Bite Me! Why We Love Vampires
Is it the bad economy, or your secret desire for domination? Psychologists weigh in on our obsession with the bloodsuckers.
There are three things that Kendra Porter of Cleveland looks for in a man. She likes them smart, funny, and tall. Warm, conscious, and breathing are givens. That's why Porter, 27, says she's more than a little bewildered about her latest crush: a 1,000-year-old hunk of vampire Viking eye candy named Eric, just one of the incredibly beautiful creatures populating the HBO series True Blood, based on the bestselling "Southern Vampire Mysteries" of Charlaine Harris. "This is so embarrassing," says Porter, an interior designer, who plans her Sunday nights around the show. "I was never into that whole vampire thing. Now I'm like vampire central. I want to say, 'Bite me.' But, you know, in that really good way."
Poor Ms. Porter. She's missed out on years of the undead's appeal. But vampires have never been as hot as they are now—in a steamy, let's-step-in-the-shower-together way. Women are now so sexually attracted to vampires, advertisers are even getting in on the action. (And who wouldn't want a little vampire action on the side, especially if it involved Alexander Skarsgård?) In a new Gillette billboard that ties into True Blood, a vampire hunk caresses his cleanly shaven face next to the phrase "Dead Sexy." In another ad, for Marc Ecko cologne, a male vampire nibbles at a naked woman's neck with the line "Attract a Human." As if they needed any help.
Unless you've been sleeping in a coffin for the last few months—and if you have, lucky you!—you'll know that the hottest genre around is the bloodletter, with vampire-based movies, fan clubs, and, of course, the ever-popular vampire-based paranormal romance literature all competing for our attention. In the fall, the CW debuts Vampire Diaries, a teen soap opera that will make the Gossip Girl crowd want someone other than Chace Crawford to bite them. Next week's Comic-Con International, a celebration of all things pop culture held in San Diego, offers up a heavy dose of vampire-themed events, including a panel discussion with members of the True Blood cast and executive producer Alan Ball. And Southern California will see yet another vampire frenzy next month, with Vampire-Con. Billed as the first vampire-centric convention, the two-day Hollywood event includes a vampire-film festival, panel discussions, and a danse macabre featuring "vampirerotica" go-go girls and boys. "People are really excited about this," says Heidi Johnson, Vampire-Con's PR director. "Even my grandmother is into vampires now."
Vampires and sex have been inexorably intertwined since Bram Stoker's iconic sexual predator Count Dracula took a little nip of Mina and Lucy back in 1897. And well before Robert Pattinson (Twilight's Edward Cullen) or Stephen Moyer and Skarsgård (True Blood's vampire duo of Bill Compton and Eric Northman) set the female heart aflutter, a young, virile Frank Langella did the same thing with his sly portrayal of the count in John Badham's 1979 big-screen adaptation of the story. So did an oddly sexy, bespectacled Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula, and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt when they bared their fangs in the movie version of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire in 1994. But there's something about the modern-day vampire that's even more alluring than any of these. It's not just that they're sexy. It's that every girl wants to have sex with them.
In some ways, these new vamps have been defanged—a few wear condoms and others sparkle in the sun like Abercrombie & Fitch models (OK, that's just the Twilight vampires). But these changes in the vampire myth also have helped to humanize the characters, turning them into modern-day Romeos for all the angsty Juliets in the tweenage world. True Blood's Ball says that his vampires are part of a "story of people trying to assimilate, trying to find a way in the world. The notion that a group like the vampire is feared and misunderstood, that they're outsiders, it's really very interesting." The hypersexuality, coupled with the potential for danger, makes some of the most unlikely women yearn for the vampire embrace.
But the current vampire obsession isn't all about the fangs. It may be an excellent balm for bigger issues, says Donovan Gwinner, assistant professor of English at Aurora University. In Gwinner's class "Got Blood? Vampires in Literature, Film and Popular Culture," students were required to read several vampire-related books, including Stoker's Dracula and popular literature by Rice, Harris, and Stephenie Meyer. "We talked a lot about how things suck," jokes Gwinner. "But in times of economic contraction, fear of job loss, and war, the vampire myth really speaks to people. What's so bad about being powerful, almost immortal, always in control, and incredibly desirable?"
