BU’s Joseph Laycock on the myth, and the real deal
It’s that time of year—when thoughts turn to vampires. But these days they’ve become so embedded in popular culture, it’s fair to say they’re now a year-round phenomenon. There’s HBO’s phenomenally successful True Blood, the CW series The Vampire Diaries, and Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight saga and the books’ subsequent smash films.
But according to religious studies scholar Joseph Laycock (GRS’13), vampires are more than pop culture icons. They really exist. In his book Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (2009), Laycock examines teenagers, stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, and professionals, all unremarkable subjects save for one little thing: they claim to feed off of other people’s energy, and every so often drink human blood.
BU Today: How did a religious studies scholar become interested in modern-day vampires?
Laycock: While I was teaching high school in Atlanta, I found out about the Atlanta Vampire Alliance, which was conducting a 1,000-question survey for people who claim to be vampires. I found it interesting that people were defining their identities through survey data, so I wrote a paper about it and presented it at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego. Two journals approached me about publishing the paper, and then a representative from Praeger asked me to write a book. They knew what I didn’t: thanks to the Twilight series, it’s a seller’s market for vampires.
Your book describes several different types of vampires.
First there are lifestyle vampires, who admire the aesthetic. They may like vampire movies or writer Anne Rice, and they may own a set of prosthetic fangs or wear Victorian costumes to nightclubs. But at the end of the day, they know they’re no different from anyone else because they don’t feed.
Real vampires, on the other hand, believe that their physical, mental, and emotional health will deteriorate if they don’t feed—either on blood or on energy. There are three types of real vampires: sanguinarian, psychic, and hybrids. Sanguinarians feed on very small amounts of human blood, generally just a few drops.
Do they bite people’s necks?
Not usually, because it’s very painful and highly unsanitary. Most sanguinarians use a syringe or a lancet to feed.
How do psychic vampires feed?
People have auras that protect their energy and charkas, and psychic vampires feed by sipping life energy through a tentacle that’s attached to those auras—although of course not everyone can see either the auras or the tentacles. Psychic vampirism has been part of occult literature since the 19th century, and the idea that some people borrow or take energy from others is common throughout Asia.
Is feeding on people’s energy ethical?
Most vampires believe that it’s okay to feed as long as they go to a place where there are a lot of people and they take only small amounts of energy. Venues where there’s a lot of energy, like a rock concert or a Pentecostal church service, are better feeding grounds. A lot of vampires have consenting donors, people who have lots of energy and don’t mind giving some of it away. There’s also tantric feeding, which involves sexual contact.
Did any of your sources try to feed on your energy?
Not that I noticed. A lot of vampires say that ordinary people don’t sustain them. The really good energy comes from creative, passionate types, like artists or religious figures.
Do any common vampire myths apply to real vampires?
Some report having sun allergies. I know one woman who wears welding goggles whenever she goes outdoors, but I know another vampire who went to Thailand and sat on the beach all day. As far as having to be invited in and not being able to cross running water—no one claims to follow any of that.
Do real vampires believe they are immortal?
Do you believe the people you interviewed are real vampires?
I’m a religious scholar, not a scientist. I don’t really care what the truth is. I’m interested in what other people believe, and they believe they are indeed vampires.
What’s the connection between Christianity and vampirism?
The Catholic Church believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is that the communion bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, even though their appearance does not change. Martin Luther thought this was ridiculous; as a result, most Protestants have a more symbolic understanding about the Eucharist, but the Catholic Church refuses to budge. So Catholics have been criticized for the doctrine of transubstantiation and have even been called vampires.
Why are vampires so prevalent in pop culture?
For years, the vampire has been a symbol of the romantic outsider, the rebel. And because each new generation needs a rebel, there have been many generations of vampires. Back in the 1960s there was a television show called Dark Shadows, which gave us Barnabas Collins, our first reluctant vampire. Then there was the sexy Lestat from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and the tortured Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And now we have True Blood’s Bill Compton and Twilight’s Edward Cullen.
I’m a little concerned about Twilight, because these are the most unrebellious vampires we’ve ever seen. They are essentially Mormon vampires; the author is Mormon, and the Cullen family has Mormon values. And Twilight is not a cult phenomenon. It’s mainstream. The vampire has gone from being a horrible monster to the kid next door. So we’ll see what happens. Perhaps Edward Cullen will be the last vampire.
This originally ran November 19, 2009.