Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on January 28, 2011 in Reviews tagged with ,

Laycock, Joseph. Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009. ABC-CLIO EBook Collection.

Reviewed by Aspasia Stephanou, University of Stirling

In an interview in the Bostonist (10 July 2009) talking about Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism (2009), Joseph Laycock explains that,

Vampires can tell us a lot about the state of modernity. Modernity’s been a gradual shift from an identity that is ascribed to one that is achieved.If you were to go to a medieval village and look at the peasants, they’re all the same religion; they’re all going to live in the same town their whole life; they don’t have to worry: are my talents going to waste, being a peasant? Nowadays, you have to discover a career; if you stay in the same town where you grew up, that’s considered a failure; if you stay in the church that your family’s from, that’s considered an inauthentic form of spirituality. There used to not be concepts or categories to describe different sexual orientations.

So I see vampires as the next logical step… This is the first time in human history you’ve been able to say, maybe I’m not ontologically the same as everybody else.

Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism is a fresh, objective and long-awaited academic study about “real vampires”. As he explains in the above interview, the vampire identity that is adopted by real vampires is a manifestation of modernity’s quest for meaning and self definition, a way of making sense of the world (Laycock x). Laycock’s thesis can be summarised in Auerbach’s statement “Our vampires, Ourselves”, or as himself explains,”by studying vampires, we study ourselves” (xi). Vampires Today then is a book about “real vampires” and their communities that moves away from naive or sensational accounts of vampire subcultures that usually define the subculture as a criminal underground or as a perverse community of sexual predators.

Laycock separates his monograph into eight clearly defined chapters in order to offer a complete view of the vampire communities. His outlook is objective and unbiased (one of the book’s most important characteristics that separate it from the rest of the vampire texts on subcultures) and is based on interviews he conducted with members of the vampire communities and ethnographic data he collected with the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA) which welcomed him and supported his research. ( I have to confess that when I personally contacted the AVA a few years ago, they were very kind, responded with great interest to my questions, and were  eager to be represented objectively by academic researchers or scholars). Laycock thus manages to offer one of the only academic studies of real vampires that takes seriously its subject matter and strives to be comprehensive and all-inclusive. In this sense, the book becomes ideal for every reader, the “vampiric” scholar, real vampires and everyone interested in vampirism.

For these reasons, Vampires Today, is fundamentally different from previous books or articles such as Dawn Perlmutter’s negative depictions of the subculture as “monolithic” and “sinister” (Laycock viii) or Katherine Ramsand’s sensational journalism in Piercing the Darkness. Both of them have misrepresented the vampire subculture for their own ends. Laycock’s study, on the other hand, is driven by a genuine interest in the vampire community and sustains a logical point of view throughout.

In his first chapter, he looks at the various definitions of “real vampires”  (and the differences between them and the “lifestyle vampires”), their feeding methods, donors and hereditary notions of vampirism; in so doing, he dispels many of the misconceptions and illusions about the associations of real vampires with folklore or other sensational stories of vampirism. Similarly he manages to separate scientific readings of vampirism from the notion of real vampirism (second chapter) that usually transform science into a fantastic world, instead of shedding light on the phenomenon (his argument here is in accordance with Botting’s reading of Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne”, where science enters the field of the supernatural and gothic). However, Laycock avoids evaluation of the subjective experiences of real vampires and chooses to interpret the subculture as an alternative solution to contemporary life’s banality and disenchantment (chapter 2). By recognizing the multitude and diversity of the communities and the variety of people they attract (like every other identity group, vampire communities include both pathological narcissists, or other mentally ill people, people with psychic abilities or those simply disenchanted with reality) Laycock moves towards a Foucauldian definition of a real-vampire identity as a “technology of the self” (31). Laycock’s thesis at points seems to reflect contemporary constructions of radical subjectivity. From Stone to Haraway and Kember the vampire has been used to express a more fluid identity of interconnectedness and multiplicity. Although, used by these theorists vampire subjectivity subscribes to an ethics of immanence and not a real being who consumes blood or energy.

For Laycock, the search for meaning and the dissatisfaction with the conditions of modernity opens paths for re-imagining identities and selves.  In particular he connects this with events in American history and the disengagement from the concerns of the polis which are followed by a turn towards the self and retreat into narcissism (33).

Such an identity of course, and Laycock shows this well (chapter 3), does not exist outside culture and is inextricably associated with all those cultural ideas about vampires from literature, film, the occult, role-playing games, etc.  One of the interesting points in his discussion of the various vampire communities and the recent media attention and trend in vampires such as Twilight, is the fact that the vampire community has withdrawn and attempted to distance itself from the scene (chapter 3, 118).  Some of the major representatives of the community, such as Belanger and Father Sebastiaan acknowledge this change, while Belanger makes connections between the gay and vampire communities, citing one of the first gay, secret communities The Order of Chareona (1890s) with members such as Oscar Wilde and Montague Summers (119).

Laycock clarifies another misconception of vampirism as a religious phenomenon by claiming that, although there are vampire religions, vampirism is not a religion, but resembles religious worlds in the sense that like Rice’s Lestat, real vampires aspire towards a radical religious individualism (136).

In relation to media attention and vampire-obsessed coverage of real vampires, Laycock expresses the concerns of the vampire community itself with such exposure which usually associates real vampires with satanism, blood cults or criminals. Such associations with criminality have driven the vampire community to pursue new ways, publish  books and conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses in order to show a clearer image of the community.

Laycock’s study is one of these analyses that demonstrate and reveal a different side of the vampire subculture, one that is more diverse, less sensational or romanticised and definitely not monolithic. It is an informative study that clarifies many misconceptions about vampirism and a book that scholars or readers interested in vampirism should own. It offers extensive notes and bibliography and a useful index for navigating through the vampiric webs of the book.  In regards to scholarship, it raises new questions about subjectivity and being and opens up the potential for future research in the field.

However, like the rest of the “real vampire” books out there, the book’s cover falls into the usual trap by depicting a sensational encounter between two female vampires, which considering the content, is but a minor problem. Otherwise, as Father Sebastiaan Tod van Houten says, “Damn who doesn’t think a decent looking girl wearing fangs, stiletto shoes and a corset is hot? And why would that disqualify her as being able to be a vamp” (qtd. in Laycock 7).

Laycock, Joseph. Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009. ABC-CLIO EBook Collection.

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