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Exclusive Interview with Joseph Laycock

Author of Vampires Today

Joseph Laycock is a fascinating study in extremes – a young graduate of Harvard Divinity School who has written a book about modern vampires. The Austin, Texas native received his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. His major was an unusual one in our materialistic culture, religion. When asked how his course of study went over with other students, Joseph replied, “When I went to parties and I mentioned that I was studying religion, people would ask me these bizarre questions about religion, which made me start thinking that maybe I should get paid to answer them."  With the amount of media portrayal of various religious groups, from reality TV shows featuring polygamous Mormons to life among the Amish to news reports of controversial statements made by a variety of churches, its not surprising that college-age students, whether they attend a military university, an online college like Kaplan University or an ivy league institute like Harvard would have a lot of questions. Its no surprise that Laycock became the "go to guy" for any sort of religious question or notion on campus.

He went on to graduate studies at Harvard and is now a doctoral candidate at Boston University.  He's spoken about vampires and religion everywhere from a military university campus to The Colbert Report, NPR and The History Channel. Joseph Laycock has lectured and written a number of articles about faith in our culture, as well as worked as a consultant for major news networks;  however, his book is not a tome about traditional religious practices in America or even fundamentalist sects.  Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism is a contemporary look at the
community that has been marginalized for eons not the fanged undead but individuals who have a special connection with a misunderstood sub-culture; Joe has now brought those individuals into the light.

VF: In light of the fascination with celluloid and literary vampires, i.e. Twilight, Southern Vampire Mysteries and Let the Right One In, the timing for the release of your book is remarkable. When you were writing Vampires Today, did you have any idea how popular vampires were?

JL: No, not at all.  I became interested in the real vampire community mainly because I had a rare opportunity to study it in Atlanta.  At the time I had never heard of Charlaine Harris or Stephenie Meyer.  But the timing was no accident: Praeger asked me to turn my research into a book, knowing full well that this is a seller’s market for vampires.

VF: Perhaps before we continue you can explain the difference between the “undead” of myth, literature and cinema and the vampires you met and interviewed.

JL: There are several types of self-identified vampires addressed in the book.  “Lifestyle vampires” admire the aesthetic of the vampire.  Lifestylers may have fangs made, they may even sleep in coffins, but other than their commitments to their lifestyle they are no different from everyone else.  Most importantly, they can “quit” being a lifestyle vampire if they choose.  “Real vampires” either consume blood or believe that they absorb the life energy (psi) of those around them.  Most real vampires see this as condition innate from birth and believe that their physical, mental, and emotional health will deteriorate if they go without feeding.  It is, of course, possible to be both a “real vampire” and a “life-styler” simultaneously.

Neither real or lifestyle vampires claim to be undead or immortals.  The idea that a vampire could be a living person actually goes back to the 19th century and an occult group called the Theosophical Society.  The Theosophical Society traveled to India where they re-imagined European vampire legends by drawing on Indian ideas of vital energy and holistic medicine.  I have met Hindus and students of Chinese medicine who acknowledge that some people need to borrow or take energy from others to be healthy––they just don’t think of this as vampirism.

There were once people within the modern vampire community claiming that they actually were undead immortals.  This was especially common in the early days of the Internet.  Today, the community is more organized and no one would ever take such a claim seriously.  However, several vampires believe that immortality is possible through reincarnation.  They believe that vampirism makes it possible to transfer more memories from one life to the next.

VF:  You graduated from Harvard’s Divinity School, a fact that appears at odds with your interest in vampires.  Can you talk about what drew you to writing about vampires in the first place?

JL: Believe or not, while researching this book I met a vampire who had graduated from Harvard Divinity School.  Harvard Divinity School is a notoriously open-minded place.  I remember interfaith services that frequently included Buddhists, Pagans, and even atheists alongside Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Many of my research projects are crimes of opportunity:  I was living in Atlanta when I found out that the Atlanta Vampire Alliance was conducting a survey of the global vampire population.  This survey took an incredible amount of their time and money.  This was not a religious cult, this was a community trying to understand itself.  As I argue in the book, I think the very existence of the real vampire community raises some important questions about identity in the modern world.

VF:  Many people from traditional religions have issues with other traditions they view as occult or even demonic yet one of the main practices of traditional Christianity is devouring the body and blood of Christ, something that seems almost vampiric to non-believers. Can you discuss this?

JL: Much has been made––both by academics and in popular culture––of the connection between Christianity and vampirism.  Both seem to involve rising from the grave, drinking blood, and gaining immortality.  The film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter played heavily on these connections and this film is sometimes shown at the American Academy of Religion’s national conference.

