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[Guest Post]

Coming Out of the Coffin: A Brief Exploration of Modern Urban Vampire Subculture

Today, it is hard to go a few days without hearing about vampires. They dominate our television, our fiction, our movies, our politics, and even our past. From popular culture to history, vampires are ever-present. But while these vampires are creatures of legend and popular fiction, there are also individuals in contemporary society who call themselves vampires.

Some say they need to ingest blood regularly to feel healthy and survive; others claim to be “energy vampires” who depend on others’ life force, or prana, for sustenance. Still others enjoy the romance of identifying with, dressing and acting like legendary vampires – these are termed lifestylers. They are often misunderstood by mainstream society. Most often found in urban areas, they form an oppositional subculture that allows them to band together, find common ground, and create an identity.

The modern urban vampire is as elusive today, as its folkloric counterpart of yesteryear. Modern vampires have cherry-picked their desired traits and histories from many different fields involving the paranormal and supernatural – thus allowing their image to be shaped for their own satisfaction. It is through the reclamation of this identity that vampires have developed and begun to fabricate an origin for vampires throughout history.

Historically, legends of blood and soul sucking creatures feature in the folklore of Eastern and Southern Europe from ancient times on. However, the legendary vampire that gave rise to today’s literary and pop culture vampires is derived from East European folklore from the early modern period (17th and 18th centuries).

The belief in vampires, prior to the Enlightenment, was as “common as blades of grass” (Murgoci 1926:320). These beliefs were so prevalent that “not to believe in [them] was tantamount to heresy” (Keyworth 2006:241). From Asia to South America, there were and are vampires in the folklore of almost every culture – even if they do not go by the name of vampire; they are present within the histories and modern times of these different locations.

In European and Northeastern United States folklore, vampires are said to be the living dead; thus, vampires exist in a state of liminality – “the undead have achieved what the living desire: immortality” (Maser 2005:34). This quality, I will argue, is one of the traits that accounts for the contemporary attraction of the phenomenon.

Vampires were a screen that repressed people could project their desires upon; “the vampire becomes a projection of one’s own dreams, a mirror of the self that cannot exist within the constraints of time” (Atwater 2000:75). Vampires are a way to explain the unknown – thus becoming scapegoats for the problems of the times, from crop failure to epidemics (Atwater 2000:77).

However, like all good things that play on the imagination, the vampire did not fade away into the darkness – rather, it flourished in the minds of writers. No sooner were vampires banished from the beliefs of the elite, than they were relegated to literature. Legends, stories, and even some sightings were reported through the written world. People began to play with the superstitions that they had feared. This would create the real breeding ground for modern urban vampires of fiction and cinema.

It was through the taking of some of aspects from folkloric vampires and applying them to sensuous creatures of the night, that such vampires as Dracula were created. Dracula was one of the first highly sensual, mysterious creatures completely capable of interacting with humans without notice. Although I cannot do justice to the development of vampire literature in this brief post, Dracula is the forefather for what would eventually develop into Anne Rice’s Lestat and Louis characters from her Vampire Chronicles.

It is not coincidental that Anne Rice’s vampires sprang onto the cultural scene in the 1980s, just as the AIDs crisis during the 1980s created the sudden fear of mortality through blood-borne pathogens. Rice gave the world individuals that were free from the fears of the time. Instead of running in fright from the sight of blood, her vampires drank it, savoring every last drop. Rice “perceives the vampire’s image to be that of a ‘person who never diesÖ [who] takes a blood sacrifice in order to love, and exerts a charm over people'” (Steiger 2010:12).

In a time where the world was in utter chaos, what would be better than having the ability to live forever, to not worry about the current disease of the time, and to be highly romanticized? This is when the urban vampire communities first began to develop. People were trying to take control in a world that appeared to be without (Kahn 62:2007).

The modern urban vampires started to form small groups that would later be termed ‘houses.í Information began to circulate, such as pamphlets entitled “How to Become a Vampire in Six Easy Steps”-“a six-day ceremony involving an owl-figurine, a raw chicken liver, eggs inscribed with lightening bolts, vinegar, a black human hair, and a great deal of chanting and clapping” – although this would be thought of as a joke within the community due to the utter ridiculous nature of the ritual (Laycock 2009:20).

At first, urban vampire communities were secretive, and contact was generally through other members. There were also select vampire clubs during the 1980s and 1990s that were available to the community – these would later become blacklisted due to their association as “feeding zones” (J.S. interview January 28, 2010). However, with the increasing popularity of the Internet in the 1990s, the vampires found a way to connect to each other (Laycock 2009:94). Chat rooms, forums, and websites began to fill the Net with information for the newly awakened. Vampires were no longer alone in the world. The Internet became a way for the community to plan meetings and gatherings.

