On the set of 'From Dusk Till Dawn'
Text me when you’re done: Erotics of the vampireVivian Medithi
October 22nd, 2023
They love to suck. Vivian Medithi on the undying allure of a toothy monster.
I’ve been thinking about your teeth on my neck, canines crushed up against the cartilage of my trachea. If you bit down harder I wouldn’t mind, not even tomorrow morning when I wake up with a litany of hickeys. I’ve been thinking about my teeth in your neck, too, though I’m more partial to the levator scapulae, that rubberband of muscle responsible for the shrug. When we’re this close I can’t even smell your perfume—just you.
As with most things it begins with a dream. A woman wakes up in Arizona, sleepwalks through the motions of taking her children to swim lessons. It’s early June and she can’t stop thinking about the dream she had last night. She goes to the computer and begins to type.
Her days continue on in the same way. She can’t stop thinking about the people in the dream, a young woman and a seemingly-young man resigned to mutual destruction, confessing irrevocable love in a dappled glade. She can’t stop writing. She loses sleep, going to the computer at all hours of the night, typing away. It’s like the dream has possessed her.
The novel’s abstinent protagonists thrum with carnal tension: it’s a YA novel about horny teenage yearning written by a horny 29-year-old mother. Twilight didn’t exactly tame the monster—the body count in Stephenie Meyer’s fictionalized Forks, WA, stacks up—but in domestic bliss, it found a new way to eroticize the vamps, who have been brooding in the cultural imagination for at least a few centuries.
Vampire genealogy can be traced back to Mesopotamia: the demon Lamashtu hunts expectant and new mothers, hoping to steal and devour their children. Part lioness, part donkey, part bird, she is neither a vampire nor sexy. But neither is her infanticidal bloodlust unique, remaining persistent among her cultural counterparts well into the modern age.
Case in point: Lamia from Greek mythology, queen of ancient Libya, who draws Zeus’s affection and subsequently, Hera’s ire. Hera takes Lamia’s children, driving her to madness and monstrosity, and she becomes a half-serpent sinking her teeth into the offspring of others. Her namesake lamiai, monster-demons, are similarly child-hungry, with the ability to appear as beautiful maidens in order to seduce young men for carnal and gustatory satisfaction.
There’s also Lilith, the queen of all demons. She appears in Mesopotamian legend as an infant-hungry demon similar to Lamashtu, but more pertinent to western vampires are her Judeochristian roots. In medieval-era mysticism, she’s the first wife of Adam, who refuses to be subservient to her husband (in some tellings, to God himself). In some myths, she goes on to consummate a relationship with the archangel Samael; the children of this union are the nocturnal demons preying on human mortals known as incubi and the succubi. The male incubus stalks and rapes women in their dreams, while the female succubus lulls alert men into seducible stupor.
These early proto-vampires bear key hallmarks of their full-fledged descendants. They are undead and associated with the occult, feeding on the living. They are sexually active rather than passive; near-total inversions of the maternal instinct. But they lack the anthropic appeal of contemporary vampires, being generally closer in bearing to beasts or ghosts than they are to humans. Their disfigured countenances represent a total rejection of blasphemous behavior: these vampiric entities are frightening rather than alluring in their divergence from humanity, nullifying the taboo appeal of social disobedience.
Legends of the life-drinking undead proliferated across various European cultures prior to the Enlightenment era including the Balkan dhampir and Greek vrykolakas, the Irish baobhan sith and Romanian strigoi. Myths of vampirism stretched as far south as Ghana and Togo, where legends of the iron-toothed sasabonsam and the adze, which can transform into fireflies, retooled European tropes for West African settings. Scholars have postulated that vampirism was a scapegoat for disease, porphyria and rabies mostly; the closely-related incubus and succubus were fictional bogeymen blamed for sexual assault by real, human perpetrators.
