"Generally we use single-use sterilized razor blades, the individually wrapped ones. It's usually not as much blood or as big a cut as most people think of it being."
Blut Katzchen has a softly lilting voice and sounds as comfortable speaking on the subject of bloodletting as some people do about the latest episodeof their favorite reality shows. She is a Black Swan, a person who allows herself to be cut and have her blood drunk by another individual. It's a very personal exchange for her, one she shares with a friendly but intense man who goes by the name of Reverend Michael Vachmiel.
Vachmiel has the demeanor of a man who has seen and experienced many things over the years, with an inner intensity forged from decades of watching his community grow and change. There are many subcultures living and prospering in Houston, but what sets Vachmiel apart from other community leaders in Houston is the nature of his group. They call themselves "real vampires" and live lives that draw inspiration from the supernatural monsters of folk legends and horror films.
Over the past three decades, a variety of factors have come together to create the "real vampire" subculture and make it a viable lifestyle for people drawn to it, including some members of the BDSM scene. The Gothic music scene gave people with vampiric leanings a sound track and a community to live in and made Houston clubs such as Numbers important vampire stomping grounds. As the Internet bloomed and affected almost every facet of modern life, networks were created for those individuals who lived their lives as vampires, and a popular role-playing game also helped shape the structure of the local vampire community.
While it might be tempting to write off the idea of "real vampires" as some sort of elaborate joke, those within the subculture take it very seriously, believing that they are born different from others. While they often vary widely in their customs and their observance of vampiric traits, they all share the belief that they need to feed on the blood or psychic energy of other individuals to maintain a healthy emotional and physical state of being. They believe that, while all living things produce a kind of life energy, they're not able to create enough on their own and can feel the deleterious effects of that deficiency. Vachmiel claims that vampirism, rather than a chosen lifestyle, is an inborn condition for these individuals.
"You can't be turned into a vampire; you're either born one or you're not. This is something that people might take years to come to terms with before they discover their true nature, but they'll find that they need additional life energy from others to feel physically and emotionally well. They find they need an external source of that energy to fulfill that need in their life," he says.
Most vampires also reject many of the powers and attributes of their mythical counterparts, drawing important distinctions between what they feel is real and what is not. Almost no members of the real-vampire community claim to be immortal or to have the kinds of magical powers seen in movies. As Vachmiel explains matter-of-factly:
"Not all of us drink blood. I do sometimes; others feed on the psychic energy of others. We can't change into bats or fly. Those types of powers are pure fantasy."
While there are groups of people who identify as real vampires worldwide and around the United States, Houston has a surprisingly large population of them. While many of their activities are private in nature, mixing elements of dark sexuality and pagan beliefs, there are also organized groups engaged in a large variety of activities, some of which are open to the public. Local groups like Allied Night Kindred Houston and The Houston Vampire Court have promoted music and social events at area nightclubs, which are open to both vampires and anyone else who's interested.
To outsiders, these real-life vampires might inspire fear or ridicule, but to those who make this their lifestyle, it's taken entirely seriously. When asked how he deals with outsiders who criticize his beliefs, Vachmiel laughs a bit before responding:
"There have been real vampires forever. It's like any other spiritual belief; people either will believe it or they won't. As such, you can't convince them or provide 'proof.' It's personal, and it's self-awareness. Self-awareness isn't created by committee or societal approval. You know who you are, and you act upon it to bring fulfillment into your life."
As a community, Houston's vampires function in much the same way as more conventional groups of people do, creating a network in which individuals have organized with others like themselves. While there have been power struggles and at times infighting, these groups and individuals have carved out a working subculture for themselves, complete with community leaders, communication infrastructure, customs and rules of conduct.
The Bayou City is home to millions of people who have set down roots and are living productive lives here.
And some of them are vampires.
In the early 1980s, Houston did not have an organized community of people claiming to be vampires, but seeds had been planted that would eventually result in the development of those groups.
It was during that time that Vachmiel began to flee to the Inner Loop neighborhood of Montrose. He was only 13 years old and seeking to escape an often turbulent and abusive home life in the suburbs. Living on the streets at times, the young teen learned to watch his back, and eventually discovered sanctuary in Houston's punk and Gothic music scene, particularly at local clubs like Numbers, which, having operated as a sanctuary for local Goths for decades, has also hosted many vampire-friendly events over the years.
