Richelle Mead on the mythology of Vampire Academy

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Richelle Mead explains:

“I took a class at the University of Michigan on Slavic folklore and mythology. One of the units we studied was on vampires, and we had the opportunity to read some really great stories and examine a lot of the symbolism behind those old tales. Years later, when I decided to write a vampire novel, I decided I wanted to base my series out of that same region. So I went searching through eastern European mythology again and eventually found a reference to Mori and Strigoi that I thought could really make a great foundation for a vampire society. Dhampirs are a little widespread in pop culture, and I’d heard of them before, though they, too, come from this same region. What’s funny is that I decided early on that my kick-ass heroine would be a dhampir, simply because I liked the mix of human and vampire traits. Later, I learned that in a lot of eastern European myths, dhampirs have a reputation for being great vampire hunters. There were those who believed that if an evil vampire was causing trouble, you needed to recruit a dhampir to come get rid of him or her. So, without even realizing it, I’d cast Rose in a traditional warrior role!” (p.31)

Ref: (emphases in bold mine) Brandon T. Snider (2013) Vampire Academy: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion. Razorbill, Penguin: New York

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the vampire’s sexual otherness

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In a 1997 essay, Andrew Schopp considered the homoerotic aspects of modern vampire literature, and while his approach is in a context pre-the-current-vampire-craze, his comments are still relevant. He wrote:

Although it has long held a formidable place in the heart of western culture, until the nineteenth century the vampire existed primarily as a creature to be feared, the revenant come back to torment the living. Paul Barber explains that the vampires of early folklore represent the way ‘preindustrial cultures’ interpreted, or misinterpreted, the ‘processes and phenomena associated with death and the dissolution of the body’ (1). In the nineteenth century, however, the vampire transformed from a feared cultural phenomenon to a desired cultural product, from mythic explanation of the unknown to receptacle of cultural desires. This transformation has culminated in the contemporary vampire product, which provides a space for articulating and reconstructing cultural desires, even for contesting dominant cultural narratives. Given this product’s subversive potential, its frequent reliance on the homoerotic would seem an especially compelling subject of analysis.” (p.231)

By its very nature, the vampire is an outsider, an ‘other’” (p.232) “Burton Hatlen explains that the vampire’s position as alienated ‘other’ produces a dual response in the audience: the vampire comes to represent that which we both fear and desire (125).” (p.233)

“Comments by fans delineate a specific set of characteristics that render the vampire attractive, and perhaps the most prominent characteristic is the vampire’s sexual otherness. For the fans, vampire entertainment provides an opportunity for sexual deviation, for the chance to engage in all ‘forbidden sexual practices… oral, necrophilic, incestual [sic], homosexual’ (Dresser 152). The vampire’s sexual otherness both reflects and fosters a desire to break free from sexual constraints, while its immortality reflects and fosters a desire to break free from physical constraints (152). Underlying these two characteristics is the vampire’s power. According to fans, this power enables one to challenge almost any socially imposed barrier.” (p.233)

A couple more quotes form Schopp’s essay that I liked include:

“As one fan commented, “[…] Perhaps part of the appeal of the vampire is it gives us the belief that there are beings who can live outside the problems of society that we, as mortals, must face everyday. (Dresser 160-161)” (Schopp, p. 233)

“To an extent […] certain vampire products use the vampire ‘space’ simply to reinscribe dominant cultural ideologies and mandates, rather than using that space to revise such mandates, or offer alternatives.” (p.237)

“…the contemporary vampire product clearly functions as a site for playing with sexual alternatives, for acting out socially prohibited roles, and for reconfiguring desire. Though it can easily reinscribe heteronormative ideology, the vampire space has the potential to articulate alternatives and to contest dominant modes of structuring sexual desire and identity.” (p.241)

Ref: Andrew Schopp Cruising the Alternatives: Homoeroticism and the contemporary vampire The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 30, Issue 4, pages 231–243, Spring 1997

Note – reference is to: Dresser, Norine (1989) American Vampires: Fans, Fictions and Practitioners.  New York: Norton

