Something to get our teeth into

by The Listener / 21 February, 2013
Vampires have been the in thing for a while now. Should we be worried – or just scared?
Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok in the 1922 German horror Nosferatu
Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok in the 1922 German horror Nosferatu.


Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? Do you even know what that means? Do you care? Just kidding. You’re down with the young folk, so you know this is a Twilight reference – the multi-million-dollar young adult-targeted trilogy about abstinence and, well, vampires. Vampires have been the in thing for a while now, what with the success of such shows as True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its spin-off, Angel), The Vampire Diaries and Moonlight (didn’t last long, unfortunately) – not to mention the Count on Sesame Street.

How come we (and by “we” I mean mainly teenage girls) are not keen on leeches, but go weak-kneed if the bloodsuckers in question are pasty and angsty and sparkle in sunlight? There have been, you’ll be surprised to hear, few studies on the psychology of vampire-love. But there has been some speculation, much of it from that area of psychology/psychiatry inspired by Freud and his belief that hot sweaty urges oozing from our unconscious drive much of our behaviour. Vampires represent our suppressed sexual yearnings, particularly the sort of things we secretly want to get into but can’t, thanks to our uptight upbringings, etc. A nice story, and in the absence of what I would think of as evidence, little more than that.

Alternatively, we (teenage girls again) fancy Edward (angsty vampire protagonist in the Twilight series) because girls are attracted to bad boys, but he’s also a safe bad boy, because he doesn’t give in to his urges. He just “yearns”. Similarly plausible and utterly without empirical support.

Maybe we like vampires for the same reasons we like zombies, face-hugging aliens, haunted houses and whatnot – we like a good scare. Some of us enjoy being scared more than others. Part of this is probably physiological – we enjoy the experience of physiological arousal that comes from having a racing heart and sitting next to someone we fancy in the cinema who we hope might be scared enough to jump into our arms. Seriously, research shows this is one of the reasons guys think it’s a good idea to take a date to a horror movie.

Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) from the Twilight series
Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) from the Twilight series.


Whatever the reason, this stuff is amazingly popular. Go into a bookshop and you’ll find whole bays devoted to “bit-lit”. But what of the impact on young people? One Welsh study has shown that among 13-15-year-olds, high-frequency TV watchers (four-plus hours a day) were twice as likely to believe in the existence of vampires. Holy moral panic, Batman! Next thing you know we’ll be drowning in vampire wannabes and blood.

In fact, look no further than the 2010 Wellington vampire scare when a group of young people landed in court over some attempted biting and sucking. Things like this led David Keyworth (“independent scholar” writing in the journal Australasian Policing) to ask whether vampires and werewolves are “an emerging criminal menace”, and talkback to run hot with concern over the imminent vampirism epidemic.

Sadly, not only is the incidence of vampiric crime rare indeed, but vampirism is sufficiently unusual that in the psychiatric literature it is typically included under various headings indicating how rare it is.

There has been some attempt to have it recognised, under the label of Renfield’s syndrome (Renfield is a mentally disturbed character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but remember it’s very rare indeed. And let’s not forget Twilight isn’t the first time vampires have been popular. The same concerns were raised in the 80s and 90s when Tom Cruise was playing the vampire Lestat. The streets are not awash with blood.

Speaking of things we eat (or drink, as the case may be), I’ll be writing about dietary behaviour in the coming weeks, and I’d like you to give me something to write about. If you’re willing to spend 20 minutes on a survey, please visit svy.mk/15g2YTH. One survey, mwa ha ha!
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