After cleaning her skin, Arizona native Giselle looks for a vein on her arm where she can insert a needle. Once she finds one, she uses a butterfly needle and syringe to withdraw 80ml of blood—roughly two shot glasses' worth.
This isn't for medical reasons. Giselle is someone who donates their blood to their mate, who is a real-life vampire, also known as a sanguinarian (from the Latin meaning "he who drinks blood"). Many sangs believe they need to consume blood to stay healthy, and donors like Giselle—or "black swans," as they sometimes refer to themselves—provide the necessary fluids. According to researchers, there are at least 5,000 vampires in the US alone, and there are slightly more females than men who identify in this way.
Though the idea of ingesting blood might seem gross to many of us—it remains a taboo, and many religions such as Islam forbid consumption of the red stuff—it wasn't always this way. In the 16th and 17th centuries many people, including priests, royals and physicians ingested blood for conditions such as headaches and epilepsy. Blood was also thought to improve vigor, especially when drunk fresh from the body of a young person. As medicine became more advanced, these practices fell away.
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Many real vampires describe moments where they first realize they are different. Some sectors of the community describe these as "awakenings." One member of the site sanguinarius.org said they learned about their vampirism after drinking blood from raw pork steaks left on their kitchen counter. Julia, a 48-year-old from the US, says she began to crave blood when she was around six. "I first consumed human blood when I was 12," she tells Broadly. Kissing a boy for the first time, she bit him hard on the lips, drawing blood—and drank it. "That act of innate truth was for me evolutionary and revolutionary," she adds.
Many sangs claim that they need to consume blood for health reasons, referring to themselves as "medical sanguinarians." John Edgar Browning, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, spent five years interviewing and studying the real vampire community in New Orleans, even acting as a donor himself. The sang used a scalpel to prick his back, then put his mouth directly over the liquid, lapping it up before cleaning Browning's wound. "The procedure of donating caused me alarm, not because it was unsafe, it was quite the opposite actually, but because I'm a needle-phobe," he tells Broadly.
He says many of the people he interviewed who had tried abstaining from consuming blood said they suffered physically and were left feeling weak, lethargic, and sickly. "One vampire I spoke with says she was hospitalized, and was later discharged only after regaining her strength through feeding on her then partner in the hospital room," Browning says.
Krystian, a sanguinarian from the UK, was diagnosed with a genetic mutation two years ago. This mutation means he has problems producing haem—a major component of hemoglobin, a protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. He believes that feeding on blood helps to boost his health.
"I've had various medical problems since birth," he says. "When I consume blood regularly I am mostly healthy, however when I don't I experience blood deficiency, which in time causes neurological and cognitive impairments, leading to depression, amnesia, inability to eat without pain and nausea, headaches, constipation, and insomnia. Drinking blood quickly removes symptoms." He tells me he usually consumes about 125ml a day to keep his problems at bay, "the equivalent of half a can of Red Bull."
While a lot of sangs have physical problems, some believe their condition to be psychological. I spoke to Zvasra, a 34-year-old woman from Memphis, Tennessee, on Reddit. As far as she's concerned, her need to consume blood sates a "purely psychological need."
The calming feeling I get after a donation is like floating in a pool.
"I think it's very fair to say that people who love blood as much as I do probably have something psychological going on there to create that strong desire," she adds.
I asked her if she had ever sought out medical help for her blood cravings, but she says she hasn't. "This is simply the way I live, and I am very happy to continue on like this," she says. "I'm very well-aware of how taboo this is, and I wouldn't want my doctor to view any other illness I might have in the same light." Renfield's syndrome is the name sometimes used to describe a psychological obsession with drinking blood. However, it's not recognized in medical literature and is usually rejected as a real condition by psychiatrists.
Whatever the reasons behind it, it's clear that sangs need regular feedings to alleviate their symptoms and cravings, so various networks have sprung up to connect them with willing donors. There are groups on the fetish social network Fetlife, as well as sites like the Vampire and Donor Connections Hub, which Krystian founded two years ago. Some, like Julia, whose fiancé is her current donor, use family members, friends, or people they're in a relationship with.
Though only human blood will do for Julia, other real vampires are not averse to consuming animal blood if they struggle to find a regular donor. "When things get a little dry, I'll head to a local Asian grocery, and buy some frozen pork or beef blood. I never drink that stuff straight, but it's good to thaw and mix in with a little wine, coffee, or even to use in my home cooking," Zvasra says.
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Krystian also consumes cow blood he gets from a local abattoir. "One donor alone cannot sustain a sang, so I need the bovine blood to keep healthy," he says. "I take from my donor [his current girlfriend] as least often as possible for her safety, but ultimately animal blood can't sustain as fully as human, due to its differences."
Reading this, you may wonder what's in it for the black swans themselves. Though there are occasional links with the BDSM community and vampire fetishism, for many, it's a way of helping loved ones who are struggling with their mysterious and often debilitating symptoms.
Some donors can also get pleasant sensations from it, too. "The calming feeling I get after a donation is like floating in a pool, which might sound odd, I know," Giselle says. "I guess part of the satisfaction comes from seeing the outward changes I see in the vampire I donate to, like their eyes looking more vibrant and increased energy. I feel as if I did something good and useful."
"It took me a while to realize I got just as much, or sometimes even more out of the donation. If I could take care of everyone who honestly needed a donor, I would," she adds.
It's essential for the blood donation to be consensual, and safe, and most sangs and donors do not condone violent behavior. The Donor Bill of Rights was founded by real vampire Belfazaar Ashantison, who runs a Yahoo group seeking to promote safety within the community, and is an ethical contract that the pair can regularly sign in order to keep things legit.
There are health risks involved with blood drinking, such as the transmission of diseases such as HIV, as well as the over-consumption of iron which can lead to conditions like liver disease and irregular heart rhythms. The sanguinarians I spoke to say they go out of their way to make sure everything is sterile, such as the knives, needles and syringes used in the process, and some get their donors to have regular blood work done to make sure they are healthy. Contact feeding, where the sang takes blood straight from the donor, is often a preferred method. "Some of us use fangs [usually dental implants] to get the job done, but this can lead to some scarring, and the aftercare for a bite wound like that is a bit more difficult, not to mention that it hurts. It's like being bit by a dog," Zvasra says.
Many sangs are very secretive about what they do due to the taboo around blood drinking and the fact they remain very misunderstood, and largely stereotyped within the media.
In fact, a lot of them even steer away from referring to themselves as vampires in the first place. "Vampire is a term invented by those who needed a word to name us. Sanguinarians is a far less tarnished term," Krystian says. "People have a habit of persecuting what they fear, so there's a reason we are very reclusive. However, we are not dangerous, and certainly not evil mythical creatures."
Browning agrees. "Real vampirism continues to be misunderstood by outsiders, I think it's because people think the taking of blood occurs only after the person doing so has been reading vampire literature or watching vampire films, but that is simply not the case.
"And as for real vampires being obsessed with the vampire milieu—that's hardly the case either. If they're obsessed with anything, it's their own health and finding meaning in a mysterious condition they experience day in and day out."
It's not just the sangs who experience adversity, 'black swans' can also face this from people who don't understand. "I'd say we're definitely confusing to those on the outside. People have called me a 'whore' or desperate for attention," Giselle says. "At the beginning, I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I was—but not anymore. In the stressfulness that is a part of my life, this is one of things I do for me that makes me feel good."