Psychological Perspectives on Vampire Mythology
Psychological Perspectives on Vampire Mythology(pop culture)
Through the twentieth century the psychological element of the vampire myth repeatedly captured the attention, even fascination, of psychological researchers. The widespread presence of the vampire image in human cultures led some psychologists to call the vampire an archetype—an intrapsychic psychological structure grounded in the collective unconscious. The differing major psychoanalytic interpretations help us understand the compelling fascination with narratives and images grounded in vampire mythology. This mythology rests on central metaphors of the mysterious power of human blood, images of the undead, forbidden and sexualized longings, and the ancient idea that evil is often hard to detect in the light of day. Humans have long felt that there is a sense in which evil operates like a contagious disease, spreading through defilement caused by direct contact with a carrier of a supernatural “toxin.”
Freudian Perspectives: Prior to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, even sophisticated psychologies tended to associate the realm of the undead with premodern demonological mythologies. Freudian thought legitimized the human fantasies of the undead as a topic for serious scientific research. Freud developed a modern map of the unconscious, which he saw as a repository of denied desires, impulses, and wishes of a sexual and sometimes destructively aggressive nature. In sleep we view the unconscious as a landscape inhabited by those aspects of life that go on living, the realm of the undead spoken through dreams. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, vampire narratives express in complex form the fascination—both natural and unnatural—which the living take in death and the dead. From Freud’s point of view, “All human experiences of morbid dread signify the presence of repressed sexual and aggressive wishes, and in vampirism we see these repressed wishes becoming plainly visible.” Freudians emphasize the ways in which ambivalence permeates vampire stories. Death wishes coexist with the longing for immortality. Greed and sadistic aggression coexist with a compulsively possessive expression of desire. Images of deep and shared guilt coexist with those of virginal innocence and vulnerability.
Freud and his followers noted the ways in which vampire stories reflect the unconscious world of polymorphous perverse infantile sexuality. From a Freudian point of view it is particularly striking that in Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, all the traditional mythical traits of the vampire are blended in such a way that it reflects the Oedipus complex. Count Dracula is seen as a father figure of enormous power and the entire story one of incest, necrophilia, and sadistic acting out of oral and anal fixations. According to Freud, the Oedipus complex emerges between the ages of three and five and is responsible for much unconscious guilt. Oedipal rivalry with fathers causes castration anxiety in males. Both males and females experience feelings of aggression toward the parent of the same sex and feelings of possessive erotic desire toward the parent of the opposite sex. Since conscious awareness of these feelings and associated wishes raises the anxiety level of the child to unacceptable levels, ego defenses come into play to prevent the conscious mind from becoming aware of these dangerous impulses. From the Freudian point of view, it is the function of dreams to disguise these wishes into more acceptable forms that will not wake the dreamer from sleep. Thus, a competent dream interpretation can trace dream images back to the unacceptable Oedipal wishes that underlie them. Following this belief, the vampire image is a fantasy image related to these wishes.
A classical Freudian interpretation of the vampire legend, therefore, seeks to discern the same denied Oedipal wishes in the story. Here the blending of sexuality and aggression in the vampire attack is seen as suggestive of the child’s interpretation of the primal scene (the parents having sexual intercourse). That is, the male child often fantasizes sexual contact between his parents as causing harm to the mother. From this point of view, Count Dracula’s relationship to his group of female vampires can be interpreted as an image of the father-daughter acting out of repressed incestuous strivings that continue to hold the daughter under the power of the father’s spell.
Werewolves, “pit bulls from the pounds of hell,” are another image of this same father-daughter tryst. The immature female whose own agency and autonomy are undeveloped, secretly agrees to the father’s continuing narcissistic claims to power over her life.
Clearly, Freud and his early followers were right in their assumption that the vampire myth was grounded in archaic images of repressed longings and fears. However, the classical Freudian interpretation—while containing some helpful insights—was a gross oversimplification of the psychological contents of vampire narratives. Carl Jung offered the first powerful alternative to early Freudian views.
Jungian Perspectives: Jungian psychoanalysts point to the worldwide interest in the vampire as evidence of its archetypal nature. From a Jungian perspective, the myriad varieties of vampire narratives found cross-culturally throughout history indicate that these images are not merely by-products of personal experience but are grounded in species-wide psychological structures. In other words, vampire images reflect significant experiences and issues that are universal in human lives around the world. In short, there is something about the vampire that we already understand intuitively—with the knowledge coming from deep within our psyche.
