What I Learned Studying Real Vampires

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A scene from “Interview with the Vampire” featuring Christian Slater and Brad Pitt. (Credit: Warner Bros./Youtube)

[Editor’s note: One of the most popular articles on our site is a piece by Georgia Institute of Technology researcher John Edgar Browning about his work with the real vampire community, published in March 2015. In it, Browning discusses what a real vampire is, how they live their lives, and what researchers are hoping to learn about them. Here, he expands on the difficulties of finding and studying this enigmatic group of people, as well as the lessons he’s learned in the process.]

With Christopher Rice’s tantalizing tweet about the new Vampire Lestat television treatment and news of Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker’s Dracula prequel, Dracul, due out from Putnam in October, the topic of vampires again looms nigh for lovers of fiction and the supernatural. What happens, though, when the borders between fact and fiction fade into gray uncertainty?

For real vampires (or human vampires, as they are otherwise called), this is the reality they live with every day. What follows is not the full scope of their story. It’s not even a little. But it’s enough, I hope, to offer insight and invite curiosity. And perhaps, from some of us, even to spur self-reflection.

Vampire fiction aside, there are in this world people who actually do drink blood—from humans and animals alike—or drain from others what they call psychic energy. It’s a ritual performed not out of pleasure, but need, and it’s normally done with the utmost care for their donor’s safety and comfort. This need, according to them, arises from the lack of natural energies their bodies produce. Fittingly enough, they’ve adopted the word “vampire” to self-describe their unusual predilection, one which they claim begins to surface just after puberty.

The Vampire Interviewer

I know this because I’ve interviewed a number of real vampires face to face, during the course of my research as a graduate student, much like Christian Slater’s character in Interview with the Vampire. It’s not at all as glamorous as it sounds though, nor as easy. Real vampires aren’t particularly looking to be found, and if the comments section of articles on the topic is any measure, can we really blame them?

It all started for me about nine years ago, shortly before I transferred from a doctoral program in English in Southern Louisiana to one in American Studies in Western New York. It was at the height of what some of us vampire scholars were calling at the time the “vampire renaissance,” and on October 26, 2009 I inscribed in my field journal a passage that resonates with me still today, both for its foretaste as well as, or perhaps especially because of, its naiveté:

Baton Rouge.When attended Wicked New Orleans [on Decatur St. in New Orleans] on the 17th [of October], things went extraordinarily well. Shop owner was happy to oblige me in every respect and went out of his way to volunteer information. In the initial five minutes of my speaking with him, he gestured towards the other end of the store to a lady in her 40s-50s inspecting some clothing. ‘I think she’s a vampire,’ he said, ‘and I believe that’s her son with her.’ At this point I was mildly embarrassed, as I knew he expected me to go and confront her right then and there. I had not prepared for my ‘first time’ to happen this way. Nevertheless, I walked over to the woman and intruded with a polite but simple, ‘Pardon me.’ With a look of complete surprise, irritation, and curiosity, she turned to me, looked me in the eyes, and said nothing. So, I continued by introducing myself and my reason for being in the store. Then finally I said to her, which I must admit was incredibly awkward, ‘Do you know any [vampires]?’ I grinned, embarrassingly, to which she returned a grin to reveal that two of her most prominent teeth had been filed down to a pair of incisors. Her response, ‘Yes, I might know a few.’ I quickly began asking her a few questions, to make friendly conversation, but about what, to this day, I haven’t the faintest recollection. I then proceeded to give her my contact info, and politely asked if I might continue to speak with her at another time. While I did not ask for her own contact info—as I felt this would be too intrusive—I did ask for her name. To my complete surprise, she stated, simply, ‘Jennifer.’

“I never saw or heard from ‘Jennifer’ again.”

Jennifer was my first vampire. And at the time, I was sure she would be my last.

How very mistaken I was.

After I penned the above passage, mere days would pass before another similar experience propelled me to record in my notes again, this time my prose hardly masking my exhilaration:

“At night along the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a narrow stretch of I-10 bordering Lake Pontchartrain’s western shore, can be seen from afar in all its Gothic splendor the steel girdles and gaseous plumes that are the Shell Norco refinery, a structure betraying its solitary life in the dark expanse through only a few points of orange light here and there. Theirs—the play of steel, gas, and faint orange light—has become by now a familiar sight to me in the hours just after midnight as I leave behind New Orleans and the French Quarter, a ritual I have repeated nearly every week for two months. The feeling is almost always the same: The silence along this stretch of interstate is deafening after the trumpeting frenzy of Bourbon Street; my clothes smell of liquor, cigarettes, and fine cuisines; and everything around me has fallen into a dead calm. But this night in late October is different. Tonight, after months of searching, I met and spoke at length with five vampires living in New Orleans, members of a community in which I am an outsider.

