Vampirism is Narcissism

In the fictional and non-fictional ‘vamp-lit’, there are several theories concerning the natural origin of the vampire. One of the most compelling (and ‘most frequently cited’) is the rabies-vampire link. As Mark C. Jenkins writes in his book, Vampire Forensics:

In 1998, […] Spanish neurologist Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso made a correlation between reports of rabies outbreaks in and around the Balkans — especially a devastating one in dogs, wolves, and other animals that plagued Hungary from 1721 to 1728 — and the “vampire epidemics” that erupted shortly thereafter

According to Dr. Gomez-Alonso, ‘nearly 25 percent of rabid men have a tendency to bite other people’, and since the virus is carried in saliva, bites almost ensure transmission. Other similarities between rabies and vampirism include the infamous aversion to garlic: ‘Infected people display a hypersensitive response to any pronounced olfactory stimulation, which would naturally include the pungent smell of garlic’; and the aversion to mirrors:

Strong odors or visual stimuli trigger spasms of the face and vocal muscles of those with rabies, and this in turn induces hoarse groans, bared teeth, and a bloody frothing at the mouth. What rabies sufferer would not shrink from such a reflection? Indeed, Dr. Gomez-Alonso stated, in the past, “a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror.”

But perhaps the most convincing link concerns the ‘nocturnal habits and erotic predations’ of the afflicted:

the disease afflicts the centers of the brain that help regulate sleep cycles and the sex drive — keeping you up all night, quite literally, as some reports suggested that rabies victims had intercourse up to 30 times a night. Before French microbiologist Louis Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies in 1885, the ultimate outcome of the disease was mania, dementia, and death

The other proposed natural causes include consumption, paraphilia and even odd forms of corporal decomposition. Clearly, there is a strong desire to locate a medical cause and thus demystify the folklore. But even these sober efforts speak to the appeal of the supernatural vampire. As folklorist Michael Bell points out, ‘What better food for the imagination than a creature that incorporates sex, blood, violence, shape-shifting, superhuman power, and eternal life?’.

Medical causes might explain the development of the lore, but they do not explain our fascination with the vampire — which only seems to be intensifying. As Jenkins points out, ‘American popular culture is in the midst of a vampire epidemic that has sunk its fangs into fashion, film, television, and publishing’. In order to understand this current fascination, we shouldn’t focus on the origin of the myth (its point of departure), but rather, its point of arrival; not where does the vampire archetype come from, but what does the vampire archetype represent today?

The answer to this question is so obvious that it seems no one has bothered to make the connection. Remove the supernatural garb (cape and high-collar included) and the vampire turns out to be a prototypical narcissist. Like the vampire, the narcissist is an object of great fascination — Freud refers to them as ‘magnetically attractive’. But as with the vampire, this fascination is ambivalent. British clergyman and occultist, Montague Summers, speaks of the vampire’s ‘fearful fascination’. This is also applicable in the case of narcissism. As Camille Paglia says of the narcissistic femme fatale:

Her cool unreachability beckons, fascinates, and destroys. She is not a neurotic but, if anything, a psychopath. That is, she has an amoral affectlessness, a serene indifference to the suffering of others, which she invites and dispassionately observes as tests of her power

The Latin fascinare, “to enchant, bewitch, charm,” is, as Paglia notes, related to the Greek baskainein, “to use ill words” as in slander but also “to bewitch by spells or by means of an evil eye”. This is precisely how the vampire operates:

The vampire’s power to fascinate derives from the snake’s legendary ability to immobilize its prey by fixing its eyes upon it. The fear freezing an animal in its tracks and the fear paralyzing a person beneath the vampire’s gaze are one and the same. It is an emanation of the cruel hierarchy of biology

For the narcissist, the world is a mirror; therefore the narcissist’s enchanting gaze is a self-reflection. It threatens to absorb the recipient. A good example of this occurs in Oscar Wilde’s narcissistic tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray, when the artist Basil Howard encounters Dorian:

I suddenly became conscious that some one was looking at me. I turned half-way round, and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray. Then– but I don’t know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that Fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid, and turned to quit the room. It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice. I take no credit to myself for trying to escape

Again, that ambivalent ‘fascination’. When their eyes meet, Howard experiences ‘a curious sensation of terror’. Something tells him that he is ‘on the verge of a terrible crisis’, that he could expect ‘exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows’. Like a vampire, Dorian’s ‘seductive force both lures in and warns away’ (Paglia).

Howard’s fear is that he will be subsumed by Dorian: ‘if I allowed it to do so, [his mere personality] would absorb my whole nature’. He senses this and instinctively flees. It is not because he is not attracted to him, but because he is too attracted to him. He feels himself ready to disappear into Dorian, to become part of him. He flees out of basic self-preservation.

The narcissist’s ‘numinous aura’ attracts. But the narcissist also feeds on this attraction. As Christopher Lasch writes in his landmark text, The Culture of Narcissism (1979), the narcissist ‘depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration’. Note Lasch’s cannibalistic language: the narcissist is ‘ravenous for admiration’, ‘unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences’. Like the vampire, the narcissist lives ‘an almost parasitic existence’. But instead of blood, it is love the narcissist requires.

