THE VAMPIRES wait outside the back door of the Ybor City nightclub. Newcomers stand on the fringes, alone. The regulars talk about school, about work, about the weather.
But not about blood-drinking. Not out here.
Up walks a man in a cashmere trench coat. Evan Christopher, 39, is the group's founder. They gravitate toward him.
"It's a great night to be Victorian," he says, revealing fangs. His eyes, shielded in ice blue contact lenses, are two black dots.
After dispensing hugs and kisses, he stands at the entrance and scans the group. He spots two women in jeans and leans to his right.
"They're not with us," Evan tells a stocky, serious vampire who serves as one of the group's "gargoyles."
Anyone who wants to get into a Vampire Gathering needs to see the gargoyles first. They're the protectors, the first line of defense against heckling street preachers and tourists.
The women move along, but I remain, the first reporter ever allowed past the gargoyles, the first permitted to give you — my fellow "mundanes'' — a glimpse into their vampire world.
The monthly Gathering at the Castle nightclub isn't a role-playing game or a convention of Twilight fans. These people don't sleep in coffins, fear garlic or live forever.
But they do feel a need to feed on others, whether that means absorbing energy or blood. They call themselves vampires and consider their yearnings a physical affliction. They say they can't absorb energy like "mundanes," who often start every morning revved up for the day. They wake drained, needing to be charged.
Vampires have looked for other names to define themselves. They don't quibble with "parasite."
Some feed on blood volunteered by donors who allow them to cut their skin and drink.
Some feed during sex, drawing from strong energy bonds with their lovers.
And some "psychic" feed, sipping life energy from the auras of others.
Not everyone at the Gathering at the Castle is a vampire. Some are "black swans" — allies who might donate their blood.
Some don't know what they are but feel they may be "awakening."
It's unclear how many people identify as vampires. The Tampa group draws a few dozen, but many keep to themselves, according to a study by Suscitatio Enterprises, a research arm of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance.
Yes, there is such a thing. There's also an international group called Voices of the Vampire Community, in which vampire leaders dialogue in United Nations fashion. Vampires gather across the world, from the United Kingdom to New York, Ohio to Australia.
I learned about the Tampa group on MySpace (yes, vampires are into social networking). They agreed to meet me at Sacred Grounds coffee shop in North Tampa. Two days later, I sat across from three men in vampire regalia. Evan sat in the center, sipping chamomile tea.
After that night, Evan told the rest of his group a reporter would be joining the Gathering. Online, a vampire protested.
how does a reporter learn about Us? I am a Vampire and I lurk in the shadows, not in the sensationalized media, beware
this exposure could be likened to that of the sun itself. Poisonous
But even the biggest skeptics were polite in my presence. They trust Evan.
On this Saturday night in Ybor City, the door cracks open and I walk in. On the second floor of the Castle, vampires claim the cozy, candlelit Red Room.
A vampire leans over the bar.
"Bloodbath," he says.
The bartender pours a goblet of cabernet sauvignon with a shot of Chambord.
The vampires sit on plush thrones and on each other's laps and on the floor. When there's no room to sit, they stand.
Evan speaks. They hush.
"Tonight's topic," he says, "is the purpose of the community."
He tells them the story of Rod Ferrell, in prison for life after killing his ex-girlfriend's parents in Eustis in 1996. The teenager called himself a vampire.
His is a story of blood thirst, power hunger and the ultimate manipulation — pitfalls when young people questioning their identity cling together in secrecy.
"This is not a cult," Evan tells the group. "You are the only one that knows your path. You know your dark side."
The vampires feel that many reports about the subculture focus too much on murderers who have claimed to be vampires but ignore the everyday vampires who live by a code of ethics that forbids hurting others.
The vampire lifestyle contains a spectrum. To some, it's religion. To others, philosophy.
Vampires are young and old. They're Goths and suburban couples and Wiccans and Christians, but feel the popular culture depicts them all in the same way:
Skinny and pale and sucking on a neck.
Take away the fangs and the spooky eyes and Evan could be a motivational speaker.
He fields e-mails from recently awakened vampires looking for guidance and preaches at Gatherings about eating healthy and staying in school.
For their birthdays, he buys Publix cakes.
He makes his money as a nightlife promoter and "fangsmith," selling his high-end dental acrylic caps for $100 a pair.
He wears his little fangs when he's out and about, having a good day. And he saves his biggest ones for the bedroom, "if I'm going to be nibbling on my sweetie," he says. "If she wants to feel a little bitey."
Evan lives in a subdivision near Temple Terrace, his living room adorned with Gothic-style mirrors and a library of vampire films.
At 10 a.m. one Sunday, three black cats stir as Evan sits barefoot on his couch, with sleep still in his eyes. His girlfriend pours him some orange juice. Fangless, he sips.
He's respected throughout vampire-kind, but his family has no idea about his lifestyle. He says he has yet to "come out of the coffin" to them.
For this story, he is using the name by which he is known in Tampa, not his birth name. I checked his real-life background. He has no criminal record.
