Editor’s Note: The following series “Via Voodoo Vie: an Exploration of Voodoo in NOLA” is a week-long series curated by Emily O’Connell as a part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
The history and tradition of Louisiana Voodoo has become a unique part of the culture of New Orleans. However, it goes deeper than the Voodoo that has been popularized by the media and tourist attractions. With origins in West Africa and Haiti, brought to Louisiana by enslaved and freed people of color, Voodoo has a rich and often overlooked history, so let’s explore how Voodoo has made its mark on the city and how the city has, in turn, influenced the perception of Voodoo. Have you seen a Vampire in New Orleans? While Vampires are not traditionally linked with Voodoo, Belfazaar “Zaar” Ashantison, a Vampire and Voodoo priest, tells how Voodoo impacts the city’s vampire community. Originally published on October 25, 2019.
Vampires have been a topic in folklore for centuries. For most of their history, vampires were portrayed as monsters. In 1897, Bram Stoker created the last century’s archetype vampire, Dracula, who is portrayed as predatory and entirely inhuman. In her Syfy Wire article, Elizabeth Rayne characterizes early literary and cinematic vampires: “The repulsive visuals of early vampires on film were reflections of the unmitigated evil they were perceived to be.” Vampires would continue to be regarded as inhuman until Anne Rice’s novel, Interview with the Vampire, was adapted to film in 1994.
Rice’s novel presents attractive and sympathetic vampires with a strong conscience. “The author was able to infuse a monster with humanity—without losing the monster,” says Rayne. “We are constantly reminded that they still can prey on humans and are susceptible to losing control.” Vampires are powerful and can hurt you, but they choose not to. Vampires are essentially misunderstood, exaggerated “bad boys,” and have become a major sex symbol of the past twenty years. The popularity of films and television series like Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Vampire Diaries highlight society’s obsession with the modern, sexy vampire.
The Twilight franchise grossed over $3 billion between five films. Interview with the Vampire grossed over $200 million when it was released in 1994. Vampires are a societal obsession. Although these films are most popular with young females, their success permeates all demographics. Given the popularity of vampire fiction, is it surprising that there is a global community of people who refer to themselves as real vampires?
Real vampires are not immortal; they do not have supernatural powers or a predatory nature. Many real vampires try to distance themselves from popular vampire fiction. Belfazaar “Zaar” Ashantison, founding member of the New Orleans Vampire Association, believes that vampire films and television shows can “damage the community because people come in with expectations of amazing powers and then find out we’re just normal people trying to get by.”
In films, vampires are often portrayed by young, attractive actors like Brad Pitt and Robert Pattinson. In New Orleans, vampires are once again monsters whose stories entice tourists. Some of the most popular tours in New Orleans are “haunted tours” that promise to divulge the macabre secrets of New Orleans’ past and present. Many of the stops on these so-called haunted tours concern sites of proposed vampire activity.
Kim Giammarco, respected vampire elder and former haunted tour guide, tells me about the Carter brothers, two of New Orleans’ most notorious vampires.
On the corner of Saint Ann and Royal Street, there is a deep red building with wraparound balconies. In the 1930s, it was home to John and Wayne Carter, two seemingly normal brothers. One day, a young girl escaped their apartment, seemingly running for help with blood soaking her wrists. When the police investigated the apartment, they found four people tied to chairs with their wrists slit, as well as dozens of dead bodies drained of their blood. Kim explains that when the brothers returned to the apartment, “it took all eight [police officers] to hold down and detain the brothers, who were of average height and build.” The brothers were executed for their crimes and buried in a vaulted tomb. Years later, the vault was opened to receive the body of another family member. The workers handling the body were astonished to find no trace of the brothers in the vault. The brothers had vanished.
The story of the Carter brothers is one of many New Orleans vampire legends. These stories have likely been embellished, but Kim believes there is truth behind each of them. “Listening to those stories and standing in the spots they happened at, you can just feel the energy and feel that it really happened.”
New Orleans is known for not only vampire folklore, but for a prominent community of real, modern vampires as well. New Orleans vampires today bear little resemblance to figures like the Carter brothers, but, as Zaar says, “It is always good to know one’s history.”
Modern vampire folklore offers two contrasting depictions of vampires: young, attractive, and superhuman; or elusive, grotesque, and evil. The real vampires I spoke with are neither. Zaar, Kim, and Morgan are all middle-aged, friendly, and completely normal in appearance. Real vampires blend in with society and differ greatly from their Hollywood counterparts. As Morgan says, “When you think vampire, you don’t think of a guy sitting down and playing Assassin’s Creed.”
Zaar and Kim are both regarded as experienced leaders within their community. Zaar and Kim began their awakenings aged 11 and 14 respectively. Zaar explains that the term awakening is used to describe the period of time when a vampire recognizes that there is “something different” about them, “something other, if you will.”
Morgan, a successful business owner and PhD, also identifies as a vampire. Like Zaar and Kim, he began his awakening at a young age. Morgan pursued metaphysical science to understand what he was experiencing. Morgan says, “I did not realize that what I was doing was in line with [vampirism] until about ten years ago.”
