Under any other circumstances, the girl sitting in the oversized red chair might be screaming for help or begging for mercy. A tall, pale young man — his eyes lined in black — inches toward her with a sharp blade in his hand. It's just after 1 a.m. on a recent Friday night, and an operatic trance song thumps through a North Miami Beach living room lit only by a series of white candles.
Nikolai, 23, wears black leather wristbands and the vest and pants of a powder-blue tuxedo. He's a thin kid with an emo haircut. He brandishes a medical scalpel in his right hand. He lifts Violetta's right leg into the air, rustling her burgundy, Elizabethan-style dress. The blade nears Violetta's exposed, fleshy thigh.
"It's better to cut right in here," Nikolai explains. He wants to exact a wound that bleeds but won't get out of hand. "If you get it light enough, at the right angle, there's absolutely no chance of scarring. The cut'll even close itself up sometimes." Violetta squirms a bit. "You can just see all the energy coming off of her," he says. His extended canine teeth show as he speaks.
Nikolai is a vampire. He and his friends are all part of a South Florida community of vampires — they sometimes spell it vampyre to differentiate the living, human versions from the fictional, undead forms. They identify with the lonely, torn spirits in vampire stories, but these folks are not your typical goth kids. Nor are they role playing. Some of them claim to be psychic vampires with an ability to drain energy with their minds. And some are sanguine — vampires who lust after and feed on human blood.
The community consists of circles of like-minded vampires and donors, often called "black swans," who are willing to let a vampire drink from them. There are also blood fetishists, who involve blood and blood consumption in their sex lives, and "slayers," deranged individuals who sometimes try to harm or kill the vampires. There are parties where vampires socialize, forums where elders give new vampires advice on the lifestyle, magazines and newsletters with classified ads, and dentists who install permanent fangs.
Books, movies, and TV shows like HBO's True Blood are making vampire images more mainstream than ever; America's parents are even finding kid-friendly vampires like the sparkly, restrained heroes of Twilight. But for years, people ensconced in a vampire lifestyle have shopped at your grocery store, stood next to you in line at Blockbuster, and, in the case of one local woman, drawn your blood.
People who ritualistically imbibe blood, like Nikolai and his friends, say it refills depleted energy supplies. And that's the plan tonight, as he brings the sharp scalpel to the upper inner thigh of Violetta — the black swan. (Like most of the vampires contacted for this story, they asked that their real names not be published.)
Nikolai explains that Violetta is starting to squirm because she has excess energy.
"She needs someone to drain it just as badly as we need someone to feed from."
Violetta is on her back in the chair, both of her legs in the air. Nikolai is bent over her, his face just inches from her skin. She takes a slow, deep breath as the metal instrument makes contact. Nikolai is deliberate, steady. He slides the scalpel down about an inch and a half. A thin, red line emerges in the wake.
Nikolai turns to the other people in the room and shows them the blade. It has a shiny red globule dangling from the sharp tip. He gives his friends a subtle grin, turns the blade on its side, opens his mouth, and slowly wipes the blood onto his tongue. He seals his lips and closes his eyes sensually, swallowing like a wine aficionado appreciating a fine Merlot.
Azrael remembers vividly the moment 16 years ago that he realized he was a vampire. He was 20 and serving in the military. "I was drawn to images of vampires my entire life, but I never thought about it," he says. "I was feeding off energy even then. I just didn't know it at the time."
Azrael's favorite pastime in those days was picking fights in bars. "You can feed off of someone in a fight just like you feed from them any other time. You can feel his energy leaving, and you can feel yourself getting stronger as the fight goes on."
He was in a relationship with a girl who was involved in goth and vampire communities, but he stayed out of it. Then one night, he was in a particularly violent brawl. "I was still radiating energy from the fight," he says. "I really did a number on this guy. But he got some good shots in too." Azrael's face was still bleeding when he and his girlfriend got home. Instead of nursing his wounds, she held his head very still and licked the blood from his eyes. "She started having this very positive sexual reaction," he says. "I just went with it."
Soon they were naked. She kept lapping up his blood, purring like a kitten drinking milk.
"One thing led to another, and all of a sudden there was a knife and she was telling me to cut her on the leg. And I did. And then I was tasting it, and everything was so heightened."
