Dark Seduction: Why Vampires Haunt Us Still

As summer dies away and the leaves turn, blowing away on chilly winds into a darkening sky, we know one thing: we are entering spooky season, that magical time of year when Halloween is approaching and it is not only permissible but required that we indulge our passion for all things dark, Gothic and creepy. This is a time for reading horror stories, eating too much candy and pondering those questions essential to the human mind and spirit. One question in particular:

What is it about vampires?

Really, what is it? Why, out of all monsters in folklore, does the vampire exercise such a pull over our imaginations? The vampire, as a fictional monster, has survived centuries of social and economic change, remaining as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago. Vampires appear in novels, short stories, movies, TV shows, and in representational art of all kinds. People dress up as vampires, have vampire fetishes, collect vampire memorabilia. The vampire is one well-loved monster.

But what makes vampires so compelling? Why have so many authors, from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer, written so many books about them? Why so many movies, so much artwork? Why, exactly, do we like those bloodsuckers so much?

Of course, the heyday of the vampire craze is behind us, and thank Dracula for that. For a while there it seemed there weren’t any books but vampire novels. I love a good vampire novel, but even I thought it was too much. Thankfully, vampires have now retreated back into the shadows where they belong. But still, they remain popular, and I have to wonder why that is. The concept of the vampire is, objectively, an extremely disgusting one. A walking corpse that drinks human blood, yuck. So why are they figures of such romance and fascination?

One reason for their popularity is, I think, their versatility. An artist, director ,or writer can do a lot with vampires, from teenage biker gangs to melancholy romantics to bestial ravaging monsters. They operate equally well in Gothic country houses and modern inner cities; you can use them in historical mysteries or young adult melodramas to equally good effect. Vampires are adaptable, and make great characters in everything from manga to movies. Vampires are at home in any human setting: they are, after all, very human monsters.

This brings me to another important point: vampires, unlike most other monsters from folklore, are very human. In most traditions, they are literally former humans who have made the choice to become undead. Vampires, unlike most other monsters, are self-aware: the vampire is often portrayed as an individual struggling with doubt and guilt, who knows they have made a selfish choice. Some who know they have done evil, and know they will do it again. This is something we can all relate to, and so vampires provide a means of examining and interrogating the dark side of our nature as human beings. What is the nature of human evil? Why are we selfish and cruel, when we know it will not solve our problems or bring us true happiness? Why do we delight in hurting others, when doing so just hurts ourselves? Can this selfishness and cruelty be overcome? And, most of all: why do humans do evil when they know it is evil, and doing it will only destroy them? Vampires reflect this fear of ourselves, and our fear of each other: it is a rare human being, after all, who has never felt frightened of other humans. In this day and age, when human activity threatens potentially all life on the planet, this is a particularly poignant question.

Vampires, of course, are also closely intertwined with sex, and humans as a species are completely obsessed with sex. Here I believe vampires reflect another fear: the human fear and fascination with sex. Sex has never been without risks, especially for women, homosexuals, genderqueer and other non-cis-gender people. From rape to STDs to social disgrace to religious strictures to death in childbirth, human sex has always had its menacing side. Vampires, especially vampire erotica, address this issue. I also believe that vampires are especially popular among women because they address heterosexual women’s ambivalence and anxiety toward their own sexuality: being attracted to someone who has the physical power, and sometimes even social and legal power, to kill you. Social custom encourages women to be attracted to men—but at the same time, this attraction can ruin or even end a woman’s life. (Oddly, whenever I mention this theory to men, even educated and supposedly enlightened men, they never take it seriously. They always laugh and make it out to be some kind of joke. I’m not sure what they find so ridiculous: that women’s fears might influence literature or that women might be afraid of men. They should try being women walking home alone at night sometime. When I share my theory with women, they always seem to understand immediately.)

Vampires are also closely associated with other ancient human obsessions: social status andbrown bat flying political power. Vampires are traditionally portrayed as powerful, high-ranked individuals, whether they are European aristocrats or billionaire businesspeople. Vampires ask this question: why do we go to such lengths to gain and keep social power, whether form that takes? Is having power really worth the pain it causes? And why do people with power so often seem immune to the rules of society, just as vampires exist outside human norms of decency and good behavior? Vampires examine the corrupting and addictive nature of power: we all want it, even though it’s bad for us, and vampires provide a means of interrogating this conundrum from a safe distance.

The vampire’s immortality addresses yet another eternal human longing: the desire never to die. Most of us long to live forever, and the idea of remaining young and beautiful while doing so is just so tempting. What wouldn’t people do for such a prize? But is such a prize worth it, in the end? Would earthly immortality ensure our eternal preservation or would it just destroy something essential in ourselves, whether it’s our eternal soul or our connection to other people? In literature, vampires generally tell us that it’s not worth it—but still they choose immortality and continued existence, even at the price of devouring humans, and it’s not only possible but likely that most of us, the readers, would do the same.

In the end, vampires fascinate us because they are us: all our greed, lust, veniality, ambition, and violence, along with our self-awareness and continual striving to rise above our baser natures. Vampires may not have reflections, but they do reflect their creators—that is, human beings—with sometimes disturbing accuracy.