Conversations with Real Vampires
CONVERSATIONS WITH REAL VAMPIRES
by John Edgar Browning
“10 August. New Orleans. — On the eve of the second Tuesday of every month, I have become, to the watchful bystander, a familiar presence in the French Quarter. Flying through the dusky sky over Bourbon Street, as I strolled along casually, were fast, sweeping brown bats: An homage, maybe, to the business of interviewing vampires? To my side hung the trusty brown leather satchel that housed my pen and paper, and digital voice recorder. I left politely at home, of course, the crucifix I didn’t actually own, and the short wooden stake carved for me by an older brother when I was younger. For indeed the vampires with whom I was meeting tonight were not prisoners of lore and legend: theirs was a new lore, and they were becoming very quickly their own legend.
“We are meeting an hour later than usual for the third month in a row, because the sun, during the summer months, sets closer to 9 instead of 8. Tonight, I will ask for the first time if I can watch them feed.”
The passage described above is not the work of fiction, I assure you. Rather, it is an extract from my field notes, taken down a couple months ago during the worst of the summer heat and humidity. This particular entry stands apart from the reams of other notes and jottings down I’ve accumulated, not because of its stimulating nature, but because it is representative, I think, of the dissociation between myth and reality that must occur first when entering into (in my case, by invitation only) this particular strata of New Orleans’ elusive underground.
Since the initial findings I reported in “Interviews with the Vampires: The Real Story Behind New Orleans’s Vampire Subculture,” I have for 12 months now attended the French Quarter, and various other locales in and around New Orleans, and completed there various field observations of, conducted interviews with, and participated in community gatherings for persons much like you and me, but with one exception: they share, with mutual respect for one another, a form of self-identification specialists have come to refer to as “real vampirism” or “human vampirism.”
But what does that mean, exactly? And can it be real? These and many other questions are commonly cited by scholars and curious observers interested in vampire communities around the world, perhaps partly in an attempt to gain new insights, but for some regrettably it is to disqualify, or suppress, this identity group. I suspect that these observers do so mainly out of a host of misconceptions, because lately it would seem that the “real” and the “reel” have and continue to blur seamlessly into one another in the vampire subculture. There has even transpired, upon closer scrutiny, a certain degree of cross-pollination between the two realms. That is to say, the more “Goth” or “Steampunk” variety of self-identifying human vampires—which, in fact, comprises only a portion of the vampire community—is more and more frequently informing the visual representations of vampires we see in film and television, not the other way around.
In what follows, I shall attempt to address, in the space I have been allotted, these and other issues, for it is my goal with this article to incite, in readers, thinking and discussion about this new and complex identity, in the hope that we may someday better understand, accept, even celebrate perhaps, not only its diversity, but more importantly its credibility as an identity group, which is by some routinely called into question.
LIFTING THE VEIL
To begin, I would like to return to the ABC News “20/20” special report titled “Inside the World of Real-Life Vampires,” which aired on November 27, 2009. Previously, I remarked on the sensational “reimagining” that occurred between the time the vampire interviews were filmed and the final “edited” version that aired some time later. However, an equally fruitful area worthy of consideration is the discussion/comment board that follows the video at ABC’s website. On this discussion board, I found a number of statements by viewers who, to some degree, support the vampire community and its freedom to express itself, but more significant in number were statements by unsupportive, misled, or utterly irate viewers. Sadly, the comments they left were unfounded, and probably born, I suspect, out of misconceptions and assumptions about the vampire identity and community.
An especially common concern viewers raised on the discussion board was the “health risks” believed to be associated with the practice of consuming human blood. One commenter wrote, “I wanna see how ‘sanguine’ they [the vampires] are when as the doctor in the post said he sees them in the hospital with failing livers or more yet full blown AIDS from HIV infection. Very moronic I’d say.” Another commenter wrote, “Not only should the ‘vampire’ [be leery] of accepting blood but the donor should be afraid of infection, not from the blades [the vampire] used to cut [the donor] with, but from ‘the vampire’s’ saliva … there is nothing safe about any of this. This just reminds me of one of those HBO fetish shows.” Another commenter went on to write, “I’ve seen oral surgery patients who became ill after swallowing their own blood. Anyone who [drinks blood] intentionally needs counseling.”
To return to the first comment, one would be surprised to learn just how many vampires find themselves in the hospital due to complications from consuming human blood; let us just say that one would be hard pressed to find someone who had. As for HIV infection, or other bloodborne pathogens, again, as the participants interviewed for the “20/20” show emphasized, both the donor and vampire are first tested for such contaminants before proceeding with the exchange and consumption of blood. To skip ahead to the third comment, the commenter here has confused the practices of self-identifying human vampirism with “autovampirism,” the practice of consuming one’s own blood or energy, which would, according to vampire practitioners, be counterproductive in nature, as it would not serve the fundamental need to replenish one’s energy that is attained from the blood or energy of others.