Zaar is a sanguine vampire, meaning that he regularly drinks blood from willing donors. Not all vampires drink blood; Kim, for example, is a tantric vampire and thus feeds off the sexual energy of a partner. Kim admits that she has a desire to drink blood, but she suppresses it. Morgan identifies as a pranic vampire; like Kim, he derives energy from physical touch, but he prefers platonic affection. “I’m a hugger,” Morgan explains. “I hug everybody. I am a hopeful romantic. I derive my energy from actually hugging and touching people.” All three have tried drinking blood, but only Zaar claims to need it.
Modern vampires differ greatly in their “feed styles,” but each method is just a way of obtaining energy. Zaar defines Vampirism as “a physiological condition wherein the afflicted person’s body either does not make enough of, or any at all of, the daily essential energies necessary in order to perform daily tasks.” When Zaar does not drink blood on a regular schedule, and Kim and Morgan go a few days without physical touch, they all feel completely drained.
Morgan explains the importance of consent and safety when practicing each feed style: “All the vampires I know, even the sanguines, have dedicated people that they drink from. They are very cautious; they get tested. It’s very clinical, actually.” For pranics that derive energy from sex, they and their partners are both regularly tested, and consent is always emphasized.
Unlike feeding, some vampiric qualities are more universal. Kim works customer service in a call center because it allows her to work evenings. Zaar works a day job at Voodoo Authentica, but claims his circadian rhythm is “definitely nocturnal.” Kim and Zaar will not sparkle or burst into flames if they step into sunlight. They do feel sensitive to the sun, similar to their sensitivity to energy. As Zaar says: “After all, what is the sun but a big ball of floating energy in the sky?”
Morgan is relatively private about his vampire identity and has chosen a more traditional career. “I keep things pretty separate,” Morgan says, referring to his professional life and vampire identity. “I am self-employed, I own a finance firm. I have for many years. I even served in the military for a little bit.”
Morgan is a witch and Zaar is a voodoo priest. Although pagan beliefs are more common in the vampire community, vampires practice a variety of religions. “I know Wiccans; I know a Buddhist vampire,” says Zaar. “We’re all over the board. I even know Christian vampires.” For Morgan, being a witch is no different than practicing any other religion. “Being a witch is a belief, it’s like being pagan or Buddhist, or anything else,” Morgan says. “It’s just a belief, a way of life. It’s like a moral compass. There are rituals and things, like in every religion. Catholics eat the cracker and drink the wine, but that’s a ritual. It’s just a different type of ritual.”
New Orleans is not the only city where vampire communities exist, but, as Kim says, “When people think of vampires, they think immediately of New Orleans.” Perhaps it is the haunted buildings, connection with voodoo, or Anne Rice herself that unites New Orleans with vampires. “New Orleans has always been one of the meccas for the [vampire] community,” says Zaar. “It has always had a flair for vampires. New Orleans has 275 years of vampiric lore in and of itself.”
Zaar and Kim both visited New Orleans many times before moving here. “I knew I’d always end up here,” Zaar says. “Twenty-nine years ago is when I began my journey in voodoo and it brought me here.” When Kim came to New Orleans, she met Zaar by chance. “I was trying to figure out where I was going to stay,” says Kim. “He invited me to stay at his house and the rest is history. We clicked so well, and we have been best friends for the last 9 years.”
The city’s live-and-let-live attitude is a big reason why so many different groups find a home here. As a gay man himself, Zaar recognizes similarities between the vampire community and the LGBT community. Zaar admits it took time to become comfortable with being both gay and a vampire. Zaar was raised in a Christian family and admits he was “set apart from an early age.” Zaar found a second family in the vampire community.
Vampires like Zaar recognize that not everyone will approve of his lifestyle, but that does not concern him. “I’m not out there to try to get people to accept us,” says Zarr. “People often make that mistake. I am out there to let others know that they’re not alone.”
The New Orleans Vampire Association (NOVA) is committed to serving the New Orleans community. One of NOVA’s main missions is feeding the homeless. For over ten years, NOVA members have been feeding the homeless on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Zaar started the initiative in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
Zaar lost everything in the storm; because he was working for Target at the time and told the company what he had lost, Target sent him trash containers full of food and clothes. “I had enough food to feed a small army come around Thanksgiving,” says Zaar. “So the first Thanksgiving I cooked everything up, I went to Jackson Square and I started feeding people, and that’s how it began.” NOVA is currently working towards another goal: “Our ultimate goal is to have an LGBT safe community, a homeless shelter for LGBT and pagan youth.”
Not all vampires think alike, and NOVA is not immune to internal arguments. Zaar explains that many issues arise in among community members when they focus on their differences. “When we started acknowledging feed types,” Zaar says. “When those started becoming a priority, we started to splinter. We’re all vampires; we should be working together on common goals.” Zaar compares the divisions within the vampire community to divisions within the LGBT community. “It’s like the LGBT community,” he says. “We keep subdividing to the fact that we’re nothing more than alphabet soup.”
Unlike the mysterious vampires of haunting stories, real vampires are regular people. “I get a little bit cliché and tell people, we are all around you, because it’s true,” Zaar says. “We’re husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, lovers.” You might prefer Coke whereas your friend prefers Pepsi; Zaar happens to prefer blood type AB+.