In 1656, a stonemason dies of illness and is subsequently interred in Kringa, a small town on the Istrian Peninsula in what is modern-day Croatia, but he is not laid to rest. Every night the townspeople hear him outside; on the worst nights, he knocks on a door—hopefully your neighbor’s. A few days after he knocks, death visits the chosen home. His widow isn’t spared either: he stalks her, smiling unnaturally, and rapes her at night. He terrorizes the village for 16 years until a group of villagers unbury Jure Grando in 1672. They resort to decapitation when a hawthorn stake fails. Documented in Johann Weikhard von Valvasor’s 1689 encyclopedia The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, the story of Jude Grando is the first documented case of modern vampirism.
Grando’s infamy actually predates that of Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was accused of maiming and murdering hundreds of girls and women from 1590 to 1610. Today we might consider Bathory the victim of a political witch-hunt, even in the face of 300 witness statements collected by the Palatine of Hungary over the course of a two year investigation. The myth that Bathory, seeking eternal youth, bathed in the blood of her victims first appears in the 1729 writings of Jesuit scholar László Turóczi; these unverified claims were repeated until the 1817 publication of the Hungarian witness statements, which contained no such allegations.
Purported vampire outbreaks in East Prussia and the wider Hapsburg Empire in the 1720s and 1730s kicked off a wave of vampire panic that would last the better part of the 18th century. In 1746, the French monk Antoine Augustin Calmet published his Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, of Demons and of Spirits, and on Revenants or Vampires of Hungary, of Bohemia, of Moravia and of Silesia, which was so well received he would expand its material to two volumes for republication in 1751 (Voltaire would comment on these writings in 1764’s Philosophical Dictionary).
Transitioning out of the oral tradition, vampire stories became increasingly introspective and psychological, beginning in the 1800s with John Polidori’s The Vampyre, Victorian serial Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (Bram Stoker published the famous Dracula right at the end of the century). In these stories, the vampire remains a threat, but we gain more insight into their charms.
The lens of the cautionary tale shifts to the victims themselves, who bring vampires into their homes and are mesmerized by their wiles: in The Vampyre, the narrator’s poor character judgment ends with his sister marrying the titular monster, while in Carmilla, the protagonist’s desire for a friend nearly leads her to death at the hands of a lesbian. The stories are still horror, but vampires are becoming more emotive and complex; Varney sees his vampirism as a curse, retaining some shred of soul. Vampires aren’t quite sympathetic, but they’re becoming less revulsive. We’re still scared of dying, but more so of being fooled, and of being party to our own demise.
The history of near-human vampires is essentially the history of vampires in literature, but it’s twentieth-century Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi’s fault they acquired their modern reputation for sex appeal. In Stoker’s original, Dracula starts off old, aging in reverse as he feeds on human victims; in Dracula (1931), Lugosi’s Count is debonair from his very first line. Add in the era’s censorious approach to horror necessitating off-screen kills, and Lugosi brings Dracula closer to a rakish antihero than a nauseating villain.
On the small screen, vampires become increasingly self-aware, grappling with their inhumanity and the daunting prospect of unlife without end: 1967’s Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows) doesn’t realize he’s dead. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re defanged for family consumption, as seen in The Munsters in 1964 and the debut of Count von Count on Sesame Street in 1972. The vampire is no longer an ugly foreigner, à la Stoker or 1922’s Nosferatu, but an assimilated (or, at the very least, assimilable) outsider, even an occasional vehicle for comic relief.
In 1976’s Interview with the Vampire, vampirism is still a curse, but a consensual one: humans are damned by dreams of eternity. Anne Rice’s vampires are glamorous but unhappy, equally prone to depravity and pangs of moral conscience. Rice explicates the sensual nature of vampiric transformation: the blood covenant is more intimate than sex. The mechanics of transfiguration change as well; whereas previous vampires were obliged to make multiple visits before their victims died, or un-died, now a vampire can be made in minutes. Indeed, the process seems more painful for the vampire, who must give their own blood for the initiation. Neophytes face dramatically less suffering than previous generations of vampire wannabes—they merely sleep, perchance to dream.