Returning now to the second comment, this commenter actually objected to the “20/20” special report on the grounds that it “remind[ed him or her] of one of those HBO fetish shows.” This statement is, for the purposes of this article, an important one because it is indicative, I feel, of another common concern viewers raised on the discussion board: the validity of the vampire identity itself and its fundamental nature.
To use the term “fetish” here, which implies, I think, a central element of eroticism, is to ignore unquestionably the very elements of human vampirism that distinguish it from fetishistic or phaseal behavior. Human vampires begin to exhibit vampiric behavior generally around age 13 or 14, sometimes sooner; but more significantly, to deny themselves the “vital energies” for which they yearn then obtain subsequently through blood (human and/or animal) and/or psychic energy is to put their health at serious risk and in some cases even warrant hospitalization.
I would like to conclude this part of the discussion by addressing briefly some of the discussion board comments that pertain to or question, in particular, the credibility of human vampirism as an identity group. Specifically, one commenter objected to the “looks” of the vampires who appeared in the “20/20” special report, claiming that “they aren’t even cute”; while others either alluded to the vampires’ narcissistic propensity or simply condemned ABC for airing the special report on the grounds that it was “only going to ‘create’ more weird societal problems, and motivate individuals desperate for attention to do ‘sensational’ weird things like this.”
“Cute” vampirism, as a condition, derives not from reality but is the singular product of film (mostly ‘80s forward) and, of course, fiction (which began most prominently with John Polidori’s Byronic vampire Lord Ruthven in “The Vampyre” , then more recently with Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series [2005-2008] or even PC and Kristin Cast’s “House of Night” series [2007-2010]). Further, while the real vampires who appeared in the “20/20” special report are quite proud of, or have learned to accept, their condition, it was not they who approached ABC about doing the interviews. Rather, ABC contacted the New Orleans vampires about doing the interviews, to which they—the vampires—earnestly agreed because they were led to believe their interviews would be aired in their entirety.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH A VAMPIRE: AN INTERVIEW EXCLUSIVE (extract)
John Edgar Browning: How may readers of this publication identify you?
Mephistopheles: I use the nickname “Meph.”
JEB: What is “Meph” short for?
Meph: “Mephistopheles.” I picked it up in high school.
JEB: How would you describe your present occupation?
Meph: I’m a writer and a martial arts instructor.
JEB: And, are you a vampire?
JEB: Would you elaborate on that?
Meph: I am what many would call a “vampire.” I object to the term actually. I prefer the term Uypre[sometimes Upir].
JEB: Would you describe your feeding rituals, and their frequency?
Meph: I usually have to feed every three or four nights. It’s usually a matter of applying a sterile blade to an area of the donor’s choice, cleaning the area obviously, making a small incision, collecting the blood I need, which is usually about a shot glass worth, then actually cleaning the wound. And once the donor is taken care of, then I feed. I never drink directly from the donor, because that becomes difficult to control; it’s a little like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And that’s something we don’t do.
JEB: I didn’t write this down before, but you mentioned “nights,” and feeding at “night.” Does that mean you’re up mostly at night and sleep during the day?
Meph: I am primarily nocturnal. Sunlight makes me ill. I do not burst into flames, crumble into dust, or “sparkle” in the sunlight. The light just makes me nauseous, and it makes me weak. Overexposure will cause me to blister terribly. And if I were foolish enough to stay out, it very well could kill me.
JEB: Have you ever approached doctors about this?
Meph: Oh yea. I’ve tried the medical route. They claim it’s a form of anemia. And they’ve offered me pills to help with some of the symptoms, but they left me feeling so ill it wasn’t worth taking.
JEB: Do you have or wear fangs, or do you have or have you had unnaturally long incisors?
Meph: In my youth, my front teeth were abnormally long and sharp. They were forcibly removed before I was old enough to legally object. And now, to avoid jaw problems, I have to wear prosthetic fangs a few hours a day.
Meph: Probably because my jaw is designed to have them. So, to not have them causes discomfort.
JEB: So wearing prosthetic fangs is more than just cosmetic for you. It’s something you do to replace the ones that were taken from you when you were younger because it helps with—
Meph: —TMJ, and other problems.
JEB: Otherwise you get headaches?
Meph: Yes. And also it’s psychologically soothing to feel them. With them, I don’t feel as edgy. I use to wear them in public a lot, but as I’ve gotten older, I don’t feel the need. I mostly wear them now around my home or among my community.
JEB: Can you tell me anything about your donors, in very general terms? How they’re compensated?