He says it was life-changing. "I'm not going to say my bruises were all gone the next day — this isn't fiction — but I will say that I healed faster than I ever had before. When I woke up, I felt absolutely no pain."
Azrael wasn't the first person to have that response. The oldest images of vampirism, most scholars agree, date back about 3,000 years, to the ancient Indian goddess Kali, who was depicted with fangs and a necklace of skulls. Stories of vampire-like creatures appear in ancient Greek, Roman, and Old Russian. Legend has it that Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary bathed in the blood of 600 murdered women. Prince Vlad Dracula of Romania supposedly dined amid the bodies of his staked enemies.
The most famous vampire story in history is Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897. The novel inspired a series of blood-consuming cults focused in Eastern Europe. "People are drawn to vampire stories because the vampire is a productive metaphor and can represent many things to many people," says Dragan Kujundzic, who teaches two undergraduate classes about vampires at the University of Florida. "Vampires can be a literalization of the story of Christ, where his followers drink wine that is said to be his blood and eat bread said to be his body. Vampires feed off blood and flesh literally. It's kind of the demonic, diabolic side of Christianity."
Kujundzic says a wave of "serious scholarship" has arisen around vampires.
Perhaps the first scientific examination of vampires in America came in an article titled Sexual Vampirism, written by Otto Burma in the October 1953 issue of Sexology magazine. It refers to vampirism as a rare hereditary trait, akin to a child born with a tail. He chronicles a "beautiful woman who preferred aspirating of blood, particularly from the cavity of the collarbone, to normal sexual intercourse." The conclusion of the article: "Modern medical science has achieved good results with psychiatric treatment in a number of vampirism cases."
Some psychologists in the 1990s argued that there might be a clinical condition of vampirism. Noted psychologist and professor Dr. Richard Noll of DeSales University in Pennsylvania called it Renfield's syndrome after a character in Dracula. The symptoms include a compulsion to drink blood, an association between drinking blood and sex, and a feeling that blood produces well-being. The American Psychiatric Association, though, does not recognize vampirism as a mental disorder.
"It's not Satanism, and we are not evil," says Evan Christopher, host of the Vampire Gathering, a monthly open symposium in Tampa. With striking pale-blue eyes (colored by contacts), a broad chest, extended fingernails, and a thin goatee around his fanged mouth, Christopher looks like he just stepped out of an Anne Rice novel. At 39, he is a fangsmith and an elder, often called "father" by the other vampires in his coven. "There are a lot of us out there — some people don't even realize they are vampires. We're here to offer advice and to tell these kids, 'You are not alone.' "
As vampires become pop-culture icons, he says, it's important for the public to understand the truth about this large, mostly unknown segment of society. "We're not devil-worshiping assholes. There are a lot of Christian vampires. There are Jewish vampires, Buddhist vampires, vampires of every religion. It's just about a philosophy on energy."
Everybody has a day side and a night side, he explains. The goal is to find a state of "twilight," a balance in life. "You can't just focus on your day job and sit in that cubicle at the office all the time," he says. "At the same time, you can't let the night side take control of you and ruin your life. We try to teach new vampires that they must have control."
Christopher warns young people about the dangers associated with vampirism. There are "crazy bastards who think they're hearing the voice of God" and like to hunt vampires, he says. He also likes to remind people about Rod Ferrell, a 16-year-old who led a clan of vampires in the late '90s until he murdered one of his follower's parents in Eustis, Florida, and ended up with a life term in prison.
"There is a mystique to vampires, that dark side that appeals to everyone," Christopher says. "But for some people, it's way more powerful."
Representatives from the Florida Attorney General's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said they could not cite any cases — aside from the Ferrell case — that specifically involved vampires or blood drinking, though both organizations said tracking such a thing would be very difficult.
"Most people have no idea how many vampires are out there," says Azrael, now 36, married, working as a yacht architect in Coral Springs, and quietly affiliated with the vampire community. "I know doctors, lawyers, businessmen — all vampires. It's just a way to maintain more control over your life."
Azrael says most of his feeding is done psychically these days, though there's just no substitute for blood.
