Life

UNDEAD AND UNSEEN

Will those elusive vampires show up at a symposium dedicated to them?

SUE FERGUSON June 6 2005
Life

UNDEAD AND UNSEEN

Will those elusive vampires show up at a symposium dedicated to them?

SUE FERGUSON June 6 2005

UNDEAD AND UNSEEN

Life

SUE FERGUSON

Will those elusive vampires show up at a symposium dedicated to them?

VAMPIRES, IT SEEMS, like to keep a low profile. So much so that I couldn’t persuade anyone claiming to be an actual representative of the bloodsucking undead to agree to an interview for this article—despite numerous invitations posted on websites, requests to a handful of experts in the field, and visits to the Goth stores and clubs you’d expect vampires to patronize. The best I can offer is a few quotes lifted from the Scottish Goth magazine Bite Me, and letters and emails written to a Dracula expert by self-proclaimed

vampires. The media, I guess, have given these creatures of the night a bad rap. We trot them out as fodder for Halloween stories or, more hurtfully, implicate all the Count’s followers when a few psychopathic types carry out gruesome crimes. In fact, I’m told the vast majority are harmless.

This week, a Toronto conference will shed light on the true nature of the so-called kindred. North American vampirologists, academics, fans and, who knows, maybe a vampire or two, will attend the first ever Weekend with Dracula organized by the

Canadian chapter of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula. The Saturday afternoon panel, Vampires Among Us?, will explore what attracts people to the vampire lifestyle, the degree to which their unusual passion constitutes a public hazard, and other such conundrums. “Why not assess the vampire scene from within?” asks conference organizer and internationally renowned Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller. “It’s been assessed from without often enough.” From within? Must have been a slip of the tongue. It’s true that, over the years, the

professor emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland has encountered more than her fair share of vamp ires and, because she maintains a Dracula website, is regularly mistaken for one (though in threadbare slippers, chinos and blouse, there’s little gothic allure about her). And in 1995, she was made Baroness of the House of Dracula. But that just means someone else picks up the tab when she visits Romania, not that she has a taste for blood. Nor does she believe self-described vampires are anything other than people sucked into a fantasy. “If somebody really believes they’re a vampire, the sure test is, shape-shift into a bat, fly across there,” she says, pointing to the far wall of her compact living room in the Toronto condominium where she moved after retiring from the university.

Such vampire fantasists are, in fact, relatively rare. There’s a spectrum, says Miller, that starts with fans of vampire films and books. Next are those who emulate Dracula in mild ways. “They’re just wannabes,” she says. “They don’t actually practise bloodletting, but they’ll dress up, buy a cape, maybe get plastic fangs or even go to the dentist for permies”—harmless role-playing. Then there are those who take the scene more seriously, and sleep in a coffin or drink blood. “It’s just a...” she purses her lips to mimic a little nibble and suck, then laughs. “I can’t think of it with a straight face.” Of course, this sort of thing raises the spectre of sexually transmitted diseases, but if it’s consensual, she adds, at least there are no innocent victims. “These people are still on this side of the line between reality and fiction. They’re close, but they know ultimately they’re not vampires.”

Others don’t. A census of the undead carried out in 2000 by the Vampire Empire, a New York-based organization for lovers of the genre, netted 272 people who said they were, or had previously been, vampires. Of these, 71 per cent admitted to drinking blood (from friends or themselves) or at least red drinks, 48 per cent wore fangs and 84 per cent avoided sunlight, but just 11 per cent believed they’d live longer than the rest of us. Club founder and president Jeanne Keyes Youngson, who is speaking at the Toronto forum, ran into an underground vampire clan on the Upper West Side while researching her 1997 book, Private Files of 'a Vampirologist. “They found a scabby, big dog,” she says, “which they cut the neck of and drank its blood.” New York vampire Vlad told Bite Me in an online interview that as a kid he hung around playgrounds until little girls fell and scraped their knees. Then he would “go over and kiss their wound . .. taking a little of their blood.” However, Vlad cautions, “Blood drinking is very special and should not be done because you think it is trendy or cool.” Youngson has little patience for such types. “The majority are nuts. I try to keep my group on a cinematic and literary level, rather than get involved with these crazy people.” In fact, there is a psychiatric condition called Renfield’s Syndrome, named for the mentally deranged character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula who craves spiders and bugs, believing them to be a life force. Those suffering from the syndrome have an erotic attraction to ingesting blood, which they see as a means of gaining immortality and other powers.

Miller has also brushed up against supposed vampires—once at a club in lower Manhattan, but mostly through letters and emails. Thumbing through a stack four inches high, she pulls out one of the more disturbing samples. “There is no life in this body... let me come out of my shadow, let me enter the darkness of your world,” writes a Montrealer, quoting the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Small dark splotches frame the

words. “They’re blood, dried blood,” notes Miller. “I had them checked.” She moves on, reading a few missives from people nurturing related fantasies. One is from a mother asking Miller, on her son’s behalf, for Dracula’s phone number. “So I emailed her back and said he’s got an unlisted number,” recalls a laughing Miller, who normally doesn’t bother to respond. The woman wrote back asking for Dracula’s email address instead. “Tell him to knock on the door,” she added. “Tell him I’ll be looking out for him.” Miller takes it all in stride. “You never know, it could be a couple of teenaged kids having a big laugh. Or it could be a desperate housewife.”

ONE underground vampire clan ‘found a scabby, big dog which they cut the neck of and drank its blood’

Wannabes or not, no one wants to be the vampire drawn from folklore that inspired Stoker. He was “a bloated corpse that had just crawled out of the grave and still had the funeral shroud around him,” says Miller. “He’s repulsive!” Today’s sexy, misunderstood opera-caped count emerged out of the permissiveness and sexual liberation of the 1960s, she observes. By the 1970s, two widely read books further rehabilitated the hideous vampire of legend: an academic work suggesting Stoker’s leading man was based on a real life Prince Vlad Dracula from Transylvania—a theory Miller has discounted with the help of Stoker’s papers—and the first of Anne Rice’s vampire trilogy.

Vampires have existed “in mythologies around the world since ancient times,” notes Rosemary Ellen Guiley, an expert on the paranormal and spirituality who will attend the Toronto symposium. Though she thinks vampires do exist—“If you believe in angels, you have to allow for the existence of the demonic side”—the Maryland author of 30 scholarly and self-help books says most modern ones are just people wrapped up in a fantasy cult. The genuine article is much rarer and possesses more occult powers. Some, she notes, have been documented in Ontario. In the late 1960s, Ottawa’s National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) commissioned Jan Perkowski, a professor of Slavic languages and literature from Texas, to study Kashubian folklore among the residents of Wilno, Ont. (Christian Polish Kashubs founded Canada’s oldest continuous Polish parish there in 1875.) Perkowski’s report, which included a story by an unnamed informant about a vampire drawing blood and marrow from a girl’s arm, upset the locals, and was subsequently denounced in the House of Commons. Today, even the web-based network Para-Researchers of Ontario suggests Perkowski’s findings are “highly unlikely.”

As for the agnostics, the only real vampires are, as Youngson puts it, “big business and individuals who want to suck your brains and leave you exhausted.” Miller has a similar take. While living in St. John’s, she was approached by the Wall Street Journal for an interview about the Dracula theme park being debated in Romania. “I said, ‘You’ve got enough vampires on Wall Street,’ ” she recounts. “What are you doing coming to Newfoundland looking for them?” Wall Street! Now there’s a place I didn’t try.