During the remainder of the 1980s, several things happened that laid the groundwork for the rise of vampire communities. Gothic music had attracted people interested in vampires, drawn by the spooky and iconic imagery of the mythic undead creatures. The genre grew, winning over many fans who decided to integrate at least some bits of vampiric style into their own image.
The home computer revolution was also well under way, and allowed Vachmiel to network with people who shared his interests on early online bulletin boards. There had been small and disorganized groups of people self-identifying as vampires dating to at least the early 1970s, when paranormal researchers studying the folkloric variety would occasionally be approached by individuals claiming to be blood drinkers, but there was no system in place for them to really communicate with one another.
The huge expansion of online communities in the 1980s and '90s changed that, allowing like-minded individuals to find each other and interact as never before.
In 1991, another pivotal event occurred when Vampire: The Masquerade was released by White Wolf Publishing. Hugely popular, the role-playing game allowed people to assume the roles of vampires in a richly detailed modern world in which various factions of the undead struggled with each other and with human beings. According to Vachmiel, the game had two major effects on the development of real vampire culture: It attracted a lot of new people who were interested in vampires and discovered the subculture through the game, and it provided a convenient, well-thought-out structure for those who were already living as real vampires.
"I hate to give credit to a game, but the game made it en vogue. It made it popular and mainstreamed it. There had already been several years of writers like Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite creating interest in this stuff, and people had begun networking online, sharing music and information, so there was already a culture built for something to unify it," Vachmiel says.
"So when Vampire: The Masquerade came along, a gentleman named Father Sebastian in New York decided to create something called the Black Veil, based off the tenets of the game -- a personal code of conduct," he adds. The Black Veil established certain rules, such as that vampires feed only on consenting adult donors and avoid illegal activities that might endanger the vampire community as a whole, Vachmiel says.
"So the real-life vampires who were popular in the culture in places like Chicago and New York responded by saying, 'Yeah, it's a game, but it's a functioning lexicon, so we're going to make it work.'"
By the end of the 1990s, a kind of widespread vampire culture had formed across the nation. People suddenly had all the tools and structure needed to live their lives as "real vampires."
One of the major structural elements of the subculture heavily influenced by the game was the way groups of vampires organize themselves, Vachmiel says. "'Covens,' 'packs' or 'houses' are just different names for the same things, different names for the organizations within vampire culture. 'Prince,' 'king' or 'regent' normally are designations of a ruler, someone in charge of the local vampire community. In larger cities and in other circumstances, there can be multiple rulers."
In Houston, there are several individuals who can be considered leaders, and one of them is Lord Aramond Sebastian Van Rahamdalph, founder and Lord of House Khaibitu and the King of the Houston Vampire Court, an organized group of about 20 area vampires. At a meeting held on the outdoor patio of a coffee shop in Friendswood, Aramond certainly looks the part. He's a man with an imposing presence, wearing large earrings and possessing a friendly smile that exposes his impressive-looking artificial fangs, which snap on over his real canines. He later says that he can shape-shift and is known as Raven in his community.
Several other members of his court are present, including one of his three fiancées, Lolanthe Auroura Van Rahamdalph, Lady of House Khaibitu and the Vampire Court's Queen. She is a pretty, petite woman dressed in Gothic clothing. Also at the table is an older gentlemen named Cayne, who is the court's Minister of Safety and Defense, and Raven Dramoria, the Minister of Health and Magic.
Another table is occupied by some of the children of court members, who seem to be having a fun time playing together while their vampire parents sit nearby. The sun is still out in the early evening, which has not quite given way to dusk. The scene would be almost completely mundane if one did not know that people identifying as vampires were present. Some members of Houston's vampire community claim to be sensitive to the sun, and Lolanthe is wearing dark sunglasses to shade her eyes.
"This court has been around altogether about four years now," Aramond says. "Each court is run and organized differently; some are imperialistic. You have some that are like us, where it's run the same way that the Senate and Congress are. Everyone has a vote, and things are carried up to the top. It's a democratic council."