Very little, as contemporary writers of vampire fiction can attest. The imagery has always been sledgehammer-subtle, says Laurell K. Hamilton, bestselling author of the "Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter" series. "It's fang, penetration, ecstasy," she says. "Our readers know that vampire sex is somehow going to be the very best sex a woman has ever had."
And why shouldn't it be? After all, "they've generally had centuries to practice," says author Charlaine Harris. Plus, her bloodsuckers are out, proud, and mainstreaming with humans due to a blood substitute they can buy at the corner store. But their appeal, she believes, is eternal youth. "We're obsessed with staying young," she says. "And vampires never worry about Social Security or knee replacements. That's almost irresistible to us."
While she has creative license to take her vampires any place she wants, she admits that there is a little pressure to keep at least some of them sexy, rather than portraying them solely as killing machines. She had to cut a scene from a book in which Sookie Stackhouse, the intrepid telepathic waitress, used a calculator to try to determine the number of people her vamp lover, Bill, had killed before he "mainstreamed" with humans. "It was a funny scene, and an awful scene, and I could see Sookie doing that," says Harris with a laugh. "But I understood that it was really going to be hard to see Bill as an attractive character after Sookie tallied six figures or something."
But it's that potential for death that gives vampires a lot of their sexual edge. "It's kind of like autoerotic asphyxia, except that's real," says Katherine Ramsland, professor of psychology at DeSales University. "In terms of fantasy, the vampire mystique is 90 percent sexual. It's a metaphor for dangerous sex. Because if it goes wrong, you're gone." For her book, Piercing the Darkness, Ramsland spent several years researching the rabid vampire fan, those folks who actually act out the Dracula fantasy. Many are professionals (lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians); some are simply lost. What struck Ramsland as rather odd was that most women wanted to be the victim rather than the hunter. "I think it's kind of weird to be the impaled one, the seduced one," she says. "There were so many women who wanted to lose control. And I thought women had come a little further than that."
If message boards, chat rooms, and fan clubs are any indication, the whole seduction, lose-control routine is a huge part of the fantasy. "I think a lot of women wouldn't mind someone else taking control of things for a while," says Melissa Lowery, 34, editor and co-owner of popular fan site true-blood.net. In the last 30 days, the site has had more than 140,000 unique visitors. And after wading through 3,700 comments, Lowery has noted at least one theme that keeps popping up: "Even if a vampire is your lover and gentle and kind, he still has the power to rip someone's leg off," she says. "Sometimes I think women just want to be protected, and that's not so bad."
That may have something to do with all the adolescent angst we still have bottled up. "I'm a short Jewish guy and I love vampires. It's all about the classic, tormented relationship, the otherness," says Dr. Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In his paper "Vampires and Those Who Slay Them," published in the journal Academic Psychiatry, Schlozman argues that the Buffy-verse, for example, speaks to key developmental challenges of adolescents, some of which even many adults have never quite mastered. In the episode "Gone," Buffy teases bad-boy vamp Spike while she's invisible, which Schlozman sees as the "perfect" metaphor for the adolescent longing adults can feel for the vampire lover. "It's like you want to do it, but you sure don't want anyone to know that you are into vampires," he says. "But it sure can be a good time."
Marliese Engel Traver, a 25-year-old publicist from New York City, knows exactly what Schlozman means. She's been a fan of all things vampire since she was a teenage Buffy fan. She's since graduated to Twilight (she's read all the books and seen the movie three times), and on Sunday nights, she and her husband, Tom, watch True Blood. For her, it's the bad-boy connection, what she calls the "forbidden fruit" of the vampire that kind of turns her on. "I like Twilight vampires for romance, and True Blood for everything else," says Traver, with a giggle. "Let's just say that what you see on the screen can often translate to real life. My husband is happy I like this show."
Who knows? Maybe next we'll be seeing vampire marriage counselors.