John Edgar Browning, PhD, Professor of Liberal Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design, is an internationally recognized authority on the horror genre, vampires, and Monster Theory. He spent five years in the field in New Orleans, LA and Buffalo, NY conducting ethnographic studies of people who self-identify as vampire, a project he elaborated on in his doctoral dissertation as well as in articles for Palgrave Communications, The Atlantic, The Conversation, and twice for Discover Magazine. Dr. Browning is a member of the Board of Advisors for The Blood Project. Learn more here.
In this podcast, Dr. John Edgar Browning talks with Helen Osborne about:
- Who are real vampires, what they’re not, vampires today and in folklore and history.
- How he became interested in this topic and what is his involvement today.
- What seasoned physicians, new clinicians, and those just curious might want to know.
Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.
Producer and audio editor: Kip Clark.
HELEN: Welcome to Talking about Blood. I’m Helen Osborne, host of this podcast series and a member of the Advisory Board for The Blood Project. I also produce and host my own podcast series called Health Literacy Out Loud. That’s about many aspects of health communication. On these Talking about Blood podcasts, I have the privilege of speaking with a wide variety of guests, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the topic of blood. That includes today’s guest Dr. John Edgar Browning. He’s professor of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design and an internationally recognized authority on the horror genre, vampires and monster theory. John Browning spent five years conducting ethnographic studies of people who self-identify as vampires and he remains in contact with vampire communities around the world today. John is a well published author, editor and guest speaker. So glad he agreed to discuss vampires with us too. Welcome to Talking about Blood.
JOHN: Thank you for having me. I am delighted to be here.
HELEN: John Browning, I do have to tell you this. You are the first person I’ve ever spoken to who knows a lot about vampires. I may not be the only one on this podcast. Some listeners may be in the same boat. Can you take this from the top – describe about human vampires? What you mean by that term? Who they are, what they’re not – just put this into context for us, please.
JOHN: Absolutely. So real vampires, which is the term I’ll be using today, have a condition that according to them begins to manifest around or just after puberty and according to them, it derives from the lack of subtle energies their bodies produce though they’d be the first to tell you that even that is just a guess for them, they’re just trying to make sense out of this condition that they all share. But this self-described nature is a condition for which they claim to be given neither a choice nor the freedom to change. It’s just part of who they are and they’ve come to accept it.
HELEN: I’ll stop you there. Our audience has lots and lots and lots of doctors and scientists in it. When you talk about lack of subtle energies, how would an adolescent put that into words?
JOHN: It’s a very good question. It’s a term they use. Some of the ways they produce their symptoms is they feel in some cases depressed. They also feel a sense of lethargy, weakness. They can eat regular food, healthy food, vegetables and stuff, but they just can’t seem to find any energy and their minds also kind of just linger and linger and they can’t really find the motivation to do things. But really it all comes down to the way their bodies feel and just finding the everyday kind of energy that people use when they wake up in the morning and go to work. That’s what they can’t find.
HELEN: And this is not like the typical adolescent growth spurts and growing pains. This is different.
JOHN: Again, they all say that just after puberty things just kind of change. They just feel really weak all the time and I can talk about this later, they go to the hospital, they seek out a physician and they can’t find anything wrong with them. Although they can tell that they’re obviously weak, they seem weak, they say they’re weak, but it’s hard to treat them when you don’t really know what exactly is causing it.
HELEN: Okay, so we will get to the medical side of this. Absolutely, probably fascinating for so many of us. But at this point an adolescent will be having this, these feelings. At what point do they start self-describing as a vampire?
JOHN: I’ll start first very quickly with what they’re not. Real vampirism is not supernatural, folkloric in nature, despite the word vampire being appropriated by this community. And certainly real vampirism isn’t like adopting the use of Gothic clothing and fangs for aesthetic purposes. Like it’s something that they can just some groovy kind of thing they do, that they can just sort of outgrow the next day. Although I will say this: for real vampires, Gothic or dark clothing and fangs are supplementary, like hegemonic markers for identification between one another, sort of a mode of group expression for their inherent condition, which is the need for blood or energy. So that’s a huge takeaway there in terms of what they’re not and what they are.
HELEN: So the need for blood and energy. You also talked about being part of a group. So you have one kid here and another kid hundreds of miles away. Would they have any reason to know about each other? Is it just a single person who has this set of concerns or presentation, or a community?