This fateful encounter took place at Ye Olde Original Dungeon (or, simply, “The Dungeon”), a nightclub located on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. As I sat at the bar drinking a whiskey sour and jotting down field notes, the bartender there (with whom I had already talked about the study I was conducting) shouted into my ear over a KoЯn song blaring overhead that I should go talk to “those people,” as she passed a sideward glance at some folks who had just walked in. I stood and thanked her, hurriedly finished off my drink for courage, then proceeded with my leather satchel over to two young gentlemen dressed all in black and standing against a wall. The first of these gentlemen, sporting a long dark ponytail, looked to be in his mid-30s, and the second, crowned with short spiky dirty-blond hair, looked to be in his early-20s. After introducing myself to the latter and explaining (loudly) that I was attempting to assess the number of, and most prominent features and practices by which, people living in New Orleans self-identify as vampire, I asked, simply, “Do you know any [vampires]?” To this he mocking grinned and replied, “Are you kidding?” And to my surprise (and relief), a pair of fangs extended prominently from behind the young man’s handsome smile.”

By early December, I would meet almost another two-dozen vampires in New Orleans, and each of them, beginning with Jennifer, taught me a valuable lesson about hiding in plain sight.

Blending In

Indeed, human vampires don’t simply live among us, I would find — they are us, in almost every detail. They are our teachers, our shop clerks, our bartenders, our antique dealers, our IT people, our friends, and for some even, our family and loved ones. Some of us work with vampires every day, or pass them on the street without ever knowing it. But, to understand real vampires, how they think and how they act, we must understand our own reactions to them.

In its dark corridors and gothic atmosphere, the Dungeon afforded the vampires that October night nine years ago relative safety, but what about outside its doors? In time, I would come to see these and other real vampires belittled by outsiders, called freaks or mentally ill. One vampire would even confide in me that she feared losing custody of her daughter if her estranged ex-husband were to learn of her “peculiarity.” Although my research carried with it an important responsibility, I scarcely knew it yet that night at The Dungeon.

I went into the study expecting nutcases and dreamers, Lestat wannabes and vampire fiction bookworms—but what I found were just people, sane people who by and large avoided the stereotypes we associate with vampirism (save for the first-rate prosthetic fangs some occasionally wore). It was I who’d been the fool, not them.

Lessons Learned

So, I changed course, and modified accordingly my prospective goals, becoming in the process more aware of my place among the people I was shadowing. As I did so something rather unexpected happened: The relationship between myself and the study participants progressed from being an auxiliary feature of my study to a more central one. At the monthly group meetings of New Orleans’ vampire elders I began to move from the periphery of the space we inhabited closer and closer to the inner circle, at first by their accord, then my own. In essence, I was becoming, they would later tell me, more and more just like one of the group, a sentiment I came to feel myself. In fact, their trust became a vital component of my research, as I would never have been able to collect my data without the close relationship I worked to foster. This relationship was hard earned, however, from a community only recently shaken by a breach of trust from a mainstream news service.

In the wake of the Twilight craze during the late 2000s, an ABC News 20/20 special report on New Orleans’s vampire community aired on November 27, 2009, just days after New Moon’s record-breaking opening weekend. To the local and greater vampire community, the piece was not exactly an accurate depiction of how they lived. It also didn’t reflect the broadcast ABC led the New Orleans vampire community to believe would air, one which would have included a demonstration of safe feeding practices and wound care, as well as any mention of their local charity work with the homeless. Thus, much of my “mission,” as I would later explain in interviews with the BBC and Washington Post, became simply to rectify this injustice by documenting, for myself, the behaviors and practices the 20/20 broadcast left out.

The Real Real Vampires

Using data gathered over five years of work in New Orleans and Buffalo, New York, I hoped to offer geographically-specific behavioral and socio-cultural insights to the participants, ultimately getting at what made the vampires at one site different from another site. I felt that geography could offer the most salient information about the intricacies of the real vampire identity. In the end, the lives of real vampires in different locations became a focus for my research.

The body of work dealing with real vampirism has been steadily growing since the early 1980s, especially in the last 9 years (the work of Joseph Laycock, DJ Williams, and Mark Benecke are prominent examples), but no study had attempted to explore this identity at a local level to ascertain whether geography and local culture played a role. What my findings eventually showed was that vampire self-identification in New Orleans offered a sharp contrast to how real vampires shaped their identity in Buffalo. In particular, local cultural norms seemed to be important — one doesn’t easily walk the streets of Buffalo sporting fangs as they would in New Orleans. Even more striking was the prominence of local group affiliation in New Orleans, where many vampires had organized into “houses” complete with a hierarchical system of elders and members. By comparison, Buffalo, a city seemingly without a centralized (or focalizing) neighborhood like the French Quarter, seemed to cater more to independence and individuality.

As I endeavored to truly understand (without further sensationalizing), this enigmatic community, I found what the real vampire identity ultimately achieves is a measure of self-empowerment. It’s something I’ve termed “defiant culture,” and it manifests itself in other marginalized communities the world over. Real vampirism is a way for people who might not fit into normal societal boxes to construct an identity and face a world that frequently shuns more than it embraces. While my research has worked to shed light on how deviant communities develop within repressive systems, it has also awakened one of its most familiar adversaries—people who marginalize whatever is outside their own experience. To outsiders, real vampires’ consumption of human blood or energy is not their greatest crime, but that they are a proud, living critique of normalcy is.

In the glamorous world of Hollywood, as indeed in real life, we fear dark places; we fear the unknown. But for these real vampires, there is safety in the shadows, in anonymity. Perhaps their supposedly grim nature is simply a reflection of our own darkness.