As for how the Houston Vampire Court mixes with local vampires who aren't members, Aramond says, "We're very diplomatic and we're very open to everybody. We try to keep everything very calm and very drama-free. We may have disputes about certain things, but for the most part, we don't air our dirty laundry in public. Who wants to do that? It makes us all look bad in the end. It's one of those things where what would you rather have? A prevailing head that's cool, calm and collected, or anarchy? Personally, I'd like to have a cool, calm and collected court, and that's what we strive for."
On a recent night, Aramond's group held a Sumbel, a pagan ritual from the Norse tradition, complete with drinking horn. During the ceremony there is a calling of the gods and the ancestors as well as toasts to people who've brightened the lives of those in attendance and boasts from the people there about what they've accomplished. According to Aramond, they do that two more times and call it a night.
Typically, people seeking to join the Court will connect with it online, and then an application process takes place during which, Aramond says, he screens out those who have obvious mental problems or who might cause trouble for the group.
According to the Houston Vampire Court's leader, its members are diverse and practice several kinds of vampirism, ranging from the "sanguinarians" (the name given to vampires who feed on blood) to psychic vampires, who feed on emotional energy, as well as others. "We're actually very eclectic. We have your blood drinkers; we also have psi and multiple different types of that. We have sexual-energy feeders and emotional-energy vampires. We try to keep it private because any energy exchange is very personal, but at the same time, when you're at a gathering or something like that, you're going to get that energy off of everybody in the group; it's an ambient thing, and it depends on the situation."
All the real vampires talked to for this story said they get blood only from safe donors who are tested for STDs and HIV. No one said he or she had ever been harmed by the blood they've consumed.
The Houston Vampire Court has meetings every month, with rare exceptions made for special occasions, Lolanthe says. "The last meeting we didn't do was in December, and that's because we took a break for the Christmas holidays."
While it may seem counterintuitive that a organization of vampires would take a break for a Christian holiday, Aramond and his court maintain an open mind concerning matters of faith.
"We actually have some Christians in our group. As a matter of fact, two of our founders are Christians. Probably 90 percent of the court is pagan; we have maybe three or four members who are Christian. We're very open-minded." Raven Dramoria adds: "We're not judgmental towards religion or faith." Cayne explains in greater detail: "Whatever their lifestyle or religion is, is pretty much their business. We're very open-minded to almost anything as long as it sticks to the Golden Rule on a Biblical level or the pagan way of 'do no harm.'"
Asked how his vampiric practices and those of the court are received by outsiders, Aramond smiles, exposing a quick glimpse of his fangs. "Depending on who you talk to, there's tolerance. I've had a lot of people look at me like I'm batshit crazy and should be locked in a padded room, and they'll ask me how I can believe in this? People sit there and say, 'I don't believe any of that,' but then they believe God walked on water 2,000 years ago. How can they not believe something that is physically here and then go believe in something written in a book 2,000 years ago? You can believe in one or the other or none. Personally, I believe what I see and what I feel."
Fredrik Gregorius, a professor of comparative religion at Linköping University in Sweden, has studied Christian and new religious movements from a sociological perspective. When asked if he thinks members of Houston's real vampire communities believe things that are a lot weirder than what mainstream religious groups do, he offers his insight:
"It's not stranger in an objective sense, but it's strange that real vampires choose a lifestyle that is more uncommon and thus a person joining has less to gain socially. Rather, one puts their self at a certain risk of ostracization."
Lord Aramond and the other members of his group make it clear that Houston's real vampire community includes members from many different walks of life and across a wide age range. Despite their unconventional beliefs, they seem normal in many other ways. Gregorius doesn't find that very surprising. "I do believe most of them are very normal, especially if they're older. Unless a person compartmentalizes it, they can't continue living such a lifestyle. The older they get, the more they will be part of ordinary society with ordinary jobs."
Despite its strong local presence, the Houston Vampire Court isn't the only organization of its kind in town. Tarik Rêver, a striking man with dreadlocks and an athletic build, is also a leader in his group, Allied Night Kindred Houston, a local vampire court with about 40 members.
Tarik says he discovered his vampiric nature as a teenager when he realized that no matter how much he ate, somehow he felt as if he needed more energy. Tarik believes he was draining that energy from those around him.
"Eventually I just found that food wasn't sufficient, to say the least. Even though I try to eat, I had to start pulling in energy from around me. I noticed that people would get tired. When we're not trained, it's easy to take too much from a person. You want to take the tiniest bit from a lot of people."
