Ten Questions for Joseph Laycock on Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger, release date: May 30, 2009).
What inspired you to write Vampires Today? What sparked your interest?
Some people think I study vampires simply because they are unusual. I’ve even been asked if I am a vampire myself. The reality is that I became interested in the vampire community when I learned of a massive survey being conducted by the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA). Their project was relevant to the sociology of knowledge: instead of defining their identity group through a creed or a manifesto, here was a community defining itself through data. I began doing ethnographic research with the AVA, which led to a paper I presented at the American Academy of Religion. I frankly did not expect to be taken seriously simply because I was discussing vampires.
To my surprise, I was contacted by several scholarly journals as well as reporters. It was Praeger who approached me about writing a book. They had noticed a heightened interest in vampires in the wake of Twilight and the Charlaine Harris novels—phenomena I was completely ignorant of at the time. Through the AVA, I began to find more contacts throughout the country and throughout the world. As it turns out, there are many groups of people who consider themselves to be ontologically different from normal humans. There are people who identify with angels, fairies, wolves, etc. By the end of my research I became convinced that this is a sizable community worthy of serious study.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
By studying vampires, we study ourselves. I am concerned that despite the best intention of many scholars, the term “new religious movement” (a label that has been applied to vampires) carries with it the subtext that a group is totally “other.” While it may be comforting to think that we are totally different from vampires, this is not the case. Rather, I see vampires as indicative of much broader changes in our society. Modernity has been a gradual progression from an ascribed, collective identity to an achieved, personal identity. Modern people are expected to choose their vocation as well as their religious affiliation; pre-modern cultures generally lacked a vocabulary to describe sexual orientations, moderns speak of “discovering” their sexual identity. In a similar way, many individuals are “discovering” that they are vampires. This process of discovery is referred to in the community as “awakening.” For this reason I liken vampirism to Foucault’s idea of a “technology of the self.”
This is also a book about categories. Until very recently the statement, “I am a vampire” would have been meaningless. But through the AVA’s survey project and increased media attention, “vampire” has become an increasingly valid category of person. One consequence being that we will all become non-vampires, where before we were not. I was recently contacted by MTV about the possibility of hosting a show on modern vampires. They were looking for an expert who was both young and not a vampire. They asked me my age and then asked, “And are you a vampire?” Had I not identified with the category of “non-vampire,” they would have withdrawn their job offer.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
There were two chapters that had to be cut. One described my methodology as an ethnographer. As a religion scholar, I am not particularly interested in whether the subjective experiences described by vampires are “real” any more than I would be interested in empirically questioning a Christian’s experience of the Holy Spirit. But there were still many obstacles to navigate regarding the metaphysical claims of vampires. Of particular controversy was the existence of subtle energy or “psi,” which many vampires claim to feed on. Some of the vampires were quick to point out that I could not really understand their life-world if I dismissed the existence of subtle energy. By contrast, fellow scholars expressed concerns that I might lose my objectivity or “go native.” Robert Orsi also describes this dilemma in his study of lived Catholicism.
The other chapter that was cut concerned related communities. “Therians” have their own community for individuals who feel they have a connection to a particular animal. They relate to legends of lycanthropes and shape-shifters in the same way that modern vampires relate to the vampire of folklore. “Otherkin” is a blanket term that includes numerous categories of people who see themselves as ontologically different from other people. Many otherkin identify as elves, faeries, or dragons but the variety of “types” seems to be almost infinite. Like vampires, therians and otherkin point to changes in modernity that have facilitated the emergence of new and meaningful identity groups.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
The biggest misconception is that the vampire community is a subversive religious group and that anyone who identifies as a vampire is a dangerous social pariah. There are several new religious movements within the vampire community such as The Temple of the Vampire, although these groups represent a minority of self-identified vampires. Many vampires even identify as Christians and atheists.
Several people expressed concern for my safety while working with vampires. Several journalists who have written on the vampire community, all of them female, describe moments in which they were frightened or made to feel uncomfortable. One of them even employed a personal bodyguard. However, I never once had even a vague sense of danger during this research.
