Black Swans, Cultural Vampires and Sanguinarians in the North
Somewhat aptly, very little natural light reaches the spot where I sit in a small shop in Stockport’s industrial Houldsworth Mill. The shelves and surfaces are packed with various Gothic trinkets and ornaments. A life-sized model stares from a corner with eerily lifelike blue eyes, and a ceramic skull smiles from beyond a velvet-covered table. Across it, two vampires sit grinning at me.
Lillith and Elder Vampyre are both members of the vampire community, but belong to two very distinct factions. There are the ‘Cultural Vampires’: people interested in the arts, history and philosophies of the ancient creatures. And there are the ‘Sanguinarians’: the blood drinkers. Despite profound differences between their groups, the pair display no animosity towards each other, routinely pausing in their answers to chatter excitedly between themselves about mutual acquaintances and vampire lore.
The Cultural Vampires are represented by Lillith, a chirpy woman from Manchester draped in a morose black gown which contrasts sharply with her sunny demeanour. Cultural vampires don’t drink blood at all. Instead, they define themselves as people with a particular interest in the history and popular image of the vampire. Despite still being only in her early 20s, Lillith is already a well-known local figure having been actively involved in the scene for years. Her enthusiasm and hands-on attitude quickly secured her the respect of many of her peers, leading to her current position as head of the Crypt: an online hub for Manchester’s Cultural vampire community that boasts close to 200 members.
The history of Manchester’s vampire scene is a little murky, as much of it has been passed on by word of mouth. What’s known for certain is that it started with the Manchester Vampire Society (MVS), which was already well-established by the 1970s. It comprised mostly older, wealthier people, many of whom were fans of the Victoriana style of dress (which remains popular with Cultural and Sanguinarian vampires to this day). The MVS eventually split into smaller, separate groups – among them was the original Crypt, a forerunner of Lillith’s group, which took its moniker from the fond nickname for the dingy pub that was a common meeting place for the MVS. The Crypt’s members continued to meet in pubs around Manchester, socialising over drinks and cigarettes.
It quietly soldiered on in this form until 1996 when the IRA bombed Manchester’s Corn Exchange. There were no casualties but the group’s fragile lines of communication were shattered. Most members only had sparse contact details for each other, and with so many switching numbers and moving addresses in the wake of the attack, the Crypt was no more.
It rose again, if you will, in the late noughties as an offshoot of the Gothic Meetup of Manchester (2005). Both groups had been resurrected using the social Meetup website, sharing members and even a few organisers. Lillith came to the helm in 2012, bringing with her fresh activities and ideas. The Crypt has stayed undead ever since.
In its modern incarnation, the Crypt has only a few simple rules. Much of the organisation is done over the internet, and although they encourage discussion, they uphold that “outside drama must be kept outside”, and no prior arguments or feuds are carried over to their forums. They strictly forbid any bloodletting on the premises during their Meetups as they get together in public spaces. Members are also prohibited from using the Meetups to recruit for Black Swans (potential blood donors).
“The law can be a bit fuzzy on that,” says Lillith. “Even though everyone’s a consenting adult, we could still get into a lot of trouble.”
Other than these guidelines, the Crypt has few other overt rules and regulations. Lillith and the other organisers are very careful not to place too many restrictions on their members.
“We want a place where people feel welcome,” she says. “There’s so much that can be inspired by the one word ‘vampire’ – books, films, artwork. We’ve covered a fair bit. The Silver Scream has proven popular. It’s a film Meetup night with a selection of vampire movies and a bit of discussion afterwards.”
“We love Olly.” Lillith and Elder Vampyre exchange another grin. “He’s been back twice now.”
Both vampires are well-versed in the monster mythos. I’m not surprised to hear them talk fondly of Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. I’m also passingly familiar with the tale of Elizabeth Bathory, the bloodthirsty Hungarian countess thought by some to be a true vampire. However, Lamashtu is a name I’ve not heard before; that of a demon believed to haunt pregnant women in the ancient Middle-East, sometimes kidnapping their children.
“Each culture has their own different take,” Lillith explains. “Most of them share the image of an undead human, but some don’t even believe that. People used to apply their fears to anything. An old Balkan legend even makes mention of vampire vegetables.”
I’m intrigued. I’m told that some Roma people of the early to mid-20th century held that anything left outside on the night of a full moon would become a vampire. A vampiric vegetable could be identified by a single drop of blood streaking down its side. Pumpkins and watermelons were commonly associated with this legend, thought to roll along the ground in search of flesh. Oddly enough, they were apparently not often feared because of their purported lack of teeth (being afraid of them, presumably, would just be silly).
The Crypt’s varied activity and good relationships with other groups are clearly paying dividends. They currently have roughly 190 members, give or take; an impressive number for an informal Meetup group. Not all count themselves as vampires, cultural or otherwise, and it doesn’t cover Sanguinarian interests, but nevertheless their reputation as one of Manchester’s central Gothic hubs is firmly established.
Elder Vampyre takes up the narrative at this point, in a relaxed voice with the trace of a Scottish accent. Unlike some Sanguinarians I’ve spoken to, he seems less concerned about the prospect of misprints or misinterpretations, and he answers my questions with the cool confidence of a man comfortable in his own identity. Despite this, he is leaning forward in his chair, and there is a quiet intensity to his gaze that almost dares me to disagree with him.
