energy either…by touching just underneath the heart chakra, or hands-off through the ‘third eye’…. It instantly awakes and refreshes me,” writes Cloak, one of two vampires I contacted who considers herself mainly psychic. “I will occasionally consume moderate amounts of blood when I am wiped out.”
Some psychic vampires have developed their skills to the point where they can use a form of astral projection to feed on someone many miles away, according to Konstantinos, author of Vampires: The Occult Truth. Yet there are reportedly those who don’t even know of their need for the pranic energy of others, even when standing in the same room. In the May 1996 issue of FATE, for example, Konstantinos gave this account of a psychic vampire who was unaware of what she was doing:
“Her body was surrounded by a dark purple aura that emanated to a distance of about two feet from the surface of her skin…. From the dark edges of the aura, several thick, black tentacles protruded, moving toward a group of party guests…. She returned my smile as I watched the tentacles continue their swarming, and I got the impression that she had no idea what she was doing [as she fed through these astral tentacles].”
Victims of such a psychic drain may feel listless, irritable, or worse — not unlike the symptoms experienced by vampires before they feed. The same hazard exists for willing psychic donors — as with blood donors if a vampire isn’t careful and takes too much of the vital fluid.
“[Feeding] instantly awakens and refreshes me; however it tires out the donor,” notes Cloak. “I often have to stop after a few minutes or the person will black out.”
Are these self-described vampires “real”? It’s difficult to say, since the definition of a vampire is a blurry one, often obscured by myths and stereotypes. All say they drink blood at least occasionally, which has long been seen as a defining characteristic of a vampire.
Nearly all are sensitive to sunlight to some degree, ranging from a need for sunglasses to a propensity for migraine headaches triggered by the sun. None are completely unable to go outside in daylight, however, unlike Nosferatu and others as depicted in many vampire stories. Similarly, these real people don’t sleep in coffins, or possess any extreme sensitivity to garlic, crosses, holy water, or the other vampire repellents of myth and literature. And more than a few note that a wooden stake through the heart, used to eradicate vampires in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and other fiction, would pretty much kill anybody!
They all agree on one point: The images of vampires in popular culture for the most part bear little or no resemblance to the reality of living as a vampire in the modern world. For example, vampires may frequent neo-Gothic or S&M clubs, or participate in some of the other activities mentioned above. But according to several members of the interview group, most people in these “scenes” are likely to be role players or lifestylers, sometimes called vampyres, perhaps with a taste for drinking blood but no real need for it.
“You would never notice me in a room full of people,” says “Elizabeth,” 39, who works in the medical field. “I lead a very normal, almost boring life.”
Adds Roz, the New Jersey student: “I like Gothic music because I can relate to a lot of the feelings, emotions, or lyrics [but] I don’t think I’m a ‘Goth.’ As for that vampire scene, most real vamps stay to themselves, and at vampire events there’s nothing but lifestylers or pretenders so I try to stay away from there.”
Only one subject claimed to be an immortal (in the mold of Count Dracula or Anne Rice’s well-known character Lestat) and she was the only one who claimed to feed by hunting people as prey.
“I love to hang at a hot club or go to a cool party, and the game is endless. Be-ing a beautiful woman helps enormously, so the men do not need much persuasion,” wrote Countess Octagon. “If I have trouble, mind altering is a favorite technique of mine, and they do not remember who they spoke to or what they did. They do not feel a thing and I seal up their necks after I have finished.”
Most likely Countess Octagon — who says she was “turned” by another vampire who was more than 700 years old — is a roleplayer, someone who dons the stereotypical trappings of a vampire to play The Masquerade or one of its imitators. This popular game, which was released nearly eight years ago, has players invent their own vampire persona based on social rules and other guidelines provided by the manufacturer, White Wolf. The game is essentially an ongoing story created by the players as they act out their vampire fantasies.
The Masquerade has proven so popular that it seems to command its own vampire subculture, members of which often appear in costume at the many parties and clubs built around vampire or Gothic themes.
None of the others in the interview group claim they are “undead” or can control the minds of other people — two characteristics of vampires from ancient myths to modern fiction. Similarly, the consensus of this group is that they were born vampires, though they discovered their pranic needs at different stages in their lives; they were not “turned” as claimed by Countess Octagon. Most feel The Masquerade is just another example of popular culture tapping into the stereotypes that surround vampires.
“Try studying in the real world — it’s so much more rewarding,” advises Hollow, a telecommunications worker. Some vampiric pretenders, he adds, are little more than “psychotics who want to be something more than human so much that they believe their own fantasy.”
