The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Vampires Are Supposed to Be Sexy!

I remember back when the Twilight series was all the rage (or all the disdain, depending on where you stood) and one of the major criticisms of it was “Vampires aren’t supposed to be sexy!” The fervor around Edward and his undead brethren drew the ire and derision of many. Did some of this ire stem from the run-of-the-mill misogyny that crops up whenever a piece of media owes its popularity to an audience of predominately young women/teenage girls? It’s an easy “yes” from me. But in hindsight, the insistence on emphasizing film and literature vampires’ monstrosity reveals something interesting about a thing we seem to have forgotten: vampires are supposed to be sexy.

I do have to put some qualifiers on “sexy,” though. I don’t necessarily mean that we’re meant to find them attractive—although that’s always a bonus, to be honest. No, I mean “sexy” as in “the function of vampires in much of Western literature and cinema is very closely linked to contemporary attitudes toward sex and desire.” An attractive vampire functions as an easy shorthand.

Where do I get the idea that vampires and sex are somehow related? After all, vampires and vampire-adjacent creatures have stalked through various cultures’ folklore for generations before they ever appeared in print. I can’t speak to how those tales connect to sex. However, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula set much of the precedent for fictional vampires to come, and the novel is rife with allusions to and anxieties regarding desire. The novel’s protagonist, Jonathan Harker, leaves behind his fiancée, Mina Murray, when he travels to Transylvania in order help the mysterious Count Dracula purchase property in England. While perhaps Jonathan doesn’t feel Mina’s absence as keenly in the face of the bizarre things he’s witnessing in the castle, it does spring to reader’s mind when Dracula’s three unnamed wives enter the scene. “All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips,” Jonathan later writes in his journal. “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” In spite of his terror, Jonathan is overwhelmed with desire. And when he finally escapes Dracula’s castle, he sends for Mina and marries her as soon as he can…while convalescing from the ordeal in a Budapest hospital.

It could be argued that it was the near-death experience that prompted Jonathan to secure his and Mina’s relationship, but the Murray-Harker relationship continues to be under threat for the rest of the novel. The brides make one more appearance toward the end of the novel, while Jonathan, Mina, Professor Van Helsing et al. are on their quest to vanquish Dracula. They appear to Mina in the night, bidding her in “sweet tingling tones” to come and be their sister, Dracula’s fourth bride.

But even if we set the vampire wives aside, the Count’s influence still slithers its way into the novel’s romantic pairings. After Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra rejects two suitors in rapid succession and accepts the third, she quickly falls prey to Dracula’s supernatural charms. Undead, Lucy is “wanton,” a “devilish mockery of [her former] sweet purity.” She attempts to induct her fiancé into Dracula’s domain, but it’s the disgust for this new, overtly sexual Lucy that makes it easier for him and Van Helsing to dispatch her to true death. Dracula is far from deterred; in fact, he sneaks into the Harkers’ bedroom and forces Mina to drink his blood. He literally invades their marriage bed with Jonathan still in it, incapacitated. Most horrifically, the image heavily resembles an assault.

Overall, we can trace much of the horror in Dracula to Victorian sensibilities about relationships, marriage, and sexual desire. Specifically, carnality outside of relationships that are considered “proper” is a corrupting influence. Mina, who thinks of little else but Jonathan and their friends’ quest to defeat Dracula, is able to maintain her dignity and even win her purity back after dedicating so much time and effort into being helpful. Lucy, who was being courted by and proposed to by three men at once, can only be redeemed in death.

The brides of Dracula in Dracula (1931).

Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula made some significant amendments to the novel, but sex and desire still remain relevant themes. My point still stands. Dracula’s trio of brides have an even smaller role in the film than the novel; they do little more than hover hungrily over an unconscious Renfield (who fulfills Harker’s role as Dracula’s solicitor and primary victim for a few scenes). But Dracula’s predation on Lucy and Mina carries over. Lucy falls prey to his charms and dies. Under Dracula’s sway, Mina breaks her off her engagement with John Harker and is slavishly devoted to her new master. She isn’t able to break free until Van Helsing kills Dracula.Dracula (1931)’s early 20th-century consideration of sexual anxieties is different from the Victorian context, but it still tapped into contemporary fears of desire and (in)fidelity. After all, the Hay’s Code loomed on the horizon.

Some might say that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) goes against this mold, especially with Max Schreck looking…the way he does. However, I’m not sure if Nosferatu necessarily disproves my point, especially since it’s an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Nosferatu and Dracula (the novel) share some significant plot points. Nosferatu’s Thomas Hutter, like Jonathan Harker, is an estate agent who travels abroad to Transylvania to sell a property to Count Orlok. But where Stoker’s novel gives the titular vampire a range of victims (or presumed victims, in the case of the brides), Nosferatu has one victim: Hutter’s wife, Ellen. In a sense, Nosferatu gets straight to the point. Orlok takes up residence in the Hutters’ town, and the townspeople begin dropping like flies from what physicians presume to be an unspecified plague. Ellen reads in a book of folklore that a vampire can be defeated if a pure-hearted woman distracts him with her beauty and takes it upon herself to save her town—and, more immediately, her husband. She invites Orlok in, and he’s distracted for long enough to be caught in the sun. Orlok perishes, and Ellen lives just long enough to embrace her husband one last time. It’s a bittersweet ending but still meant to be an optimistic one. Try as he might, the outsider’s desire for the wife fails to destroy the couple’s fidelity.

Bella Swan and Edward Cullen in Twilight.

With this history of fictional vampires in mind, it might be easier to see how we got from Max Schreck to a sparkly Robert Pattinson. My intention isn’t to blow the buzz around Twilight out of proportion; “it’s not that deep” is a totally valid argument. On the other hand, though, a craze this widespread and intense must speak to contemporary culture to some extent. If we continue on to Twilight in the vein of sexual anxiety, the fervor around Bella and Edward’s relationship begins to make sense. For young/teenage girls, encountering attraction and potential partners is fraught with very real dangers, as mundane as heartbreak and as major as actual violence. A vampire love interest fulfills the potential for both. Imagine all the ways this beautiful person could hurt you. Bella is in danger of losing the love of her life (or un-life, as it were) and of becoming prey to his desires—in more ways than one. And not only does the Twilight series utilize these real-life anxieties, it also spins them out into an elaborate adventure. Firmly couched in fantasy and with a rather happy finish, the series therefore functions as a space where viewers might take escapist enjoyment in this consideration of the dangers of sexual desire as it applies to young women.*

All this to say, one of the most significant ways fictional vampires function is by tapping into the sexual hang-up du jour. So, if we’re finding that vampires aren’t especially effective or interesting movie monsters anymore, maybe the solution is to have them fulfill a different purpose. What is the neurotic zeitgeist? How is our fear going to consume us?

*I’m aware that due to the construction of the original books and the films, the fantasy really only applies to a fraction of young women. For the sake of focus, I’ve chosen not to address that issue.