Meph: My donors tend to be in the medical professions. I’m not quite sure how that worked out. With some of them, there is an erotic aspect about being a donor. We [donors and I] usually find each other easily.
JEB: But lately though, it’s been through the Internet, you mentioned once before?
JEB: And the ones who you said find the ritual erotic—is that how they’re paid?
Meph: Yes. For them, they’re looking for that thralldom. And I’m happy to provide it.
JEB: How old were you when your desire to feed on blood started?
Meph: There were days of it as early as I can remember. However, it really took root when I was 12. Three years later, after I was injured, it became a permanent fixture of my life—a biological imperative. Whereas before the injury, it was just something I was drawn to. After that, I needed to do it; otherwise, biological systems began to malfunction.
JEB: So, do you think these early, what you call, “desires” may have been a symptom of what was already happening to you physiologically.
Meph: Oh, definitely.
JEB: So, at the time, you may have thought of them as just something you were going through, in passing, but really they may have been symptomatic of something larger, is that what you’re saying?
Meph: For example, when I was very young, and they took my teeth, I began to physically deteriorate rapidly. Because of the way they took my teeth, I couldn’t eat a lot of stuff. Then, the only way I could be healthy was for them [my parents] to take whole steak, including the blood, put it in a blender, and I would actually drink.
JEB: Cooked? Or raw?
Meph: Well, when my mother was cooking, it was overcooked. When my father was cooking, it was pretty rare. My godmother was the one who encouraged him to put a little more blood. So I would get stronger faster.
JEB: Why your godmother? Just intuitive?
Meph: Very intuitive—she was aware that I was different. The way I took that, in my life, broke her heart.
JEB: How long was it after you began exhibiting these traits before you started calling yourself or identifying with a vampire?
Meph: After taking blood for the first time, I began to do research. I’m a bit of a bookworm. And the only logical way of calling myself was an Upyre [or vampire].
JEB: If readers would like to get in touch with you, or ask you questions, can they contact you via e-mail or some other way?
Meph: I can be contacted through my House’s website: www.houseoftwilight.com.
THE BUSINESS OF VAMPIRISM
“[F]angs are big bucks,” Claire Bradley aptly comments in her news article “The Big Business of Vampires,” which appeared on Tuesday, September 28, 2010, at sfgate.com, home of The San Francisco Chronicle. For many in the vampire community, October in general, and Halloween in particular, can bring profit, as vampire organizations like the AVA (Atlanta Vampire Alliance) and NOVA (New Orleans Vampire Association), fangsmiths like Molly Federline and Maven of New Orleans and Father Sebastiaan of New York and Paris, event performers like Vlad Marco and Sky Claudette Soto, and individual members of the vampire community partake in fellowship, ceremony and celebration. New Orleans is no exception, as come Halloween the city is preparing to host some of the largest vampire events in the country, or in the world for that matter.
The fruit of such gatherings—dancing, drinking, and culture aside—is profit for the organizations and private parties involved, who, in turn, feed that money back into their respective communities and organizations, but also profit for local cities and businesses. Thus, while it may be counterintuitive to the original usage of the term “vampire,” economically human vampirism is good for, well, everybody.
For some in the community, however, the business of vampirism has become an even more personal endeavor. For members of NOVA, the Crescent City’s own vampire community, the proceeds from such events are vital to fueling local charity events, like feeding the homeless and aiding other New Orleanians in need, and to perpetuating the organization itself, and the vampire houses of which it is constituted, so that NOVA’s initiative to give back to the community may continue to flourish.
So, my fellow New Orleanians, when in the next week or so you spy vampires, of which there will be many, roaming the cobbled sidewalks of the French Quarter, raise a glass to them, and to yourselves, and celebrate the great diversity of your one of a kind city that has come to be called home by so many.
John Edgar Browning is a Ph.D. candidate in English-Writing & Culture and teaches English composition and monster theory at Louisiana State University. He is the co-author and co-editor of five published and forthcoming books, including: “Draculas, Vampires, And Other Undead Forms: Essays On Gender, Race, And Culture” (Scarecrow, 2009) with Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart and foreword by David J. Skal; “Dracula In Visual Media: Film, Television, Comic Book And Electronic Game Appearances, 1921-2010” (McFarland, 2010), foreword by Dacre Stoker; “Speaking Of Monsters: A Teratological Anthology” (Palgrave Macmillan, contracted and forthcoming) with Picart; “Movie Monsters In Print: An Illustrated History” (Schiffer Books, contracted and forthcoming); and “The Vampire: His Kith And Kin, A Critical Edition” (forthcoming). Recent works also include several published and forthcoming book chapters and reviews, journal and magazine articles and encyclopedic entries on Dracula, vampires and horror in scholarly presses and reputable trade presses.