JOHN: Well that’s just it. When the vampires I interviewed – and they ranged in age from 18 to mid-fifties, female and male, doesn’t matter – they describe this feeling and they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know how to treat it. Doctors don’t know what to do. But somehow they either have this instinctual need because they see someone cut themselves or maybe there is some package of rare beef that has some blood-tainted liquid in it, who knows what the reason is? But they decide to try it and suddenly they feel much better. Okay. And when that happens they essentially start self-medicating with the blood or in the case of psychic vampires, they somehow figure out that they would like to rub or give a massage to one of their friend’s shoulders or something and they do that, suddenly it makes them feel a lot better. And of course for them, they don’t know until much later on according to them that they may be zapping the person of energy, but they don’t really understand what’s going on or if anyone else experiences this or does it until later on they learn either watching documentary TV shows or they go online, they find that there are other people that share the same condition. And this began in the seventies just adopted the word vampire as a way of identifying themselves and saying I’m this sort of vampire. It’s I’m not supernatural. I don’t live forever, I’m not afraid of the sun and I love garlic. But if I don’t consume blood or take what they call psychic energy, then I will feel weak to the point where I’ve had colleagues or vampire participants who have started to not drink blood or take energy just to see what would happen and they would wind up in the hospital and I think eventually one of their partners had to go visit them in hospital when no one’s watching and feed them something and then eventually very quickly they regained their strength and are able to leave hospital soon thereafter.
HELEN: Oh my goodness, John, I have so many questions for you. I don’t want to leave this topic of what vampires are and are not without asking you one other question. Can you just compare and contrast for us how this vampirism in people today compares to what we know in folklore and in novels like Dracula? So we can frame this, please.
JOHN: Right. The supernatural or folkloric vampire that for example has been around in some form or another for millennia. We’ll just start with the form in the 1700s and 1600s, the 1800s. That was a vampire that villagers in eastern and central Europe realized that someone was sick and that person would describe being visited at night during their night fevers visit by someone who had recently died and the person is coming to them at night, attacking them. Eventually they would exhume the body and find what we know now are just natural signs of decomposition. They took those signs as being obvious: this is the truth that this person is a vampire. So they would conduct any number of things to make sure that vampires did not get back up. And this actually is a practice that’s not restricted to central Eastern Europe. We find evidence of it in Ireland and England as well that dates back even further. But that vampire is something that is dead but not fully dead. It is a reanimated corpse. It’s not especially attractive. It’s basically just a town villager and more than likely it’s walking around in the death shroud or winding shroud that it was buried in. So it’s a villager, it’s disheveled, it’s probably bloated and it’s not dressed up like an aristocrat like we see in literature or film. So it’s not a pleasant experience to have one of these visit you.
HELEN: Okay, so that was hundreds of years ago. It’s been going on, legends are well known to so many. Fast forward 500 years. You are working on your PhD and you decide to conduct ethnographic studies of people who self-identify as vampires. Please make the leap for us. How did that happen?
JOHN: The topic of real vampirism, or human vampirism, modern vampirism was a study I didn’t undertake until relatively at the end of my studies on the vampire from antiquity to folklore and literature then to popular culture and media. And I waited that long because I basically had already written this community off as mentally impaired or too overzealous in their appreciation of popular vampire media. But of course the end result would be that I was quite wrong in my misguided assumptions about them and what I found when I finally found the community and just because you might find one or two members doesn’t mean they’re going let you in, that doesn’t mean they’re going to let you talk to them. They’re not looking to be found. But I was very fortunate for them to trust me enough to let me shadow them and become their friends and essentially live day in and out with them at various times for two years. And what I found during that time, this is what changed my mind about them. They didn’t read or watch a lot of vampire media, which might have accounted for what I presumed then was a psychosomatic response, they were having some blood or energy. In other words, you read a lot of vampire books, you watch a lot of twilight, you just say, hey, I’m sick. Maybe I should just try drinking blood. None of that was the case for them. It was also fascinating to me that they weren’t looking for notoriety or attention. And the most important thing though was that their personal stories about their condition started, although unique in each case, they were all very, very eerily similar fundamentally.
HELEN: I want to pause right there because you keep using the terms them and community. So when you were first describing this, it was an individual with this set of characteristics and another individual. Now you’re talking about doing studies with them and communities. At what point do people gather? Like people with similarities like this at what point do they gather and you consider them a community rather than individuals?
