Q: What prompted you to write Vampires Today?
A: I describe this research as “a crime of opportunity.” I happened to be living in Atlanta when I learned about the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA). When I approached them, they had some initial concerns that I was going to portray them as “cultists” or as mentally ill. But soon I had a working relationship with the vampires. What interested me about the AVA was not that they identified as vampires but that they had invested so much time in studying their own community. They have completed a massive survey project of nearly 1000 vampires. Religious groups and the mentally ill are normally not compelled to undergo rigorous self-analysis. The AVA were something different.
Q: Among the "groups" you studied, what points of commonality did you discover? How are they "religious" or "spiritual"?
A: For most of the vampires I spoke with, vampirism is a health issue: They feel they must “feed,” either on blood or human energy, or their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being deteriorates. Some vampires feel that their condition will one day be understood by medical science. Others see vampirism as metaphysical and some even belong to small religious movements with their own beliefs and ethical tenets about vampirism.
Q: What was the highlight of your research?
A: The highlight was making new friends. There are very few “boring” vampires. Everyone I met had interesting hobbies, skills, and stories. How often do you have dinner with a group of people that can design software, give a therapeutic massage, and forge a broadsword?
Q: In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most?
A: Vampires have constructed a meaningful identity for themselves. The creation of a new identity group affects an entire society––myself included. I think of myself as “white” because I am aware of racial identities. I think of myself as “Catholic” because I am aware of religious identities. Now, I think of myself as a “non-vampire” because I am aware of vampire identities. These issues of identity construction appear to be behind the more vitriolic attacks on the vampire community. Since I wrote Vampires Today, I have seen a number of blogs and Internet postings dismissing the vampire community as “freaks,” “insane,” etc. Beneath this anger seems to be a fear of what would happen if vampires were not considered insane. This is far more frightening to people than the vampires themselves. Most people like to take their categories for granted and do not like being reminded that the world could be ordered in a different way.
Q: How did your research change your outlook on religion or spirituality?
A: Vampires force us to reassess our definitions of religion and spirituality. When most people hear about vampires, they assume vampirism must be a “religion.” However, the majority of vampires do not consider vampirism to be a religion. Some vampires are atheists and deny that there is anything spiritual about their vampirism. Religion scholars do not have an agreed upon definition of what religion is. When analyzing vampires, the question is not “is this a religion?” but “in what sense is this religious?” It was especially interesting to compare vampires’ descriptions of how feeding made them feel with accounts of religious and mystical experiences. Many vampires described feelings of euphoria, peace, and heightened awareness after consuming blood or energy.
Q: Vampires are everywhere in popular culture: how have people reacted to your book?
A: Since Vampires Today came out, I have been approached by scores of newspapers, radio shows, and documentaries as well as Good Morning America, MTV, MSNBC, Geraldo at Large, The Colbert Report, NPR, The Dr. Phil Show, The Dr. Drew Show, and Anderson Cooper. Usually these shows contact me hoping I can get a vampire to appear on their program. Most vampires will not do interviews, both because television tends to sensationalize them with scary music and bad puns, and because they have suffered serious consequences when they are “outed” by the media. I have become a kind of bridge between the media and a community that is often unable to speak for itself.
Vampires Today has also been cited by a growing group of academics interested in the connection between religion and popular culture. This is exciting because academics have begun to ask new and important questions about this community. As a researcher, my goal is not to have “fifteen minutes of fame” on a talk show but to push the academic dialogue forward.
Q: What surprises people the most about your research?
A: Most people are surprised to hear that many vampires are ordinary, sane, productive members of society. I have met vampires who are grandmothers, police and military, and medical technicians. I have even met a vampire who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, where I received my master’s degree. You may already know someone who identifies as a vampire.
Q: What's next for you?
A: Scholars of American religion naturally focus on the most important religious movements, especially the mainline Protestant and evangelical traditions. I am interested in expanding this picture by looking at groups that have been ignored by researchers and historians. My next book will concern apparitions of the Virgin Mary and a woman named Veronica Lueken. Veronica lived in Queens, New York and began having visions of the end of the world in the 1970s. At her peak, she attracted thousands of followers around the world. There are six books of her prophecies available that most religion scholars have never examined. I have looked at this material as well as church documents and letters from the 1970s. Lueken and her followers are another group that is worth examining instead of pushing into the corner.
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