Novelist and psychologist Frank Tallis on the enduring appeal of the vampire

The longevity and popularity of the vampire myth is quite extraordinary. Demonic blood sucking creatures have been written about since ancient times and continue to fascinate the general public. The Twilight franchise, for example,  has made over $1.8bn worldwide. Yet, psychologists have had relatively little to say about the cultural impact of vampires or the phenomenon of vampirism in clinical settings. 

The word vampire entered the English language in 1732 and this was no accident. Vampire ‘epidemics’ were the scourge of South-Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Moreover, they continued well into the nineteenth. Richard von Krafft-Ebing was perhaps the first to take vampirism seriously and described several cases. Although his clinical vignettes are somewhat superficial, clear links are made between blood drinking and sexual arousal. A modern ‘haematomaniac’ was tried in Nuremburg in 1974. Hofmann, a former psychiatric patient, shot people, drank their blood through the wounds, and claimed that he needed a litre of female blood every day. He managed to slake his irregular thirst by disinterring female corpses from fifteen cemeteries.  

Contemporary vampires tend to inhabit spaces where the innocent world of the horror buff intersects with the more troubled world of prostitution. In North America, there are many specialist clubs that cater for those with an interest in ‘blood play’. This can take many forms and serves to demonstrate the extraordinary plasticity of human sexual interest. One New York dominatrix is on record as saying: ‘Some women I know do stuff with their menstrual blood, making the guys suck their tampons.’ Informed commentators have suggested that there may be up to 15,000 ‘real vampires’ active in the USA alone. 

Ernest Jones wrote extensively about the ‘complicated’ psychodynamics of vampirism in his book, ‘On the Nightmare’. According to Jones, ‘the act of sucking has a sexual significance from earliest infancy which is maintained throughout life in the form of kissing’. Vampirism, however, arises when repression causes a regression to primitive forms of sexuality, such as oral-sadism. 

Vampires have played an important part in the cultural life of the western world for over two thousand years. And given the continued popularity of vampires in books and on film, this seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. If, as psychoanalysts suggest, the subtext of all vampirism is oral eroticism, then we can safely predict that vampires will be around – in stories and real life – for a very long time yet.


Dr Frank Tallis writes supernatural fiction as F.R.Tallis. His new novel, The Forbidden (which features vampires) is set in the world of 19th century neurology.