New Orleans, a hot spot for the weird, unusual, and other-worldly, is also the home to a growing and seething vampire community. Yes, you read that right. A group that calls themselves the “New Orleans Vampire Association,” or NOVA, is just what their name describes. With so-called “donors” opening up their veins to vampires in need of blood, this population is able to subsist and, one may even say, thrive.
Belfazaar Ashantison, better known as Zaar to his close friends, is a prime example of a “real,” modern-day vampire and is an elder in this association. He acts as head of his house, The House of Mystic Echoes, only one of ten houses of vampires in the New Orleans area. From the time he was a young boy, Ashantison knew that he was no regular human. “I always knew that I was different, and I knew that from an early age,” claims Ashantison when referring to how he came into his own as a vampire.
He says that he first realized his vampire tendencies after an violent incident with his uncle. Standing up to his uncle, Ashantison bit through four layers of clothing before breaking his uncle’s skin with his teeth alone. The resulting wound required 48 stitches. That’s no ordinary child’s bite. Ashantison recalled getting a splash of blood on his tongue and said that from that moment on he could “run around and play with the other kids,” something he was never able to do as a sickly child.
However, Ashantison and NOVA’s population of vampires are only a modern embodiment of a long history of so-called “vampires” in the New Orleans area. According to a spiritual tour guide, Lazlo Aluisa, the legend, and to some, reality, of vampires setting down roots in New Orleans began centuries before NOVA and Ashantison’s time, in the 1700s when the city was first settled.
Originally a land entirely covered by swamp, this area was not the enriching “New World” that Europeans had anticipated, as it required too much work. So, instead of heading down here themselves, wealthy French colonists sent the “dirty scoundrels” of the time, like convicted murderers and thieves, to do the dirty work and settle the area. Devoid of a strong female population the French also sent small ships packed with women, many of whom were prostitutes, to help populate the future New Orleans area. These women brought with them dowry boxes that resembled caskets to suspicious onlookers and various illnesses, including Tuberculosis. According to Lazlo, the blood that is coughed by those affected by this terrible disease gave way to the theory that these disheveled women were actually vampires.
While the existence of vampires has since been proven to be true, not mythical, at least for NOVA, there are many aspects of what most people think about vampires that are entirely fictional. When asked which stereotypes associated with vampires in the media are false, Ashantison responded with, “Holy water gets me wet, I love garlic, I do not sleep in a coffin, I have a king sized bed, I am claustrophobic so coffins would be a bad thing, pretty much everything you’ve read besides drinking blood.” He also alluded to the fact that the association between vampires and fangs may hold some truth, as he was born with elongated canines that had to be filed down when he was younger. Ashantison clarified that even the part about vampires drinking blood is not always true, because that is simply a characteristic that defines only one type of vampire. Belfazaar Ashantison described it extremely well when he said, “Think about it being like a person who’s gluten free, so they won’t be eating a lot of things with gluten in it. Everybody has a little bit of a specialized diet.” Other types of vampires beside Sanguine, those who drink blood to get energy, include Psychic, who obtain nutrients from ambient energy; Empathic, gaining energy through emotions; and Pranic, getting energy through any and all sexual contact. Ashantison went on to clarify that all these are sub-types, or feeding types, and that there is really only one type of vampire – living.
So how do Sanguine vampires get their blood?
Well, Ashantison described the feeding process by explaining that Sanguine vampires typically have donors. Donors are people who willingly let vampires drink their blood, and, according to Ashantison, usually seek the vampires out themselves, not the other way around. Ashantison believes this is because “nature abhors a vacuum, when it created a need in vampires, it created a need in somebody who could fulfill that need.” Donors, however, do not need this exchange in the same way that their vampire counterparts do. Vampires need the energy from the blood, but donors could want to give for a plethora of reasons.