Evan Christopher says he used to feed on blood, "but I don't dabble in that anymore. We're living in the age of AIDS. There are better, safer ways to take of that." If a vampire must consume blood, he suggests they abide by a vampire code of ethics, found online. It promotes discretion, safety, and respect for elders. "We advise people to get tested, wait for three months and get tested again before any kind of blood play. In that time, you can get to know the person you're dealing with."
Between gatherings like Fetish Factory's in Fort Lauderdale, Electrolust Hollywood, and Vamps South Beach, fang bearers and fang bangers can all don their darkest robes, show off their customized teeth and contact lenses, and dance to electronic tributes to Depeche Mode almost any night of the week. There is plenty of hedonism and "psychic feeding" at these parties, says Joseph Bonilla, organizer of Vamps South Beach (and a former New Times ad salesman). Rarely is there "blood play" or discussion in public. "That part is a little bit like the Mafia: The more people know, the less they talk, and the more they talk, the less they know."
Most vampires and black swans connect through online meet-up groups, small covens, or through quiet networks of friends willing to share feeding partners.
"I think being a vampire is about as cool as you can get right now," says Julio Hernandez, a Miami dentist who, for $400 per tooth, will install a set of permanent vampire fangs on his patients. It's a bonding procedure, similar to a white filling, he says. He doesn't know of any of his patients drinking blood, and Hernandez would have fangs himself, he says, "but people are already scared enough when they go see the dentist."
Nikolai and his friends spend plenty of time in the clubs, but the act of consuming blood, at least for him, is "what being a vampire is really all about." After cleaning the scalpel with his tongue, he puts his lips to the new wound on the thigh of his best friend's girlfriend. With Nikolai's mouth on her leg, sucking gently, Violetta quivers. She moans softly. There is no blood visible as Nikolai's cheeks pull tighter against the bones in his face.
Legally speaking, what's going on right now is assault — even though it's completely consensual. Many vampires argue that the desire to consume blood is intrinsic — when a child gets a cut, they say, the first impulse is to put the finger in his mouth.
A representative from the Centers for Disease Control says they don't have information on the possible dangers of human blood consumption. Hepatitis B and HIV are the biggest risks, says Paul Wilson, quality assurance director at Continental Blood Bank. However, "orally consuming blood is less likely to result in transmission than unprotected sex. If you have an open sore in your mouth or gums — which is completely likely — you're going to risk blood-to-blood contact. Otherwise, your gastric fluids usually take care of those things."
After a minute or so, Nikolai's done, and he signals for his girlfriend, who's wearing a red dress like Violetta's. He stands up, looking like he just woke up from the most refreshing nap of his life. "It's completely revitalizing," he says, blood smudging his lips and outlining his front teeth.
His girlfriend carefully imitates Nikolai's suction procedure, though for a shorter time. When she's done, there's only a thin smear of blood left on the thigh. For Violetta's boyfriend's turn, Nikolai cuts a small slit on the inside of the girl's ankle. "See these lines? That makes a good place for a cut. On a male, the best place to cut is right here," he says, pointing to his own collarbone.
When the three vampires finish feeding, they seem more energized. All three bob their heads to the loud music still pumping from the living-room speakers. They're also smiling, though just barely. Violetta moves to the couch, where she's perfectly still, her eyes closed. She looks unconscious in the candlelit living room.
"There's a balance you feel that's really hard to describe to someone who's never had it," Nikolai says. "You just feel right, healthy, stronger. Even just a little bit, it makes such a difference."
Before he got into the vampire scene four years ago, Nikolai says, he felt sick. "Basically vampires have something wrong biologically. For me, it took the form of depression." It's a common claim in the vampire community, a feeling that there is something different with them biologically, like an inability to go out in the sun, struggles to gain or lose weight, asthma, and a reversed circadian rhythm — meaning they function better at night.
Nikolai says as soon as he had his first feeding, his depression was gone.
Most vampires report similar awakening experiences. But the personal beliefs and lifestyles in the community include light-hearted role players, literature scholars, and, on the extreme, sadomasochistic fetishists. And these people aren't hard to find.
