LOS ANGELES, Nov. 18 (RNS) -- Nicolas Strathloch begins his day early, around 6 or7 a.m. He rises and showers, dresses in jeans, T-shirt and hiking boots,and drives to a print shop in northern Los Angeles, where he works as aforeman.

At lunch time, he often ventures to a nearby park. There, among thequiet ambience of nature and a few barking dogs, he will spot humans andfeed off their energy.

"Any time that it's convenient for me, I will draw their life force.It's almost unconscious," said the 50-year-old father of six childrenand former British Army training officer.

Strathloch is a vampire. He is one of 300,000 or so people worldwidewho consider themselves practitioners of a vampire religion. Strathlochcomes from a Welsh father and a Russian/Romanian mother, but he wasraised by his druid grandparents in Wales. Three of his 14 brothers arealso vampires.

Vampires come from all walks of life; many are scholars, artists,and teachers and a few are members of the clergy. Los Angeles has one ofthe largest concentrations of vampires, but many also live in Japan,Rome, Vienna and London. India has a sizable following of vampiresdevoted to Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction.

Vampires experience a calling to the darker forces and an affinityto a nocturnal lifestyle. Many claim psychic powers and the ability toleave their own bodies and take up residence in others. Some say theycan actually fly and enter people's dreams.

A few vampires claim to suffer from porphyria, a rare metabolicdisorder whose symptoms may include reddening, pain and blistering ofthe skin upon exposure to sunlight. Strathloch has malignant melanoma, aform of skin cancer caused by excessive exposure to the sun's radiation.

Vampires consider themselves immortal. They believe that when theydie, their spirit leaves the body in search of a new member.
"The greatest punishment there can be is to lose immortality,"Strathloch said.

Vampires are predators in that they "feed off" other people'sempathic abilities and emotional energies. They draw their strength orlife energy from any human being, whether or not the person volunteers,but many will only feed off willing donors.

Killing is strictly forbidden, but so is wasting food.

"We wouldn't take [energy] from the sick or ill because it wouldn'tdo them any good or do us any good either," Strathloch said in aninterview. "But we are also healers. We give energy as well as take it."

Most vampires need little sleep and instead strive for a "twilightexistence," a balance between dayside reality and the nighttimesupernatural.

"It's like flipping a coin," Strathloch said of the twilightexistence. "Instead of landing heads or tails, it always lands on theedge."

Strathloch has been a practicing vampire for 40 years. He is aVampire Master Adept, the highest grade of recognition within the Templeof the Vampire. The Washington State-based organization is aninternational church with its own hierarchy and strict criteria formembership.

Other organizations, like Order of the Dragon, the Vampire Church,House Kheperu, and the Vampire Grove, adhere to similar tenets of thevampire religion.

The Count Dracula of movie and literary fame notwithstanding,today's vampires don't bite the necks of unwilling victims and have noaversion toward garlic or crucifixes.

But many vampires do admit to having a "blood fetish"--a strongdesire to taste human blood, usually in the context of an intimaterelationship.

"It was weird," said Vox of her initial experience sharing blood.Vox is a 30-year-old special effects artist in Hollywood and prefers touse an anonymous name out of respect for her mother's privacy as apracticing Roman Catholic. She is currently studying for initiation intothe vampire religion.

Vox is slender with long, dark hair and wears permanent fangs bondedto her teeth. She traces her blood fetish to her first Holy Communion asa Catholic. Roman Catholics believe that during Communion, the bread andwine actually become the body and blood of Christ.

"For me, it was really intense," she said. "I was really blown awaythat I had communed with God, knowing I was tasting his blood."

Vox recalled her experience much later when she first tasted herlover's blood.

"In my head, I was relating it to being at one with God, being atone with Christ. Being at one with that person, you sort of have a pieceof that person within you," she said.

But the vampire practice of feeding off other people's energies isnot agreeable to her.

"It's just something I don't prefer to do. I see it as harmful andselfish," she said.

But selfishness, or self-gratification, is at the core of vampirephilosophy. Strathloch describes the vampire religion as an exaltationof the ego, a belief in the superiority of humans. Although vampires areoccult practitioners and draw upon the dark energies, they don'trecognize the existence of the devil or a god.