Jung believed that the vampire image could be understood as an expression of what he termed the “shadow,” those aspects of the self that the conscious ego was unable to recognize. Some aspects of the shadow were positive. But usually the shadow contained repressed wishes, anti-social impulses, morally questionable motives, childish fantasies of a grandiose nature, and other traits felt to be shameful. As Jung put it:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort.
To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.
The vampire could be seen as a projection of that aspect of the personality, which according to the conscious mind should be dead but nevertheless lives. In this way Jung interpreted the vampire as an unconscious complex that could gain control over the psyche, taking over the conscious mind like an enchantment or spell. And even when we were not overwhelmed by this unconscious complex, its presence led us to project the content of the complex onto characters in a vampire narrative. Of social importance, the image of the vampire in popular culture serves us as a useful scapegoat since—through the mechanism of projection—the vampire allows us to disown the negative aspects of our personalities. As Daryl Coats noted:
Dracula treats Mina Harker the way Jonathan Harker would like to treat her but is scared to do so. Dracula treats Lucy the way her fiance would like to treat her. The vampiric Lucy can respond to men the way the non-vampiric Lucy could not.
This Jungian interpretation of the vampire image provided significant insight into the enormous popularity of vampire stories. From this point of view, a vampire lives within each of us. We project this inner reality on both male and female persons, members of other “tribes” and ethnic groups. We all have a dim awareness that this demonic yet tragic figure is real. However, we usually fail to grasp that this outer image is an expression of an inner reality—a reality that is elusive, threatening to self and others, and that can be effectively engaged only through a combination of empathy and heroic effort.
Jung did not limit his discussion to what would be an oversimplification by suggesting that vampiric traits in others result entirely from our projections.
He observed that auto-erotic, autistic, or otherwise narcissistic personality traits can result in a personality that is in fact predatory, anti-social, and parasitic on the life energy of others. In contemporary psychology and psychiatry this type of personality is called a “narcissistic personality disorder.” This clinical syndrome contains the most important clues to the psychological reality represented in the vampire image.
Otto Kernberg noted that narcissistic personalities are characterized by a “very inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from others.” Capable of only a shallow emotional life they have difficulty experiencing any empathy for the feelings of others. Their ability to enjoy life, except for their experiences of their own grandiose fantasies and the tributes that they can manipulate others into giving them, is severely limited.
They easily become restless and bored unless new sources are feeding their self esteem. They envy what others possess and tend to idealize the few people from whom they desire food for their narcissistic needs. They depreciate and treat with contempt any from whom they do not expect nurturance. According to Kernberg, “their relationships with other people are clearly exploitative and parasitic.” Kernberg’s description of the narcissistic personality sounds as if it were crafted to describe vampires:
It is as if they feel they have the right to control and possess others and to exploit them without guilt feelings—and behind the surface, which very often is charming and engaging, one senses coldness and ruthlessness.
Jungian interpreters often highlight the parallels between the vampire image and the characteristics of narcissistic psychopathology. Daryl Coats, for example, has noted that the vampire is both narcissistic and autistic. He emphasizes that the vampire experiences “narcissistic self-destruction as a result of their intensely selfish desires.” Jungian analyst Julia McAfee has focused on the vampire as an image of the shadow of the narcissistic mother.
The narcissistic mother, while appearing on the surface to have good will and a nurturing attitude toward the child, in fact drains the energy of the child and weakens the child through subtle (and not so subtle) emotional exploitation.
This pattern provides insight into the psychological experiences that underlie the numerous folktales of vampires preying on children. As we shall see below, vampiric parents have always been a widespread human phenomenon—and there is reason to believe that the incidence of such predatory behavior toward children is increasing.
The Vampire and the Culture of Narcissism: Although Jung and subsequent Jungian interpreters have noted these and other narcissistic aspects of vampire myths, they did not adequately explore narcissistic psychopathology, the chief psychological dynamic underlying vampire narratives and the major reason for the current burgeoning fascination with the vampire image. However, others assumed the lead in psychoanalytic research into pathological narcissism and its social formation as a “culture of narcissism.” In his book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch diagnosed the rapidly spreading climate of moral self-absorption that has emerged in the wake of modernization and secularization. Our contemporary penchant for narcissistic self-indulgence has resulted from the eclipse of the Protestant work ethic with its emphasis on public involvement and community values. Lasch also noted that contemporary alterations in culture also indicated a fundamental shift in our psychological development.