The reference that look interesting in this article (to me, at least) is missing from the reference list at the end… ‘Rosemary Jackson’ on ‘paraxic’ worlds? Schopp explains: “Unlike science fiction characters who tend to live in a world removed from our everyday life, the vampire often has dependent connections to our world. The vampire product constitues a prime example of what Rosemary Jackson has termed a ‘paraxic’ world, a space that exists both inside and outside of our world. According to Jackson, paraxis ‘is a telling notion in relation to the place, or the space, of the fantastic, for it implies an inextricable link to the main body of the ‘real’ which it shades and threatens’ (19).” (Schopp, p.233)

Nationalism, urbanisation, and vampires

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There is a folklore study, titled Slayers and their Vampires, by Bruce McClelland, which shares an enormous amount of folklore around the figure of the vampire. It’s clearly written (as not all folkloric studies are!) and it’s interesting. Mostly, as I say, it focuses on folklore, but within the framework of how the vampire and its counterpart, the vampire slayer, have been adopted and changed by more recent representations of the figure.

vampires, nationalism, and Christianity

I particularly found interesting the connection shown by McClelland between the vampire tales and nationalism (which is bound into recent vampire tales in popular fiction – see much of the discussion around Dracula and Irish studies, or Martine Beugnet, for example). Here are a couple of points made by McClelland:

The systematic collection of folklore in rural Bulgaria did not begin until the overthrow of the “Ottoman yoke.” However, as a sign of the growing nationalism that had spurred Bulgaria and other Balkan nations to finally evict their Turkish overlords in the last decades of the nineteenth century, ethnographers and folklorists from the Slavic regions of the Balkans began to investigate in earnest the customs and tales of Bulgarians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Macedonians, and other groups living in or near the Bulgaro-Macedonian region of the BalkansElicited reports of customs and beliefs were collected in the field, then written up and submitted for consideration to such encyclopedic publications as the Sbornik za bâlgarski narodni umotvorenija (SbNU), a regularly published collection of folklore and customs. There are several references to vampire slayers in SbNU, dating back to 1891.

In the earliest SbNU report of a vampire slayer, from the Demir-Haskov region, the vampire, called in this case a vrkolak, appears as a shadow (sjanka). The vampire slayer is referred to as either a sâbotnik […] or a vâperar. The vrkolak in this region was said to come into existence from the blood of someone killed with a gun or a knife: the blood that poured out from the violent wound could become a vampire after fourteen days had passed. The shadow is quite explicitly considered a double, that is, an invisible simulacrum that can only be seen by the vâperar, who is called on to kill the vampire. In this report, the existence of the shadow/vampire was evidenced by an epidemic among livestock.

Like the vâperar, the sâbotnik may also be called on to kill the vrkolak, using, according to the report, a knife or a gun. The specification that the vampire slayer use the same tools to return the violence as that which ultimately brought the vampire into existence is intriguing: [-p.98] not only do we see the vampire as a double who has been engendered (or contaminated) by violence, but the vampire’s mortal enemy—who has the capacity to become a vampire—is here also his “reverse” double, who ritually reverses the vampire’s coming into existence by reenacting the violent scene that promoted a victim to a villain. There is a kind of antisymmetrical connection that persists throughout the folklore in the relationship between the vampire and the slayer, and this quite Slavic theme of doubles and reversals, while certainly encountered frequently enough in various notions of ritual magic, appears even in the later, popular literary conception of the vampire as having no reflection (the mirror image is his enemy).” (pp.97-98)

“Because he is able to detect a vampire that otherwise is unseen or goes unnoticed, the vampire slayer is the vampire’s natural enemy. I have already hinted that this function, of seeing and eliminating demonic [-p.105] forces, is a religious one: the task of purifying the community by identifying the spiritual cause of a calamity or disease and driving it out is performed by the heroes of many religions, Christianity among them. Since the earliest vampires were linked, in the minds of Orthodox Christianizers in the Balkans, with pre-Christian beliefs, we might expect to find evidence that the vampire’s folkloric enemies emerge from that same crucible.

