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A psychologist in the UK has started what’s believed to be the first online study into a little-known but apparently very real subculture: vampires.
Emyr Williams from Glyndwr University in Wales has launched a survey he’s hoping self-identifying members of the vampire community will complete to help establish a psychological picture of the group. His research has its roots in the psychology of religion, which essentially aims to describe different religious traditions and behaviours from a scientific perspective.
Of course, vampirism isn’t exactly a religion, but Williams is trying to apply similar techniques to explore what he insists is an established subculture with thousands of members in the UK. So to be clear, he’s not talking about Twilight superfans, nor is he suggesting that there are fanged people out there who will turn to dust in the sunlight; this is a look at a group of people with a set of defined behaviours and beliefs, which hasn’t really been studied in an academic manner before.
As he explains in the introduction to the survey, “The aim of this study is to broaden the psychological knowledge of the contemporary vampire subculture with the hope of publishing a series of academic publications that will help a wide audience understand the vampire subculture.”
Intrigued at the concept of applying established psychological methods to a group as eyebrow-raising as vampires, and interested to know exactly what he was hoping to achieve with his work, I gave Williams a call and asked how he came to this unusual subject of research.
MOTHERBOARD: So tell me about the study. What are you hoping to discover?
Emyr Williams: What I’m hoping to do is something which is quite common in the world of psychology of religion, where you provide a psychological profile for different groups, different religious groups, different cultures. I’m doing that through a survey that has some very well-established psychological measures in it, which look at things like personality, self esteem, religious belief, so I can kind of understand, not what real vampires do, but maybe if they’re a certain personality type and how that personality type might lead to different beliefs.
Vampires have formed their own social groups, so there’s a particular way of dressing, a particular type of music, but at the core of it is this need for blood or psychic energies.
OK, so you mentioned psychology of religion—Is there a religious angle to vampirism?
There could well be. A lot of when you hear the vampires talk, they talk about this “internal awakening” they’ve had, this internal need for blood or psychic energies, and this kind of connection they have with the other world. To me, that has resonance with some of the language you hear from traditionally religious people.
And how did you find out about real-world vampires in the first place?
I’ve always been interested in the weird and the wonderful; the weirder it is, the better for me. When I was an undergraduate student, I read a paper that looked at the religious and social/cultural beliefs of vampires in American Australia. It was the first time I’d ever heard about real vampires, and I just kind of developed an interest from there on in.
Have you reached out to the community? How do you know what you know so far?
I’ve researched the community—in the past, certainly in America, there’s been a lot of autobiographical literature and a lot of case study literature going over just why people want to be vampires, how they are vampires, what they actually do. And I’m in contact with a few elders around the UK who give me better insight into what’s going on.
So what actually makes someone a “real” vampire?
The defining characteristics are an innate need for either blood or psychic energies. What we find nowadays is that the real vampires have formed their own social groups, so there’s a particular way of dressing, there’s a particular type of music that they listen to, but at the core of it is this need for blood or psychic energies.
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What do you mean by psychic energies?
I’ll be honest with you, I’m not too sure. What the psychic vampires say is they can actually go into a room and they don’t have to physically feed off somebody; they just get energy from being near someone, and that someone then feels drained. So they kind of envisage this ethereal transfer of energy between beings.
You reckon there are about 15,000 people who identify as vampires in the UK. How did you get to that number?
I reached it through talking to different online communities and through seeing the number of people who seem to be active within the UK. There are some groups who think I’ve overestimated, there are other groups who think I’ve underestimated, but that seems to be about a nice mid-point of different individuals who seem to be active.
Tell me more about the methods of the study you’re doing. You’ve launched an online survey; what are you asking people to do?
All people have to do is answer a series of closed questions, and all of the questions then come together to make different scales that look at personality, at self esteem, at religious beliefs, at satisfaction with life… It’s quite a lengthy questionnaire, I think it’s something like 250 questions, but it just gives us a sense of what’s going on psychologically.
Aren’t you concerned that people might answer it just as a joke? How are you going to make sure the results are accurate?
This is a problem with all questionnaire research in psychology. A lot of measures that I’ve used in there have what are called acquiescence scales in. So if you answer a certain way to one particular question, and then it’s a different answer to the other five or six questions that go on to the same construct, you kind of get a sense that somebody’s beginning to take the piss.
Let’s not be afraid of them, let’s try to understand them a little bit more.
It’s also so lengthy that if someone is just going there to do it as a joke, then I’d imagine they’d get bored halfway through. It takes something like 20-30 minutes to complete. But that’s obviously going to be a consideration, but hopefully the internal structures in the questionnaire will fish out anybody who’s just making stuff up.
What’s the next step after that—what are you going to do once you’ve collected the data?
The next step, hopefully, is to collaborate with a colleague of mine at the University of Bath to follow the questionnaire up with a series of qualitative interviews, so we can start to explore the issues a little bit more in depth, and then hopefully use those two sets of data to build up a profile. My hope is that I can publish the quantitative data quite quickly through a series of journal articles, and then use the qualitative data to expand into a book.
And what’s the ultimate aim?
To understand a part of society that is there, that at the moment I think you have to be part of to really get a sense of it—and to stop what I’ve seen as a reaction to the publicity I’ve had over the last couple of weeks of people just laughing and saying it’s not true and if anybody calls themselves a vampire they have to be mentally ill. I kind of want to show that, no, this is a legitimate part of society; let’s not be afraid of them, let’s try to understand them a little bit more.