Thursday, November 04, 2010

Media Stereotypes of Vampires and Other Alternative Subcultures Continue with Alleged Abduction of Teen

Recently the news media reported on the October 11 disappearance of 16-year-old Shelby Ellis from Georgia, with allegations that Ellis had been abducted by an "underground vampire cult" given Her interest in the Goth movement and having visited a website with a URL that alarmed her parents. One article I read recently even went so far as to offer commentary on just how dangerous such groups are. The problem is, no such groups exist, and this media narrative was shaped by the residual effects of anti-cult stereotypes, misrepresentations of the vampire community, and the legacy of satanic panics. Beyond this, on Nov. 4 Ellis was found alive and well in Washington state.

In response to this the Atlanta Vampire Alliance issued the following statement to help correct such unfortunate media misundersandings and misrepresentations:

The Atlanta Vampire Alliance [AVA] would like to express its disappointment with the news media, both national and local, in their decision to run sensationalized headlines about the very sober and serious situation of a teenaged runaway. We urge the news media to resist the temptation of sensationalism, and employ maturity and sensitivity rather than hysteria. There is categorically no such thing as "underground vampire cults," and employing the flawed language of hysteria at best shows a lack of respect for the facts, and at worst succumbs to flights of fancy which could serve to distract an ongoing search for a missing person.

We would also like to take this opportunity to point this coverage out as "teachable moment" in media hysteria. The insistence on using the term "vampire cult" is at once prejudiced, irresponsible, and poorly-informed; it relies on a series of common folk beliefs about "cults" which have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked by experts. They have no place in serious social dialogue of any kind, much less in a discussion about a teenager who has run away from home.

The suggestion that such "cults" exist, and are indicated by their choices of music, clothing, or non-Christian symbols, is directly related to a cultural prejudice commonly known as "Satanic Panic." Satanic Panic is an urban legend which plays on religiously-generated fears of other peoples' religions and cultures to create an imaginary narrative of "cults" which practice criminal behavior in a pseudo-religious context. No such "cults" have ever existed, and the myth of the "cults" has been repeatedly debunked; but the prejudice created by the myth still harms innocent people today.

The discredited "satanic panic" narrative stereotypes a wide range of normal behavior as potentially dangerous. These normal behaviors include choices of clothing and music, the ordinary symbols of valid non-Christian religions, and even what novels one might read. Fear of these ordinary activities has led historically to censorship and the abuse of individuals wrongly accused of being "in cults," and feeds a vicious prejudice based solely on fear.

We would also like to note that the social networking site is not a vampire-oriented website, and is not considered a participating entity in the online vampire community. Confusing the social networking site with vampire folklore, fiction, or the vampire community is a mistake based apparently on the site's URL. The site, apparently in an attempt at stylishness, calls their interest-based user communities "cults." This should not be confused with any "cults," real or actual, of course. Perhaps this is where the "cult" terminology started getting tossed about the press, but if that's the case, the usage appears to be entirely facetious.


Steve Hayes said...

Good grief! Now there's a "vampire community"!

Let's hear it for the terrorist community, the torturers and interrogators union, and the dope peddlers' defence league!

John W. Morehead said...

I am pleased to provide some commentary to help with understanding on this topic and so that we avoid the stereotypes found in the original reporting on this topic in the meida.

Your comments reveal a lack of understanding and confusion on the issues as well as the terminology which I am sympathetic to if you do not work in the area of religion and popular culture. The reference to the "vampire community" and "subculture" does not refer to the monsterous literary creatures of Bram Stoker's novel or subsequent vampires in literature, film, or television. Nor do they refer to people who believe there is a one for one correspondence to their identies as vampires with this mythical creatures. Instead, it refers to those individuals who maintain a vampire identity and by extenion with others in social interaction form community and a distinct subculture. Consider the definitions provided by Joseph Laycock in his Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009):

"The terms 'real vampire' and 'vampire community' are commonly used by within vampire culture. When someone says that they are a 'real vampire,' they do not mean that are actually undead or immortal. Rather, this term is used in contradistinction to 'lifestyle vampires.' Lifestyle vampires or 'lifestylers' are usually dedicated fans of vampire fiction and enjoy dressing as the undead. Real vampires believe that they are somehow biologically or metaphysically distinct from other people. The key difference is that lifestylers choose their identity while real vampires see their identity as a vampire as essential and unchangeable.

"The term 'vampire community' (often just'VC' in Internet communications) is a broad label that generally includes anyone who identifies as a vampire. Many different and conflicting ideas of vampirism coexist with the vampire community. Although formal groups exist within the community, it is not an organization or institution. It functions more as an identity group that all vampires are ascribed to. Vampires typically speak about the vampire community in much the same way that gays speak about the gay community or African-Americans speak about the black community."

Understood in this context and with these definitions in mind my terminology was accurate in referring to real individuals, not fictional monstrous creatures, who find identity, community, and at times spiritual meaning through the vampire motif. Therefore, the media was inaccurate in perpetuating stereotypes of vampires and for drawing upon outdated understandings of alternative identity subcultures and new religions, a situation made worse by the inclusion of satanic panic elements, all of which was accurately summarized in the statement from the Atlanta Vampire Alliance reproduced in my blog post.

For those interested in further resources on this specific and related topics I recommend:

Joseph Laycock, Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009)

Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture, Vol. 1 (T & T Clark International, 2005)

Em McAvan, The Postmodern Sacred: Popular Culture Spirituality in the Genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fantastic Horror (dissertation, Murdoch University, 2007)

Octarine Valur said...

Great comeback on that! Nice to see somebody on the outside knowing something about the VC.

One of the sites/news agencies that covered the Shelby Ellis story and which was until recently very critical of the VC is Top Secret Writers.

Despite the girl having simply run away from home to escape strict parenting, being found completely unharmed and staying with a boyfriend – and not actually having a single thing to do with the Vampyre Community at all, not one single correction or apology was made to a global community who felt offended and unfairly stigmatized by the claims of Shellby Ellis being abducted by the so-called "vampire cult”.

On Dec 16 Ryan Dube of TSW, who had written several very critical and hostile articles on the VC up to that point, participated in an open discussion with members of the VC and found something which completely changed his perceptions of our community. This is a link to his follow-up article: Ryan Dube has subsequently also interviewed Joe Laycock whom you mentioned.