Sitting on a leather couch in a dark corner of a wine bar in Hollywood, Kristoff is frank about what he likes most about the vampire community: "I'm a sexual opportunist," he says. "For me, being a vampire is about indulging in everything normal people shouldn't."
Dressed in a thin, black, collared shirt unbuttoned down to his breast bone, the 26-year-old has long, dark hair, a set of permanent fangs, white contact lenses, and a series of metal gothic rings and necklaces. He won't discuss his daytime occupation other than to say, "There's only so many things you can do when you look the way I look."
He's more open about his lifestyle, however. Kristoff is on the blood fetishist end of the vampire spectrum. "Blood is the ultimate human energy source, literally the force that keeps us alive," he says. "And sex is the most efficient, effective way to transfer that energy. Think about it: Everyone has had a sexual experience that was so powerful that it left one person so still they're almost catatonic and the other person up and dancing around like they're high. One person just gave the other one all of his energy."
He says combining his love of sex and his love of blood seemed natural. "I think every man has thought about cutting a partner or getting cut during intercourse," he says, sipping from a glass of red wine. "Some people like to use saliva for lube. Other, darker people might like to use blood instead."
For partners, Kristoff says he doesn't discriminate. Men, women, black swans, vampires, werewolves, "whoever wants to play."
On the other end of the spectrum is Nyx, a 20-year-old single mother living in the Brickell area. She calls herself a "hybrid" vampire — she says she can feed off psychic energy or blood. She says the hardest part of being a vampire is dealing with all the people who just don't understand.
"Friends of mine have had their spouses leave them when they found out about this," she says. "They've had their children removed from the house, lost jobs, all for being a vampire."
She doesn't dye her hair or wear all black. Nyx says she's an average girl: a college student hoping to attend medical school one day, someone who loves to shop with her friends. She's even a youth pastor at her church. She doesn't tell people at church about her vampire life. "Not because I'm ashamed; I just know they wouldn't understand." But she says her two lives don't conflict. "We're not immortal. We're not evil beings. Vampires are just different, and what's so wrong with different? Diversity is a beautiful thing."
Dealing with the stereotypes perpetuated by "posers" who don't know the first thing about the lifestyle, she says, is part of the vampire lifestyle. "You hear kids talking about how they can't see themselves in the mirror or they're 170 years old or they're allergic to garlic — that's fiction. That's not who we are at all."
Like most of her vampire friends, Nyx was a social outcast in school. When life was hard, she would turn to the fantastic worlds of her favorite literature, ancient religions, and mythology. Her vampire name, "Nyx," comes from the Greek goddess of the night.
She feels like her vampirism was predetermined. "All my life, I was fascinated with blood, the idea of blood, how it worked. And I was drawn to anything with vampires too." She was already a licensed phlebotomist — trained to draw and test blood in a lab — before she awakened as a vampire. She says she would never consume the blood she works with because that would violate the most important rule of feeding: consent.
"Looking back, I should have known. But most vampires don't awaken until their 20s." She has always been uncomfortable in the sun. "I actually get little red blotches all over my skin." She always preferred night to day. And since she was a little girl, she suffered from random asthma attacks. "I went to doctors, and they gave me medicine, but it never worked. I went to allergists, and they said I'm perfectly normal, whatever normal is."
The only thing that works is blood and energy consumption, she says. "I believe strongly in science, but this is beyond what science and medicine can prove. I've asked a lot of people, and nobody has an explanation for why I require this different method of feeding."
Every two weeks, she feeds from one of the donors in the private database she has compiled with her vampire friends. She says it's never with a stranger and never in front of her baby — feeding in the presence of minors is generally forbidden.
She also has a lighter side. Unlike most vampires, Nyx says she has a special fondness for the Twilight series, especially Edward, the teen vampire who must learn to control his urges. She read the books and saw the movie in the theater with a fellow vampire. "It's embarrassing, but yeah, we were there with our Edward shirts on, ready to quote every line."
The people who live as vampires are indeed as diverse as the stories and the creatures who populate them. But Nyx contends it isn't the differences people should focus on.
"Honestly, in most ways, we're no different than everybody else. I go to work. I go to the grocery store. I take my kid to the doctor. It's just that every once in a while, I need to feed on human blood. Really, it's no big deal."