By Sophie Chen, published on July 20, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
We're suckers for bloodsuckers--no shame in that, it's an evolutionary story as old as time. According to Helen Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University, "vampires are basically doing everything for women." Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, which boasts over 42 million books sold and a second much-anticipated movie, is only the start of another cycle in our on-again, off-again cultural obsession with fangs.
Bookstores are flooded with titles like Vampire Academy, and on the small screen, True Blood was welcomed into its second season by HBO's highest ratings since The Sopranos. No matter the differences in medium or audience or theme, there is always that common thread: They're about vampires, they're about romance.
Your run-of-the-mill romance starring an idealized Fabio-esque male has a lot of appeal to begin with. "They are for females what porn is for males," says Michael Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville.
Dim the lights for night and drop a bloodthirsty creature into the mix, and it becomes all the more irresistible from an evolutionary standpoint. Women are programmed to respond to males who have the best chances of successfully fathering and rearing children. Vampires are often depicted as tall and handsome, a combination that signals good genes and high testosterone, and thus, analytical skill, directness and decisiveness. Vampires are also frequently portrayed as wealthy and powerful, which further appeals to women because it indicates access to the resources that help ensure the survival of their young.
And then there is that minor detail: that some vampires can toss cars around like dice or live forever. What? They're not human? The fact that vampires are novel and dangerous only adds to their attraction. Things that are new and unpredictable activate the brain's reward system, driving up dopamine and inducing feelings of euphoria.
Even these evolutionarily perfect specimens and their chiseled edges can't carry the whole show; the romantic tension is the huge draw. Enter the unsuspecting mortal, an Everywoman that Plain Janes from Chicago to Chattahoochee can relate to, and the stage is set for the classic romance novel theme, utilized by Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm to great effect: forbidden love.
Whether it goes against parents' wishes or crosses class lines--the prince and the innkeeper's daughter--forbidden love is the most intense variety. Again, dopamine plays a role. Beyond pleasure, the hormone is also associated with focus, motivation, and goal-oriented behavior. It's called "frustration attraction," says Fisher. "When you can't get somebody, the dopamine system keeps on cooking, giving you the focus and motivation to keep trying."
As with all cultural phenomenons, there would be nothing without the fans, mostly women, and probably a certain type of woman. They may be high-estrogen personality types, guesses Fisher. The type attracted to high testosterone alpha males--like vampires.
Furthermore, through vampire romances, these women can plumb the labyrinthine depths of the male psyche from the safety of their reading nooks. From their perspective, Cunningham theorizes, the vampires that populate these dark fantasy worlds mirror the men of the real world: complex, suffering creatures who must battle their warring impulses to harm and to protect, who need women to recognize their torment, care about them, and trust them.
"Behind every jerk," says Cunningham, "is a twisted, vulnerable guy."