Peter Homans, building on Lasch’s insight, suggested “that the dominant or modal personality of our culture has shifted to a narcissistic psychological organization.” He tied this recent phenomenon to the process of a gradual erosion of a religious view of the world. Homans further noted that the collapse of the Protestant ethic as a bulwark against pathological self-involvement was only the last in a long line of cultural and religious developments leading to today’s increasing narcissism. Here we begin to discern the chief psychological dynamic underlying the increasing popularity of vampire images and narratives. “If our society is a culture of narcissistic self-involvement, then the vampire image is a perfect icon to express the psychological character configuration underlying it.”
Vampirism and Narcissistic Psychopathology—Perspectives from Psychoanalytic Self Psychology: Both Lasch and Homans have emphasized the importance of the contribution of psychoanalytic self psychology in their analysis of the culture of narcissism. They built upon the insights of such theorists as Alice Miller, D. W. Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, and Ernest Wolf who, in their analysis of narcissistic pathology, provide a more adequate understanding of the vampiric metaphor, its myth, and meaning in contemporary culture. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller has written extensively on the ways in which narcissistic mothers prey on their children. In her best-selling The Drama of the Gifted Child and other books Miller describes in depth the ways in which an emotionally immature mother can reverse the appropriate flow of nurturing—expecting the child to be whatever the parent needs for the parent’s own satisfaction. This creates in the child a compliant but false self—an empty shell that, though it appears to be functional and successful, is in fact covering an extremely enfeebled, needy, and fragile core.
D. W. Winnicott, famed British psychoanalyst, wrote extensively on the concept of the false self, which developed in response to an inadequately nurturant early emotional environment. It was, however, psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut who became the chief interpreter of narcissistic personalities. The work of Kohut, Wolf, and their colleagues offers us the best understanding of the psychodynamics that underlie the vampire narratives. What goes wrong to cause an individual to develop a narcissistic personality disorder? As Kohut emphasized, the development of a “normal” personality requires a creative interplay between the innate potentials of the child’s self and the emotional environment that is created by those who are the primary caregivers of the child. The emerging self of the child contains infantile potentials for mature self-esteem and a cohesive sense of the self. But the environment of the child must evoke and support the development of those potentials if the self of the child is to mature into a centered and vigorous personality. Among the essentials of an adequate nurturing environment are: idealizable adults who will allow intimacy and an empowering merger with their calmness, and nurturant significant others who will “mirror” the child (i.e., recognize and affirm the independence and value of the child’s emerging self).
Kohut asserted that an inadequate nurturing environment causes significant damage in the form of “narcissistic wounds.” The development of the self is arrested and the emerging self is left in a weakened condition in an ongoing struggle with overwhelming longings and unmet emotional needs. When normal development is disturbed in this way, the resulting state of emotional disequilibrium necessitates that the individual seek to compensate for the resulting deficit or weakness in the structure of the self. Therefore, the person who has not successfully built a psychological internal structure remains pathologically needy and dependent upon others to perform functions he or she cannot execute. Others must be “used” in various ways to bolster a fragile sense of self and to attempt to fill an inner emptiness. This primal dependency is at the root of “vampiric” predatory patterns in relationships.
Symptoms resulting from such emotional disturbances have characteristic features. Patients often report feeling depressed, depleted, and drained of energy. They report feelings of emptiness, dulled emotions, inhibited initiative, and not being completely real. At work they may find themselves constricted in creativity and unproductive. In social interaction they may have difficulty in forming and sustaining interpersonal relationships. They may become involved in delinquent and anti-social activities. They often lack empathy for the feelings and needs of others, have attacks of uncontrolled rage or pathological lying. Often a person with such narcissistic wounds will become hypochondriacally preoccupied with bodily states. They will experience bodily sensations of being cold, drained, and empty. These clinical descriptions, of course, parallel some of the major symptoms of the victims of vampires as described in vampire narratives. However, we shall see below that the tie between narcissistic pathology and the vampire is much tighter than merely sharing the same set of symptoms.