Tarik also noticed that his eyes and skin had become very sensitive to sunlight. Tarik is African American, yet he says he still experiences sunburns easily. "When I was 14 or 15, after puberty, my eyes became sensitive to sunlight, I began to get to the point where my skin would actually sunburn, and I don't know if you've seen me, but some people are black and get sunburned, but even then I'm a little lighter shade of black, but that's still just too much of a sunburn. It gets me every time."
Eventually, Tarik began going to local clubs where he was quickly noticed by others like himself and ascended into a leadership role that resulted in the creation of ANKH.
From the beginning, Tarik wanted to build a strong organization to serve the needs of its members. "There are way more vampires than groups. There are maybe a handful of groups right now in Houston; even though there are like six million people here, there's only two or three real groups. There are a lot of houses, but those are usually really small, but ANKH is an anomaly because we took many of the best people from different houses and gave them a council position and a board, and basically our group is more organized than some. We went through the crucible of trial and error and filtered out a lot of the people who weren't ready maybe at the time to go public, or just weren't ready for the pressure that goes along with it."
Lunar is another member of the governing council of ANKH, and drawing on her own experiences, she says she tries to help other people as part of that group. "As a child around the age of nine or ten, I realized that there was something distinctly different about me than normal kids. I healed faster, I had a lot better sense of smell, my eyesight was a lot keener, and those differences were just very peculiar."
"I like to be able to reach out and touch people and let them know, 'Hey, you're not by yourself, you're not alone.' That's one of the biggest things I remember growing up as a strange child who didn't exactly know what I was, and it was terrifying."
"The first time I ever saw a vampire movie or read a book on the subject, I was like, 'Wow, this isn't right at all.' There is a lot of glamour, a lot of hype and a lot of confusion that's out there, because honestly we're just people, too. We just have a slightly different mechanism of living."
Within the subculture, people who provide their blood for vampires to drink are known as Black Swans or Blood Dolls. Blut Katzchen has her preference with the terminology.
"Usually I prefer 'Swan' because to me, 'Doll' sounds a little less human, really."
Blut is very particular about whom she allows to drink her blood. Vachmiel is one of a very small number of individuals to whom she has ever extended the honor. "For me it's closely tied to an emotional bond. If I do not have an emotional connection to you, I would never allow you to partake in the essence of my life force. So I truly prefer that it's someone who I'm close to. I've only donated to four people in my whole life."
"Generally when I'm donating, I have my blood checked two or three times a year because I'm polyamorous and I have actually three partners right now, but I only engage in any kind of blood play with two of them or any kind of feeding or anything like that, but I get my blood checked regularly, and I don't choose partners that are very...Well, I'll use the term 'loose,' so for me it's a mental, spiritual and physical thing."
She considers the sharing of her blood with a carefully selected vampire as a way of forming not only a particularly close relationship with that person, but one that is permanent.
"You know, once you know that a piece of you is within them, even if it's on a very minute molecular level, it's a bond and one that's not like a wedding ring or a Facebook relationship status update or anything like that. It's truly a bond on the cellular level, where it's a part of them for the rest of their lives."
Blut traces her interest in such an unconventional lifestyle and to real-life vampirism in general back to her childhood. "When I was probably around eight or so, I found a book on vampires that belonged to my older sister, who had quite an interesting collection of random and weird books, and I always felt fascinated by the idea of an exchange of life force. Being pagan, I think a lot about the exchange of energy between people and growing your energy and reaching your full potential with your energy."
As she entered adulthood, Blut says, she began to understand that she had a naturally submissive nature and started exploring that side of her personality in the BDSM scene. Eventually those relationships turned to bloodletting and she was introduced to vampirism.
Asked if she believes that real vampires are closely linked to the BDSM lifestyle, Blut says, "They can be; it really depends on the person. For me, donating blood has always had that dominance-and-submission aspect just because those who donate tend to be a little more submissive than those who receive. It's an act of service, an act of love and an act of submission for me, and I like that fact because it makes me feel like I'm fulfilling a role. I feel a lot better after I donate."
Unlike the vampirism of fiction, the act of bloodletting between real vampires and their Black Swan donors is consensual and built on a relationship of trust. Blut Katzchen views the exchange as a form of personal empowerment.
