In most major cities around the world, communities of ordinary people – nurses, bar staff, secretaries – are drinking human blood on a regular basis. The question is, why?
In the French quarter of New Orleans, John Edgar Browning is about to take part in a “feeding”. It begins as clinically as a medical procedure. His acquaintance first swabs a small patch on Browning’s upper back with alcohol. He then punctures it with a disposable hobby scalpel, and squeezes until the blood starts flowing. Lowering his lips to the wound, Browning’s associate now starts lapping up the wine-dark liquid. “He drank it a few times, then cleaned and bandaged me,” Browning says today.
To Browning’s bemusement, he was not quite to his host’s taste. “He said my blood was not as metallic as it should have been – so he was a little disappointed,” he recalls; apparently, diet, hydration and blood group can all make a subtle difference to the flavour. After they had cleaned up, the pair went to a charity dinner in aid of the homeless.
A self-confessed “needle-phobe”, Browning had not been looking forward to the feeding. “I’m actually pretty fearful of anything sharp approaching my skin,” he says. But as a researcher at Louisiana State University, he was willing to go through with it for his latest project: an ethnographic study of the New Orleans “real vampire” community.
Was the blood-feeding a religious ritual, a delusion, or a fetish? Before he had met any vampires, Browning suspected they had just blurred the line between fact and fiction. “I’d assumed that these people were bonkers and had just read too many Anne Rice novels.”
By the time he had offered himself as a donor, however, his opinions had taken a U-turn. Many real-life vampires have no belief in the paranormal and have little more than a passing knowledge of True Blood or Dracula; nor do they appear to have any psychiatric issues. Instead, they claim to suffer from a strange medical condition – fatigue, headaches, and excruciating stomach pain – which, they believe, can only be treated by feeding on another human’s blood.
“There are thousands of people doing this in just the US alone, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, and I don’t think it’s a fad,” says Browning. Their symptoms and behaviour are a genuine mystery.
For many, real-life vampirism is a taboo; over the last few decades, it has come to be associated with gruesome murders such as the notorious case of Rod Ferrell in the US, a deluded killer apparently inspired by a fantasy role-playing game. “When people talk about self-identified vampires, a lot of times these horrible images come to mind,” says DJ Williams, a sociologist at Idaho State University. “So the community has been closed and suspicious of outsiders.” As a result of the stigma, the vampires I’ve contacted online have asked me to use aliases within this article.
It was not always this way; across history, we can find cases where human blood was considered a bona-fide medical cure. At the end of the 15th Century, for instance, Pope Innocent VIII’s physician allegedly bled three young men to death and fed their blood (still warm) to his dying master, with the hope that it might pass on their youthful vitality.
Later on, it was used to treat epilepsy; the afflicted were encouraged to gather around the gallows and collect the warm blood dripping from recently executed criminals. “Blood was a medium between the physical and spiritual,” explains Richard Sugg at the University of Durham, who recently wrote a book on “corpse medicine” and who is currently writing a volume on vampirism. By drinking the blood of a healthy young man, he says, you were imbibing his spirit and curing whatever afflicted your soul. These treatments only fell out of favour following the Enlightenment, and the onset of a more general sense of prudery that took hold in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
And yet, the practice seems to have lived on among a small group of people. Before the Age of the Internet, they were largely isolated, but through dedicated webpages they have now forged thriving underground networks. “From what we can tell, most major cities across the world seem to have a vampire community,” says Williams.
Thanks to their fear of exposure, these communities have become adept at hiding, a barrier Browning faced when he started his study. “This is not a population who are asking to be found,” he says. He was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the time, just an hour’s drive from New Orleans, a city famed for its vibrant subcultures. He realised that if he was ever going to get the chance to meet a real vampire, it was now.
Walking the streets at day and night, he began to home in on the places (typically goth clubs) where vampires might hang out. Even at the beginning, he was not too scared about the characters he would meet. “It helps being a guy who is 6ft 4in, and 220lbs,” he says. In fact, his biggest concern was not his own safety, but the vampires. “You could ‘out’ them,” he says – potentially putting their personal and professional lives in jeopardy.