With the development of the community, the image of the vampire began to take shape. Depending on the type of vampire, there are different elements that have contributed to their portrayals. There is borrowing from both the folkloric and literary vampires, although modern vampires tend to draw more heavily from fictional and cinematic vampires. The ideology, appearance, and even mannerisms seem to develop together.

One way vampires distinguish themselves from mainstream society is through their appearance. While appearance varies greatly among individuals, many favor Goth attire and wear clothes with a romanticized flair. However, this does not stop vampires from wearing jeans and t-shirts with a good old fashioned pair of Chucks, especially in more relaxed settings.

Formal vampire events – such as blood-fastings (similar to Neo-Pagan handfasting rituals), The Vampires’ Masquerade Ball, and the Endless Night Vampire Ball – are marked by the presence of over the top expressions of vampirism through attire. Fangs are worn, ankhs celebrating the vampire’s house are put on (each house has its own symbolic icon that is placed on an ankh as a form of visual membership), makeup varies from pale and ghoulish to glamorous, lace and vinyl are just as common as satin and silk, reds and blacks mix with all the colors of the rainbow and in-between, and as always there is the high spirits of festivity in the air. Clothing is an element in the vampire community that is in constant motion, as vampires enjoy expressing themselves creatively through this medium.

Michelle Belanger, a psi-vampire, is one of the most influential and public vampires within the community. She has helped to develop several houses. Each house is a gathering place for vampires to come together; each has its own set of rules, practices, and beliefs (Laycock 2009:99). Belanger wrote several vampire codexes. The codexes give basic information about the various types of vampires – psychic and sanguinarian. These are a sort of user manual for the newcomers to the communities. Through her efforts with Father Todd, a sanguinarian vampire, she co-created the Black Veil (titled as such to create a distinction from the role-playing vampire games of the time) (Russo 2008:191-195). The Black Veil is a set of ethics that all vampires, regardless of their feeding preferences, are expected to follow (Russo 2008:191; Laycock 2009) – this will be expanded upon later. Vampires that stray too far from the Black Veil are ostracized from the community.

As individuals become more isolated from one another through the use of the internet and advancing technologies, there is a corresponding increase in alienation, especially among teenagers. A teen who is teased at school for whatever reason, returns home to the internet, which provides a world where s/he can find acceptance. The vampire community is another outlet for these teens. Over the last ten years there has been an increasing flux in the number of youths that are becoming a part of the vampire community (J. S. interview January 28, 2010).

The vampire community allows for an outlet for how they are and who they want to be without a lot of judging present. It provides a ready-made romanticized identity for young people who feel marginalized and ostracized. However, it also creates a liminal place for teenagers to exist, due to the fact that most vampire meetings and gatherings are at twenty-one and over clubs, and many vampire groups will not allow members under eighteen to join because of legal issues (Brad and Mia interview February 20, 2010). In this liminal state, teen vampires are highly limited in their association with the vampire community itself in a direct way; the internet becomes their only connection to the world they so desperately want to fit into.

Vampires divide themselves in their communities according to feeding preference: they can be either energy or blood vampires. Typically, these are referred to as psychic and sanguinarian vampires. Psychic vampires, also known as psi, might only feed from sexual energy, or earth energy, or from certain types of people in certain situations. Sanguinarian vampires, also known as sang, feed from human blood, animal blood, or a mixture of the two. Many sanguinarian vampires are forced to become hybrid vampires who feed from blood and energy. This is usually because a blood donor cannot be found at one time or another. Sang vampires that have to feed from energy do not find it as filling; it has been described as “sipping tofu through a straw” (Julian Basarab interview September 30, 2009).

In the beginning, there was a complete divide between the two types of vampirism. Sanguinarian vampires were the first to establish themselves, so when the psi vampires began to emerge on the scene they were met with some skepticism. Some of the sang vampires believed that only “‘real vampires drink blood'” (Laycock 2009:15). This was only part of the internecine struggles. Conflicts between ideas about feeding methods, practices, how gatherings should be handled, even down to how blood-wine (a wine that has been mixed with blood, usually animal) is prepared exist within these communities.

There are still clear differences between the two groups. Sanguinarian vampires still have to deal with the fact that in order to have a donor, a crime must be committed, because it is against the law to cut someone. Cutting oneself inevitably brings into question one’s mental state; therefore, sang vampires have to skirt around this (Lilith interview September 18, 2009). In contrast, there is no illegality to being a psi vampire – the only restrictions come from what they feel is right morally. Psi vampires can feed from a group of people, an individual person, living energy from natural elements, and sexual energy. Each psychic vampire has a choice as to feed from their source with or without the permission of the supplier.

Another ethically problematic aspect of this subculture is the practice of “grazing.” Grazing can be roughly defined as the random selection of an unscreened donor who is typically picked up in nightclubs or Goth bars (Elijah interview January 28, 2010). Although it is something that is highly looked down upon in the vampire communities, it still occurs and can be an aggressive act that brings an unwanted spotlight to the community.