Of course, the vampire’s truly greatest enemy is Christianity itself, which vehemently condemned, in the image of the vampire, the pagan’s literalization of the Eucharist and Resurrection as blood drinking and reanimation or reincarnation, respectively. But at the community level, the tension between the personages embodying evil or anxiety and those embodying good or wholeness must be resolved internally. The vampire and the vampire slayer are similarly marked as “non-Christian”; they are in a sense related to each other and in all likelihood reenact a mythological struggle that pre-dates Christianity. In other words, where Christianity finds the vampire, it also finds his slayer. At the purest theological level, Christianity abhors annihilation even for the sake of expiation, Jesus having served as the ultimate scapegoat. It therefore can condone neither vengeful violence nor deliberate contact with the unholy or defiled.” (pp.104-105)

Note also that in his introduction to this book, McClelland explains these connections and his own interest in them:

Ever since the publication of Dracula, or at least since movies adopted that novel’s central characters and narrative points in 1922 (Nosferatu) and 1931 (Dracula), the nature, origin, and meaning of the vampire have been frequent subjects of inquiry by European and American scholars. Historical, literary, cultural, political, and even psychoanalytic discussions of the nature and role of the vampire have abounded since the vampire became widely known in Western Europe in the early eighteenth century. But the tradition of the vampire and, indeed, of the word vampire itself, which also had a prefolkloric meaning, goes back several centuries before Europeans living north and west of the Danube had ever heard of such things. As we ought to expect, the meaning of the Slavic term vampir changed considerably over a millennium, yet most writers on the subject have ignored both the cultural context in which the term arose and the possible changes in the nature of the thing designated by the word across time.

Among the more significant causes of this inattention to the broader development of the vampire motif is the understandable, if Orientalistic, cultural ignorance on the part of Europeans living far from those areas of Europe – in particular, the Balkans and the Carpathians – that were dominated for so long by the Ottoman Turks. Toward the end of [-p.4] the seventeenth century, as the power of the Ottoman Empire began to wane in southeatern Europe, scientists and journalists who were curious about rumors of strange vampire phenomena ventured more intrepidly into such places as Serbia, Croatia, and other areas around the borders of the Habsburg Empire. Their noble intention was first to record and then explain the exotic and perhaps supernatural goings-on at the boundaries of the civilized world. This they did with a vengeance, writing reports and learned treatises to explain away the very possibility of the ambulatory dead. To prevent a resurgence of the extreme and irrational religious persecution that characterized the Inquisition, the journalists and scientists drew on the scientific methods that were emerging during the Enlightenment.

Thus, the conception of the vampire on which virtually all subsequent vampire literature (and, by technological extension, cinema) was based derived from a handful of notorious episodes. These ‘epidemics’ occurred over the span of only a couple of decades at the fringes of Western Europe, where Balkan folklore had come into direct contact with and had thus been contaminated by contemporary ideas about witches and witchcraft. Though a few reports by seventeenth-century travelers accurately described the Greek vampire, or revenant, known by the borrowed Slavic name broukolakos, there was no understtanding at the time of the vampire’s role within a much broader demonological or lower mythological system. The phenomenology of the vampire was appropriated in its entirety into a new, Enlightenment worldview, while the semantics and cultural history of the Old Slavic term vampir were almost completely ignored.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of this appropriation was that important, structural aspects of the vampire motif went unrecognized. The significance of the vampire hunter, for example, was for a long while overshadowed by a natural fascination – which preoccupied early Western writers on the subject – with the vampire’s appearance, power, and behavior.” (pp.3-4)

Because a familiarity with such oral tales was lacking in many recent studies of ‘the figure of the vampire’, McClelland goes on to explain that: “The dynamic of the vampire report, in which the real focus is on the methods used to identify and thereby dispatch the evil vampire, is missed as a consequence. What remains misunderstood is how the appearance of evil always seems to require counteraction or expiation at the hands of someone possessing both the necessary insight to recognize a vampire and the knowledge of the necessary rituals to destroy one. The meaning of the symbols in the original folkloric system is not carried over into the new, literary adaptation of the vampire theme. [/] The present work, then, attempts to restore the balance – between the vampire and his heroic adversary – that was disturbed with the transfer of the vampire from his home within Slavic lands, especially the South Slavic cultures of the Balkans. In particular, it is important to recognize first that the vampire hunter or slayer is not at all a modern phenomenon, dreamed up by Gothic writers for dramatic or literary purposes. More likely, this character is a reflex of an ancient shamanic figure possessing the healing power to peer into the world of the dead.” (p.5)

urbanisation

I found the following statement about the drop in folkloric vampire narratives as a result of urbanisation kind of interesting, too – since urbanisation seems to be a huge feature of the vampire’s recent popularity in popular culture…

