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On Valentine's Day, we dare to ask it: why are vampires sexy?


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Exactly 90 years ago this Valentine's Day, Hollywood brought us the swooniest, sexiest, most romantic film ever.

It was "Dracula."

That's right —  "Dracula." And that's right — Feb. 14, 1931. Valentine's Day was when it opened. Not Halloween. And not by accident.

"The strangest passion the world has ever known!" was the original tag line. Vampires have been pop culture's favorite studs ever since.

Who was the last non-sexy vampire you saw on the screen?

Not Robert Pattinson in "Twilight." Not Paul Wesley in "Vampire Diaries." Not Stephen Moyer in "True Blood." Not Wesley Snipes in "Blade." Not Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in "Interview with the Vampire." Not Eddie Murphy in "Vampire in Brooklyn." Not Jason Patric in "The Lost Boys." Not Frank Langella (or Rudolf Martin, Gerard Butler, Dominic Purcell or Luke Evans) as Dracula.

"He lived on the kisses of youth!" ran the original 1931 ads for "Dracula." "Romance! Mystery! Thrills!"

Bela Lugosi, who set the style for the role, might not be 2021's idea of a dish. But in 1931, when he first played Dracula on film, he was considered quite the hottie.

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"Women wrote me letters," Lugosi told an interviewer at the time. "Ah, what letters women wrote me! Young girls. Women from seventeen to thirty. Letters of a horrible hunger…And through these letters, couched in terms of shuddering, transparent fear, there ran the hideous note of — hope. "

"They hoped that I was DRACULA. They hoped that my love was the love of DRACULA…Death, the final triumphant lover."

According to Lugosi, 97 percent of his fan mail was from women.

You might almost forget that a vampire is a living corpse, feeding on the blood of humans. The transformation of this fetid creature into a Casanova in a cape is one of the odder developments in pop culture.

Looks aren't everything

"The original vampires were not sexy," said horror writer Linda D. Addison, a five-time Bram Stoker Award winner. "They were ugly as could be."

Descriptions of the vampire in folklore (there are variants of the vampire myth in almost every culture of the world, going back to the ancient Greeks) are mostly nasty.

"An emaciated face, with a phosphorescent pallor," wrote Ornella Volta in his 1962 book "The Vampire." "Vampires also have extremely long finger nails, pointed ears like bats, foetid breath, and move jerkily, showing a tendency to suffer from epilepsy."

Sound like a right-swipe to you?

Only one vampire film, to date, has depicted the creature that grandmothers of Central Europe talked about, in hushed tones, by the fire. Max Schreck in "Nosferatu" (1922) — the earliest movie "Dracula" — was the first and practically last ugly vampire in the movies (the 1979 "Nosferatu" remake" and the 1979 "Salem's Lot" miniseries both borrowed Schreck's makeup).

It is also noteworthy that movie vampires tend to be men.

Lady vampires do figure in literature (Sheridan Le Fanu 's 1872 "Carmilla," Anne Rice's 1988 "Queen of the Damned"). But in movies they are usually secondary characters — the women in Dracula's harem, for instance. Adina, the female vampire in Addison's 2004 story "Whispers During Still Moments," was one attempt to address that imbalance.

"I wanted something different," Addison said. "In my story, the vampire was from central Africa, and the vampire-hunter was Chinese."

She-vampires, of a sort, did have their day on screen. "Vamps," femmes fatales who lured men to their doom, figured in hundreds of silent films. Though not literal blood-suckers, they did set the movie fashion for vampires as sexual predators. And the most famous of them, Theda Bara, got her start in Fort Lee.

"She was tremendously popular," said Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission. It was at Fort Lee's Fox Studios that Bara made her sensational debut as "The Vampire" in 1915's "A Fool There Was" (in 2006 the town dedicated a "Theda Bara Way."). 

"This lady destroyed men," Meyers said. "She didn't suck the blood of men literally, but she ruined their lives. They lost their businesses, they lost their families. There's something similar to a vampire in that."

Makeover

So how did vampires, hideous creatures with the world's worst eating disorder, turn into everybody's favorite dreamboat?

The story starts — as these things often do — with a volcano.

In April, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, filling the air with millions of tons of dust and debris, and affecting the world's climate for more than a year afterwards. The global temperature actually dropped by three degrees. "The year without a summer" — 1816 — ruined picnic plans worldwide.