There is a trope in American horror of the dedicated researcher who uncovers too much. The power of this trope played out in 1996, when a reporter in New York vanished while doing a story on the vampire community. As I describe in the book, she was almost certainly killed by the Russian mafia. There is a certain romance in imagining that she was taken by vampires, but it is irresponsible to promote such a theory. I have encountered several cases of vampires suffering harassment, and this may become worse as awareness of the community increases. It is better to move past these Romantic ideas and begin seeing self-identified vampires more or less as ordinary people.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Praeger’s market is primarily university and public libraries. I have noticed many papers being written on this community; mostly by undergraduates but also in academic journals. Often these papers are researched entirely online. My hope is that this book will provide a valuable resource so that continuing research on this community may be done in a more thoughtful way. Accordingly, any theory used in the book has been broken down into clear terms that will be useful to undergraduates. I believe that as public intellectuals, academics should not hide their ideas behind specialized vocabulary and neologisms.
I also anticipate that many readers will be vampires themselves. Every book and academic article that has ever been written on vampires has been tracked down, analyzed, and critiqued by this community. Accordingly, I expect the vampires to be among my toughest critics. I also recognize that some readers may be “awakening” themselves, and that this book may influence the continuing emergence of this community. It is naïve for a modern ethnographer to imagine that their research “leaves no footprints.”
Finally, I think that the family, friends, and neighbors of vampires may find this book helpful. I increasingly encountered stories of people learning that their significant other was a vampire and spouses who were confused by their wife or husband’s “awakening.” One of my lectures on the vampire community was attended by a woman and her young son: Her son’s friend had announced that he was a vampire, and the mother wanted to know what this meant. This book is not intended as an apology for the vampire community, but I think it may help non-vampires to put the phenomenon in perspective. One of the challenges of a democratic society is the accommodation of diverse identity groups.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
The “basic facts” about the vampire community are readily available on the Internet. There are also numerous books that have been written by journalists for a popular audience. My hope is to challenge the reader’s assumptions about self-identified vampires. I think most people are very comfortable regarding vampires as a fringe group. The idea that vampires could be their neighbors or have real ramifications for a democratic society infringes on that comfort. By the end of this study, I was shocked at the number of educated people I met who dismissed my work as a book on “freaks.” Ideally, I would like readers who dismiss this community to stop laughing, and readers who fear this community to perhaps smile.
What alternative title would you give the book?
So many books have been written about vampires that almost every clever title has been taken. Our Vampires, Ourselves was taken. So were Something in the Blood and American Vampires. I had originally wanted to call it, “Vampires: Modernity and Identity,” but my publisher felt this title was vague and somewhat pretentious.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love it! It’s not the most scholarly cover, but it does capture the eye. It was created by Praeger’s art department using stock photos from a vampire club in New York. I should add that few vampires dress like the ones on the cover, and those that do usually do so only on special occasions.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
Yes, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Volumes I & II by Christopher Partridge. I first discovered Partridge because he has written on the modern vampire community. The term “re-enchantment” appears with increasing frequency, but it is usually invoked rather than defined. Partridge convincingly argues that secularization has actually created the conditions for new and meaningful forms of religiosity. This theory points to a common phenomenon behind a variety of seemingly peripheral movements, including vampires. I believe that re-enchantment theory will become an increasingly significant area of research for the sociology of religion as well as the study of new religious movements.
What’s your next book?
I want to continue to challenge the relationship between “mainstream” religions and forms of religiosity that have been marginalized or portrayed as “other.” I tentatively plan to explore how Catholic practices such as devotion to saints, rosaries, and labyrinths have been appropriated by pagans and eclectic religious seekers.
I’m thinking specifically of products such as divination cards using Catholic saints and books describing Wiccan uses of prayer beads. These products are catering to a market that is not Catholic but looks to Catholicism for mystery and embodied practices. It’s almost as though New Agers raided the Vatican’s dumpster and purloined all those elements that were downplayed after Vatican II. This research could lead to a dialectical model in which “institutional religions” and the eclectic milieu alternatively borrow from each other.