Econ vs. Psych in Undead Narratives

Which discipline better explains the appeal of vampire stories — psychology or economics? Two recent articles present differing perspectives. On the psychology side, we have Kaylynne Spauls at Liberty Voice offering a variety of reasons that vampires touch the deepest of the human (and especially female) psyche:

Yes women love bad boy characters. It is maternal instinct to nurture and help someone grow. Feeling needed is an important aspect of the fantasy, and one that audiences outside the genre seem particularly annoyed by…

Women also have an instinct to breast feed. It is an extremely intimate action and creates a bond between mother and child. A potential mate that needs to feed, and is particularly inclined towards a specific woman’s blood, gives the impression that she could nourish and sustain them better than anyone else. …

According to myth, vampires are extremely protective. Though we live in a society that frowns upon the damsel in distress, it is still basic human instinct to search out a mate that can better protect a family.

I only report these psychological claims, without endorsing them — though I will say that if a male writer had made such generalizations about women, he would be inviting a storm of criticism.

On the economics side, we have Joy, an intern at Beaufort Books, arguing that the appeal of vampire stories relates to the difficult choices vampires are forced by their nature to make. She doesn’t use the word “economics,” but as an economist, it’s hard not to notice the leading role of trade-offs in Joy’s argument:

The central dogma of the vampire myth is that they drink blood. Further, by far the most popular thing in current cultural recreations of vampires is, you know, that one broody dude vampire who is so tortured and doesn’t want to drink human blood because “it’s wrong” and he’s so conflicted and his nature so disgusts him, god, isn’t he tortured.

That guy is what, potentially, makes vampires interesting.

Because you’ve got this undeniable desire for something (in this case, blood). No one can deny that you’ve got that desire when you’re a vampire. That’s your food. It’s what you survive on. … With vampires, this thing they live on, the thing they crave, comes with this stipulation that, probably, you’re going to have to kill someone. …

Further, vampires skip over these laborious discussions of, “Well, why do you want that thing?” and creaters [sic] can go straight into what effect this want has on their individual. …

So many characters that are vampires go through this struggle with their own nature, and it’s handled by different artists in a variety of ways. But one thing you always return to is this moral struggle: I want this thing, but I shouldn’t be able to have it. That’s the central plot of every vampire-based piece of media I can think of at the moment. That’s the drama.

Of course, the choice between psychology and economics is a false dilemma; both might have something to do with the popularity of vampires. If Spauls is right, then psychological factors may play an especially large role for the female audience that seems to be driving the current vampire craze. But speaking as both an economist and a screenwriter, I find Joy’s emphasis on trade-offs — particularly moral trade-offs — compelling. Sharp trade-offs create sharp conflicts, a necessary component of all good storytelling, vampire or otherwise.

I could leave it at that, but… I also want to mention Ian Chadd’s Chapter 21, “The Economics of Bloodlust,” in which he applies Becker & Murphy’s model of rational addiction to vampire hunger. As Chadd emphasizes in that chapter, moral trade-offs do indeed fall within the explanatory realm of economics — which means your brooding “vegetarian” vampires like Louis, Angel, Stefan Salvatore, and the Cullen clan can be understood as rational actors optimizing in the face in unusual circumstances.

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