That's why the lady is a vamp
Vampires are all around us, in shops, supermarkets, the high street, everywhere - or so says a new book about the UK's modern day vampire scene. After tucking a large crucifix under my jumper and a discreet stake in my handbag, I went to find out more from the author of Vampire Nation.
Arlene Russo is this country's foremost vampire expert, and editor of Britain's only vampire magazine, Bite Me. Reeling from the stench of garlic she offered me a mint, and debunked a few myths. Count Dracula and his revenant cronies are strictly pass. The new breed of vampire is emphatically mortal, born rather than made. So daylight is in, garlic and crucifixes are out. Contemporary vampires don't even need to nibble their victims' necks. What's the world coming to?
"Vampires today are intelligent," Russo says. "Most of them just want to live with a consensual partner. You're actually very safe in a room with a vampire."
Tentatively, I ask Russo if she herself actually identifies as a vampire. "Don't worry, I don't attack people and I don't drink blood," she says. "I'm interested in reality, in the way a fictional character touches people and transforms their lives. Not in the sense that I am a vampire, but I have devoted my life to them. At one point I could have been a 'lifestyler', but I'm too mild."
Mild? Aren't we just talking about being a bit of a Goth? No, real lifestylers live it 24-7, they even want to sleep in coffins.
Lovely. GP Taylor, author of the bestselling Shadowmancer books, used to be the vicar at St Mary's in Whitby. Thanks to the Dracula connection, wannabe vampires descended on his graveyard at the drop of a hat, so he's had more experience than most of meeting them in the flesh. "They're often passionate and consuming, born out-of-time romantics, dissatisfied with being stuck in the modern world," he told me. "Gothic dress reinforces this romanticism. Women are allowed to be women, lacy and pretty with powdered faces. Men can be men, dressed to kill, charming with a hidden danger. Vampire is not the place for PCness."
Dressing to impress can become a full-time job. Russo used to wear the gear all the time, including, for special occasions, dresses she had to be sewn into. Then there's the dental work. Although she favoured detachable acrylic fangs, many lifestylers have their incisors filed into shape or undergo painful dental implants to give their smile that extra bite. Recently a piercing called The Vampire has become popular, in which a metal bar is punched through the skin of the neck.
Why vampires? Why not choose to emulate zombies or werewolves? I asked Professor Glennis Byron of Stirling University, a specialist in gothic literature.
"The vampire is the monster that looks most like us, and so it is far more easily adaptable to serve as a metaphor for our social/cultural condition, whatever that may be at the time. It has increasingly become a site of identification for us, rather than a monster to be feared and driven out."
Responsibility for the sudden increase in interest in vampires at the end of the 20th century rests with one person. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (such as Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat) transformed the vampire from the unfortunate monster of Nosferatu or camp villainy of Hammer horror to an object of aspiration. In her book Russo explains how many of Rice's readers developed a yearning to be a part of this seductive nocturnal world. And so the vampire lifestyler was born - people who adopted only the outward aesthetics of the bloodsucker.
According to Prof Byron, Rice made the vampire altogether more human. "With Anne Rice the quest of the vampire for origins and for meaning [all that endless agonising over questions of good and evil and so on] seems to be replicating the human quest for truth, community, values by which to live."
Russo agrees: "We're attracted to this notion of the tortured soul, such as Louis in Interview with the Vampire. We all like to think we're tortured souls."
Captivated by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films at an early age, Russo is as emphatic as Taylor about the appeal of the vampire being to do with good old-fashioned romance. "It's about the idea of love persisting forever. Remember in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula when Gary Oldman says, 'I've searched oceans of time for you'? Imagine someone searching the centuries for you. Most prospective partners wouldn't spend ten minutes looking for you." More pragmatically, she says: "People are obsessed with immortality. Nobody wants to grow old and nobody wants to look old. Vampires never look old."
Prof Byron thinks there's more to it. "Vampires represent a kind of freedom from rules - that is attractive. They represent the rebel, the outsider. They've been glamorised from the time they moved out of folklore and into literature during the Romantic period. Polidori's Lord Ruthven in The Vampyre (1819), for example, is extremely seductive, ruining reputations as well as drinking blood. Sex, clearly, has got something to do with the vampire for a lot of people."
Ah yes, sex. I was wondering when it would rear its ugly head. In Russo's experience women are most likely to succumb to the lure of the vampire. "Women have more of a need to fantasise; men are more easily satisfied. Women think about vampires because they're not going to find seduction and chivalry, not in Scotland, anyway."
