During the 1990s, I set out to learn about people who claimed to be vampires. I was on the track of a missing reporter, Susan Walsh, who’d been on a similar venture. She knew the New York City vampire community pretty well, so that’s where I began.
Although the idea was daunting, I decided to go deeply into this subculture and see what these people had to say. Maybe I’d even locate Walsh. From all of this I wrote Piercing the Darkness, about my many experiences with the participants. Among the early decisions I had to make was about my approach: Should I be an “objective journalist,” documenting from the outside, or should I go all in – literally?
The answer came from my graduate training in psychology.
I’d learned a qualitative research technique called “bracketing,” which involved setting aside personal beliefs about reality in order to comprehend others' experiences by penetrating as far as possible inside that person's world. The best example I’d read featured a therapist whose client was terrified that if he went out into the street, the buildings would fall and crush him. Rather than telling him he was being irrational, the therapist immersed in the client’s perspective: He tried to imagine what it would be like to believe that buildings were going to fall on him. From this sense of deep empathy, the therapist was able to win his client’s trust. Eventually, they ventured together outside.
This same kind of immersive empathy can work for research. The phrase we’d used during my training was “self-as-instrumentality.” It means to use your entire being to collect data in its purest and fullest form. You see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, touch it, and even taste it. You’re in it, with your subjects. In a way, you become them. Yes, this approach sustains criticism for being overly subjective, but I wanted to experience it. It seemed like the perfect way to gather data within this unique arena.
I looked to some examples. I appreciated Diane Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, in which she lived with gorillas to observe and record their interactions with the least disturbance possible. I also liked John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, in which he described how he’d ingested dangerous chemicals to stain his white skin dark so he could pass as black to attempt to understand racism and black culture. I did not plan to go quite this far, but I learned a lot from their example, as well as from Jennifer Toth’s insightful The Mole People. She made a daring foray into Manhattan’s populated underground. I’ve written about other examples that feature psychologists here.
So, I purchased black velvet clothing, got fangs made (by a professional fang-maker!), popped in some black contact lenses, and located a vampire nightclub. Then I got dressed and took a subway to "Mother's" in the Meat District at midnight.
With this approach, I knew I might face some dicey situations, such as whether to take drugs, give or drink blood, participate in fetish parties, and go to dangerous places after dark. Anyone who undertakes immersion research has to think about such things. It seemed worth the risk to gain a genuine sense of the psychological richness of this community.
I sought out what I believed were representative voices from various sectors and listened to anyone who approached me. The stories I collected were those that seemed to best provide a broad view of how the vampire archetype had affected people and where the subculture was heading. In order to protect their privacy, I altered identifying details to the extent I deemed necessary without distorting my findings. I did participate in some activities that I would never have anticipated.
I ended up with an account that captured my experience as a researcher, as well as the experiences of people I'd encountered who participated to some degree in the vampire subculture. I also acquired an allegedly haunted ring that immersed me into yet another subculture. (That tale is for another blog.)
My evaluation of the method is positive. For certain purposes, it works better than a more distant objective (and perhaps safer) approach because it gains subjects' trust. But it is time-consuming, somewhat chaotic, and sometimes even precarious. This does not undermine its value for gathering knowledge.
Ramsland, K. (1998). Piercing the darkness: Undercover with vampires in America today. New York, NY: HarperPrism.