JOHN: So when I say community, I guess I should specify. In mean it in two ways. First, as anyone who has – this is a vampire term – awakened, which means they’ve become cognizant of the fact that they need this blood and they have sort of referred to themselves as a vampire. I refer to them as part of the community as well, but they haven’t met anybody yet, but they’ve become aware that there are others like them. The history behind how getting in touch with one another has evolved over time. But now more or less the internet really helps. There are forums and Facebook pages that began as kind of a statewide or international. Now they have lots of localized community pages. So now if you live in Montreal, you can probably find – and there is – a Montreal real vampire page and you can sort of approach it. And of course it’s usually a setup where you have to ask for permission to enter and they ask you a few questions and then you can talk to others right there next to you. But initially when the internet first started, you couldn’t do that. You would be talking to others very far away and you might all eventually attend the same big Anne Rice convention or something in the 90s or if they’re still having Dark Shadows conventions, that was still a big deal. But today it’s become much more organized and so they can typically find someone right around them.
HELEN: Okay. And then somehow you found this community and they invited you, whatever it took, they invited you to get to know them. And I think you told me as we’re planning this, that you’re still in touch with folks who are vampires, real vampires.
JOHN: That’s right. So we have the greater community, which includes all members who are awakened and then you have specific localized communities. I was invited to go into the New Orleans/ Louisiana community and those are people who know each other. They have monthly meetings for some of the elders. Let me define what that is: an elder is a vampire that sort of, they’ve been out of the closet longer or out of the coffin longer. They’ve been around the block. They understand how to find donors and whatnot, which is probably something you’re going ask me about too. So they will create what they call anywhere from a coven to a house. And it’s just a place where if they allow younger – when I say younger it means they just became aware of themselves – are invited to be a part of and it’s just kind of a teaching family, a family where they converse, they socialize, hang out. They come up with ways to get to know each other. They might even come up with ways of describing their coven or family and that’s where the elder vampires can teach the younger ones. You know, this is, this is how you do things, how safely you can conduct feeding practices and whatnot. And it’s a great place where young people can start.
HELEN: Are these folks just like everybody else other than this characteristic?
JOHN: Yes. In fact, that was the biggest shock to me when I began going to these monthly meetings because everyone there looked like just, I mean granted it was New Orleans and some of them were dressed like it was New Orleans, I’m sure…
HELEN: I’m sure we have some listeners from New Orleans.
JOHN: Yes. They understand. I love New Orleans. I left my heart there when I left, but…
HELEN: … it can be a little funky at times.
JOHN: Yeah. So, but they didn’t, they didn’t look any different from any other person in New Orleans. In fact, I dare say I could have taken this whole group and taken them with me to Atlanta or Omaha, and they really wouldn’t have stood out all that much. They ranged in age and physical appearance and sex and faith. You name it. And they just look like everyday people. In fact, their occupations are very every-day. They ranged in occupations from telephone pole climbers, electricians to bar bartenders, to landscape company owners. And you know, I can keep going on.
HELEN: All right. So I want to switch a little bit and you used a term that I think we need to discuss: donors. I just want to let you know about the primary listening audience for Talking about Blood and The Blood Project website: practicing physicians, practicing hematologists. Some are very, very seasoned in their practice. It’s an international community of highly skilled and specialized physicians. We also have an audience of people who are earlier in their careers. Probably they’re going into medicine or some other aspect of science. They might be in medical school, in residency, their early years of their training. So they are just at the outset of their careers, figuring out how they will spend the rest of their professional direction. And we also have people and I feel I represent this group too who just are curious, curious about ins and outs of our bodies in the world and everything that has to do about blood. So I want you to start explaining to all of us about that intersection of human medicine and vampires. One question I have is are these seasoned doctors who’ve seen lots and lots of patients with blood problems over the years. Do you think they’ve ever seen a vampire?
JOHN: I would say yes. I mean a number of my vampires had seen physicians. I’ve even read not through my own personal ethnographic research, but have read other cases, case studies, where people are meeting vampires who go ahead and just sort of self-identify themselves to their doctors because they’re feeling more and more comfortable around physicians. I don’t know how the topic comes up or why they would do that, but they go ahead and tell them that this part of their being and how they express it. And they also explained that they from time to time consume human or animal blood. And what’s really interesting about this is whether might have been really negative responses to it in the past, it has gotten a lot better and doctors are starting to be open to it because I think they’re realizing that they can’t diagnose or find what exactly is causing the lethargy, the weakness, the overall diminished health. But somehow this person is doing that and it’s making them feel better.