On the other hand, a couple of blood drinkers say they occasionally find volunteers among the ranks of Masquerade players and other lifestylers. These people may be more willing to accept that vampires exist, and those who engage in blood fetishism may simply accept true vampiric behavior as a part of their role-playing. Says Allura, “You don’t have to…explain it to them.”
Though vampires were feared for centuries in Eastern Europe, our social image of them has evolved in the last century, writes researcher Martin V. Riccardo in Liquid Dreams of Vampires.
“While Bram Stoker popularized the vampire for all time with his novel Dracula in 1897, he clearly painted the vampire as a despicable, irredeemable, fiend-ish villain,” adds Riccardo, a behavioral hypnotist and director of Vampire Studies, an information center he founded in 1977. “Ironically, as evil as the vampire was portrayed, audiences often felt an uncanny attraction toward this creature, even though this attraction was frequently mingled with fear.”
Much of the recent appeal seems to spring from a belief — based largely on media depictions — that vampires live forever, and that they can “turn” others into immortal creatures of the night while inspiring undreamt heights of sexual ecstasy in both participants during the act of feeding.
“I’ve had people come to the bar where I work and beg me to turn them into vampires,” says Allura.
Some recent stories have featured sensitive, soul-searching vampires, like Rice’s Lestat or the title character’s boyfriend, Angel, on the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These fictional icons agonize over exposing those they love to the potential dark side of their “gift.”
In this limited way, these characters may resemble some who live as vampires, several of whom say they are extremely sensitive to the feelings or emotions of others. As a result, the vampires add, they experience strong empathic reactions to the people around them. Sometimes this can even include empathic pain or other physical symptoms.
Some other recent movies, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and John Carpenter’s Vampires focus on the darker aspects of vampirism, with characters more akin to Vlad Tepes — or Vlad the Impaler — a bloodthirsty Romanian count said in medieval times to have drunk the blood from his slain enemies.
In a sense, perhaps both the myth-based unease felt by Old World villagers and the romantic fascination fed by today’s media images today spring from unrealistic images of vampires.
“Fiction stems from folklore,” writes Sanguinarius, whose Website contains a wide variety of vampire information and other links (The Vampire Support Page, members.tripod.com/~Sanguinarius/).
“It both reflects and shapes people’s beliefs and attitudes — and while that vampire is folkloric or fictional, it is what people think of when they think of vampires,” Sanguinarius adds. “We who are vampires are not like that, but people either think that we are, or think that we think that we are.”
The debate on just what makes some-one a vampire, or indeed whether they even exist, isn’t likely to end soon. Still, this much seems clear: Real or imagined, the vampire has shadowed human society for centuries, a cultural mirror in which we can see either our darker side or our better qualities, depending on what we seek.
Larry Mastbaum is a FATE associate editor who likes an occasional Bloody Mary.
Social commentary masquerades as vampiric satire in Buffy.
Vampire lore for entertainment is a 100-year-old tradition. But the genre takes a premillennial, girl-power twist on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Tuesdays, 8:00 p.m. EST, The WB), a show that’s quietly surpassed The X-Files as TV’s most artful paranormal drama.
Following the plot of Joss Whedon’s truly dreadful 1992 Buffy movie, California teen Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes to terms with her role as her generation’s chosen “Slayer,” vested with the mission to literally save the world from demons, while braving school, dates, and growing up. It just so happens that Buffy lives at Grand Central Station for evil: Sunnydale, California, is located at the gates of a so-called Hellmouth. Oh yeah — Buffy’s on-and-off boyfriend, Angel (David Boreanz), is a 200-year-old vampire with a good conscience.
In a nutshell, Buffy is at once a triumph for fans of horror, romantic melodrama, and campy high school comedy. But while creator Whedon has taken liberties in creating the Buffy mythology, the show is also one of the few to address subtopics of the occult in a relatively unsensational way. Buffy’s bookish best friend Willow is beginning to dabble in Wicca, but the portrayal lacks the hocus-pocus dreck you might expect.
On the other hand, the idea of high school as Hellmouth might be one big tongue-in-cheek metaphor, opening the door to subversive social commentary. Those cemetery vamps might really just be the bad kids in town, while Sunnydale High’s supernatural death rate may symbolize the rise of violence in schools. But when Buffy’s oblivious single mother forms a witch-burning censorship group — hilariously dubbed Mothers Opposed to the Occult (MOO) — it cleverly turns out to be the moms, not their well-meaning daughters, who are temporarily influenced by demonic forces.
In any case, Whedon has more in the works for vampire fans: This fall, the WB will debut the spin-off Angel, chronicling the struggles of the Slayer’s immortal heartthrob. Slay on. — Simon Peter Groebner