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation holds that during the Eucharist, bread and wine quite literally become the body and blood of Christ even though their appearance does not change.  Martin Luther considered this doctrine absurd and most Protestants have a more symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.  Historically, American Catholics have been criticized for the doctrine of transubstantiation and have even been called vampires.

In addition to transubstantiation, there is a lot of blood imagery in Catholicism.  Christian martyrs are often shown bleeding and saints such as Francis of Assisi are often depicted with stigmata––the wounds of Christ spontaneously appearing on the human body.

Vampires Among Us by Rosemary Ellen Guiley describes an interview with a self-identified vampire who was raised Catholic.  The vampire believed that her Catholic upbringing may have caused her to equate blood with love from an early age.

VF: There are religious elements to the vampire myth – the cross, the rosary, holy water, the use of the host in the novel Dracula.  How do the modern vampires you encountered view traditional religion? You’ve mentioned that there are Christian vampires -  how do they reconcile their status with their faith?

JL: Some vampires do consider vampirism to be a religion.  The Temple of the Vampire has been a legally registered church and there are several other “vampire religions.”  There are also some who see vampirism as a sort of “spiritual path.”  However, the majority of vampires appear to view vampirism as a condition that is totally separate from religious affiliation.  One argued that being a vampire is no more a religion than being a diabetic.

There is an article in a scholarly volume claiming vampires usually wear only silver jewelry because gold is representative of the rites of the Catholic Church.  I found no evidence of this.  While I cannot speak for others, I imagine that most Christian vampires have no difficulty reconciling their vampirism and their faith.  Modern vampires do not literally identify with the vampires of legend.  Furthermore, the idea that crosses and holy water repel vampires is a folk belief with no doctrinal or scriptural basis.  Conflict arises because some Christians interpret vampirism as a demonic or occult practice.  I have heard of vampires in the Bible Belt being “outed” to their church and forced to leave.

VF: Some members of a fundamentalist religious sects find the celebration of Halloween as “demonic” and won’t allow their children to read literature like Harry Potter because of the reference to magic and witches; unfortunately, these individuals probably won’t be reading Vampires Today. How would you address their concerns?

JL: This question touches on an issue that came up a lot in my career as a teacher: How do you weigh a child’s right to autonomy against a parent’s right to raise their child as they see fit?  In this case, there is an important difference between religious belief and knowledge: Setting aside the question of whether a Christian child ought to read Harry Potter, there is a separate issue of false information.

A number of “ritual crime specialists” have attempted to make a living by playing on popular fears about youth and sub-cultures. In some cases, these experts receive government money to run seminars for law enforcement on dubious topics such as “occult crime.”  Typically, these specialists take isolated incidents and present them as evidence of a dark and dangerous network that is all around us.  In the 1980s this led to a moral panic over “Satanic Ritual Abuse.”  In the 1990s, this attention shifted the Goth culture and the vampire community.  Just this spring, a ritual crime specialist appeared on a local news station and stated that last Halloween, “a father was killed at the request of his sixteen-year-old daughter, because he was trying to intervene in her new Twilight, vampire behavior.”  The girl was Danielle Black of Hagerstown, Maryland.  So far, press coverage of this case mentions nothing of vampires or Twilight.  It does, however, discuss the defense’s claim that Danielle suffered numerous beatings from her father.

Typically, ritual crime experts have dismissed the work of academics, claiming that we “don’t understand real police work.”  I do think parents would be relieved––as well as better informed––if they read my book instead of ritual crime literature.  I think the saddest thing about sensationalist accounts of  “vampire killers” is that it distracts from very real and very preventable factors in these cases.  Almost always there is a history of abuse or a known mental illness than went untreated.

VF: You wrote of a researcher who disappeared in New York in 1996 while researching the vampire subculture.  You wrote that she was almost certainly killed by the Russian mafia.  Did you ever feel that your safety was an issue during the time you researched your book?

JL: No.  Everyone has their own tolerance for risk.  While I was studying vampires I was teaching in some fairly rough inner city schools.  We didn’t use metal detectors and students would frequently bring weapons to protect themselves.  I have had a student show me a wound on his foot where a bullet passed through his body.  I’ve also done kick boxing in Thailand.  Having had these experiences, I am aware that I don’t think of “my safety” in the same way as everyone else.  Even so, there is really very little to fear from modern vampires.  Every community has its share of scandals and gossip, but the vampires I worked with seemed unusually preoccupied with ethics.  This is probably due at least in part to their desire to counter negative stereotypes about their community.

