South Florida's underground vampires lust for more than your heart

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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.

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Michael J. Mooney