This Halloween, University of Sunderland psychologist and expert in ‘dark personalities’ Dr Helen Driscoll takes a look at the enduring appeal of vampires; from Dracula to the Twilight saga, these creatures of the night seem to have come a long way.
Whether you are opening your door to trick-or-treaters, going to a Halloween party or watching a scary film, you’re likely to see a lot of vampires around this week.
Vampires have become a hugely popular part of popular culture, capturing our imagination in film, literature and games. It has been estimated that vampires are worth billions to the worldwide economy, which shows how much we love them.
But what is it about vampires that we find so fascinating? And why have they gone from being spectres of horror to the stars of romantic fiction?
Vampire crazes often occurred in Eastern Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. It has been claimed that one of the first recorded ‘vampires’ was Peter Plogojowitz, who was buried in Serbia in 1725. After his death, nine people died quickly of a mysterious illness and some had apparently reported seeing him after his death. It was believed that Plogojowitz had become a vampire and throttled them to death.
This created vampire hysteria in the village where it occurred. His body was apparently dug up, staked through the heart and burnt. His disinterred body had shown a number of signs which were interpreted as evidence of vampirism – it is claimed that his body did not appear to have decomposed and fresh blood appeared in his mouth.
This and other similar stories led to vampire crazes as tales were told and people became terrified. Death from other strange and severe illnesses were sometimes explained as the work of vampires. For example, it has been suggested that the vampire myth arose as an explanation of some of the manifestations of rabies.
Now we know more about decomposition, we know that the state of Peter Plogojowitz’s body when it was dug up was not unusual as bodies become supple again after rigor mortis passes. We now also understand the cause of rabies. But at the time, the vampire myth was a way to make sense of something terrifying when scientific understanding was limited.
Because people believed vampires were real, they genuinely incited terror.
It was the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 that led to UK culture being ‘infected’ with vampires. Dracula embodied the transmission of the vampire myth from Eastern to Western Europe, because Count Dracula emigrates from Transylvania to London to find new blood, thereby symbolically bringing vampire culture with him.
At the time of Dracula, vampires were part of horror fiction because many people did believe in them, and they therefore incited terror as agents of death.
When people believed in vampires, vampire horror could be terrifying. The prospect of waking to find Dracula in your room in the middle of the night would strike fear into the hearts of many a vampire believer. But things have changed. There are still isolated pockets of belief in vampires. There are some online communities of vampire believers, and occasionally some news stories about vampire panics.
But the majority of people now view vampires as mythical. Indeed, it has been pointed out that vampires are a mathematical impossibility because as vampires bite people they turn them into other vampires, and this would mean the world would quickly be overrun with vampires and they would have no humans left to bite.
Despite a lack of belief in vampires now, they are perhaps a bigger part of popular culture than ever. But vampires have evolved. They are now less often monsters that terrify us, and more often our idols – instead, we want to be them.
Vampires have also been humanised so that we see their perspective. This was perhaps first evident with Louis in Interview with the Vampire. Louis has issues with feeding from humans, and shows us a more moral and human side to vampires. Now, we do not need to fear vampires because they are no longer an explanation for things we don’t understand. Instead, we see vampires as transcending human limits.
The human species faces a unique problem in that evolution has built humans who are desperate to survive and aware of our own mortality, but with bodies that wear out and die. Vampires can be seen as the ultimate evolutionary fantasy, the perfect survival machine. They are the embodiment of our desire for youth, health and immortality – vampires stay young, and they never die.
There is one obvious problem in claiming that vampires are the ultimate evolutionary fantasy. Although survival is important in order to pass on our genes, the key is reproduction. Fictional vampires have typically not had the ability to reproduce. However, there has always been a symbolic link in that biting with fangs can be seen as symbolising penetration.
Vampires have often been attractive and charming men who possessed many attractive young women. In this this way, vampires can be seen as the ultimate male evolutionary fantasy – due to their ability to have many offspring, men often fantasise about attracting numerous young, fertile partners.
More recently however, there is a new twist to the vampire tale as fictional vampires have begun to reproduce too. To their own surprise, Edward and Bella in the Twilight saga have a baby girl, immortal child Renesmee. The Twilight saga is pivotal for a related reason – it is perhaps one of the most striking examples of how vampires have journeyed from horror to romantic fiction.
Above all, the Twilight saga is a love story. Although survival is still a powerful theme, female mate choice conflict dominates. Like many female literary protagonists, Bella Swan faces a difficult choice about who she should choose as a long-term partner, vampire Edward Cullen or werewolf Jacob Black.
Female mate choice conflicts are central to many works of ‘romantic’ fiction from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Bridget Jones’s Diary. In these stories, typically the central female character is faced with a difficult choice between two men. This choice typically symbolises women’s evolved preferences for long term partners who are good partners and good fathers, and short term partners who are attractive and have good genes.
The Twilight saga may involve vampires and werewolves but the themes at its heart are the same. Bella faces a choice between two men who differ on some key features of mate choice that women have evolved to be sensitive to.
Wealth and status are important because they signal that men can invest in offspring and protect. Edward the vampire is high status and wealthy, always buying Bella expensive gifts, whereas Jacob the werewolf is poor, but he is an alpha male.
Indicators of good genes are also important because they are passed on to offspring and affect their attractiveness. Both Edward and Jacob have indicators of good genes but they take somewhat different forms. Edward is beautiful, but Jacob is more masculine. Masculinity indicates high levels of testosterone which can be attractive. However, testosterone is harmful to the immune system and therefore to be attractive, highly masculine features should be paired with good health because this indicates a man whose immune system is strong enough to withstand the harmful effects of testosterone.
Vampires have travelled a long way, from early folklore to horror to modern romantic fiction. Many have questioned whether vampire fiction is good for us. Is dark horror dangerous? Is presenting Edward Cullen as an ideal partner problematic? Yet there are likely to be many benefits of engagement with vampire fiction.
Some research suggests that when we lose ourselves in the stories of fictional characters, we change our behaviour to be more like them temporarily. We mentally simulate the experience using the same perceptual and motor regions of the brain as if, for example, we were really flying like Edward and Bella. We become a part of their world and this can create a sense of belonging and a more positive mood.
So – whether you like your vampires to be creatures of horror or love – enjoy them this Halloween.