Elena Scotti/FUSION

When we think of vampires, we generally think of the Edward Cullen and Dracula types who have captured the popular imagination for centuries. Pale? Check. Fanged? Check. Totally fictional? Check.

But there is a community of humans around the world who identify as "real" vampires. No, they’re not hundreds of years old, nor do they sleep in coffins, nor are they afraid of garlic. But they do drink human blood.

These "real vampires" were brought to our attention recently by a small study published in the journal Critical Social Work—which aims to shed light on the fact that these self-conscious souls are hesitant to disclose their vampire identity to helping professionals for fear of being judged. Or as the study put it, they're afraid to "come out of the coffin."

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And so, in an effort to figure out where this issue ranks in the hierarchy of world problems, we set out to nail down some basics about the bloodsuckers next door. Here's what you should know.

Wait, what is a 'real vampire'?

While the number of "real vampires" around the world is hard to pin down, the term describes a spectrum of people who believe they must feed off others to maintain their health and wellbeing—which can either mean sucking psychic energy, or "pranic energy," from another individual or physically consuming small amounts blood from a consenting adult.

"Sanguinarian and psychic vampires are after the same thing—energy," said John Browning, a post-doctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology and vampire scholar. "But the former extracts that energy from blood while the latter extracts the same energy through touch or other, mental means."

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In all other aspects of life, "real vampires" are normal folks—working regular jobs, raising families, and, as the authors of the study put it, dealing with the "stress, various health issues, relationship difficulties, education or career transitions, and various other struggles that people commonly face."

These individuals believe they were born with their vampiric condition, similar to sexual orientation—and many believe their lives would be easier without it. According to the study, most "real vampires" seem to be both psychologically and socially stable.

(It should be noted that "real vampires" are different than “lifestyle vampires,” who are basically just posers who like to don elements of the classic vampire aesthetic such as prosthetic fangs and cloaks, but do not believe they must feed off others.)

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Given that the notion of drinking human blood generally evokes a rather visceral and concerned response from most people, it’s not surprising that the study's authors found that "real vampires" are distrustful of "helping professionals" such as social workers and doctors and fearful of the consequences of disclosing their identity.

Vampires are people, too

In the study, researchers at Idaho State University and College of the Canyons enlisted 11 self-identified "real vampires"—all of whom are from the U.S., with the exception of one from South Africa—to fill out a questionnaire about themselves and their comfort level disclosing their vampiric identities to helping professionals.

After identifying themes of fear and reluctance, the authors assembled the participants' responses into short poems in order to preserve “the intensity of that fear.” (Yes, using poetry to convey psychological stress is now a thing in the field.) Here’s an excerpt:

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Would I be comfortable Disclosing my vampire identity? No, I would never do that!

It would detract

From real issues

For which I was seeking treatment. I have no desire to be classified

As delusional,

Immature,

Or a threat to public safety.

DJ Williams, the lead author of the study and social work program director at Idaho State, has worked with "real vampires" for the past five years. He told Fusion that "nearly all" of the participants chose not to disclose their identity to doctors and "were extremely fearful to do so." Williams did not interview clinicians about how they would respond to having a vampire as a patient, but he stressed that, in his experience, helping professionals are largely unaware of "real vampire" culture.

“If you have a 'real vampire' who has some kind of a not-uncommon medical condition, if the physician or any professional understood the vampire identity," Williams explained, "understanding how that condition fits into the client’s subjective reality could make a huge difference."

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The ultimate purpose of his report? To stress to clinicians that they should be sensitive and openminded to all types of patients and alternative lifestyles—be they "real vampires," goths, otherkin, furries, or people who practice BDSM.

Vampires' 'condition' isn't easy to diagnose

Perhaps one reason "vampires" feel uncomfortable turning to the medical community is because their “condition” is not purely physical, nor is it purely spiritual. 

Merticus, a 37-year-old Atlanta-based antiques dealer and "real vampire" who advised Williams on his study, told Fusion that, objectively, the “biological or metaphysical qualities” he exhibits are technically considered vampiric, but it’s not like metaphysical or spiritual issues can be diagnosed. ("Merticus" is the name he goes by—the longtime leader in the "real vampire" community chose not to disclose his legal name to Fusion.)

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“I believe the truth lies somewhere in the entanglement of the biological, metaphysical, and spiritual and may in fact be unique to the individual,” Merticus said in a statement to Fusion.

The practical application of this belief? If a "vampire" who hadn’t fed in a while told a doctor that he felt fatigued and depressed, and that his skin and hair were dry—all common symptoms of vampires who have not “fed”—the doctor would most likely talk to him about, say, hypothyroidism before suggesting a session of energy work.

Perhaps that's why after sending dozens of emails to physicians, only a handful responded to my request for insight into "real vampires"—and all but one declined to comment.

Are there health benefits drinking blood?

So can consuming human blood actually bring health benefits? The medical community believes the practice brings only risks, given that diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C are spread through blood.

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But vamps who consume blood aren’t yanking people off the street—they find consenting donors. These donors, who can be acquaintances, lovers, or even strangers found on vampire forums, are totally down to receive a couple quick incisions somewhere on their body and have a vampire suck out a small amount of blood occasionally. And donors are generally screened before the first feeding.

So what explains the burst of energy "vampires" claim they feel afterward?

“The only plausible benefit is that [because] blood is full of iron and a large proportion of anemia is due to low iron levels, [drinking blood] is a relatively efficient way to get iron," Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious disease specialist at Cornell Medical College told Fusion. "You could also buy a bottle of liquid iron," he added.

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Otherwise? “There is no other benefit to drinking blood," he said. Sepkowitz also explained that the structure of blood differs depending on how it is introduced into the body.

“A red blood cell is a little lozenge with a outside membrane. If I transfuse you blood intravenously, you get the whole lozenge,” Sepkowitz said. “If you digest it, we just rip the cover right off and it just turns into a bunch of chemicals floating in the system, one of which is iron, which is great. So all they’re doing is giving themselves a hyper dramatic dose of iron.”

Sepkowitz added that drinking small amounts of blood from screened donors doesn't pose an inherent risk. “It seems nutty, but it’s not dangerous," he said. "The likelihood of transmitting an infection is always there, but it’s somewhat remote.”

'All we ask for is an open mind'

So how can doctors and social workers best advise "vampire" patients? Clinicians must always balance accepting their patients for who they are while advising and translating science, Sepkowitz told Fusion.

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“I think that the medical community does its best to accept whatever the person in front of them says is their habit,” he said. “There’s always been an uneasy tension between the need to let a person be whoever that person wants to be but also be an advisor about what is likely to be safe and not safe.”

On the other hand, while the "real vampire" community would prefer to not face stigma (inextricably linked to centuries of folklore and whathaveyou), they don’t feel the need to be celebrated by society at large, according to Merticus. Perhaps it's just in their nature to be misunderstood.

“All we ask for is an open mind, tolerance, and the right to privately live our lives,” Merticus told Fusion. “However, as a pragmatic vampire, I’m more concerned about family life, the economy, finding a steady donor, and hoping the media doesn’t attribute the latest murder to non-existent 'vampire cults' than I am worried about seeking social justice and acceptance for my identity.”

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Still, Williams hopes the medical and social work communities will heed his study and approach the notion of "real vampires" with an open mind. “I think that for any clinician, the more you understand your client’s world, the more helpful you’re going to be.”