Vampires as Symbols of Sex and Disease

Ekkiosa Olumhense

Keywords: Symbolism, Vampires, Repression, Representation, Taboo

As someone who loves film and literature, I have always been fascinated with the use of symbolism. A symbol is a representative or substitute of some other idea. For example, a white dove is often used to symbolize hope. Some symbols can be quite scary, for example, monsters, with their blood and sharp teeth, are symbols themselves. Their existence, like that of other symbols, is an example of people trying to put an image to a phenomenon. The phenomena that they represent are those of a darker nature, things that readers and movie-goers all think about but aren’t welcomed to speak aloud about most times. Being a big fan of horror films, I have always found the characterization of vampires interesting. Monsters, particularly vampires, have been used in literature and films such as Nosferatu and The Lost Boys, as a symbol for repressed topics that we fear and/or desire, mainly disease and sex. They are unnatural, yet the things that they symbolize are natural. Humans are best friends and enemies with our most carnal phenomena: sex and disease. The enduring appeal of vampires suggests that they act out some unexpressed aspect of our psyche or that vampirism resonates in some irresistible way with unacknowledged social processes. Vampires represent what we both fear and desire (Sceats, 2001). I will first establish what a symbol is, and how a vampire counts as a symbol.

As defined earlier, a symbol is a representative or substitute of some other idea, from which in the context it derives a secondary significance not inherent. It is important to note that the flow of significance is from the primary idea to the secondary, to the symbol, so that typically a more essential idea is symbolized by a less essential. It represents the primary element through having something in common with it. A symbol is characteristically sensorial and concrete, whereas the idea symbolized may be a relatively abstract and complex one. The symbol thus tends to be shorter and more condensed than the idea represented (Jones, 1918).

Vampires are in no way more essential than what they represent. They are sensorial and concrete in the sense that although they are made up, they can be wholly imagined (we have them in paintings and films, we can visualize them). What they represent, like disease and sex, is far more complex than the idea of a vampire.

Vampires spread vampirism like a disease. When a vampire bites another human being, they become a vampire, which represents how disease is spread through human contact. The resemblance of disease can be seen in the paleness of skin vampires have. Pale, translucent skin has often been many deadly diseases, like tuberculosis. In recent times, some vampire movies have even called vampirism a virus that causes one to drink the blood of others. This all started with Nosferatu. The 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu directed by F.W. Murnau is about a vampire traveling across Europe, dragging around a box of dirt trying to find victims and a bride. Unlike the original Dracula, Nosferatu had a rat-like appearance, and is oftentimes flanked by rats (Nosferatu, 59:59). Giving Nosferatu a rat-like image was an allusion to the Bubonic Plague, a deadly disease that swept through the world during the Middle Ages. A couple of years before Nosferatu’s release, the Spanish flu had just ended. The vampire Nosferatu was derived from the Greek word nosophoros, meaning “disease-bearing”. All of this points to the vampire symbolizing both the Black Plague and The Spanish Flu, two very deadly diseases.

About sixty years after the Spanish Flu, vampires became a symbol for the AIDS pandemic, which was depicted by the vampire’s major image change. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was a silent killer, because while it was spreading rampantly and killing many people, it was rarely discussed openly, in political or social settings. Ronald Reagan did not use the words AIDS in a sentence until September 17, 1985, years after the damage had already been done.

I recently saw a play about AIDS, WFU’s production of Normal Heart. The autobiographical play by Larry Kramer follows several gay men in NYC trying to spread the word of AIDS while their gay friends died all around them because the mayor of NYC would not listen or help. Neither would the newspapers, by writing a single story, or main character Ned Week’s older brother. It took the men a full year to even get a meeting with the mayor. This went on for years. Even when AIDS became more well known, it was a topic people just knew about but did not openly discuss. Despite their unwillingness to discuss AIDS, many people were consuming vampire movies portraying a new genre of vampire. This new genre of vampire in the 1980s did away with the lone male vampire image and introduced male vampires that hung out in large groups. These vampires were not looking for female brides, they were infecting male humans and adding them to their numbers. The Lost Boys is one of the most popular vampire films from the 1980s. The main antagonists are a clan of vampires of four male vampires that try and turn a young boy into one of their own after he moves into town. The four male vampires are almost always seen together, again putting an emphasis on male groupness that had not originally been part of the vampire concept, but used the vampire image to grapple with how the AIDS pandemic heavily affecting the gay male community. This change in the vampire’s image, similar to making Nosferatu rat-like, signified a new pandemic that was taking place during that time.