Ashantison says that one of his donors does it because it gives him a thrill and adds a kink factor when he goes home to his girlfriend. Another has ADD, and when he is fed on it calms him down a bit. Ashantison attracts very different donors than a lot of vampires, however, because he applies what he refers to as a “clean technique,” while others often use a “sterile technique.” Vampires who favor the sterile technique often have skills in phlebotomy and extract the blood with a needle. Ashantison, on the other hand, and other vampires that use the clean technique, need to drink right from the source. The blood donating process doesn’t end there though. Vampires who use the clean technique make sure to monitor and treat the wound in the days following the feeding. In addition, Ashantison says that the “donor always comes first.” To establish this precedent, he created the Donor Bill of Rights which, as he claims, resembles a BDSM contract, where the donor has the “say-so.”
Consuming blood cannot be good for you, however. Or can it? Emily Van Eck, a New Orleans dietitian, was hesitant when first confronted with this question stating, “’I’m not quite sure how to answer this question, as I’m not quite sure what level of ‘kidding’ you are going for here.” She soon got over this, however, and delved into the question of whether the regular consumption of blood would have any major effects on the human body.
Van Eck tackled the idea of what one may consider a “full-on” vampire first claiming, “Obviously, no one would survive drinking blood alone. It has no nutrients except for minerals so while the person would not become iron deficient, they would probably starve to death.” This is an interesting point. Most vampires of myth and legend are portrayed as having strict diets of human blood and nothing else, but it is clear that the vampires of NOVA have to eat actual food along with their precious blood in order to survive. Along with this, Van Eck added,“Without carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, none of which are in blood, a living person would starve in a few weeks.” She continued on to mention that there are many positive effects that drinking blood could have on the human body, if one wishes to justify such a diet. According to Van Eck, “blood contains many minerals including sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and zinc, just to name a few, that the body relies on for daily functioning. A few examples include keeping our bones strong, maintaining our heart rhythms, and muscle function.” In addition, she alluded to the fact that anyone who drank blood on a regular basis would be very hydrated as a very large portion of blood is water. While she could name many aspects of blood that may contribute positively to bodily health, Van Eck could not think of any negative effects that drinking blood would have on the consumer. However, she does not recommend doing so, especially to the extent that she expects Belfazaar Ashantison and other members of NOVA do.
While he is a vampire and a voodoo priest, drinking blood and practicing Voodoo aren’t Belfazaar Ashantison’s only hobbies. He described how NOVA buys Christmas and everything that comes with it for one family every year and that their overall goal for the future is to build a homeless shelter for pagans and LGBTQ youth. Humanizing the vampire community, Ashantison stated,“The New Orleans Vampire Association will always be open to help anybody we can.”
He refers to the charity work he and NOVA do with great passion. “NOVA, in it of itself, comes together and feeds the homeless and the hungry… It is, above all else, a humanitarian organization,” Ashantison proclaimed when thinking about the state of the world today. He went on to add, “My honest view of the world today is that I think people have gotten too hurry, hurry, hush, hush, rush, rush, but they’ve also developed a knack for throwing away children…We’ve developed to the point where we no longer see the value of our children.” It is clear that his passion for helping the young and neglected stems from his strained familial relationships, and, in addition, he stated deep disapproval of parents turning their back on their children simply because they are a little bit different or unusual.
The New Orleans Vampire Association and Belfazaar Ashantison himself serve as living, breathing contradictions to all those legends and myths you may have clung ever so tightly to in the past. Vampires are not the vicious, violent, living dead as they are often portrayed. Ashantison put it best when he said, “Understand, Vampires are like anybody else. We pay our rent, we make sure our lights are on, we get groceries for the people we love. Some of us are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts, but we’re just like anybody else, trying to get by in a world that’s basically bat-shit crazy.” Vampires are people too. They are not creatures of the night, monstrous savages, or the walking dead. Throw away all that you may claim to know about vampires being associated with death and darkness because, as Ashantison puts it, “Vampires above all, value life.”