Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, in his 1951 classic nonfiction book On the Nightmare, labels the vampire the most “overdetermined” of monsters in terms of its psychological roots–and, we might add, in terms of its richly varied folkloric sources. As Professor Van Helsing says in Dracula, almost every society throughout the world has legends of some kind of vampire-like creature. You can read about many of them in J. Gordon Melton’s encyclopedic reference work The Vampire Book (Third Edition published in 2011). They range in levels of monstrosity from revenants who can pass for human, sometimes returning home to father children on their widows, to the Malaysian Penanggalan, who detaches her head from her body and flies by night in search of prey, with her intestines dangling. Not all have to return to their graves at dawn; one European type is believed to prowl from midnight to noon. Not all are necessarily immortal; there’s one that survives for only forty days. Some feed on other bodily fluids instead of blood. Given this multitude of variations, it’s not surprising that vampires turn out to be the most versatile of fictional monsters.
Horror, fantasy, and science fiction authors have created multitudes of diverse breeds of vampires, beyond the traditional supernatural undead. Even if an author writes about what I think of as “Hollywood vampires”–strictly nocturnal beings whom sunlight destroys (a concept invented by the classic silent film Nosferatu)–there are many decisions to be made. Do vampires spontaneously combust upon contact with daylight, or does the damage occur gradually? Do they instantly fall into deathlike suspended animation at sunrise, or can they remain active, merely forced to avoid direct sunlight? Is staying in shadow good enough, or do they require complete shelter? What about other kinds of light? Would an ultraviolet lamp hurt or kill them? I’ve read novels in which vampires get stronger and more daylight-resistant with age, but at least one in which they become more sensitive as they age, until they can’t even tolerate moonlight. Also, do they have to sleep on their native earth? If so, need it be in a coffin-like box?
The vintage Hollywood vampire has a traditional image to maintain: Stereotypically, they sleep in coffins, and males wear black capes and talk like Bela Lugosi, while females wear diaphanous, low-cut, white gowns and talk like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Of course, nowadays you’re not likely to encounter them outside of parody, e.g. the Count on Sesame Street and his lady friend, the Countess. All vampire fans should read Terry Pratchett’s delectable Carpe Jugulum, which carries its parody of vampire clichés to the ultimate extreme, including numerous folkloric elements less familiar to many readers. (For instance, his modern-thinking vampires pride themselves on not caring whether they lose their left socks.)
Traditional undead questions
The traditional undead in general raise other questions: How much blood do they need and how often? Do they have to kill when they feed? If so, why? Must the blood be human? What abilities and limitations do they have? Can they change into bats, wolves, mist? Can they control animals? Do they have reflections? What about showing up on film? Do they shun garlic or have trouble crossing running water? Do they need an invitation to enter a dwelling? How do religious objects affect them, and does the vampire–or the person wielding the cross–have to believe in its power?
How does a victim become a vampire?
Some authors assume everyone bitten by a vampire becomes one sooner or later. In other stories, the victim transforms only by dying directly from the vampire’s blood-draining. More often in contemporary fiction, the vampire has to perform some deliberate act–usually feeding the victim his or her blood–to create “offspring”. Do they retain their human personalities and emotions after transformation, or are they actually demons that possess reanimated corpses and merely mimic the dead person (as claimed in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer)? Are they all vicious killers or can they make the ethical choice whether to become “good guy vampires”, some virtuous and some evil like ordinary people?
But of course the traditional supernatural vampire is far from the only type. Science-fiction vampires come in many forms. Numerous stories and novels explain vampirism as an infectious disease. The prototype, of course, is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Depending on the author, the bacteria or virus may be transmitted only through the carrier’s bite or by wider-ranging vectors. The disease may transform everybody it infects, or some people may be immune. Does the victim have to die and rise from death to become a vampire, or does the infection transform him or her while still alive? Does society find a way to live with the disease and its victims, or does the world succumb to a vampire apocalypse?
One contemporary author, Lynsay Sands, imagines vampirism (although her characters prefer the term “immortals” rather than “vampires”) as an artificially designed infectious agent–nanoparticles–gone slightly wrong. The resulting transformation is mainly benign, except for the inconvenience of having to consume blood and use caution with exposure to sunlight because the resulting stress on the body requires ingesting extra blood. Vampirism can also be explained as a hereditary disease that afflicts some members of particular families. In either the infectious or the inherited disease model, authors have a wide range of choices as to which traditional vampire traits the characters display and how those traits can be explained in scientific terms.
The other popular science-fiction approach to vampires presents them as a different species, naturally evolved and humanoid but not truly human. Here, too, we find countless variations. What characteristics of the legendary vampire do they have, and how does biology explain those powers and limitations? Do members of the vampire species have psychic gifts such as invisibility, mind control, etc., or strictly naturalistic, although superhuman, enhanced strength, speed, senses, and healing ability? If the former, do those gifts include some kind of physical transformation? Do they live virtually forever or just much longer than normal human beings? Does their longevity depend on periodic retreats into deathlike suspended animation? How do they react to sunlight? Can they live on animal blood, or do they have to prey on us? Can they interbreed with our kind? For that matter, do they seem outwardly indistinguishable from human beings, or do they have certain anomalies that compel them to disguise themselves or avoid close observation? Did they evolve as part of the terrestrial food chain or migrate here from a distant planet? Do they regard us as fellow intelligent beings to be respected or as animals put on Earth to serve as their food source? Are there thousands or millions of them, with a complex subculture hidden among us, or are they extremely rare? Do they have an organized society or prefer to hunt alone? One of my favorite novelistic explorations of “how Nature would design a vampire”, The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, features a solitary predator, outwardly human in appearance despite his inhuman biology, who’s so ancient he doesn’t remember any other member of his species, not even his own parents. On the other end of the familiar-to-alien spectrum, we can find bizarre entities such as the silicon-based shapeshifters in The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers, which can appear human but are in fact radically alien to organic life.
Psychic or Emotional Vampire
In all categories of vampires, some types consume psychic or emotional energy instead of, or in addition to, blood. This trope goes back at least as far as “The Parasite”, a creepy horror novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame. One modern classic of the subgenre is “The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth, who explains the psychic predator in the story as a mutation born of his parents’ exposure to radiation from a nuclear bomb test.
No matter what your taste in blood-drinking or energy-draining creatures, science fiction or fantasy, horror or romance or something in between, you can find stories and novels to satisfy your craving. If you’d like to read a bunch of my recommendations for works featuring non-supernatural, naturally evolved vampires, check out my nonfiction book Different Blood: The Vampire as Alien
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