McClelland writes: “In the twentieth century, the forces of urbanization and secularization began to erode the folkloric base of the vampire, and this erosion accelerated after World War II, in part due to the imposition of Sovietstyle communism, with its antagonism toward religious expression. By the mid-twentieth century, authentic vampire lore in the Bulgarian (and Yugoslavian) village context appeared to be dying off. More and more narratives recorded in the later decades of the century are of the “fabulate” type, in which the teller speaks of vampire or vampire-killing activity as hearsay rather than personal encounter (the latter being characteristic of the “memorate” narrative). Virtually all of the informants of contemporary ethnographers that admit to having knowledge of vampires are semiliterate farmworkers in their late seventies or eighties.” (p.102)

Ref: (italics in original emphases in blue bold mine) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

Reference is to: Martine Beugnet (2007): Figures of Vampirism: French Cinema in the Era of Global Transylvania, Modern & Contemporary France, 15:1, 77-88

evil and death

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“Evil – wherever belief in it is held – tends to be thought of in one of two ways. It is either a force equal to or slightly inferior to an opposing force or, as in Orthodox Christianity, the absence, withdrawal, perversion, or deflection of a universal inclination called ‘good.’ Cosmological narratives usually give it both a body and a name and situate it in a separate dark, turbulent, or alien realm. In the so-called natural world, evil may become manifest through the agency of demons or spirits. Whether such demons take on the imaginal form of beasts or humans (even when their form is not always humanly visible), the consequences of their actions are always encountered in the human sphere; that is, even when evil directs itself against animals or vegetation, it is always with an eye toward disrupting the social order (e.g., husbandry, agriculture) and the dependencies of humankind on these areas of human ecology and economy. At its base, evil is a pernicious threat to human survival above all else, and it is essentially different from death itself. Whereas death is universal, evil is selective.

There are countless representations and personifications of evil across history and religious and cultural systems, just as there are many images of the good and the heroic. These various images are depicted [-p.2] in the narratives of both official and folk religions, mythology and folklore, as well as, even quite recently, in the secular metaphors of political and ideological discourse. In virtually all these narratives, at some point the physical representatives of good and evil become direct, often violent, antagonists. The outcome of their struggle for domination over the moral direction of the community holds a central place in its value system.

Perhaps the most dangerous form that evil takes is the visibly human, since when it is ambulatory and mimetic of the individual, it is difficult to distinguish the evil being from a fellow member of the community. This is especially true if there are no obvious markers, such as a tail and horns, to call attention to its difference. When the average person cannot definitely identify another individual as evil, yet some inexplicable adversity suggests malevolence that has gone beyond mere temper, it is critical that the threatened individual or collective immediately locate evil’s nexus – even if it is found to be the heart of a neighbor and there is no confirming evidence aside from belief. Once evil is found, it must be destroyed or, at the very least, banished far beyond the possibility of return.

In contemporary Western European and North American popular culture, the vampire has become one of the most pervasive and recognizable symbols of insidious evil. Though, according to some notions, the vampire can shift his shape into that of a wolf or bat or other animal and perhaps possesses other supernatural powers, he is different from monstrous beasts or even from Satan in that he possesses a single human body. Furthermore, in both folklore and literature/cinema, in his humanlike, untransformed state, he is not easily recognized as a different order of being. The vampire […] thus has very much in common with the European witch, with one critically important difference: whereas witches are alive at the time they are tortured or ritually executed, vampires are by definition dead or at least undead (whatever that means). But both witches and vampires are held to be evil, for reasons that have much in common.” (pp.1-2)

Ref: Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

“serial killers and vampires are our two primary monstrous figures”

