Rational or not, we are horrified by bed bugs—and vampires. Both creatures are nocturnal, invade our beds, suck our blood, defy death, and are monstrously “other.” My connecting our horror of bed bugs to that of vampires is not meant to make light of those who suffer the psychological trauma of an infestation. Indeed, quite the opposite.
Jeffrey Weinstock has undertaken a fascinating, scholarly study of why vampires are so persistent in human culture (The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema, New York: Wallflower, 2011)—and these perennial qualities align with the biology of bed bugs to create a perfect, psychological storm.
According to Weinstock, vampire narratives are invariably about sex. These creatures are driven by erotic desire to consume the life force of their victims. Bed bugs are less lascivious, but their unwanted intimacy is similarly appalling. Our beds are where we lie naked and make love. Indeed, some people perceive these insects as six-legged rapists referring to a sense of being violated.
Weinstock tells us that even when it seems that the vampire is destroyed, some essence persists and can be revived. The anxiety afflicting those who have had bed bugs comes from the sense that even after extermination the insects aren’t really gone, that they are biding their time in the dark recesses of the world. Web-based chat sites are filled with speculation regarding how long a bed bug lives (in reality, 2 to 18 months) and how long they can lie in wait. As one person put it: “The worst thing about bed bugs is that they live forever—up to a year without feeding!”
The vampire is a distillation of whatever a society considers alien, according to Weinstock. For example, Dracula was about (among other things) how the culturally inferior ‘others’ from the backwaters of central Europe infiltrated the heart of the empire. And insects are ideal psychological frameworks on which to erect modern us-them distinctions.
Thinking of cockroaches and lice, we believe that only those lacking hygiene are prone to vermin. Although there is no actual connection between bed bugs and cleanliness, to have an infestation is to risk social isolation. Individuals are shunned, becoming ‘other’ along with the vermin.
Among the most explicitly “not us” people in contemporary society are the undocumented aliens, so it is not surprising that bed bugs have been blamed on immigrants. Although the outbreak likely emerged from within our borders, we have also claimed that tourists brought the pests with them.
So just as surely as the name Dracula conjures up a set of shared images in western culture, the mention of bed bugs evokes a kind of real-life horror. These insects have truly infested the collective mind of America.