Books like Not in Kansas Anymore by Christine Wicker and Piercing the Darkness by Katherine Ramsland both describe unnerving encounters with the vampire community.  I think there are several reasons why my experience was so different.  First, Wicker and Ramsland are journalists and people want an exciting story.  (Watching the Atlanta Vampire Alliance discuss demographic data on vampires was not terribly exciting.)  Second, Wicker and Ramsland spent a lot of time in vampire clubs.  Almost by definition, behavior in a nightclub is very different from everyday behavior.  In the clubs, they encountered many life-style vampires as well as public exhibitions of sado-masochism.  Most of my contacts were uninterested in the club scene and I spent very little time in clubs in favor of more day-to-day observations.  Finally, I am aware that as a male, people will interact with me differently.  For example, Wicker describes visiting a “vampires and victims ball,” where a man wearing prosthetic fangs approached her and asked, “So, are you a vampire or a victim?”  Clearly, this question contained innuendos of sexuality as well as power dynamics that would make a lone woman uncomfortable.  As a male, I would probably have had a totally different experience at a “vampires and victims ball.”

VF: Do you yourself have a favorite fictional vampire or vampire story?

JL: Yes. I Am Legend by Robert Matheson.  I have seen all three movie adaptations with Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith.  The Theosophical society re-imagined the vampire as an energy feeder.  Matheson re-imagined the vampire again as a biological phenomenon.  I Am Legend set the mold for future biological and viral models of vampirism such as The Hunger, Blade, and Ultra-Violet.  In fact, the entire “zombie survival” genre is indebted to this story.  The biological vampire has influenced medical science, which has tried to explain vampire legends in terms of porphyria or other diseases.  It has also influenced self-identified vampires, many of whom compare vampirism to a medical condition.  On a personal level, I identify with the protagonist, Robert Neville.  Much like a graduate student, he eats frozen dinners every night, studies constantly, and has no friends!

VF:  You spent a great deal of time with members of vampire communities in Atlanta and “energy workers” something that continues to fascinate many people.  What surprised you most about the real vampires you encountered? Did you also interview donors, those who allow vampires to drink their blood?

JL: I did notice a lot of unexpected interactions between vampires and their donors.  One member of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance is not a vampire at all––he practices energy healing known as Reiki.  The vampires loved having him around and called him “our battery” because he emitted so much energy.

Several of the vampires I met were “hybrids”––meaning that they consumed by psi energy and blood.  One woman explained that vampires were often confused with blood fetishists––those who receive sexual gratification from drinking or sharing their blood.  She explained that sometimes a symbiotic relationship would occur between a vampire and a blood-fetishist serving as a donor.  I also spoke to a hybrid vampire who said that his blood donors were normally women he was romantically involved with.  His current girlfriend was a Wiccan.  In the past, Wiccans have regarded vampires as spiritual parasites although relations have improved dramatically between the two groups.  The Wiccan was comfortable dating a vampire, with the caveat that her boyfriend could not feed on her (blood or energy).  Accordingly, her boyfriend has had to sustain himself purely on psi energy.

VF:  Did any of the vampires you interviewed attempt to “convert” or “turn” you.

JL: Most vampires believe that you cannot “turn” into a vampire.  Instead, you discover that you always were one.  This process is called “awakening.”  Awakening bears some resemblance to discovering one’s sexual orientation: The person does not change, but they think about their identity in a new way.  I do know of one scholar who began to wonder if he might be a vampire as a result of his research with this community.

Vampires did not try to convert me, but they were concerned that I would not be able to understand their world.  This is always a problem in studying religion because you can never truly see the world through someone else’s eyes.  Many vampires were reluctant to talk to me at first because they assumed I saw them as mentally ill.  This was not an unreasonable assumption considering what previous scholars have written about this community.

I did participate in an energy workshop with vampires.  Doing the energy work, I did indeed feel tactile sensations on my palms and fingertips.  Having this experience gave me a vague idea of what it is like for a vampire to experience subtle energy.  At least one of my peers expressed concerns that I had “gone native” and lost my objectivity.  I disagree.  It would be unempirical to claim I did not feel sensations while doing energy work, however, it is not my position that I actually experienced subtle energy.

VF:  Are you planning more writing about vampires?

JL: Possibly.  I see vampires as part of a much larger trend in contemporary religion.  A recent survey indicated that the number of Christians in America has dropped slightly in the last twenty years.  At the same time, the number of people who identify as having “no religion” has doubled.  These “nones” do not describe themselves as atheists.  Instead, they seem to have highly personalized ideas about religion.  I believe these “religions of one” are the next major frontier for religious studies.  It appears that with modernity, religion has increasingly become linked to a search for identity.  I am drawn to vampires because they are an extremely radical form of self-discovered identity.

I am currently interviewing people who describe themselves as “otherkin.”  Like vampires, otherkin believe they are fundamentally different from normal humans.  Many of them identify as animals, faeries, and mythological creatures.  Current scholarship has described otherkin as “an online religious movement,” but I suspect there is much more at stake here.  The vampires have given me entreé into this community and I see it as yet another opportunity.


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