A thirst for blood…

Dr Helen Driscoll, University of Sunderland psychologist and expert in ‘dark personalities’ takes a look at the enduring appeal of vampires

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 huge 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 origins

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.

Mathematical improbability

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.

More recently, there is a new twist to the vampire tale as fictional vampires have begun to reproduce. 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.

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.