Vampires aren’t just a vessel for disease. They are also often portrayed sexually in literature and media, as a vessel for sexual repression, as sex is another big societal taboo. In Pop Vampires, Freud, and Primary Masochism, Charles Henry discusses how vampires symbolize repressed masochism, a sexual taboo. Masochism is defined as the practice of getting sexual pleasure from being hurt or controlled by somebody else (Oxford Dictionary). Henry states that “Vampire dramatizations are a convenient location for the playing out of these repressed tensions” (Henry, 2014). Modern vampire movies often portray vampire sex as rough, involving blood and physical injury. For example, in the Netflix original Hemlock Grove, a vampire named Roman Godfrey cuts himself with a razor during sexual intercourse, and then licks his own blood (Jellyfish In the Sky, 00:00:59- 00:01:48). Later on in Hemlock Grove, Roman Godfrey and another vampire, Annie, are depicted having rough sexual intercourse covered in blood (Every Beast, 00:20:20- 00:22:20). Henry also notes that most vampires are male vampires who go after helpless, scared women. However, in film, we often see that these once scared and helpless women are revealed as secretly wanting to be a vampire and offer themselves up to be bitten by the male vampire captor. The woman can be seen deriving sexual pleasure from being bitten, although it is a form of physical harm. That is how repression of sexual masochism is projected onto the vampire.

One could argue that monsters like vampires do not exist as symbols of human repression, and that they exist simply as myths that were based on an animal or person someone else might have seen in real life, and then others ran with it. A long time ago, giant bats such as the Acerodon Jubatus could have easily been mistaken as a human-bat admixture we know today as vampires. Humans are storytellers. We see something interesting, and we tell a story about it. A humanoid bat is an interesting, even frightening sight that could constitute an interesting story. Scary stories are particularly interesting because of their suspense and the rush of adrenaline they bring. Monsters can be born out of cases of mistaken identity, and the idea of vampires may very well have been that.

That does not mean, however, that vampires haven’t evolved into a symbol for disease and sex. Symbols do not need to be made up to represent a particular idea/phenomenon. They only need to be sensorial and establish a connection to whatever they represent. Symbols are a reflection of what humans project. In chapter five of The Horror Film, Peter Hutchings discusses the idea of repression being projected onto the monsters we see on screen. Symbols function not simply as something external to the culture or the self, but also what is repressed in self and projected outward in order to be hated and disowned (Hutchings, 2013). The repression of disease is represented fearfully through vampires in Nosferatu and The Lost Boys, and the repression of sexual masochism is represented fearfully through vampires in Hemlock Grove.

Whether in the early 1900s, the 1980s, or today, vampires have stood as a symbol of sex and disease. These are two things humans fear to discuss openly, but are constantly surrounded by. Although we are getting better at opening up to discussions about disease and sex, when we weren’t, we used symbols to represent these two repressed topics. Whether or not vampires were created to symbolize sex and disease, over time, they have evolved to be a big symbol of the two. From Nosferatu to The Lost Boys to Hemlock Grove, we have seen vampires evolve to represent pandemics that plagued certain times in history and have also seen them represent sexual taboos such as masochism. As a result of repressing sex and disease, humans have projected them out onto one of the most popular symbols in film and literature.

Works Cited

Dowling, Stephen. “The Real-Life Diseases That Spread the Vampire Myth.” BBC Future, BBC, 31 Oct. 2016,

Henry, Charles. “Pop Vampires, Freud, and Primary Masochism.” Feb. 2014.

Hutchings, Peter. “The Horror Film.” Routledge. 2013.

Jones, Ernest. “The Theory of Symbolism.” 1918.

Murnau, F.W. “Nosferatu.” 1922.

Roth, Eli. Hemlock Grove. Netflix. 2013.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. “Masochism.”

Sceats, Sarah. “Oral Sex: Vampiric Transgression and the Writing of Angela Carter.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 20, no. 1, University of Tulsa, 2001, pp. 107–21,

Schumacher, Joel. “The Lost Boys.” 1987.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Ekkiosa Olumhense is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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