From popular TV shows like "True Blood" to hit movies like "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," the lust for vampire stories seems to be insatiable. "New Moon" broke box office records this past weekend, earning more than $250 million in worldwide.
But are vampires anything more than fiction?
In New Orleans' French Quarter, a man who goes by the name Belfazaar Ashantison claims to be a real-life vampire. He says he suffers from a physiological condition that prevents him from "creating enough of the essential daily energies to get through even the basic tasks," making him feel perpetually drained.
"I am a vampire," said Belfazaar, 44, who works as a "spiritual consultant" at a shop called Voodoo Authentica. "My method of getting to that energy source is through the blood."
Whether you believe him or not, Belfazaar insists that to stay healthy he must feed on blood. And he's not alone in his beliefs. He is an elder in a secretive but widespread community of people who are convinced they are real vampires.
"It's a worldwide phenomenon," said Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and author of "The Science of Vampires." She has spent years studying the vampire subculture.
"Some people are misfits," she said. "Some people are just creative people who don't feel they fit into normal society. Some people find the vampire a very empowering figure and they want to identify with that."
These self-described vampires believe they have an "energy leak," which makes them sick, depressed, lethargic, and say that only by feeding on other people's energy or blood do they feel better.
Belfazaar and all the other self-described vampires 20/20 spoke to for this story preferred not to be identified by their real names.
'Real-Life Vampires' Feed on Human Blood
In fiction, when vampires feed they kill. However, in the strange world of so-called real vampires, there is an etiquette to drinking blood. According to Belfazaar, they don't attack strangers and bite them on the neck the way horror films show them.
"I find that abhorrent behavior to force a feeding on anybody," said Belfazaar.
He said that he feeds two to three times a week, sometimes on blood, sometimes on what he calls "psychic energy," and always on consenting donors.
Sanguine Vampire Demonstrates 'Safe Blood Feed'
There are different ways to carry out a blood feed, according to those in the vampire community. Some sanguine vampires draw blood from a vein, transfer it to a glass and then drink it.
Others like Belfazaar practice mouth-to-wound feeding. To lift the veil on what society considers taboo, he agreed to demonstrate what he describes as "a safe blood feed."
In front of 20/20 cameras, Belfazaar removed his prosthetic fangs, which he wears to "break the ice" in social situations with people who may be curious about his lifestyle. He then rinsed with mouthwash and sterilized the skin of his donor -- measures which he said are meant to keep things safe.
A man calling himself Bo was the donor. It wasn't his first time.
"It's not comfortable, but it doesn't hurt," he said. "I mean, it's not any worse than getting a piercing or a tattoo."
Belfazaar used an exacto knife to make a small cut on Bo's back. As blood flowed, Belfazaar drank it directly from the wound.
At his most hungry, Belfazaar said he has ingested six ounces of blood, but warned normal humans, -- who, he said, are known as "mundanes" in vampire lingo -- that drinking blood can you sick "if you are not a true sanguine."
This strange "feeding" is what Belfazaar and others say they need to stay healthy, but it can also be an erotic experience for those who participate.
"It's a rush of energy. There's a bond between the two individuals," said Bo.
"Even though the vampires are taking from someone there is an energy that we give off," said Belfazaar. "For some people, they describe it as calming, other people describe it as sensually arousing."
Jade, who reads tarot cards in the French Quarter, is also an elder in the New Orleans vampire community, and told 20/20 that she needs to feed on sex and blood -- the more the better.
"I can do it once a week and stay balanced. I can do it twice a week and stay happy. I can do it daily and just be really happy."
Not all so-called vampires identify themselves as sanguine, or blood drinking vampires; however, most interviewed by "20/20" admit that they have at one time or another tried drinking blood.
Sucking Blood: The Danger is Very Real
Doctors say that feeding on blood has no medical value.
"To ingest the blood, biologically speaking, it has no value whatsoever in making any medical difference," said Dr. Jeffery Hobden, an infectious disease expert at the LSU Health Sciences Center. "The placebo effect can be very powerful."
It can also be dangerous.
"Not only is the person who's ingesting the blood at risk, but the person who is donating the blood who was cut is also at risk from infection," said Hobden.
What's more, if the blood is tainted with HIV, hepatitis or other viruses, they can be introduced into the bloodstream through any cut in the mouth or gums. There could also be unidentified dangerous blood-borne viruses that could be sources of disease.
Belfazaar said he and his donors are tested regularly. He said he also believes he is somehow immune to infections.
"I've been doing this since I was 13, so that's 31 years of never being bothered by any of the other infections," he said. "So if there's something that bothers a normal -- what we call a mundane -- human, for some reason they don't bother me."
In her fourteen years of drinking blood, Jade said she has fed thousands of times, using her judgment to screen potential donors.
"I'm very picky about my donors. Some people go for medical testing. I find that too expensive. I just use my own perceptions and I'm never wrong."
Dr. Hobden says that kind of thinking could be deadly. "I'm sure that some of these folks, we'll be seeing them in the hospitals with failing livers from chronic hepatitis or liver cancer," he said. "The danger is very real."