Blood-thirsty outsiders are coming out of the coffin

May 16, 2003

'Real vampires' have a taste for blood and nocturnal tendencies but are otherwise little like their mythical ancestors. Meg Barker reports

Last Saturday, 19-year-old Alice headed out to a nightclub. She chatted with friends for a while before hitting the dance floor. Then she saw a guy she recognised the other side of the room. Gradually, she made her way closer to him. Their eyes met and she suggested that they go outside.

In the dark behind the club, the man took a razor blade from his jacket pocket. He made a small cut on his arm. Alice lent forward and started drinking the blood that welled up from the wound. She felt a great sense of strength and energy flow through her as the intense hunger she had felt for the past few weeks was finally sated.

This is the true story of a vampire meeting her "donor". There are many similar tales on websites for "real vampires". In their autobiographical accounts, such individuals often tell of how they never seemed to fit in.

Perhaps a childhood accident that left them licking blood from their hands helped reveal to them that their "difference" was due to a hidden vampiric nature.

Does this mean that rather than being a character from the realms of myth, the blood-lusting, white-faced, garlic-fearing creature is alive and well and living among us? The answer is no. Real vampires differ from the fictional creations of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice or the monsters in films such as The Lost Boys and Blade . According to their websites, real vampires - or "sanguinarians" - are an expanding group who share a thirst for blood, often accompanied by sensitivity to sunlight and nocturnal tendencies. They typically "awaken" to their vampire nature in adolescence.

These individuals seek to distance themselves from groups such as people who take part in vampire-related role-play games and lifestyle "vampyres", who are drawn to fictional imagery and dress. Real vampires point out that they cannot fly or turn into bats. Myths about stakes, mirrors and garlic are also dismissed, and most make a point of saying that they are not evil.

Neither are they immortal, though some claim to have lived beyond a human life span or to have kept youthful looks past the usual age.

On the face of it, the real vampire seems an odd phenomenon, and we cannot help questioning why an ever-increasing number of people would embrace such a bizarre identity. However, the idea of the vampire has helped people to make sense of their worlds since the earliest recorded stories. It is an extremely adaptable and flexible myth.

The folkloric vampire of pre-modern Europe was a very different creature from the real vampire today. But both serve important functions, meeting people's need for an explanation for their experiences and suggesting appropriate actions to take.

Vampire beliefs were common in Eastern Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. The revenant usually took the form of a person who had returned from the grave to torment family and neighbours, often visiting them at night and lying with them. They did not often suck the blood of their victims - if they did, they drank from the heart as well as from the neck.

Once disinterred, corpses showed few signs of decomposition and would often be ruddy and plump.

It seems that part of the function of the folkloric vampire was to explain a phenomenon that is still widely reported today. This is the experience many people have of waking in the night to find themselves paralysed and sensing near them an evil presence that may press down on or suffocate them. At different times and in different cultures, blame for this has been laid at the door of demons, ghosts, witches or, more recently, aliens.

The medical explanation for the phenomenon is "hallucinatory sleep paralysis", which occurs when one wakes in the rapid eye-movement stage of sleep but retains some aspects of slumber such as dreaming and paralysis. The vampire myth gave pre-modern people an explanation for the experience.

Beyond this, it probably served several important social functions, such as providing someone on whom death, disease and other problems in the community could be blamed. As the scapegoat was not a living person, he would not have to be killed or hurt in any way. Furthermore, there was a simple solution to the problem: the body could be exhumed and dealt with by ritual cleansing, burning or dismemberment.

Today's real vampires have little in common with their folkloric ancestors.

They tend to be pale, not ruddy, and do not see themselves as undead.

Dislike of sunlight and the hunger for blood seem closer to the literary vampire invented in the 19th century. But the concept still serves a purpose, albeit for the vampires themselves, not the general public.

While the early European mythology began by explaining a physical occurrence and grew to provide more social functions, today's vampire beliefs seem to begin by explaining a social experience and then go on to produce the physical symptoms such as blood lust as part of a culturally specific, socially constructed syndrome.

I do not want to deny the experiences of those involved, or to suggest that these explanations fit all those in the real vampire community, or to suggest that they are not critical and thoughtful individuals. Many of the websites offer well-considered arguments for and against various explanations of vampirism. There is often a sense of humour, too - on one site, the difficulty of telling others about one's vampire status is referred to as "coming out of the coffin".

The social experiences explained by real vampirism seem to be associated with a sense of difference. Many say that they always felt "weird" and "different" from people around them. Their "awakening" as a vampire made sense of this experience. This theme runs through the interviews I have carried out with members of other subcultures, such as young Goths and Pagans.

People often talk about feeling different from an early age and being relieved to find that they were not alone and that there was an explanation. In our culture, things with "natural" or biological origins are seen as somehow more "real" than products of socialisation or cultural norms. Thus, Goths I spoke to would talk about feeling "wrong" in non-Goth clothing, and real vampires refer to themselves as having a "condition".

Such ideas serve to counter prejudice against these groups and the common claim that they are simply "seeking attention". Real vampirism also gives people something concrete to do about their sense of difference because there is a community of like-minded people for them to join.

The one thing that most real vampires share is the desire for blood. They explain this by drawing on scientific and Eastern discourses of "energy" and "chi". It seems possible that for some in the real vampire community, the condition provides an explanation for otherwise taboo behaviours such as self-cutting or blood-related fetishes.

Many also relate symptoms similar to those of depression, often before their awakening. The notion of "the beast" - the times when vampires become violent and destructive - may explain experiences of anger and frustration.

Finally, it seems that the possibility of an extended life/youth that some believe in could serve a function shared by many religions, that of quelling the fear of death.

New vampires are beginning to serve a function for those outside their group, too. As with Goths, horror-movie fans and role-playing gamers, they are demonised and labelled "evil" and dangerous by some sections of the media. This seems to mark a return to the vampire as a scapegoat for social ills. Sadly, I suspect it represents an avoidance of responsibility and a denial of the more likely explanations for criminal behaviour. Also, unlike vampires of old, real vampires and vampire enthusiasts can be hurt by attacks against them.

As for the question of why their number is expanding, one reason may be the ever-increasing popularity of fictional accounts, particularly the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer . The modern media vampire is an attractive, sexy creature, often used as a metaphor for human anxieties about issues such as sexuality and addiction.

The internet also has a big role in bringing together people with similar experiences and providing them with ways to make sense of their experiences.

Of course, the current enthusiasm for all things vampire is reflected in increasing academic interest in the area. In the past year, there have been several conferences on topics such as Dracula and Buffy, and I am helping to organise a conference on vampires in Budapest next week.

Whatever the appeal of the vampire subculture to academics, the attraction of this lifestyle is summed up by one enthusiastic member of the scene:

"These beautiful creatures... seem to be both vulnerable and dangerous at the same time. People can identify with them, with the sense of being different, not quite fitting in with today's society."

Meg Barker is a lecturer in psychology and media studies at University College Worcester and writes on alternative subcultures and sexualities.

She will outline her work at the "Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil" conference in Budapest next week.

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