"When I'm serving someone who I care about, which for me is a very important thing, because I learned as a submissive from the get-go that it's service instead of sex, and unfortunately things like 50 Shades of Grey have really taught people that it's all about the sex, but they don't understand that it's a mental thing more than a physical thing in a lot of people's opinion. This is something I enjoy that very few other people enjoy, so it's a kind of confirmation of individuality in a lot of ways, as well as being able to express yourself completely. It's freedom for me."
In horror movies, vampires usually lunge out of the darkness and bite their victims' necks with a pointy set of fangs before sucking their blood. Very few if any real-life vampires feed in such a way because it would likely be inefficient and possibly dangerous. Instead, other methods of blood collection are employed, and areas of the body such as the back are cut instead.
"There's a lot of preparation of the actual site with rubbing alcohol or iodine depending on the person," Blut says. "For me it's alcohol because iodine is really irritating to my skin. One of the things that Vach and I actually use is a set of cupping tools used in Chinese medicine, and generally it will be a small cut no more than a half an inch long and not very deep -- maybe a little bit deeper or twice the depth of a paper cut, and then you'd affix the cups, and the ones I usually use have a bulb sort of like a turkey baster where you press the bulb and it then draws the fluid out.
"That way you get the maximum amount of blood with the minimum amount of injury and risk of infection or things like that."
Vachmiel practices several different forms of energy feeding, but he believes that the drinking of blood is slightly different from those other forms of vampirism.
"Blood drinking is a more direct and primal form of feeding. It's more instinctual, and I've noticed it's more common with vampires as they age or if they've experienced some very intense emotional trauma. In other words, the more intense the need, the more extreme the method some vampires will go to get the energy. For me, I can say that intensity of that emotional connection is satisfied on occasion with the consumption of human blood."
Some sanguinarians make a ritual out of the blood collection, and usually the actual cutting is done by the vampire who will drink it.
Acknowledging that the relationship between a vampire and his Swan is usually a close one that requires a great degree of trust, Vachmiel says, "When it comes to any kind of direct feeding off of another individual, that requires consent or it's spiritual rape. So the vampire-and-donor relationship is in many ways a lover relationship. It's usually a dominance-and-submission relationship, because even though the submissive is actually the one in control just like the Swan is in control, it's an energy exchange. In many ways, the vampire/donor relationship is like the dominant/submissive relationship whereupon there are safe words and precautions, and there's always consent because otherwise you're just violating someone." In some cases, the Swan will choose to allow a scar to form to create a visible reminder of the experience.
Vachmiel says that some in the vampire community are less than accepting of those who choose to feed differently.
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of elitism. A lot of 'I'm a real vampire and you're not. I drink blood and you don't' kind of thing. Some psychic vampires think blood drinkers are a throwback to the past. And there are Tantric vampires, and a lot of people don't accept forms of vampirism that differ from their own. It's elitism, and it's all BS. They're all drinking from the same well."
Phlamé has the same intensity that seems to be a common trait among real vampires, and she certainly looks the part, dressed in Gothic clothes with her dark hair framing an angular and pale face. "I started getting into vampirism in my teen years before I hit Houston, but I think I really got into it about eight years ago when I started hanging out at Numbers and meeting other people like myself."
Phlamé believes that her vampirism is closely linked to certain forms of sexual acts. "The easiest, best way to get that energy is through sex. A lot of people believe it's what keeps them young and keeps them vital and that they would get sick without it. Vampirism and BDSM basically go hand in hand."
After a short time in Houston, Phlamé joined a vampire coven and discovered a sense of belonging that she hadn't experienced in quite the same way before. "It's basically a big family, a place to belong where you didn't feel different from everyone else. When I was in the coven, one of the main things that kept me there was that sense of family. If I got in trouble, I really had someone there to help me."
"There used to be lots of different covens scattered throughout the city, and we'd all get together. We had a big Vampire's Ball in 2013 when we had people from Austin and New Orleans come down."
But more recently that togetherness has waned, according to Phlamé.
