It’s late at night. Late for me, anyway, but still early for the gentleman sitting beside me—he sleeps during the day, and has only just awakened a few hours earlier. We’re at his house, where I’ve interviewed him more than a few times before, but tonight’s a little different.

On this occasion he produces a small rectangular box. Opening it, he reveals a new ceremonial knife, one that will be used to make a small incision in my arm. At his own insistence, he won’t do the cutting himself, due to a physical disability that impedes his dexterity. So we’re waiting for his wife to get home from work and take care of it. Once the cut is made, she’ll step back, and he’ll come forward to feed on my blood.

* * *

Today, there is a worldwide community of human vampires, or “real vampires,” as scholars typically call them. Real vampires are not undead, nor immortal, nor can they be weakened by garlic or vanquished by silver. In fact, they’re biologically typical in almost all ways, except in how they get part of their nourishment: from human and animal blood (vampires of this type call themselves “sanguinarians”), or by draining psychic energy (“psychic vampires” or “psi-vamps”), or both (hybrids).

For its participants, real vampirism isn’t a fad to be adopted one day and discarded the next (and those who treat it as such dismissed as mere “lifestylers” by the community). They feed out of what they are convinced is a biological need, one that generally appears during or just after puberty. Without their monthly, weekly, or sometimes daily feeding rituals, vampires claim, it becomes difficult for them to function—if they go too long without blood or “energy,” they can become weak, developing a host of physical and emotional symptoms that only a feeding can soothe.

In the two years I spent studying the vampires of New Orleans for my dissertation, I found that apart from their need for blood or its psychic equivalent, there were more genuine differences among them than commonalities. The people I met were equally men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 50. They were self-described atheists, monotheists, and polytheists; they were single, married, and divorced; and their sexual orientations were diverse. In fact, the only thing that truly united them all was the obvious exception to their otherwise “normal” existence: the impulse to take in blood or energy.

Some vampires, but not all, also choose to adopt the trappings of vampiric fashion, like Gothic dress and prosthetic fangs (some buy them stock, and others have custom acrylic dental prosthetics made from molds). These things are common, but they’re not at the core of the vampire identity—rather, they serve as external markers of the vampires’ internal state. Just as same-sex desire is distinct from the socio-cultural practices of the gay community, so being vampire is first a bodily need, then a set of personal and social practices for expressing it.

In general, vampires keep the trappings of their vampirism hidden during the day—it’s rare for one to show up to work in the morning wearing fangs, for example. But, when the lights go down, when the shops close up for the night and the moon rises overhead, the fangs go in and the vampires come out.

Feeding is governed by The Donor Bill of Rights, a pact between donor and vampire to promote safety and well-being, both physical and social. Real vampires perform the blood-letting ritual only with willing donors—friends, family members, significant others, or members of donor networks—and usually only after both the vampire and the donor have their blood tested. Some vampires use sterile single-use thermoplastic medical tubing to extrude blood into small receptacles for drinking on the spot, or for later storage; others may use sterile blades to make small incisions on the donor, and drink directly from the wound before cleaning and bandaging it. The Bill of Rights also applies to psychic vampires, who must refrain from “feeding” unethically—that is, taking energy from donors without their knowledge and consent.

Real vampires do not always feed. They socialize as well, especially with others of their own kind. Older, more experienced vampires (known as “elders”) will often form “houses” or “covens” to counsel younger, less experienced vampires on how to live with their condition. For psychic vampires, this guidance may also include instruction on the various methods of feeding—“contact feeding” through physically touching the donor; “ambient feeding” by taking excess energy that is naturally generated in high-traffic public places; or even “tantric feeding” through sexual encounters.

The use of terms and practices like these across the vampire community has been crucial to unifying it, helping its members construct a narrative about themselves. In popular culture, vampirism is associated with psychopathology, excess, and a general sense of social disconnection. But in reality, vampires say, they’re just a community like any other, one made of like-minded people who share rules and traditions.

A true sense of community among vampires began to emerge in the 1970s, as people who consumed blood or drained energy for nourishment began attending themed social gatherings—Dark Shadows conventions, events for blood fetishists, and bondage and S&M conventions—that allowed them to network with potential donors, and often to find others who shared their condition in the process.

In the early 1970s, some of the first organizations dedicated to studying vampires were also taking shape. Jeanne Keyes Youngson founded the Count Dracula Fan Club (now The Vampire Empire) in 1965, originally as an organization dedicated to Dracula and vampire fiction and film. But between 1970 and 1972, Youngson began receiving letters from people who self-identified as vampires. By 1974, after meeting with some of her vampire-fans, she extended the group’s purview to include real vampirism, demonstrating some of the first intellectual interest in the topic.

Around the same time, the paranormal investigator Stephen Kaplan formed the Vampire Research Center, the first organization dedicated entirely to the study of real vampirism. Through it, Kaplan supervised a “vampire hotline,” where anonymous callers could phone in to tell Kaplan and his staff about their vampiric behavior.

By the 1980s, ethnographers began to identify sub-sections of the vampire community, including people who experience sexual gratification through blood-letting rituals. The community grew in the 1990s, but real vampires still existed mostly in isolation or in small groups, relying on nearby fan conventions, low-circulation newsletters, and print correspondence.

Then, all at once, a confluence of cultural trends facilitated the rapid growth of the real-vampire community.

The first was the rise of Anne Rice conventions. Rice had begun writing her gothic fiction in the 1970s, but the 1994 film adaptation of her book Interview with the Vampire ushered in a new era of mainstream interest in vampires. The conventions quickly became meccas for vampires as well as vampire fans, doing for the community what Dark Shadows gatherings had done to a lesser degree a few decades earlier. Just as before, they provided closeted real vampires with opportunities to meet others like them, as well as people willing to satisfy their appetites.  

The second was the publication of the 1991 role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. Essentially Dungeons & Dragons with vampires, the role-playing game introduced a social space within which real vampires could congregate and network openly. It also helped to provide a lexicon of terms, protocols, and identifiers that the real vampire community could adopt for its own needs. And finally, by the end of the decade, the Internet had begun to dissolve geographic limitations, helping the niche community to grow through chat rooms and online forums.

But through its growth, at least one thing has stayed the same for the real vampires community: the stigma. Even in an era that has embraced previously fringe identities at face value, a taste for human blood remains a difficult practice to accept, especially because almost no one has found any real basis for the condition. But in fact, vampires are a proud, living critique of normalcy—which is, perhaps, the thing about them that frightens people the most.

* * *

I didn’t end up becoming a donor that night, for the most mundane of reasons: The vampire’s wife was running a little late coming home from work, so we decided to take a rain check.

After we called it quits, he boxed up the knife and put it aside. The night wasn’t wasted, though. It gave us time to talk—about his experiences growing up with his special need, and about the part I played (or almost played) in it that night. Many vampire-donor relationships can be, and are, just as personal.

“The blood is the life,” Dracula’s servant Renfield declared in Bram Stoker’s novel. I didn’t know it on the night I almost became a donor, but my own vampire study participants had just recently begun referring to me as “our Renfield.” In the novel, Renfield is cast as an antagonist—but to them, and to me, it was a sign of respect.