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Just a couple more points from DJ Williams, which I thought really quite interesting: “The scholarly study of deviance traditionally has relied on positivistic, structural, and functional approaches. Such approaches provide useful but always incomplete information, and they privilege broad generalizations with little acknowledgment of details. However, Williams (2004) views deviance as being fundamentally artistic, creative, and expressive. While various forms of deviance are connected to specific symbolisms and resistances, deviance still reflects a fundamental aspect of being human. According to Williams (2004), “deviance should be understood as embodying creative, expressive, emotive, symbolic, and communicative elements that were and are central to expressionist and post-expressionist understandings of art” (p. 235).” (p.520)

“…viewing deviance as fundamentally artistic is an approach that may be useful in understanding commonalities, thus illustrating complexities and blurring rigid boundaries of difference.” (p.521)

Ref: DJ Williams (2008): Contemporary vampires and (blood‐‐red) leisure: Should we be afraid of the dark?, Leisure/Loisir, 32:2, 513-539

Reference is to: Williams, C.R. (2004). Reclaiming the expressive subject: Deviance and the art of non-normativity. Deviant Behavior, 25, 233-254.

contemporary human vampires

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I haven’t yet properly read this one either, but again, it looks interesting:

“Abstract. Although stories of mythological vampires in the media (i.e., books, movies, television) have captivated audiences for years, there exist a large number of contemporary human vampires within an active underground subculture sometimes referred to as the Sanguinarium. This paper describes vastly different types of human vampires and includes an autoethnographic approach to help understand complexities of this form of deviance. Although vampirism generally is considered deviant and may be roughly divided into different types, such deviance calls into question what typically is considered “normal” in many ways. Real vampires are often perceived as psychopathological and perhaps criminal compared to normal members of society. Such perceptions and descriptions are not necessarily valid, but remain social constructions that are situated within broader cultural discourses and interpretations. Upon closer examination, many self-identified vampires and their rituals and practices can be understood as artistic, expressive, and rather normal and healthy.” (p.513)

Certainly, Williams begins with a nice, clear summary of ‘vampires’:

“For many, the word “vampire” evokes strong images and emotions. Vampire myths have been present for thousands of years in numerous cultures and geographic locations. For example, the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians believed in ekimmu and utukku vampire beings, and various vampire monsters were present in cultures throughout Europe, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Iceland, Malaysia, Scandinavia, South Africa, and the Philippines (Curran, 2005; Melton, 1999). Vampire lore was present in Ireland when Bram Stoker wrote the classic Dracula (1897) a novel that blended existing folklore with historical reports of Vlad Tepes—a particularly vicious Romanian ruler during the 1400s who tortured and impaled his enemies. Vampires have been both fascinating and frightening for a long portion of our history.

The intrigue of the vampire continues its hold on contemporary culture. Vampire movies, such as the Blade series (Amen Ra Films, 1998, 2002, 2004), The Lost Boys (Warner Bros., 1987) and Underworld (Sony Pictures, 2003, 2006) continue to thrill audiences, along with books, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-2003) and television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Warner Bros., 1997-99). A recent study of favourite movie monsters and their psychological appeal found that the vampire easily outdistanced its competitors in popularity (Fischoff, Dimopoulos, Nguyen, & Gordon, 2002/2003). According to this study, across demographics the vampire remains king of monsters. The vampire is intelligent, strong, assertive, mysterious, and seductive; yet it is also abhorrent, frightening, and repellent. It is precisely this curious mix of attributes that is responsible for its appeal. We value the positive traits of the vampire and much energy is spent in an effort to cultivate them. Yet simultaneously, beneath a well-polished socialized exterior, being human includes having various imperfections and character flaws, along with the possibility of committing atrocities under certain circumstances. Indeed, there are those who recognize and embrace this complex interplay of “the bad with the good,” that is inherent to the human condition.” (p.514)

