This is the fifth installment of interviews with speakers from the 2nd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 28 in a midtown NYC theater. DJ Williams is the Director of Research for the Center for Positive Sexuality and a social scientist at Idaho State University. He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Positive Sexuality and a leading expert on deviance as leisure. His presentation focused on the emerging research in understanding vampires as a distinct subculture.
Q: In your presentation, you talked about the historical interest in vampires having to do with a way of dealing with or challenging death. Can you expand on what you mean by this?
A: Death is, and always has been, the ultimate psychological crisis that humans face. At some point during early childhood, people realize that they will inevitably die. This knowledge impacts all sorts of human beliefs and practices in profound ways. Of course, some of the most salient cultural rituals focus on death rites. In Denial of Death, the psychologist Ernest Becker wrote how character development is formed around the process of denying mortality and that common psychological defenses against a constant realization of mortality are necessary in order to function.
Similarly, in Sociological Trespasses: Interrogating Sin and Flesh, sociologist James Aho explains how diverse social issues and practices involving the body, such as racism, collective violence, body obsession, sickness, and environmental concerns, are products of the transference of aspects of ourselves onto objects that are independent of ourselves. Such transference allows for a hope that such objects and social causes enable us somehow to escape or deny the existential crisis that personal death is coming. Vampires, or vampire-like figures, blur the lines of life and death and suggest that there is a mysterious place between the two, that death is not necessarily final. Vampire figures in pop culture, which have become increasingly sexualized, literally “fuck with death,” thus making acceptance of the knowledge of the inevitability of death much easier on the psyche.
Q: Before going further, I'm sure a lot of people reading this might be surprised to learn that a real community of vampires exists as a distinct subculture. What can you tell us about the people who identify as vampires, have they been reading too many Anne Rice novels?
A: Self-identified vampires could be anyone, including your friends and neighbors. As scholar Joseph Laycock and others have observed, vampires are ordinary people apart from their particular vampire identities. Some vampires enjoy Anne Rice novels, but many others do not. What seems to be most important is how specific people apply the term “vampire” in describing a part of their identity and what they mean by doing so. While some vampires are active in a broader community or subculture comprised of those with similar identities, the vast majority (76%) are not.
Q: You make a distinction between lifestyle vampirism and "real" vampirism. Who are these two groups and how are they different?
A: It is important to note that there is considerable diversity among both lifestyle and real vampirism. However, various forms of lifestyle vampirism are chosen; that is, people significantly relate in some way to a particular persona or figure of the vampire. In other words, some lifestyle vampires acknowledge “darker” aspects of themselves (consistent with Jung’s concept of the shadow self), but choose to embrace and manage such aspects of their broader personal identities. In contrast, “real” vampires report that they do not choose their vampirism. For them, vampirism is an immutable condition characterized by a deficiency in processing “subtle energy” (usually human). Real vampires claim to need extra energy in order to sustain physical and psychological health and wellbeing, thus they use the term vampirism to describe a process of consensually taking energy. Real vampires, then, understand their vampirism to be an ontological condition, whereas lifestyle vampirism is, well, a particular chosen lifestyle.
Q: You described a comprehensive survey of nearly 1,000 respondent vampires. What common themes did this survey find about vampires and how are they similar or different from everyone else?
A: This massive internal survey was conducted by members of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA) and provides the most comprehensive demographic data on vampires worldwide. Respondents represent three dozen countries; however, the highest percentages come from the United State, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia. While there are some obvious limitations with self-reported data, the study is extremely valuable in better understanding the vampire community.
Vampires represent a wide variety of religious and spiritual affiliations, not unlike the general population. Vampires also represent a wide range of education levels, though many reported having above average intelligence. The majority of vampires (63 percent) are female, while 35 percent are male. In terms of sexual orientation, 55 percent reported being heterosexual, 32 percent bisexual, 6 percent homosexual, and 6 percent pansexual. Only 34 percent identified as Goth, and only 24 percent reported belonging to an organized vampire group, such as a “house, clan, coven, haven, order, or court.” Regarding medical and psychiatric conditions, 20 percent reported having chronic fatigue syndrome, 17 percent reported anemia, 31 percent major depression, 16 percent bipolar disorder, and 16 percent panic disorder. The vast majority reported having no addictions, no history of sexual abuse, and no violent crime convictions. Interestingly, 62 percent reported they would not end their vampiric condition if they could do so, while 27 percent were unsure whether or not they would do so.
Q: You referenced research on several different types of vampire, including sanguinarians and sexual vampires. Who are these groups and what did the research show about their habits?
A: Real vampires are distinguished based on how they claim to “feed” (take energy). Psychic vampires claim to take psychic energy from their “donors,” while “sanguinarians” report gaining energy through drinking blood. Sexual vampires report feeding on energy via sexual practices. “Hybrids” are vampires who feed based on more than one method.
A German study of sanguinarian vampires by Mark Benecke and Ines Fischer found considerable demographic diversity in their sample, similarly to the AVA study. Most sanguinarians had one or two donors who were selected carefully, and nearly always donors were tested for blood-borne pathogens prior to entering a relationship with vampires. Many vampires (48 percent) reported ingesting 1-5 milliliters of blood per feeding, and 21 percent stated they drink approximately 50 milliliters of blood on average. A high percentage (69 percent) reported being particularly sensitive to light, and 54 percent were particularly sensitive to noise. The majority (72 percent) stated that most people perceive them (vampires) to be younger in age than they actually are, and most (65 percent) believe that they heal faster than the average person (non-vampire).
A recent small study published in the Journal of Positive Sexuality by Carrѐ, Hesperus, and Gray utilized survey and interview data to begin to understand practices of sexual vampires. Consistent with other studies of real vampires, most participants in the study were female. However, there was greater sexual diversity in the sample of sexual vampires. The highest number of participants (14) identified as pansexual/omnisexual, followed by heterosexual (11), bisexual or bi-curious (7), homosexual (4), and asexual (2). Most participants reported that sex for feeding had a different purpose than sex for pleasure. The majority of participants were in committed relationships (i.e., married), and most practiced consensual BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism)—many are switches. Vampires reported that achieving orgasm was not essential during sex for feeding, but donor orgasm was important. According to the data, perhaps most important for sexual vampires is the quality of a donor’s energy as sensed by the vampire.
Q: You conducted your own research on 11 vampires—hybrids, sanguinarians and psychic vampires—regarding their comfort in disclosing their identities to clinicians. What did you find and what are the implications of your findings?
A: Helping professionals, such as psychologists, social workers, counselors, and medical doctors are ethically admonished to be accepting, nonjudgmental, culturally-competent, and promote self-determination when working with clients. Despite such ethical standards, several studies have shown that people with alternative sexualities or those in nontraditional intimate relationships often face marginalization and discrimination from clinicians.
Similar to such studies, Emily Prior and I wanted to explore real vampires’ perspectives and experiences as clients or potential clients. Our study was published in Critical Social Work, and it generated significant controversy and backlash, including within academic and professional circles (many readers apparently assumed a priori that self-identified vampirism is reflective of an underlying psychopathology, and that we, as researchers, were naïve or dangerous to consider otherwise).
Study findings powerfully revealed that vampires are extremely fearful of being mislabeled (and of facing repercussions from labeling) by helping professionals as delusional, evil, and/or dangerous. It is very problematic that despite professional codes of ethics, there remain people who are afraid to seek professional help for legitimate reasons and thus remain “in the coffin.” Of course, more research on self-identified vampirism would be valuable. However, many helping professionals need to be open to existing research, and especially to be more accepting of clients’ diverse potential ways of making sense of themselves.