Why Exactly Are Vampires Alluring?

Having just finished the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark, and being partway through the second, it strikes me that there’s something very unusual, in my romance reading at least, about Sookie’s attitude towards her vampire boyfriend: she’s pretty realistic about the limitations of the relationship.

Sookie often reminds us that Bill is cold to the touch, he’s ghostly pale, and he has an out of date hairstyle that he can never alter. She can’t rest her head against him and hear his heart beating or feel the reassuring expansion of his chest as he breathes. He cannot have children. He doesn’t eat, and he doesn’t care for the smell of food. Sookie has to watch what she eats, because Bill can’t stand the smell of certain things, like garlic, on her person. Not surprisingly, she also finds his diet unappetizing. She’s tired all the time from the late nights with Bill. They’ll never walk hand in hand in the sunlight, take a beach vacation, attend a friend’s wedding, a loved one’s funeral, or indeed do anything together during the day. His nocturnal lifestyle has so far prevented him from having a career or productive work. And, while Sookie has yet to ponder this sobering reality (so far in my reading), he’ll watch her age and die as he remains the young man he was when she met him.

Not all vampire mythologies are as thoroughgoing as Ms. Harris’s. Indeed, some seem to cherry pick the most romantic or appealing aspects of vampire lore, leaving the rest out. The vamps of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood eat food, have healthy skin, and can procreate, and she always manages (in ways that range from the convincing to the “you’ve got to be kidding me!”) to give her human partners eternal life. But even when the human partner becomes vamp, there are a host of unappealing trade-offs.

Viewing Bill through Sookie’s eyes made me wonder why vampires have become so popular in romance. I mean, it could have been anything: pirates, ducks, mollusks, clones, genetically modified humans, great apes, or canteloupe.

But no, it’s vampires.

Why? Probably there are lots of forces (the turn of the millennium, terrorism, Paris Hilton, who knows) that have led to a renewed interest in vampires in the broader culture, and the folks who put on the Melbourne conference in the above poster would be able to say more. But when it comes specifically to romance, I have some ideas:

1. Power. Vamps tend to be powerful, and are very much like the typical human alpha hero. In this sense, they are just like lairds in kilts, dukes with aquiline noses, or the muscle bound SEALS/cops/billionaires etc. that populate contemporaries. They’re the new alpha. (And this explanation works whether we are saying female readers imagine being loved by a powerful being, or image themselves as the powerful being.)

1b. Un-PC. In fact, you can argue that making a hero a vamp gives authors and readers “permission” to enjoy the un-PC fantasy of being dominated by a crude and boorish hero. (Not all vamps are like this, but you know what I mean). Readers often remark that they let a vampire get away with behavior they wouldn’t excuse in a human man. Think of Rhage cornering Mary against a wall in Lover Eternal, or Mikhail forcefully, um, detaining Raven in Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince, or the many examples, as in Lara Adrian’s Kiss of Midnight, of that trademark vampire technique of sleep-rape.

2. Sex. In real life, anemia can cause a loss of sex drive, and if that doesn’t do it, death certainly will.  But vampires are sex machines. Authors exploit the metaphor of blood as the elixir of life, drawing parallels between blood lust and lust. In most of the vampire romances I’ve read, exchanging blood is (or can be) incredibly emotionally significant, and an ultra powerful aphrodisiac, incomparable to regular old human sex, regardless of how adventurous. Maybe 21st century readers are so inundated with sexual imagery in every day life that the rise of vamp romance represents a ratcheting up of sex necessary to achieve the same narrative power a kiss in the old regencies would have.

3. Darkness. Superman is powerful. And all kinds of good guys can be sexy. But vampires are powerful, sexy bad boys. We tend to think of dark characters as more interesting, more complex. We want to unravel them. Maybe the vampire bad boy is the new rake in an era when sexual promiscuity is not all that remarkable and can no longer serve as a marker of a tortured soul. They transgress many of the most central human taboos. One way to look at social mores or moral rules is as strictures, keeping us enslaved in a way. But vampires have a freedom that can be very appealing.

3b. Eternal life. This represents the ultimate transgression. It’s hard to define what make a human being a person, and one of the things I have always found fascinating about vampire lore is the way it poses this question to us. None of the vampire romances I have read have dealt with what seems to me to be a monumental transition between having a finite amount of time on earth and being immortal. This may be because we are limited to conceptualizing immortality as “a regular human life plus more years”. But that doesn’t begin to cut it. Think about the way your mortality provides a horizon for making meaning in your life. I tend to think eternal life would make a person’s life unrecognizable in ways I cannot even articulate.

But … we have a real fear of death and a very hard time at the end of life, especially here in the US. So I think the appeal of eternal life as a fantasy — the h/h will truly NEVER be apart — is a very real part of the draw.

Can you think of the others I’m missing??

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Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 2:44 am  Comments (11)  
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  1. What a fun post! This is a great list. I love the un-PC point: I think you’re right on. To the part about sex, which I think is so true, I might add something about ‘the bite’ itself. It’s the aphrodisiac of exchanging blood, yes, but then also the extra sex act. I mean, sure, humans can do it, but the vampire bite is a new high-sensation/high euphoria act. Hmm, you’ll get it when you get to the 4th or 5th sookie book that starts with Eric losing his memory.

    I like your point about eternal life, too. Very smart.

  2. Since I don’t find vampires particularly appealing, I’ve nothing new to suggest about the allure of vampires but I just remembered that JC wrote a post about them not so long ago. She focussed on how vampires are creatures associated with death and how the dynamic changes when the vampire is the hero of a romance, which is something you touch on in your last point.