“For some,” Williams continues, “the intrigue of the vampire moves beyond consumption of popular culture and folklore and into the realm of lifestyle, religion and subculture. There exists an active subculture of human vampires sometimes referred to as the Sanguinarium. Human vampires do not believe they are versions of undead monsters that rise from coffins after death and are repelled by crosses and garlic. Rather, they are simply human beings who strongly identify with certain characteristics of vampires; some may have religious beliefs based on interpretations about specific forms of vampires or vampirism. Over the past few decades a significant contemporary vampire subculture has developed, which can be understood as a diverse, socio-religious movement with its own distinct collective community and network of participants who share a similar belief system and lifestyle that reflect their particular conceptualization of the vampire (Keyworth, 2002). The vampire subculture may be referred to as a single entity, but there remains considerable heterogeneity therein, based on how the word vampire is perceived and applied by members. The term vampire (or vampirism) also has been used as a descriptor applied to specific individuals manifesting unusual pathology in psychiatric and criminal contexts. These externally applied designations are very different from self-identified vampires that make up the vampire subculture.” (p.515)

Picart and Greek (2003) observed that within contemporary popular culture, serial killers and vampires are our two primary monstrous figures. These constructed figures blend into each other and reflect our deepest fears and taboos, but also our most repressed fantasies and desires. Picart and Greek (2003) carefully illustrate how vampire fiction and myth have shaped our scholarly understanding of serial killing and vice versa. They wrote: [-p.520]
“The line between fact and fiction is not static or fixed—which does not mean there is no such thing as “fact,” but that “facts” are always complexly imbricated with “fiction,” just as “fiction” in order to appear authentic and narratively compelling, must possess verisimilitude, (p. 62)” (pp.519-520) “Similar to relationships of how mythology may influence understanding of psychiatric disorders,” Williams goes on, “it appears that popular leisure via consumption of cultural myths and stories greatly influence scholarly and scientific understandings of extremely violent crime, such as serial murder.” (p.520)

Williams concludes: “Mythological vampires have been significant players in the long multicultural history of human beings. Vampire monsters are able to transcend death, and are powerful, dark, intelligent, and mysterious. It may be said that human beings are also intelligent creatures, have a dark side (e.g., the shadow self), and seek power and attention. Indeed, myth and reality remain intertwined. Furthermore, consciously and subconsciously, we fear death and often struggle with thoughts of the potential finality of [-p.533] this inevitable personal event. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the mythological vampire is both human and superhuman, a villain and, simultaneously, a hero. Curiously and inconspicuously, the vampire is attractive and repulsive. It represents constructions of both “normal” and “deviant.” The vampire will always be an important part of popular culture and will continue to exert its influence on human experience.” (pp.532-533)

“Vampires remind us of the richness and diversity of human beliefs, experiences, and practices—and our common needs and fears.” (p.535)

Ref: DJ Williams (2008): Contemporary vampires and (blood‐‐red) leisure: Should we be afraid of the dark?, Leisure/Loisir, 32:2, 513-539

Reference is to: Picart, C.J., & Greek, C. (2003). The compulsion of real/reel serial killers and vampires: Toward a gothic criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10, 39-68.

The Vampire – Dundes

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Alan Dundes’s essay,  ‘The Vampire as Bloodthirsty Revenant: A Psychoanalytic Post Mortem’, gives an overview of (and critique of interpretations surrounding) ‘the vampire’ in folklore. It’s full of references to be followed (and covers the etymology of the word) and allows Dundes to develop his own theory of vampires. He focuses on the folkloric aspect of the vampire (and explains this focus in terms of its place in the triad of mass or popular culture, elite culture and folkore), but I’ll confess I only have a couple of quotes relevant to my own work:

“The attempts to interpret the basic meaning of the vampire figure may for the sake of convenience be divided into two broad categories: literal-historical and metaphoric-symbolic.” (p.19)

“…it is my contention that it is the underlying oral erotic basis of the vampire belief complex which partly explains the endless fascination of this enigmatic creature. In prudish Victorian times, the Bram Stoker novel provided a much-needed outlet for repressed sexuality, but even in the twentieth century, the vampire of popular culture and literature serves a similar function. The fear of being attacked by a vampire – at night, in one’s own bedroom – can be construed as a form of wishful thinking.”

Ref: Alan Dundes (c2002) ‘The Vampire as Bloodthirsty Revenant: A Psychoanalytic Post Mortem’ pp. 16-32 Bloody Mary in the Mirror: Essays in Psychoanalytic Folkoristics