In ‘Dust’, a song by RnB singer Rimon (above), the vampire is implicitly a narcissist hunting ‘new blood’; i.e. ‘new love’. The song fittingly begins in flight: ‘I’m runnin’, I’m runnin’’. Like Howard, the singer senses her vulnerability and flees:

[Pre-Chorus]

My neck filled with hickeys and bruises

As soon as I met your maneuvers

Like a vampire in the dark

Huntin’ for new blood, for new blood

Huntin’ for new love, for new love

To leave them new scars, yeah

To leave them new scars, yeah

To leave them new

[Chorus]

My veins filled with dust

No pulses but rust

Used to circulate blood

Until you swallowed my trust

The similarities between the narcissist and the vampire extend beyond this ‘fearful fascination’. The psychoanalytical origin of narcissism also bears resemblance to the classic vampire conversion. According to Freud’s theory of sexual development, all infants begin as narcissists. This is called ‘primary narcissism’; i.e. when the infant does not yet perceive others as having an existence separate from their own. They then pass through what should be an intermediate stage — ‘secondary narcissism’ — in which the infant ‘begins by taking himself, his own body, as his love-object, and only subsequently proceeds from this to the choice of some person other than himself as his object’. This process eventually ends in ‘object-love’ (i.e. love directed at another person). The pathological narcissist is someone who is stuck at the stage of ‘secondary narcissism’. As Lasch points out, this is a defensive action on the part of individual:

Secondary narcissism […] “attempts to annul the pain of disappointed [object] love” and to nullify the child’s rage against those who do not respond immediately to his needs; against those who are now seen to respond to others beside the child and who therefore appear to have abandoned him. Pathological narcissism, “which cannot be considered simply a fixation at the level of normal primitive narcissism,” arises only when the ego has developed to the point of distinguishing itself from surrounding objects

‘Disappointed object-love’ — which is essentially heartbreak — can create a narcissistic personality in the same way a vampire turns a human into an unfeeling monster. As Dr. Van Helsing says in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), ‘to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and souls of those we love best’. More often than not, ‘disappointed object-love’ occurs in romantic encounters with a narcissist. Thus the vampire/ narcissist destroys its victim or turns them (in terms of appearances, the difference is subtle). The recent proliferation of ‘narcissist survival groups’ speaks to the lasting damage a narcissist can create.

Narcissism is also linked to vampiric immortality — albeit less supernaturally. Lasch emphasises throughout his book that the narcissist is ‘terrified of aging and death’, but I will take this a step further: the charismatic narcissist actually ages slower. Recent findings from the field of social genomics suggests that dominance and prestige (two traits often associated with the vampire/ narcissist) improve overall health and promote anti-aging. Wilde must have intuitively grasped this in his depiction of the immortal Dorian who remains young and beautiful while his portrait ages and records his cruel sins.

Dominance and prestige also reflect the two contradictory aspects that contribute to the appeal of the vampire: violent bloodlust and aristocratic refinement. As Jenkins notes, the vampire enjoys a ‘special prestige in the pantheon of ghouls’:

Given the choice, says Peter Nicholls, editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it’s better to be a vampire than a werewolf or a zombie: Vampires are aristocratic, drinking only the most refined substances, usually blood. In the iconography of horror, the vampire stands for sex. The werewolf, who stands for instability, shapeshifting, lack of self-control, is middle-class and lives in a dog-eat-dog world. The zombie or ghoul, who shambles and rots, is working-class, inarticulate, dangerous, deprived, wishing only to feed on those who are better off; in the iconography of horror the zombie stands for the exploited worker

However, the vampires that populate the recent reimaginations escape this typecasting. The vampires of today, or at least the popular male leads, are eminently redeemable. Contrary to Paglia’s assertion that ‘vampire and conscience are mutually exclusive’, the examples of good vampires abound: there is Louis in Interview with a Vampire, Stefan in The Vampire Diaries, Bill in True Blood, and of course, Edward in Twilight. I believe this redeemability has less to do with the vampire archetype and more to do with its recent appropriation by pseudo-(and not so pseudo) erotica. It is an extension of the primal ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fantasy; in which women seek out dangerous (and thus competent) men who have learned to control their violent impulses.

As observed in my ‘Narcissistic Love’ series, narcissism is inherently androgynous, and the same could be said of the vampire (cats can also be added to this list). Camille Paglia speaks of the ‘latent vampirism’ of female physiology, and also notes that ‘the historical attribution of narcissism to women is another true myth’. Male vampires/ narcissists are thus androgynes, with the allure and ‘cool unreachability’ of the femme fatale.

The only objection to this narcissist-vampire analogy that I can anticipate concerns the vampire’s infamous aversion to mirrors. In contrast with this motif, the mirror is the very emblem of narcissism. However, in most cases, the vampire simply lacks a reflection, which dovetails well with the notion that narcissists need others in order to see their grandiose image ‘reflected in the attentions of others’.

The central premise of Lasch’s book, which was written in the late 1970s, is that pathological narcissism is becoming the dominant mode in American culture. Forty years later, Lasch’s prognosis seems premature. Not only is narcissism rampant, it is also increasingly idealised in the classic ‘cult of personality’/ celebrity worship. I argue that the recent re-popularisation of the vampire is a symptom of this idealised narcissism. The narcissist feeds on love and attention, but they are themselves exploited for the same. In True Blood, vampire blood is an incomparable drug (akin to the affection reluctantly granted by a narcissist) — there is even a scene in which a vampire is tied down with silver (which is vampire kryptonite) and inhumanely drained of blood. Given their ‘authoritarian glamour’, their ‘supernatural self-assurance’, and their ‘obliviousness to human suffering’, the exploitation of the vampire/ narcissist is not often discussed. But in Jay Z’s ‘Monster’ verse, he makes mention of this parasitic symbiosis:

Everybody want to know what my Achilles heel is

Love, I don’t get enough of it

All I get is these vampires and bloodsuckers

All I see is these niggas I made millionaires

Millin’ about, spillin’ they feelings in the air

All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs

Tryna draw blood from my ice-cold veins

I smell a massacre

Seems to be the only way to back you bastards up

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’