A psychic vampire when asked whether or not he “grazed” stated, “grazing is in my eyes and a lot of the vampire communities eyes as being a rough, without rules, without morals. I don’t feed from those that are not willing unless it is by drawing in energy which will not hurt anyone and leave the person unharmed and unmarked” (J.S. interview January 28, 2010).

Just as a sanguinarian vampire when asked the same question, merely said, “I would never graze. My black swans [a person involved with the vampire community, nonexclusive to donors] typically cut, but I’ve had to resort to animal blood before. [The AIDS scare] has made us more cautious and less likely to graze or attack someone.” (Elijah interview January 25, 2010). It is a rare thing to come into contact with a vampire that believes in grazing as a positive element in the community or would willing resort to such an act.

The modern urban vampire community is always in flux. This community’s boundaries overlap with those of Goths, Pagans, part of the BDSM community, Left Hand Path witches, Satanists, and the list goes on. Since vampires are involved with so many other different subcultures, the community changes with the current politics as much as the environment. It is a way of expression that allows its members to explore who they are, as well as who they might want to become.

It is unfortunate that the media tends to focus on its more sensational and outrageous members, as in the case of Jonathon “The Impaler” Sharkey. This satanic sanguinarian vampire ran for President of the United States twice, in 2004 and 2008. As part of his presidential campaign, Sharkey claimed if he was elected that he would impale George W. Bush on the White House lawn. Nevertheless, like all oppositional subcultures, the vampires merely overcome their trials and tribulations and continue to evolve along with the larger cultures. The modern urban vampire community typically manages to dodge bad public relations and stay under the radar – allowing them to continue to function without drawing unnecessary attention to their unique ways of life.

Vampires, like modern Witches, are linked to many communities through their romantic reclamation of a negative folkloric figure. Vampires have claimed historical figures such as Jure Grando, Peter Plogojowitz, Arnold Paole, Vlad Tepes Dracula, Gilles de Rais, and Countess Erzsebet Bathory as fictive ancestors. It is not certain whether these people all practiced in some form of vampirism or not, but what is important is that the vampire community has chosen them as fictive ancestors.

Just as the modern vampire identity is based on a handpicked collection of attributes from folkloric and fictional aspects of vampirism, vampires have also created their own sacred origin myths that give them a link them to evolution and grant them a metaphysical origin. Many vampires have come to believe that vampires have always existed, or that “vampires have been around for a few centuries” (Elijah interview January 28, 2010). Some vampires believe that vampirism is merely another stage of human evolution, and see themselves as its representatives. Vampirism has become a way of reclaiming a past, and of creating a mythical future.

Unlike their often cruel and wicked progenitors, the vampires of modern urban areas go out of their way to try and not be the bloodthirsty creatures they were once made out to be. The Black Veil works to ensure that there are sorts of laws within the community. It ensures the proper treatment and respect of donors, having discretion and not causing unwanted attention to the community, respecting the fact that the community is a diverse organism, reminding people to use common sense, practice self-control, and live life as an example to the community.

The community is metaphorically portrayed as a family, and vampires are urged to respect it as such, using proper etiquette for their havens, being responsible, respecting elders and the people within a certain territory, lead responsibly, and following the ideals of the vampire ways. Vampires that do not stay within these rules are forced out of the community and are thus subject to the outside world and its criticisms. Many vampires try to become upstanding members of the larger communities that they live within, getting involved with local youth groups, charities, and the like (Lilith interview March 13, 2010).

There also seems a sense of trying to involve, as well as create family within the community. Vampires often take their entire family to a vampire meet-up or gathering; just as the Black Veil discusses, the community becomes your family and they are expected to be there as such. It is easy to see that although the vampires might have similar traits to their distant bloodthirsty cousins of yore, they are clearly not the same; modern vampires have taken history, literature, and folklore and shaped them into a positive image they wish to project.

Unfortunately, the study into urban vampire cultures is still limited. Most written material has been put out by the community itself, or from fields such as English, Religious Studies, and Psychology. There is still hardly any research done on the connection of vampirism to HIV/ AIDS or even why there is a physical need to intake human blood or living energy. The overall population is still very much so in the dark about the vampire community.

Works Cited

Atwater, Cheryl
– 2000 Living in Death: The Evolution of Modern Vampirism
– Anthropology of Consciousness 11:1-2

Barber, Paul
– 1987 Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire
– Journal of Folklore Research 24(1):32

Cohn, Norman
– 2000 The Demonization of Mediaeval Heretics
– In The Witchcraft Reader
– Darren Oldridge, eds. Pp 36-52
– London: Routledge
– Khan
– 2007 Twenty-first Century Vampire
– In Vampires in Their Own Words
– Michelle Belanger, eds. Pp 62-71
– Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications

Keyworth, David
– 2006 Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-corpse?