British Sanguinarians follow an American structure of organisation by dividing themselves into Vampire Houses. Elder Vampyre doesn’t know how many the UK is home to; it’s difficult to quantify the exact number partly due to their secretive nature, and partly due to the fact that the definition is so broad. There is no official ruling body that decides the definition of a House. In theory anyone could start their own, but in order to be recognised and respected they have to have official knowledge of “how things are done”. In other words, they have to be involved in the community. It took Elder Vampyre two years to get into one House, despite his existing contacts within it.
“It takes years and it’s not something undertaken lightly,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get into a Vampire House without knowing people. We’re a secretive bunch, so contacts are everything.”
As he describes them to me, I have to agree that their fears sound well-founded. Society has always had a fascination with ‘freaks’. Programmes like The Undateables, Jeremy Kyle and Embarrassing Bodies allow us to point and stare under a veneer of social acceptability, while networks like Twitter allow us to blithely pass judgement with impunity. Most Sanguinarians have no desire to be exhibits or cheap throwaway gags, and they are very careful about whom they allow into their inner circles. Elder Vampyre himself doesn’t worry too much about it, although he understands the concerns of those who do.
“I have several social circles.” He vaguely traces a ring in the air as he talks. “Some are vampires, and some aren’t. Some people I’d discuss it with, some I wouldn’t. I don’t have a dual identity or anything. It’s just about knowing what’s appropriate in certain situations.” A note of distaste enters his voice. “There’s a few that will flaunt it constantly, like Christians with Bibles. I’m not like that.”
Sanguinarians as a group have long been divided over whether to “come out” to the world at large or not, Elder Vampyre explains. Many are secretive about their lives, but there are some who are quite open and even happy to make media appearances should the opportunity arise. In general, however, it seems the majority of the Sanguinarian community prefer being in the shadows, happy to live public and personal lives. Most are content with the Houses as their main outlets.
To Elder Vampyre, a Vampire House means being able to share his interests while feeling like he belongs somewhere. He has known certain Houses to outfit their rooms with small aesthetic touches and snacks for people to eat and drink, like chocolate blood (chocolate powder, red dye and syrup).
“You just feel at home,” he says, with the broad grin back on his face. “They were dead nice, there was no disharmony. I first joined a House in London, many years ago now.”
Elder Vampyre had his awakening at the age of 15. “It was sort of like a dream state. I saw images of my previous lives, right the way up until this one. Even now, I still suffer déjà vu. Blood was involved in each one, so that’s when I realised what I am.”
Among the physical symptoms he feels is a tendency to get hot easily, and his eyes are a little sensitive to intense light, marring his otherwise heightened awareness. Meanwhile, if he goes for too long without blood he begins to feel weak. He considers these quirks of evolution, mutations in vampire DNA. When I ask him whether he could be anaemic – a condition that might account for pale skin and a lack of iron in the blood – he shrugs benignly. “It’s a possible explanation. You can believe it if you want, but I know what I am.”
Moving onto the topic of blood and donors, Elder Vampyre is keen to stress that there’s a structure to how they do things. Sanguinarian vampires get their blood from ordinary people, often called Black Swans. He explains that drinking blood is a transference of energy. Vampires don’t generate this energy, but can acquire and retain it for a short time before they need to get more. In his own words, sort of like “topping up a battery”. It’s for this reason, he says, that two vampires can’t feed on each other.
“There’s no transfer being made, you see,” he says emphatically. “It just goes back and forth, and no one gets anything.”
It’s easy enough for a Sanguinarian to find a donor as there’s no shortage of people eager to participate vicariously in the vampire lifestyle. However, Sanguinarians tend to be very strict about who they choose to take their blood from. Most commonly, these people are close friends, partners or spouses. Donors must then have their blood tested at a certified health clinic – the process takes less than a week and their Sanguinarians often go with them to oversee the process. Only upon receipt of a clean certificate of health will Sanguinarians allow the bloodletting. Once again, care is intrinsic to every part of the process. There’s no wild flailing for the neck.
“I make a small incision – here – with sterilised equipment.” He shows me, miming the action. “It’s a small cut, and it heals quickly. I’ll do that and drink once every week. Any less than that and I start to feel lethargic.”
With some Sanguinarians, there is a significant crossover between their vampirism and their sex lives, with at least a few known to engage in BDSM. However, Elder Vampyre is reluctant to offer information on this immensely personal aspect of his own life, so I don’t push him further.
There is some interaction between Sanguinarian Vampire Houses, but very little is done officially. Most socialising happens on an individual basis, and even then it’s mostly local with Sanguinarians meeting inside the boundaries of their own cities. The Sanguinarians of the North West tend to stick to their own, but there is no tension with the Cultural Vampires. Elder Vampyre is only one of a number of blood-drinkers sometimes seen at Crypt meetups, and his close friendship with Lillith is evident. Though membership of Sanguinarian groups is more strictly moderated, both vampires assure me that the Crypt always welcomes new members.
“We’re currently meeting at the Salisbury,” says Lillith. “Anyone is welcome to come along. We honestly don’t bite!”
By Jack Stocker
(Sincere thanks to Lillith and Elder Vampyre for discussing their lives with me in such detail. Also thanks to Liz, that angel of darkness, and many thanks especially to Caz, without whom this article wouldn’t have been possible. Your patience is the stuff of legend!)
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