There has never been, in the history of popular culture, such a successful phenomenon as the vampire. Love the fangs or hate them, the vampire remains an icon of seductiveness, a monster we can’t seem to escape. The association of desire with devour, which the vampire incarnates, is a persistent myth. Its real roots are in antiquity; it is far older than Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula, on which the contemporary vampire is based. Vampires have appeared throughout human history under different names and designations in cultures the world over. What is behind the myth, and why is it so persistent?
When I was inspired to write The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, it was in part because I wanted an answer to these questions. There had to be something more to the vampire myth than popular culture was serving up, and I set out to uncover it. What I learned from researching the vast, and often obscured subject of Romanian folklore was fascinating, and quite disturbing. In many ways, the Romanian vampire is very different from its present-day counterpart. There are no fangs, which came as rather a relief, no blood-sucking, another bonus, but there were other similarities. Resurrection, for example, was a common factor, a happening that Romanian folklore deals with in an almost matter-of-fact way. According to Romanian tradition, the dead are significantly un-dead, and this more than anything else, was rather a shocker. It is easy to dismiss the fanged demon of a story, but harder to set aside beliefs that have been part of Romanian culture since long before medieval times.
Superstition has been endemic in Romania until relatively recently. Of course these days most folklore is dying out. It is being denied by a younger generation keen to take its place in the modern world, and that is entirely understandable. But even if the new generation has moved on from the folklore, can it really forget about the vampire? I doubt it. Even if folklore can be assigned to the past, the myths it creates return to haunt us because they are embedded in our consciousness in ways we often have not even thought about.
We all know the expression, ‘a love-hate relationship’. The idiom reveals the common ground of the two strongest urges that characterise the human mind, the urge to create and the urge to destroy. Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology, understood these urges, or impulsions; he knew that love and hate, or to use another set of words, life and death, co-exist together in the human psyche, and that it is the outcome of this struggle that defines us as individuals.
Around twenty years after Bram Stoker wrote ‘Dracula’, Freud was examining patients who had returned from the trenches of the First World War stricken by the trauma of grim battle. What he found was a revelation, and it leads us back to the vampire myth in quite unexpected ways.
Freud understood that what these war victims had in common was an unavoidable urge to revisit trauma. Rather than forget about the terrible things they had lived through, these soldiers were compelled to revisit them again and again, and Freud called this compulsion the ‘death drive’. He described it in his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The death drive, Freud wrote, was a force “whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death”.
Of course, this does not seem logical, but the human psyche is not always logical. The human mind is not just as old as one person; it is as old as human time. It is a product of human evolution, and its complexity is the result of many factors, which we cannot always understand as individuals. The death drive that Freud described was equally as old; wherever it came from was bound to be lost in the mists of time, but the question is, to where or what was it leading?
It took another period of research and another book before Freud could find this out. Because we are hard-wired for survival, he said, the death drive is projected away from the individual by the individual. In other words, whether we like it or not, the death drive becomes a negative force for evil, a destructive force that can only be restrained if our compulsion for good is stronger. It is this struggle that has become incarnated by the persona of the vampire, which is why the vampire elicits such a reaction of fear.
Many have tried to exorcise this fear. The Catholics called it ‘The Problem of Evil’; the Greeks understood it utterly, and linked the death drive to the power of fate. It was, said the Greeks, inescapable. To struggle against one’s destiny was simply a waste of time, to the extent that the gods themselves were seen to punish mortals who believed that they could set themselves higher than its unstoppable forces.
These days, such attitudes are labelled fatalistic, negative and counter-productive. Modern culture demands that we stand against the power of fate, that we take control of our destiny and assert free will. But behind this facade of will and effort, the old resilient myths continue to stalk us. The vampire lingers in dark corners, waits in the shadows and warns us that free will is an illusion — that there are other forces at work in the human psyche, over which we have far less control than we think. The vampire represents, in fact, the ultimate struggle: humankind over itself, which is why it cannot be dismissed as fiction.