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It takes more than a theological stake to the heart to kill the vampire legend.

Stories of dark-eyed seducers who prey on unsuspecting victims to suck their blood have persisted for more than five centuries. They have haunted our dreams and films, moving from place to place. And they are reborn in every generation. Today these parasites-on-the-living seemingly are everywhere.

From the television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books and films to the current HBO saga, "True Blood," fascination with these so-called creatures of the night permeates contemporary life, albeit in modern forms. Thousands of living Americans even consider themselves vampires.

So why is this mythic figure so long-lived and potent?

Sigmund Freud said vampires represent our repressed sexuality and aggression, while Carl Jung argued that they are a universal type of "shadow," or dark side of the human personality. They embody aspects of ourselves that we reject, hide or are ashamed to confront.

Many religious scholars see the vampire as a mirror of Christianity.

He is Christ's evil twin, stealing ideas and imagery from the faith's miraculous tale and twisting them into a sinister parable.

Jesus told his disciples to "eat my flesh and drink my blood" as evidence of their devotion to him and his mission. (Catholics, particularly, believe they literally are doing that when they partake of the Eucharist.)

But Jesus' words were controversial even among his hearers, and later Romans and other pagans accused the early Christians of cannibalism, says John Morehead of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies in Salt Lake City.

Beyond blood, both Jesus and vampires offer immortality, admittedly through different paths.

"We can read the vampire — and his status as having been alive, then dead and now undead — as related to the Christian idea of resurrection from the dead," Morehead says.

These days, though, items such as the crucifix and holy water no longer repel the demon, Morehead says. The church is "just as powerless in the face of the vampire as any other institution."

We think we've outgrown superstition, but vampires still frighten — and attract — us.

"It may be that our angst is related to a host of threats," Morehead says. "The breakdown of the social order and the resulting chaos, nuclear war from rogue nuclear nations, global terrorism, environmental degradation, etc., serve as a constant reminder of our mortality and the fragility of the flesh."

Anxieties of a far earlier time and a distant place gave rise to vampires in the first place.

A Romanian outsider • No one knows for certain the origins of vampires, but most scholars trace the roots to Slavic nations of the 16th century. Townsfolk believed in a cosmic battle between good and evil gods, one associated with light, the other with darkness. Like villagers everywhere, they were wary of strangers and outsiders.

When the Eastern Orthodox Church came into power, it was threatened by pagans and heretics. Eventually, these Christians would identify many non-Christians — including pagans and Jews — as "vampires."

Both outsider groups were accused of drinking blood because of their ritual animal sacrifices, says Joseph Laycock, who teaches a class on vampires at Tufts University in Boston. "The only blood they were supposed to drink was Christ's."

Any unexplained illness, injury or death often was blamed on the dead returning to harm the living. Vampires became the region's scapegoats.

"In Eastern Europe," Laycock says, "they would go dig up a body and put a stake through its head."

Then came the Enlightenment in the West, rejecting all beliefs in the supernatural. Some of these writers sought to discredit the Christian church by debunking local superstitions, suggesting religion was just as implausible. Then came a backlash among Romantic writers, who couldn't reduce life to sheer logic. They wanted to celebrate human emotions, including fear.

In that context, Britain's Lord Byron traveled to Greece and Turkey and came back to write macabre poems. By 1816, he produced the first modern vampire story. In his telling, the vampire was not a rotting corpse. Still evil, but rich and sexy.

The vampire he drew, Laycock says, resembled Bryron himself — a womanizer and an embarrassment to the family.

That marked the beginning of the seductive, but sympathetic vampire who is the father of the television show, "Dark Shadows," in the 1960s, followed by Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," and finally Meyer's Edward Cullen.

"Anne's vampires killed but felt bad about it," Laycock says, "but Edward Cullen doesn't kill so has nothing to feel bad about."

Cullen, a desirable and tortured protagonist, created by Meyer, a Mormon and graduate of Brigham Young University, is a far cry from Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Ironically, a century ago Mormon missionaries were pictured more like Dracula than Cullen.

The Mormon menace • In 1911, about 15 years after Stoker wrote his tale of the blood-sucking Transylvanian count, British writer Winifred Graham published The Love Story of a Mormon, which later was made into the silent flick, "Trapped by the Mormons."

The lurid tale featured a Utah Mormon missionary, who arrives in England to win "converts" to his clan. He uses superhuman powers to persuade a young woman to join his church and leave her fiancé. As evidence of his power, he supposedly raises a person from the dead (though that later is revealed as a scam). In the end, the elder's "sister" turns out to be his first wife, but the British girl manages to escape his clutches with the help of a detective and her fiancé.

It all fit within the anti-Mormonism of the era, according to James D'Arc, curator of BYU's arts and communications archive.

"A common trait in Victorian-era anti-Mormon literature was 'the sexual magnetism of the Mormon male, and the hypnotized passivity of his innocent victim,' " D'Arc argues in a BYU Studies article reprinted last week on the website, patheos.com.

When Dracula kissed his victims, he literally sucked the lifeblood out of them. The transfer of blood changed their identities and personalities, he writes. Graham believed LDS missionaries did the same to their female converts.

Like early Mormons, Dracula was polygamous, moving from woman to woman, and both vampires and Latter-day Saints promised eternal life.

"To Graham and her loyal readers," D'Arc writes, "the Mormon adherent's fate of worldly bondage and eternal misery was little different from that destiny realized by those in the clutches of Stoker's Count Dracula,"

Both books also drew on British fears of faraway peoples and places, whether Transylvania or Utah. Again, they presumed danger in foreignness.

Living in a Romanian village or a British suburb, lives were relatively simple and prescribed by circumstance. The vampire offered a cautionary tale of what would happen to those who dabbled in forbidden relationships. Such stories kept people in check.

Today's vampire tales reflect a different reality, says Laycock, author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism.

"If you grow up in America, you have no idea where you are going to live, do or be," he says. "We have existential questions, ancient people never had. We have more choices but our choices are isolating. We all feel like outcasts sometimes, too."

And Christianity has loosened its grip.

The institutional church, Morehead says, no longer sits "at the defining center of culture."

Many Americans, particularly young people, perceive worship as boring. They won't sit still for lectures on good and evil from the pulpit, preferring instead a vague and nondemanding spirituality.

Still, they are attracted to stories about supernatural creatures. In a twisted way, these yarns offer hope for something more than this life.

Vampire stories, Morehead says, can serve as a vehicle for the exploration of the imagination, a discussion of good and evil, and a playful chance to "wrestle with religious and spiritual questions."

It can help people answer the question: Am I a human being, subject to living and loving like everyone else, or am I in danger of preying on others?

More on the Web

O John Morehead, Joseph Laycock and James D'Arc discuss this subject at the following:

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