  3. Carolyn Jean,

    That’s a good point about the bite. There’s flesh involved, which I forgot. It’s not like they’re poking a syringe into each other. Hmmm… I wonder if we can connect the pain of that act to the
    increasing acceptance of sex games that involves pain in our society. (Probably a stretch.)

    Laura,

    Thanks for the link! You know what I just realized? Fighting for the vampire’s soul, which JC discusses, and which is so important a feature of, for example, the Buffy mythology, is a nonissue in most vamp romances I have read. Sometimes, as in Lara Adrian’s Midnight Breed series, you have the threat of bloodlust taking over, but it’s never couched in terms of soul preservation or recovery.

  4. LOL – to me they aren’t really. I’ve read the first 2 JR Ward books and while I quite enjoyed them – I haven’t been in any hurry to read the rest. I tried a couple of Christine Feehan’s vampire books but didn’t care for them at all (after buying almost the whole series) I haven’t even been tempted to try the Sookie Stackhouse books.
    The exception though is Lara Adrian. I’ve really enjoyed her books.
    I much prefer a good werewolf 🙂
    I think I’m too creeped out by the fact that basically vampires are – well – dead.

  5. This post really had me thinking about the first vampire book I ever read. I believe it was Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince. I loved the book and searched out more… Why? I’m not sure, but I will tell you that when you said Power and Un-Pc it rang a bell with me. It seems these Vamp heroes can get away with a lot more than other heroes can – at least for me. I’ll accept a lot from them that I wouldn’t necessarily accept from other romance heroes. Ah… my prejudice shows how un-pc of me. But there it is. For me they can get away with a lot more and I won’t toss the book across the room.

  6. Some of the vamp books are set up with a mythology wherein only the mated pairs exchange blood. What an escalation of marriage! I mean, exchanging vows and rings is one thing, but blood? Not so much at my house – like with the girlfriends with whom I’ve had this discussion, our intimacies avoid blood scrupulously. And when our kids were born my husband told me that the most alarming part was so much of it front and center for his attention. “I like your blood inside you where it belongs,” he says, “Not all out and about getting on stuff.” Not at all what a vamp husband would say – no, a vampire partner would be all aflutter at what my own husband saw as so icky (Kresley Cole’s vamps can be “blooded” by their mates and have beating hears and the capacity to impregnate their partners). So, where a human guy would see that “life force” as not so much with the sexy, a vamp finds that same substance as supremely alluring and perhaps on par with the whatever it is humans fall in love with – heart, soul, brain.

    The escalation of a relationship to include blood play goes nicely with the FOREVER part of vamp coupledom, not only will they always be together but the blood sharing take the h/h well beyond typical sharing in human relationships. In many of these books, the non-vamp needs to come to terms with the blood thing, taking time to recognize it as representing so much more than he or she would get with another human.

  7. Kristie,

    How unfortunate that you discovered you didn’t like Feehan AFTER acquiring her books! I am more with you than Marisa, at least when it comes to Dark Prince. When I read that book, I felt like I was stuck in some vicious cycle: you’re mine! I’m not (but you’re hot)! She’s running away! Get her back again! You’re still mine! I’m not (but you’re still hot)! Ugh. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed other Feehan books.

    Marsha,

    what a great point about the difference between human fear of blood and vampire worship of it. I remember the horror with which people greeted the news that Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton wore vials of each other’s blood around their necks. Blood can have supreme ritual significance to humans (blood brothers, pacts sealed in blood) but I don’t know of human cultures where blood and sex or romantic love go together (which is not to say in the least that they don’t exist. I’m no anthropologist).

  8. Far from being alluring, the eternal life part is off-putting to me. As I posted on a few months ago:

    http://tumperkin.blogspot.com/2008/05/hea-paranormal-style.html

    I’ve not read that much paranormal stuff, but of the stuff I’ve read, I’ve much preferred the warts-and-all views of paranormal *life*.

    I’m not much of a vamp-lover myself but speaking with very little experience, a theme that seems to arise a lot in the books I’ve read is one of ‘extreme redemption’. Vamp heroes aren’t merely redeemed. They’re almost – I don’t know – exorcised? Brought back from the howling darkness of having lost their souls? It’s like a much more extreme version of the tortured hero.

  9. Tumpkerin,

    Great post – Thank you for the link. I’m not sure I can think of an example of a vamp hero being “exorcised” in the sense you describe. Maybe Angel after he loses his soul and gets it back again on Buffy. Were you thinking of a particular book?

    I guess I don’t have many readers of this blog who go in for the vamp romance. I wonder what die hard vamp rom lovers would have to say: do they overlook the aspects of vamp love that are unappealing, or do they actually find them appealing?

  10. Ok, I’m going to try posting this comment again. I see to have real problems posting on your site, Jessica!

    Far from being alluring, the eternal life part is off-putting to me. As I posted on a few months ago:

    http://tumperkin.blogspot.com/2008/05/hea-paranormal-style.html

    I’ve not read that much paranormal stuff, but of the stuff I’ve read, I’ve much preferred the warts-and-all views of paranormal *life*.

    I wonder whether part of the appeal is that it’s an extension of the ‘tortured hero’. Vamp heroes tend to require extreme redemption, with heroines sometimes literally saving them from losing their souls.

  11. I guess I don’t have many readers of this blog who go in for the vamp romance.

    That would include me, too. I got worn out with that years ago and why the trend has a seemingly soulless yet eternal existence is beyond me. *I* am not buying them and I don’t know anyone who is.


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