His sister's husband is a church deacon, Evan says. "I'm very happy for them, and they constantly pray for my soul.
"I'm not by any way ashamed because I believe in this," he says, "but at the same time, I don't want to cause them any shame."
When he was a kid, his mother let him stay up late to watch Dracula (the Bela Lugosi version). He says he immediately sympathized with the villain and wondered, "Why is everybody mad at this guy?"
He remembers going to church three times a week, believing he wouldn't live longer than 18 because of the Rapture.
He lived to see his 19th birthday. The Rapture never came. But the vampire subculture did.
The late '80s and early '90s created the perfect incubator. Films like The Lost Boys and Interview With the Vampire were box office magnets. Fanzines were all the rage. A role-playing game called Vampire: The Masquerade was taking off in New York City nightlife. New age ideas were becoming mainstream.
With the Internet, the subculture exploded.
And as pop culture blurred vampirism into a spiritual philosophy about energy and identity, Evan jumped aboard.
After a decade in the Air Force, he went to New York to apprentice as a fangsmith under a national elder. Then he established the Tampa group.
Now, as a leader in the vampire subculture, he has seen what can go wrong.
He has seen other vampire leaders demand money from wanna-bes to ascend to higher levels within the community. A few years ago, he excommunicated one of his members for having sex with an underage teenager. Over the years, teens have contacted him about the Tampa group, but Evan insists that no one under 18 is allowed.
In May, on the group's MySpace blog, he posted the jail mugshot of a man who attended a couple of Gatherings. Stuart Blaine Paxton, 21, a.k.a. Gremlin, was charged with engaging in lewd or lascivious battery.
Evan told the group that Gremlin is sine nomine, Latin for "without a name" — blackballed in the community.
Evan says he established the Tampa Vampire Gathering as free and open to avert all the problems he'd seen — people wielding power over those trying to learn more about themselves.
"We're here to peel away the mystique," he says.
The idea of the vampire has helped people make sense of their world since the earliest recorded stories.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries in Eastern Europe, villagers were digging up corpses, burning them, cutting them up, putting stakes in their still hearts — all to solve what they felt was a vampire problem.
They told tales of awaking paralyzed and finding a visitor from the grave lying beside them. Modern medicine would call that "hallucinatory sleep paralysis." But back in the day, vampires provided villagers with a scapegoat for death and disease.
Today's vampire serves a different purpose, writes British psychologist Meg Barker: "The social experiences explained by real vampirism seem to be those associated with a sense of difference. Many real vampires begin their accounts by saying that they always felt 'weird' and 'different' to the people around them . . .
"Their awakening as a vampire made sense of this experience."
The vampire is a flexible legend. Vampires are powerful but vulnerable. They're sexy and scary. They hurt. They heal. They're predators and protectors, all at the same time.
And it sure beats being just an outsider.
Erik "Drakon" Arena stands guard in front of the Red Room's velvet curtain. He purses his lips over his fangs.
"This is a private gathering," he'll say.
The 34-year-old tends bar at a gentlemen's club. He sleeps late and loves the dark and buys his fangs extra-large.
Drakon means dragon. Dragons are protectors. He won't let female vampires walk back to their cars alone.
When Drakon was just Erik, he played sax in his New York high school's marching band. But after the death of his grandmother and his father during his junior year, he dropped out of marching band, and out of life altogether.
He stayed home a lot, feeling disconnected and alone — until he got a flier advertising fangs.
At the costume shop, he met a group of vampires who invited him to a gathering and even took him shopping for clothes to wear that night.
"They felt like I belonged and they took care of me," Erik said, "like I was a baby, being held by a big brother."
Amy Mulrennan likes the taste of blood. She has since she was a little girl. It reminds her of her Plant City grandmother, who teased her for eating meat rare.
Now 24, she's a mother of two who goes by Raven. She has been a tattoo artist, massage therapist, body piercer and fetish model.
She says she drinks blood for the energy and for the bonds it creates.
There are different ways to do it, Raven says. You can get a finger prick machine at a drugstore. You can make a small cut with a sterilized razor blade and drink out of a special suction cup. Or you can put your lips on the slit and nurse right off the skin.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no data assessing the transmission of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis through ingested blood, but theoretically, there is a risk, says spokeswoman Nikki Kay.
Bad blood could enter through cuts, sores or inflammation of the mouth or lining of the digestive tract.
Raven says she and her donors get blood tests together and keep up with each other's habits — sex, drugs, health. Some donors crave love, she says. Others are nurturers. They're connected in a way that simple friends aren't, she says.
"They are doing something for you, from free will, giving something. Its impossible not to love somebody like that . . .
"They're giving their life to you."
I am reading your energy and I know what you are thinking: Some of these people have serious issues.
Well, sure. A survey of about 950 vampires found that 30 percent reported having been diagnosed with depression, 16 percent suffer from panic disorder, and more than 15 percent have been diagnosed as bipolar. Lest you think the research is tainted by anti-vampire bias, you should know that it was conducted by vampires — led by a fellow in Atlanta who goes by Merticus.