Narcissistic wounds and resulting pathology manifests in a wide spectrum of clinical syndromes ranging from psychosis to narcissistic character disorders. Several narcissistic disorders described by Kohut and Wolf are relevant for an inquiry into the vampire myth. What they denoted as the “mirror-hungry personalities” is of special importance. Mirror-hungry personalities “thirst for self objects whose confirming and admiring responses will nourish their famished self.” Because of their deep-felt lack of worth and self esteem, these persons have a compulsive need to evoke the attention and energy of others. A few establish relationships that fuel their needs for long periods, but they also engage in a constant search for new sources or supplies of emotional nourishment. Even genuinely loving, accepting, and nurturing responses quickly become experienced as inadequate.
Thus, Wolf elaborates:
Despite their discomfort about their need to display themselves and despite their sometimes severe stage fright and shame they must go on trying to find new self objects whose attention and recognition they seek to induce.
Such mirror-hungry personalities often manifest arrogant superiority. If this arrogance is not affirmed and accepted they will often withdraw into what self psychologists call “a grandiose retreat” seeking refuge in isolation in order to shore up their self esteem. Kohut and Wolf have noted that such personalities may result either from a lack of mirroring attention in childhood or from a problem with the parent’s attempts to give such attention. For example, when a parent gives a child attention, the parent may fail to align that attention to the immediate needs of the child. Instead, the parent may claim the child’s attention not to nurture the child, but to bolster the parent’s enfeebled self by reenforcing the dependence of the child on the parent. In any case, the child does not receive the kind of mirroring attention that allows for the development of an independent and vigorous self. The intense infantile needs for adequate mirroring will persist in the unconscious of the adult in the form of deep and compulsive longings.
It should be clear from the above description that the powerful appeal of vampire narratives grow out of the human experience of mirror-hunger both in parent and child. When this psychologically archaic hunger for affirmation is seen in the parent, it results in predatory emotional exploitation of the child. Such exploitation is an increasingly widespread experience and undoubtedly lies behind the growing fascination with the vampire image. It is these “vampiric parents” that were noted above in the work of Julia McAfee and Alice Miller.
The dynamics of mirror-hunger also helps us to understand the combination of grandiosity and immortality in the vampire mythology. When the child does not experience adequate mirroring, its infantile grandiosity cannot be transformed into a mature psychological structure identified by its more realistic sense of self-esteem. Adult un-transformed grandiosity makes unrealistic claims on others. There are accompanying fantasies of being able to fly, being invisible, being able to change shape at will—all capacities of a vampire. That the vampire does not, and cannot die can be seen as the way in which grandiose feelings of invulnerability take possession of the mirror-hungry person when archaic needs break through into consciousness. The more disappointment experienced by the mirror-hungry person, the more they resort to the grandiose retreat from social involvement.
What is Dracula’s remote castle on the top of a difficult to reach mountain if it is not a “grandiose retreat?” Dracula is not satisfied in his isolation. His hunger drives him in search for someone to fulfill his longings. So the retreat does not satisfy, but intensifies the experience of chronic emptiness and longing, and eventually to another expedition to find “new blood.” The effect of a vampiric visitation is clearly experienced as a drain of energy on the part of the prey, along with a kind of claustrophobic suffocation resulting from the “depletion” of the blood. Mirror-hungry personalities often manifest a kind of “counter-dependency.” That is, they will often seek to avoid expressions of emotional need and dependency.
Underlying this reluctance to admit chronic unmet needs to self or others is the fear of a disastrous, even fatal, depletion of the person who is seen as a potential source of gratification. Thus we can understand Count Dracula’s ambivalence with regard to his claiming Mina as one of the undead. If she is exploited, then she is depleted and no longer an adequate source. Therefore the prospect of “having” can be experienced simultaneously as a threat of “losing.” Self psychologists often refer to such fears of destroying the nourishing self object as one of the reasons for the “defense against self object longings.” A person may feel, “my needs for mirroring and narcissistic supplies are monstrous—if I gratify them, they may destroy you. Therefore I must not let myself be aware of these toxic needs.” This escape into denial is paralleled in the Dracula’s daylight retreat into his native soil (mother earth) brought from Transylvania and placed in his residence at Carfax.
