Vampire Stories, Behind The Bite

There's nothing I love more than pop culture. It's like cheese. Who can get enough of rich, creamy cheese (except the lactose intolerant, of course)?

It's just better not to think too much about where many of the things we've come to love via pop culture come from. (When someone broke the news to the prettiest--but also dumbest--girl in my school that cheese is made from spoiled milk, she threw up in the middle of class.)

One current pop culture favorite--the rich, sexy vampire--has an origin story that's every bit as disturbing as cheese's. Few people seem to know about it.

And yet the rich, sexy vampire keeps popping up, in different but vaguely similar incarnations (kind of like Ryan Seacrest, this generation's Dick Clark). Every ancient civilization, including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Hebrews, all have narratives about demonic creatures who feed on the blood of the living.

It's not hard to see why they've re-risen from the grave this time. According to a recent Pew Report, the percentage of women who outearn their husbands has more than quadrupled, and college-educated wives are less likely to have a husband who graduated from college.

With the stress of being the sole breadwinner (and often single parent--many times caretaker to her own parent), in a time when so many young women who do graduate from college can't find employment at all, who wouldn't mind a rich, handsome immortal whisking her away from it all?

And high testosterone alpha males--which most vampires tend to be--who come unburdened by their own children or any other kind of baggage (except a dark, blood-soaked past) are exactly the types to appeal to women who are sick of catering to the needs of others, and want to be taken care of themselves for a change.

It's not as if we can help it. We're hardwired to be attracted to the tall, dark, and handsome. Their very presence leads to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain, stimulated by the mammalian hormone oxytocin, telling us they make better breeders.

Then there's the added excitement of the fact that they might possibly kill us. In fact, they have to if we're going to join them in immortality.

But then we won't have to worry about paying back those student loans.

Is that why these books and movies are so popular? Can it really be as simple as the fun escape fantasy they offer in a world where women are overworked, overstressed, and in need of a good old-fashioned hit of dopamine? History points to yes.

Two hundred years ago, a young lady named Claire spent the summer in a rented villa on Lake Geneva with a group of friends. The following January, she gave birth to a baby girl.

What followed was a sensational--and nasty--lawsuit. There were no paternity tests back then, no DNA to prove who the father was.

But there were any number of very reliable witnesses to attest to the fact that the gentleman in question did indeed spend many a night with Claire in that villa. And the witnesses were of reliable character: Claire's stepsister, Mary Godwin (who, under the name Mary Shelley, would publish that masterpiece of horror, Frankenstein, a year later), and Mary's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Who was the baby daddy? None other than Lord Byron (author of Don Juan, famously described by an ex as being "bad, mad, and dangerous to know." In Claire's case, all too true).

Mary and Percy intervened on Claire's behalf in order to get Byron to admit he was her little girl's father. He finally did so . . . when ordered by the courts.

"The Vampyr: A Tale" would appear in print in 1819 two years later, written by Lord Byron's doctor, John Polidori. But it was based on a story Byron began that fateful summer, on a night each of the guests in that rented villa challenged one another to come up with a "ghost story" (Mary's contribution: Frankenstein).

"The Vampyr" was the first such story to offer a vampire who was rich, handsome, aristocratic, and irresistible to women. But as Claire would discover by summer's end, he was also interested only in virgins. The book caused a pop culture explosion.

But that was only the beginning, this time around: from the bizarre ("Varney the Vampire" by James Malcolm Rymer in 1845) to the salacious (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla," which started the lesbian vampire genre in 1872) to the grotesque (Charles Baudelaire's description of a vampire as "a wine-skin with gluey sides, all full of pus")--vampires of all kinds have always been the rage.

Then Bram Stoker--whether purposefully or not, it's hard to say--did something a little radical. He introduced Mina Harker as a "New Woman" in Dracula (1897).

True, she too couldn't resist the allure of the aristocratic alpha male vampire lead of the story.

But she also joined Abraham Van Helsing and his team in attempting to destroy him, becoming the first feminist of vampire fiction.

Had Claire been around, I think she might have thanked Mr. Stoker. It's characters like Mina Harker who paved the way for Buffy and the rest of the strong women of vampire pop culture to say: Stop. There's another way. They've taught us all a valuable lesson:

It's fun to fantasize about being whisked away and supported by someone rich and sexy. But under the glamour and the sex appeal, he's still a blood-sucking demon. Maybe we should be striving for something different in our relationships, something better. Maybe an equal partnership. At least equal division of the childcare and household chores.

After all, when you think about where they come from, vampires really are a bit disgusting.

Kind of like cheese.