This narrows the scope of conflict as well. Previously, humans were on a more even footing: vampires might be stronger, but they bear a number of exploitable weaknesses (crosses, garlic, sunlight, silver, stakes, running water and/or arithmomania). The prolonged, discontinuous nature of multi-night assaults allows for fortification and ministration, trench warfare of minute degrees. The abbreviation of the act forgoes foreplay, supercharging each encounter. By the time the vampire appears, the attack is already over. Only one question remains: will the couple achieve climax or not?
From Buffy Summers to Sookie Stackhouse, the answer is a resounding yes. There’s the bisexual polyamory of Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983) and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt’s thinly veiled homoeroticism in the 1994 adaptation of Interview With the Vampire; Salma Hayek stripteasing in lingerie and a big yellow python in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996); the vicious blood orgy opening of Blade (1998); the Mardi Gras debauchery of Dracula 2000 (exec. prod. Wes Craven); and the oriental miscegenation fantasia of Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002).
Vampires fuck. One of my own childhood memories involves staring quite hard at Aaliyah on the cover of a dozen Queen of the Damned (2002) DVDs in an Iowa Walmart. Years later, I remain convinced that the movie’s rose bath scene, soundtracked by “Change (In the House of Flies),” is one of Deftones’s best music videos. The movie itself is flaccid, but Aaliyah’s spirited performance (she was the first actress cast) embodies the vicious cruelties of the titular Akasha, who sees humans as mere cattle.
Then there’s Kate Beckinsale’s latex catsuit in Underworld (2003), so terminally horny that of course she’s based on an old X-Men villain. Femme fatale, natch, but only a vamp or a man-eater in the literal sense: unlike Akasha, Selene is disciplined and ethically consistent, even when sleeping with the “enemy” (a werewolf). The 2006 sequel features a deliciously protracted sex scene with an astonishing expanse of bare human flesh that forgoes titillation for a deeper sensuality, as if emotional resonance shows up on celluloid.
Even the implicitly Mormon Bella and Edward eventually get it on, first in the throes of human matrimony and later, eclipsing the purgatory of undead doldrums and postpartum nonlibido. Meyer has been decried as a prude, but I think of her as a master of erotica, someone who knows how to build up to a climax. Calling her characters flat is just an uncharitable way of saying they’re archetypal; that Meyer’s fictional vision of the masculine ideal involves a man who could easily kill his partner speaks to the wider shape of society as much as it does the contours of her inner landscape.
In modern times vampirism can transcend monstrosity, whether through the hallucinatory disorientation of Irma Vep (‘96 with Maggie Cheung; ‘22 with Alicia Vikander) or the somnophiliac unease of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011), starring rich old men paying to sleep in the same bed as the cherubic Emily Browning. More overtly monstrous metaphors shift too: Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) explores HIV+ stigma and illicit romance in a feverish nightmare. And while Jennifer’s Body (2009) and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) move in disparate tonal registers, both explore the contemporary boundaries of teen girlhood.
Searching for the meaning of vampires today, you could try to read the box office runes of Jared Leto and Nicholas Cage (I’m looking forward to Robert Eggers’s Nosferatu, slated for 2024). And if you needed a crude metaphor to grasp the necropolitics of COVID-19 or gun violence, I suppose vampires would work just fine for that too.
As for us? I mean, this is just an elaborate way of asking to bite you. Ear, nape, fertile crescent of skin between thumb and index. What does it mean when you say I love you? When you want to devour someone, sex is just another way to stretch and bind the canvas, precursive to the act. I want you in me—your flesh becomes my flesh. I need to know you viscerally—chiaroscuro in teethmarks.
Before a vampire can enter your home, you must invite them in. These mopey weirdos will always be found on the margins, eternal outsiders looking in on the nice normal people, staring down the prospect of forever past the mortal coil, cycling through feral lust and dead-eyed anhedonia. In that sense, they’re not so different from you and me, brutally short-lived creatures whose hearts pump still, nevertheless dreaming of a legacy that lives past the flesh.