Lavigne, Carlen
– 2004 Sex, Blood, (Un)Death: The Queer Vampire and HIV
– Journal of Dracula Studies 6:9

Laycock, Joseph
– 2009 Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism
– Westport: Praeger
– Folklore 117(December):19

Maser, Jack D.
– 2005 Dracula and the Afterlife: A Psychological Explanation
– Journal of Dracula Studies 7:12

Murgoci, Agnes
– 1926 The Vampire in Roumania
– Folklore 37(4):29

Russo, Arlene
– 2008 Vampire Nation
– Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications

Steiger, Brad
– 2010 Real Vampires, Night Stalkers, and Creatures from the Darkside
– Detroit: Visible Ink Press

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Jesse Kimmel-Freeman was born and raised in the sun-kissed world of Southern California. Jesse has written six novels, four short stories, four illustrated children's books, been part of several anthologies and is actively working on the next pieces to her series. When she isn't hard at work writing, she enjoys spending time with her wonderful children, loving husband, and furry family. They have many adventures and several misadventures, but it all makes for a good story in the end.Come visit her at her Website: http://www.jessekimmelfreeman.com Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jkimmelf Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/j.kimmelfreeman (page) or http://www.facebook.com/jesse.kimmelfreeman (personal acct) GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/Jesse_Kimmel-Freeman Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/jkimmelfShe loves hearing from her readers! You can email her at: jesse.kimmelfreeman@gmail.com

Latest posts by Jesse Kimmel-Freeman (see all)

  • WingedWolfPsion

    I thought it odd that the article seemed to stress a link between folklore and fiction, and modern vampire culture. I also think it’s not entirely appropriate to link vampire lifestylers with modern living vampires as though they were the same thing (and Father Todd isn’t a sanguinarian – or even a vampire at all. He’s a lifestyler who presented himself as a real vampire to promote parties, and isn’t respected in the community these days).

    There are only minor attributes in sanguinarian vampires that might be tied to vampire fiction or folklore… those things are the reason why they decided to call themselves vampires in the first place (rather than the other way around). Even fewer things support that link for psy-vamps. The first vampire house was established in 1966, so far as we know. Not in the 80s. (It is called House Maidenfear).

    While Houses are concentrated in large cities, vampires themselves are absolutely everywhere. Since they make up a small percentage of the population, they remain invisible in places where there aren’t enough of them to form groups. They don’t dress up, they don’t behave oddly, and you can’t tell them apart from anyone else by their interests or activities. This is exactly why most vampires think it’s likely that vampires have always existed.

    Why no vampire Houses prior to 1966? Well, no one particularly wants to be lynched or ostracized from their community. If there were Houses prior to that, they would have been extraordinarily secretive – and for obvious reasons. If any such existed, there’s no one who has come forward with any evidence to prove it.

    The comment about the lack of research is spot on. Some of the best research has been done by the community itself, as it seeks to understand vampirism. Only a few outside researchers, such as Joseph Laycock, have gained the community’s respect. (Note to potential researchers – approaching the community with an assumption that its members are either suffering from a mental disorder, or are playing dressup and have taken it too far, is a good way to get every door slammed in your face. Respect will be met with respect… and the same is true for disrespect and presumption).

  • anthonyhogg

    The link between folklore and fiction is obvious – those media have influenced the Vampire Community. The name (originally a Slavic word) and certain characteristics (the tendency to drink blood, wearing fangs), etc., hell even the aristocratic element (present in vampire “Houses,” “Courts,” et. al.) are derived from RPGs like “Vampire: The Masquerade,” which, in turn, is filtered down from popular representations of the vampire through Stoker.

    The history of the House Maidenfear is a bit of a murky one. And presuming it was, indeed, established in 1966, that not presumes a direct lineage; but reveals just how contemporary the “modern vampire culture” is.

    The alternate explanation for why no House before 1966 could simply be because there was no “scence” back then. If House Maidenfear was legit, it would rather be the spiritual ancestor of the modern VC, as opposed to a direct proginator. Hard to tell without a proper genealogy in place (evidence for the House’s existence is mainly through message board posts, not contemporary evidence).

    Considering the relative recentness of the VC – not to mention its often contradictory and divisive nature – it’s not hard to see why it’s been difficult for researchers to put their thumb on the whole thing. Before the Internet, the movement was certainly not as well organised or established as it is now. As it stands, there’s no hard-and-fast rules about specifics, because there aren’t any even within the VC itself. It’s not an institution, it’s a fluid thing (that said attempts have been made by certain “leaders” to establish rules and whatnot).

    It’s fair to say that Layock, however, is a reliable source on these matters. I would also single out Merticus for similar praise, too.

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