While the vampire sleeps during the daylight of consciousness, in the enclosure of unconsciousness—symbolized by the coffin—he sleeps unaware of his unmet longings for maternal nurture. This dynamic illustrates the central conflict of the vampire drama. There is both desperation for an infusion of emotional nutriments, “lifeblood,” if the fragmentation of the self is to be avoided—and revulsion at the “monstrous” neediness that this desperate longing manifests in the inner emotional life. Although the conscious mind may repress awareness of these urges, we can see here that in the vampiric personality narcissistic rage and related envy manifests in a compulsive desire to seek the destruction of the independent life of the other. The other has been experienced as possessing “the Good,” life, energy, well-being, attention, etc. The envying person experiences emptiness within, intolerable longing for something that will fill the void, and the desire to take the other’s “life” from them—thereby hoping to gain enough “nutriments” to avoid the disintegration of the self.
This self psychological interpretation sheds some useful light on the elements of sexuality so integral to the vampire narratives. A hallmark of vampire mythology has been the powerful erotic imagery accompanying the vampire attack. The sexual contact portrayed in these stories utilizes images of the innocent virginal woman or youth becoming the target of compulsive bloodlust (e.g., narratives that merge engagement in sexual intercourse with the acquisition of bite wounds to the throat and breast). Sexuality and aggression fuse in a manner that leads to the infection and death of the victim. Psychologically speaking, narcissistic wounds often lead the individual to seek narcissistic nourishment through sexual activity. A facade of sexual attraction and genital sexual behavior masks a quest for what Freudians have called oral (not genital) gratification. The compulsive quality of this sexual behavior is grounded in the individual’s narcissistic psychopathology. Today this pathology is widely understood to be the emotional foundation of sexual addictions. The Dracula story captures this combination of apparently erotic behaviors that are, in fact, expressions of a deep inner emptiness, not human affection.
The Social Psychology of Intergroup Hate: The Vampire Image and the Mechanism of Scapegoating: It would be a mistake to assume that the psychological importance of the image of the vampire relates only to intrapsychic, familial, and small group interpersonal interactions. The projection of this image onto other social groups is undoubtedly one of the powerful psychosocial mechanisms that fuel malignant racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and other expressions of scapegoating with resultant hate crimes.
In the dynamic of scapegoating, we find someone or some group that can be used as a receptacle for the projection of the vampiric image. Then the scapegoat can be blamed, cast out of the community, and/or persecuted with various degrees of violence. This externalization of the vampiric image enables the person or “in-group” to feel better—guiltless or “cleansed.” As a social dynamic such scapegoating both allocates blame and seems to “inoculate” against further disappointments by evicting or eliminating the cause of one’s “disease.” Racist rhetoric is frequently fueled by the projection of the image of the vampire onto other social groups. An example of this recently became international news when a leader of an American Black Muslim group publicly characterized Jewish people as “bloodsuckers,” imaging them as parasites draining the lifeblood of the black community. The projection of this image enables the dehumanization of its target group—allowing the rationalizations needed to justify ruthless racial discrimination and violence.
Such racist rhetoric is usually grounded in what self psychologists call “narcissistic rage”. Narcissistic rage differs from anger or “righteous indignation.” Anger always seeks positive changes in relationship in a context of justice and potential reconciliation—not the destruction of the other party. Narcissistic rage seeks the utter destruction of the independent personhood of the other—either through death or ruthless enslave ment and exploitation. Thus the vampire within projects its image onto the other—thereby justifying its own predatory intentions.
Conclusions—Emptiness, Envy, and the Vampiric Personality: In surveying the development of the major psychoanalytic perspectives on the vampire, the attempt was made to trace the manner in which each school of thought, out of its understanding of fundamental psychodynamic processes, sought to interpret vampirism. Each of these perspectives contributed to the understanding of the rich mythological and symbolic narratives of vampire lore and one by one built the foundation upon which rests the more promising contemporary interpretation by self psychology, which views the vampire as a primary icon representing essential aspects of narcissistic psychopathology. Self psychology calls attention to the significance of inner emptiness, the longing for emotional nutriments that can prevent disintegration of the self, and the resulting envy that sees such nutriments (the Good) in others and wishes to take it from them. Contemporary psychoanalytic self psychology in the tradition of Heinz Kohut and Ernest Wolf, in offering a more complete psychological understanding of the origins, major forms, and manifestations of such vampiric psychological illness, also provides the necessary therapeutic insights and techniques needed if healing of vampiric and vampirized personalities is to occur.