DJ Williams says that for a while, he was only as interested in vampires as the next guy. Then he met a woman who identified as a real-life vampire. “Up until that point I didn't know that there was such a community,” says Williams, director of the social work program at Idaho State University. But then he discovered that vampires who feed on other people's blood exist, though they don't necessarily have fangs or capes. So he set out to learn everything he could. “It took a few years. Real vampires are quite distrustful, for good reason.” But once he published his early findings about what he called their “artistic, expressive and rather normal and healthy” practices, they opened up to him about what was really involved in being a bloodsucker.
His latest research on the subject, published in the journal Critical Social Work, explores the unique issues those people who identify as vampires face when seeking counseling.
As Williams and his co-author Emily Prior explain in the paper, there are “real” vampires, who consume energy (as blood or otherwise), and “lifestyle” vampires, who emulate other aspects of vampire mythology, such as wearing certain clothes or sleeping in coffins. The researchers focused on the “real” ones.
Fear not—“real” vampires don't prey on the necks of damsels in distress. Rather, they seek consenting individuals and use razors or scalpels to make small incisions in their chests and lick or suck out the blood. The vampires claim they need to feed on “a willing 'donor' in order to maintain physical, psychological and spiritual health,” according to the paper. Without the feedings, the vampires believe “their overall health and well-being suffer.” Often the donors are in committed romantic relationships with the vampires, Williams says.
The Atlanta Vampire Alliance, a “real” vampire membership group, connected the researchers with 11 adult vampires. The research doesn't dwell on the bloody aspects. Instead, it explains how vampires feel that they cannot open up—or as the researchers write, come “out of the coffin”—to social workers. The participants reported feeling that if they disclosed their vampire identities, clinicians would view them as delusional or as a “threat to public safety.” They feared losing their jobs. One person worried that “the state would take my children away.”
The subject is prescient in a time when how one self-identifies is a topic of national conversation—from the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage to Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a woman and appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair. Williams says his research can apply to others who feel they too must hide how they self-identify. “Any little-understood minority group can be at risk for not being understood [by social workers]. So the same fears that these vampires reported would apply to other minorities.”
Other so-called vampires have emerged from out the shadows in recent years. A contestant on the Syfy reality show Mad Mad House named Don Henrie claimed to sleep in a coffin in order to deal with his fibromyalgia. Last year the Daily Mail profiled a married couple that drank each others' blood.
One website lists 38 ways “to help you figure out if you are a real vampire or not.” The list includes having unusually pale skin, surviving an accident with only minor scrapes, rarely getting sick and having night vision. To identify other vampires, the website suggests keeping an eye out for people with shallow breathing, mood changes and fingernails that are as clear as glass.
The stigma against people believed to be vampires goes back at least as far as medieval times. In 2009, researchers at the University of Florence published a photograph of a 16th century woman, who they said was likely thought to be a vampire, buried with a brick in her mouth to prevent her from eating victims of the plague. More recently, people in the 18th and 19th centuries exhumed bodies of people who they suspected were vampires because they had died mysteriously, according to Smithsonian magazine.
The lives of Williams's vampires weren't as extraordinary. “Real vampires seem to be ordinary human beings with common, everyday human issues, such as trying to be successful in relationships and careers, managing stress, coping with daily living tasks, and adjustments to transitions,” the paper says.
“If they drink blood, that is perceived as being dangerous and delusional,” Williams says. That, he adds, is “the big misconception.”