The data make sense when you hear some of the vampires talk about the profound alienation and rejection they have experienced. It's natural to wonder whether vampirism — with its clannishness and dark practices — is a way for some to act out.
The thing is, it is not necessarily sick or crazy to believe in a magical, spiritual world known as the nightside — or if it is, then any spiritual belief also has to be considered nuts. You have to be careful about exchanging bodily fluids, everybody knows that, but if you want to pop in your fangs and Hoover the energy of a consenting adult, have at it. Just get to work on time tomorrow.
"I sometimes think a worthy definition of mental health is when people can let go of conventional life when they want to while holding on to the reins firmly enough to get back in control when they need to," says Richard Leavy, a psychology professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
"Vampires," he said, "seem to be doing both."
The Castle's Main Hall is alive with mundanes dancing under color-changing lights, drinking and laughing and releasing their energies into the ballroom.
Jeff Lane stands at the mouth of the hall and breathes deeply, puffing up like an animal before attack. He can smell their energy, he says, taste all its different flavors.
The trance music pumps a mantra:
Hunt you down / Hunt you down . . .
He towers as he glides through the crowd with a dragon-topped walking stick, his eyes illuminated by black lights.
This is how he paced the ballroom at his high school dances, when he was just an overweight computer geek. This is how he learned to feed.
He became an observer and developed a palate for different energies. And he learned that by complimenting strangers, they offered their energy up by touching him on the arm or patting him on the back. That's his favorite flavor.
Now, he is 41. He wears his hair long and calls it his "cape." He likes when people touch it.
Back at the Castle, someone has spilled a drink on a dancer's platform. He offers to clean it up for her and finds a napkin. When he's finished, she touches his shoulder.
"Thank you," she says.
He takes it in.
Minutes later, his wife stands in the same spot, fire-red hair loose over her bare shoulders. Jennifer, 33, is an "ambient" feeder. She doesn't need physical contact, or even one target. She says she can feed off the energies of a bunch of people who are all focused on the same thing.
Vampires go to highly charged events to ambient feed — rock concerts, political rallies. Evangelical churches are a buffet.
By the end of the night, Jennifer says, she'll feel buzzed, giddy. Kind of how she felt as a high school cheerleader, with the crowds watching her.
After a night at the Castle, she'll wake up refreshed. A few years ago, antidepressants were all she tried.
Vampires believe they have two sides, their "daysides," in which they pay bills and raise kids and eat at Applebee's, and their "nightsides," which they unleash at the Castle.
They function best when they strive for the perfect balance between the two. Vampires call this elusive concept "twilight."
Jennifer and Jeff work from their secluded 10-acre farm in Brooksville. They process and analyze data. Jennifer says she used to be too "dayside."
"A lot of it was just the stress of having three kids and all the animals and having to work every day," she says. "I couldn't process them well. I was drained."
She and Jeff began going on date nights in Ybor City. That's where they met Evan.
The Lanes didn't know about vampirism until they started going to the Gatherings, but once they went they knew they had always been vampires.
Now they go out once every week or two to feed. Jennifer's mother stays home with the kids, who are 14, 8 and 7.
The 14-year-old says he knows his mom goes out and "plays" vampire with friends. "I think it's cool," he says. The couple's 7-year-old son giggles when his mom ensnares him in a hug and says, "I'm going to bite your neck!"
But the Lanes try to keep the kids as separate from their nightside as possible. Vampire friends don't visit the farm, with its wood-paneled walls and country blue kitchen.
In the Red Room, Evan asks the visitors to introduce themselves.
Colt, standing up front in spiked hair and eyeliner, announces that he just turned 18. After the meeting, the teenager approaches one of the group's elders, breathless.
"Someone's feeding off of me," Colt says.
Vampires believe that when a psychic vampire feeds on them, they feel tired. "Pegged," the vampires call it. Or "whacked." It's an unwelcome feeling.
The elder gives him the basics on "shielding."
"So, you have an aura," the elder says. "It's kind of a big, egg-shaped thing around you." He tells Colt to visualize the shell hardening like a steel shield, to block the attempts.
Evan has told the group not to feed on the newcomers. He remembers a bartender telling him she was so sick of feeling drained, she wouldn't serve vampires anymore.
He repeats the order when he introduces them to me. He says I am under his protection. "No feeding on the reporter," he says. "I'm serious."
The meeting ends and the vampires mix with the mundanes, sucking in energy and cigarettes and ordering more bloodbaths. I stick to Red Bull, which may make me a target.
I feel hands — two, then four. They belong to Drakon, who has swooped in behind me like a human shield, and Raven, who strokes my arm with concern.
"Someone's trying to feed on you," she says.
"How can you tell?" I ask.
She says, "Your demeanor changed."
Maybe I am tired. Maybe it is the power of suggestion. Or maybe . . .
I don't know.
But I feel my knees buckle.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.