For the book she meets Kittie Klaw, a burlesque artist and paranormal investigator. Klaw isolates the erotic appeal of the vampire thus: "So many people are still longing for sexual freedom. The debonair vamp that so many young ladies fantasise about is the perfect combination of ideal husband material and a depraved sexual mentor: Mr Darcy meets Marquis de Sade." Although Russo would prefer to meet a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise lookalike, the letters she receives as editor of Bite Me prove "plenty of women are into the idea of other women biting their necks. The magazine has a large gay readership, and it's nice to get letters from housewives who are into vampires. They find the idea empowering, and don't feel demeaned by the way women are portrayed in vampire culture."
So far, so innocent. However in Vampire Nation Russo also discusses "real vampires". She identifies two kinds, sanguine and psychic. Apparently both experience special sensitivity to energy and heightened senses, and unlike lifestylers, are not likely to be exhibitionists, tending to make contact with each other via the internet rather than in bars and clubs.
Sanguine vampires are your actual blood drinkers. Lifestyle vampires tend to distance themselves from the practice altogether. Russo says: "The people you don't expect are the ones who are really into it. The media always look at those with cloaks and fangs first, but they're just the wannabes. I interviewed doctors and lawyers. A successful vampire has to blend in or they'd be persecuted."
If the people featured in Vampire Nation are representative of the sanguine vampire community, they're a surprisingly sensible bunch, with a strict code of ethics and a keen knowledge of the medical risks involved. Biting is definitely out, with practitioners using sterile syringes, lancets or scalpels to draw very small quantities of blood from consenting partners with a clean bill of health. It seems to be as much about ritual and intimacy as a genuine wish to drink blood, which as a natural emetic may have to be mixed with red wine or orange juice in order to be consumed. Some sanguine vampires even express a preference for particular blood groups, claiming a difference in taste.
Why do it? Most of the vampires interviewed by Russo experience strong cravings for blood, and seem to believe it somehow gives them energy. One UK vampire website offers advice on coping with the cravings: "Drink your own blood, it'll take the edge off. You can also try eating black pudding." I know which I'd prefer, and it wouldn't involve a trip to the butcher.
The sexual gratification involved in bloodplay has led to a crossover with the more extreme fetish scene. One exception to the rule of anonymity is Belladonna, a model from Cambridgeshire. She regularly acts out vampiric scenes in private performances or fetish nightclubs, but is a very private player so far as blood-letting is concerned. "I will only indulge with my long-term partners. This is really a choice I make for my own safety." I ask Russo if she knows of any sanguine vampires practising in Scotland.
"Oh yes. But they aren't open about it, they're underground. I don't mean literally under the ground - though you never know."
She is often approached by the media looking for blood drinkers, to no avail. "Sanguine vampires are not going to go on TV and identify themselves. We'll never know how many there are. It's the last taboo. That's why psychic vampires are the new breed."
Katharina Katt, psychic vampire and agony aunt for Bite Me, estimates that there may be hundreds of thousands of psychic vampires in the UK. "The problem is that many don't know what they are, or even realise that they are feeding off others." Katt believes vampires are unable to produce enough pranic, or life energy, and so are forced to "feed" in order to keep their energy levels stable. Their "awakening" may take place when they meet another psychic vampire who offers to become their mentor, showing them how to feed more effectively. Psychic vampires consider their condition to be a mental ability rather than a medical problem, often claiming to see auras and have the power to manipulate others. "
Is this for real? "They believe it's real," Russo says. "I did my university dissertation on Fellini, and he said there's no such thing as reality, only people's versions of it. This is vampire reality. If people want to live their life's like that, it's up to them."
Russo has been a believer in the phenomenon ever since meeting her first psychic vamp at a vampire ball in LA. "I didn't realise what he was doing at first, he was just gazing into my eyes. Then I understood that he was trying to feed from my energy. Since then I've met plenty of people I call psychic vampires. They're not the real thing, though; they just moan and groan all the time, draining the people around them."
Russo believes she experienced psychic attacks while writing the book. "I've been careful to show respect to people but there's a fear element as well. There are people who might not be happy I'm sharing secrets.
Many serious vampires are also involved with witchcraft. Although the book has an unpleasant chapter on vampire-related crimes, including murder and rape, Russo's Italian Catholic upbringing made her hold back from discussing the occult fringe of the scene.
"I had to research even darker practices which I didn't necessarily include in this book," she says. "It's a dark place to get into, and it isn't like writing fiction. This is real. When people dabble with darkness they're courting danger." After coming in contact with so much weirdness, Russo is keen to return to the glamorous and safe world of Bite Me: "I've had enough of darkness, I want to let some light in." Mind, she's quick to reassure me that she's still obsessed.
"I'm the Queen of the Vampires in the UK and no one's stealing my crown," she says, with a glint in her eye that sends me off to refill my holy water bottle.
• Vampire Nation by Arlene Russo is published by John Blake, priced 17.99.
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