HELEN: Moving on from that part, you have now made reference some several times about drinking blood and being donors. I want to hear about that because I have lots of questions from the medical side of that too.
JOHN: So when eventually a fledgling vampire kind of self-awakens and they start researching the community and they talk to other members, particularly ones who are more experienced, they explain to them that there are a lot of do’s and don’ts, especially if you’re a sanguinarian or blood-drinking vampire. They explain that it’s not as easy as when you were young and you could just you know, your friend could cut their finger and you can ask to suck the blood off it. It’s not like that anymore. And so there’s a process you go through for a) establishing trust with the donor and b)…
HELEN: … A donor is the person you’re taking the blood from?
JOHN: Exactly. You try to make sure things are as safe as can be within your power. And so when you do find a donor – and there are a lot of ways to find them – you typically have your blood tested, they have their blood tested. You kind of exchange the paperwork and at that point you decide how or when you’re going to take the blood. How you take the blood is typically done in a very safe, clean manner. The wound area is generally cleaned very well first and often sterile medical tubing or needles will be used opened out of their sterile packets, used and then the blood is taken into a receptacle. Often it’s not very much blood at all. And then immediately afterwards the vampire cleans the wound very carefully and treats it. And in fact sometimes the members I’ve met and other members in the US are even nurses who are also vampires. So luckily they know how to clean the wound
HELEN: What I’m hearing from you. It’s not that image I had of someone just digging their teeth into someone’s neck.
JOHN: No, no, not at all. Now there are some vampires who have a technique where once they’ve made the incision, they like to actually take the blood with their mouth on the wound. But they’ve also gone through precautions to make sure their mouth is as clean as they can get it. But again, after they’re done, they immediately tend to wound care.
HELEN: Okay, well, thank you for making that clear. You’ve answered so patiently, all these many, many questions. I hope that and I expect that the listeners have been as fascinated as I have. What I always ask guests on Talking about Blood is a takeaway message for the practicing physicians, for those newer in their careers, and those just eager to learn more. Any little gem you want to leave us with?
JOHN: What I’ve found in time, if I had to speak to this, is I think this community has achieved a degree of self-empowerment.
HELEN: The community of real vampires.
JOHN: That’s right. Exactly. Because the very being and the nature of real vampirism is subversive to how societies construct normalcy. So, you know, real vampirism offers a really strategic site for confronting, even challenging, the sort of ideological assumptions embedded in how we as a society hierarchize the world around us. So real vampires, they make, I think, accessible, they make accessible this infinite potential for exposing and unfixing repressive and oppressive categories. You know, the very ones from which marginalization is born. So in some ways, studying them and looking at them and understanding them is very therapeutic for us and how we look at those around us, and especially even for doctors. I mean, they’re going to have patients that might tell them this. And it’s a very new world for medical doctors because they don’t normally open up to them because they’re going to assume what I did first 13 years ago, which is that they’re kooky, but they’re not.
HELEN: Thank you. I hear that the word you use, the marginalization, certainly other populations have been marginalized in the mainstream for years. And then different groups, awareness comes along and you’re doing that to teach us all about real vampires today. So, I thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Just for closing words. Is there a way for people who want to be learning just a little bit more? Is there a short url Where people can continue their exploration of this topic.
JOHN: I have posted a lot of my own writings on it and I have links to other writings. They can just search for my full name John Edgar Browning. And/or there’s a website called Academia.edu that’s been around for about 13 or 14 years. Now. If they go to that website, they can search my full name there and I generally archive all of my writings which they can have access to for free.
HELEN: Thank you so much. In this podcast you covered 500 years of history from a topic that went from folklore to mainstream everyday practice. I thank you so much for doing your research for sharing it with us for being a guest on Talking about Blood.
JOHN: Thank you so much
HELEN: As we just heard from Professor john Edgar Browning, it’s important to know about the many, many aspects of blood and the patients we might see and the world that we’re living in. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, trainees, and patients, go to https://www.thebloodproject.com. I invite you to also listen to my other podcast series and that’s about health communication at http://www.healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series and The Blood Project. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.