Vampires, from Dracula and Nosferatu through Lestat, have long been the staple villain of the horror genre. Psychopaths, from Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lector to Amy Elliot Dunn, are the go-to baddies of the contemporary take on horror – the thriller genre. Both are predators who survive by depleting their victims. Vampires drain their prey of blood. Psychopaths feed on their victims’ self-esteem. Vampires are the stuff of legend. Psychopaths walk among us.
As a reader I’ve devoured (sorry!) vampire lore all of my life. Happily, I’ve never met one (that I know of). On the other hand, I’ve met a least one psychopath, which felt like being blown through a wind tunnel. For anyone needing clarification, psychopaths are people with anti-social personalities. Beneath their frequently charming exteriors, they are devoid of empathy and remorse. Their behavior is manipulative, sometimes violent, often criminal.
Be very afraid.
As a psychologist I studied the assessment of psychopathy, using the gold standard tool developed by Dr. Robert Hare. The reigning guru of psychopathy, Hare is to psychopaths what Van Helsing is to vampires – their nemesis. As a thriller writer, I pondered the possible parallels between vampires and psychopaths. As writer/editor Shawn Coyne has observed: “The villain in a thriller is a human monster.”
So I conducted an informal factor analysis. I compared the Characteristics of the Vampire (see Dracula’s Homepage at www.ucs.mun.ca/emiller/traits.html) with Hare’s Checklist of Psychopathy Symptoms. And bingo, mortals! We have a match.
- The vampire survives on the blood of others. The psychopath pursues a parasitic lifestyle, an intentional, manipulative, selfish and exploitative dependence on others. Meeting either one is a highly draining experience.
- The vampire is a shape-shifter, who can assume the form of a wolf or bat, mist or dust. The psychopath exhibits what’s called “criminal versatility.” He often has a resume of many and varied offenses, taking pride in getting away with them. Both are tough to recognize, usually before it’s too late.
- The vampire has hypnotic power over victims. The psychopath is glib and superficially charming, slick, smooth, never tongue-tied. He is a master manipulator. They both know how to get into your head and under your skin.
- The vampire casts no reflection in the mirror. The psychopath has what’s known as “shallow affect.” Behind his superficial warmth lies emotional poverty, a limited range and depth of feeling. In both cases, there’s no “there” there.
- The vampire casts no shadow. The psychopath lacks realistic, long-term goals. He lives a nomadic existence, aimless and without direction. Rolling stones, the two of them.
So what are we to make of all this? Perhaps the vampire is a powerful metaphor for the psychopaths who have always walked among us. At least, let’s hope so. The psychopaths are trouble enough.