"It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and the incessant rain often confined us for days to the house," recalled Mary Shelley. She and her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Shelley, were cooped up in their Swiss chateau in 1816, in the company of their friend, the poet Lord Byron, and his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori.

To pass the time, they decided to have a little contest. Who could write the best ghost story?

The winner, "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley, appeared in print two years later. But the runner-up was almost as influential.

Polidori's "The Vampyre" is little read today. It was, however, a sensation at the time. "Lord Ruthven," the "vampyre" of the title, was modeled on Lord Byron — a notorious Lothario. "Mad, bad and dangerous to know," one girlfriend famously called him.

Dr. Polidori may have been settling a score with the famous poet. Because Lord Ruthven was a bit of a caricature.

This vampire was not a loathsome walking corpse, but a handsome, aloof aristocrat, irresistible — and fatal — to women. "In spite of the deadly hue of his face…though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions," Polidori wrote.

It was this new, dashing image of the vampire that, with the help of stage and opera versions, swept across Europe. All because of a little bad weather, and one man's grudge against his boss.

Stoker's Count Dracula came out of this Byronic tradition. If anything, Stoker tried to walk it back. In the 1897 novel "Dracula," the vampire — though not the cadaverous monster of the old tales — is no Chris Hemsworth. "A tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot," is how Stoker describes him (later Dracula gets younger).

Like Polidori, Stoker based his vampire on his employer. Dracula was inspired by the actor Sir Henry Irving, then pushing 60. Too old and distinguished, certainly, to play any such ridiculous character as Count Dracula. Though that didn't keep Stoker, his assistant at the time, from begging him to. "He just laughs at me!" Stoker lamented.

But the idea of the vampire as a bloodsucking Romeo, at this late date, couldn't be put back in the box. By the time "Dracula" became a Broadway hit in 1927 — starring Lugosi — the Count had become a clean-shaven lady-killer. Pretty much what he's been ever since.

Thrills in the night

A vampire is, bottom line, a creature that visits your bedchamber at night. How could he not be erotic?

"There's a strong connection between horror and sex," said Kelli A. Wilkins, author of "Confessions of a Vampire's Lover" (2016) and other books of horror and paranormal romance. Fright, and sexual climax, are each a kind of shock.

"In horror there's a heightened sense of fear, and nervousness that builds until you scream," said Wilkins, a Woodbridge resident. "Then the tension is released and you can relax again. [That's] exactly what you do when you're scared — or having sex."

The idea of forced seduction also enters into it. "There's a certain sexual meaning behind a vampire visiting a woman in her bedroom, biting her neck, and drawing blood," Wilkins said. "And the woman succumbs willingly — even if she wants to resist, she says she was powerless to fight off the vampire."

Then there's the lure of immortality. And with it, eternal youth.

Vampires, like apricots, always seem to get preserved at the moment of peak freshness. It's rare to see an over-the-hill vampire on screen (the classic 1932 Carl Dreyer movie "Vampyr," where the vampire is an old woman, is an exception). "Lots of people like the idea of living forever, never growing old," Wilkins said.

Lugosi had his own idea about why Dracula was thrilling to women.

"It is women who love horror," Lugosi said in the 1930s. "Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out — and come back for more.

Women have a predestination to suffering

It is women who bear the race in bloody agony. Suffering is a kind of horror. Blood is a kind of horror. Therefore women are born with a predestination to horror in their very blood stream. it is a biological thing."

Hooey, Addison says. Male conceit. "Get outta town," she said. "That's so man-like."

What she thinks is going on has more to do with power fantasies.

"What attracts people is this powerful man, living off the lives of other people," Addison said. "Being able to jump and fly and live forever. The idea of normal behavior having no holds on this creature. The sexy part is also the scary part. It's almost a bad-boy thing." 

Men identify with being the vampire. Women identify with being his main squeeze. Or, in the "Twilight" type of teen fiction, being the only one who "understands" this sad, lonely, hunky Rebel Without A Crypt.

"I think the way men emotionally connect is to be that powerful source," Addison said. "For women, the emotional connection is, maybe, this sense of becoming part of that power, being protected and transmuted by that power." 

Why men should be associated with power, and women with weakness, is a whole other question. But it may account for why vampires, in the movies at least, tend to skew male.

"In the real world, there's no less strength in women than men," Addison said.

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1