"I think things splintered off about two years ago and just exploded. You have a bunch of little groups trying to get into bigger things, and it doesn't seem to work. Or it hasn't worked yet, anyway," she says. "Vachmiel has been talking about trying to bring everybody back together whether they like each other or not. That seems to be our biggest thing, is that even though we're outsiders and we stick together closely, we have a lot of infighting."
Gregorius says that such unrest is common in other groups with structures similar to Houston's vampire community. "A Wiccan from London once explained that there is a witch war every week and that most people can't stand each other. I think that is quite common when you have a lot of people who want to be leaders and few people who want to follow."
Phlamé has her doubts about whether people who identify as vampires could ever be viewed by outsiders as socially acceptable. "Would we ever fit in? I can get really discriminated against. It depends where I go and how I look when I do it. I usually don't share that part of myself with people unless I'm at a special event or something. As far as it being accepted? I don't know, with all the 50 Shades of Grey crap coming out and it being cool, but I don't think we're ever going to be really accepted. That's just not the way people work; that's not human nature. I'm fine with that."
When they encounter people who live a lifestyle modeled at least partially on an iconic monster, it's natural for some people to wonder if those others are dangerous. The heady mix of sex and energy feeding that many vampires indulge in, along with the decidedly dark image some of them cultivate, might worry people. When asked whether the Houston Police Department considered the vampire community a threat, an HPD spokesperson said no, it's not considered a problem.
Gregorius doesn't find that surprising. "So far, there is nothing to indicate that real vampires are any more dangerous than any other spiritual or subculture group."
Local vampires uniformly seem to endorse a code of ethics according to which their activities involve only people who've granted consent. They're not lurking in the shadows waiting to attack random passersby.
As in any community, there are disagreements within groups. That occasionally causes conflicts, but at least in Houston, there has never been any violence. "Sometimes vampires can be so contentious, and like any other subculture, there is vying for power and money, so there's a lot of infighting and internal warfare," Vachmiel says. "Anyone who tries to become a leader automatically becomes a target, but that's just a natural part of human nature."
Considering that the lives of real vampires differ so greatly from those of their mythical counterparts, people outside of that community might wonder why so many of them still choose to cultivate a personal image so heavily influenced by pop-cultural depictions of the movie monsters. Asking if the image of the fictional monsters is harmful or beneficial to real vampires elicits mixed responses. Tarik laughs as he says, "There's been a lot of misrepresentation. Twilight. Oh my God, why did that ever happen? Why did Twilight have to happen?"
"A lot of times people think vampires are like they are in movies, and that can hurt us. Twilight really hurt us. Looking pretty and graceful is nice and all, but we don't sparkle and we don't live in a soap opera, at least hopefully."
Aramond agrees that outsiders have misconceptions about real vampires that are harmful to his community: "Honestly, it hurts us. If you look at the actual subculture and then you look at the pop-culture version, the subculture is grounded in reality and scientific fact, and then you have the pop culture, and it's grounded in mythology and is a complete fantasy. When you bleed the two together, you sometimes get the crazies."
Lolanthe says, "It's like a dog chasing after a car; he wouldn't know what to do with it if it caught it. Certain people wouldn't know what to do with a real-life vampire when they actually meet one."
Aramond sums up the situation with a reality check. "I'm sorry, I don't turn into a bat, I don't sparkle, I don't disintegrate in sunlight, and if you stake me in the heart, that would kill anybody."
Despite their resistance to common folkloric clichés, many vampires use parts of the mythology, choosing to wear realistic artificial fang caps, for instance, or dressing in clothing reminiscent of their movie counterparts.
According to Gregorius, the image of the fictional monsters appeals because "there are several factors that make the vampire image appealing. The lure of immortality, the sexuality of it, the sort of aristocratic vibe many modern versions portray, and also the danger within it."
Vachmiel echoes that. "It's a form of empowerment. If we can pretend to be immortal, we can put the burdens of life aside for a while. It allows people to escape, and for some it's self-expression. It's an artistic way of saying, 'Here is my pain.' Every human being wants to be looked at and with some vampires, it's a way of saying, 'Look at me. See me. Acknowledge me. This is who I choose to be.'
"The vampire lifestyle, I know a lot of real vampires hate it; I don't. It's like sports fans painting themselves to go to the big game. It is that moment of emotional honesty where they say, 'I don't give a damn about being judged. This is who I choose to be, shaped by my own will.'"