Dracula on the couch

An exclusive chapter from David Cohen's book 'The Psychology of Vampires', part of Routledge Psychology's 'The Psychology of Everything' series.

Is it pure chance that in 1896, when Stoker wrote Dracula, Freud started the self-analysis which led him to develop psychoanalysis? Definitely maybe is the best conclusion. One must remember that Freud shared one skill with vampires; he was a good hypnotist. Hypnotism was an important feature of the way psychology and psychiatry developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. Though Anton Mesmer never used the word hypnotism, his work provoked much interest in what we now recognize as hypnotism.

Mesmer studied medicine at the University of Vienna in 1759. In 1766, his On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body examined the influence of the moon and the planets on the human body, and, building on Newton’s theory of the tides, he considered the possibility that the sun and the moon might produce tides in the body too. This work led him to claim that an invisible force, ‘animal magnetism’, existed. Controlling it would make it possible to cure hysteria and other mental problems.

Mesmer made his first patient, the hysterical Francisca Österlin, swallow a preparation containing iron and then attached magnets to her body. She felt streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body, she said. And her symptoms disappeared for several hours at least.

Mesmer established intense contact. He would sit in front of his patient, press the patient’s thumbs in his hands and stare into the patient’s eyes. He ran his hands down their arms. He pressed his fingers on an area below the diaphragm, sometimes holding his hands there for hours. To add yet more drama, Mesmer would often conclude his treatments by playing some soothing music. The French King Louis XVI appointed a very high-powered commission to investigate. One of its members was Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France, who did pioneering work on electricity, not to mention being one of the Founding Fathers; another was the so-called father of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, who recognized and named oxygen in 1778 and hydrogen in 1783. The commission was critical. Lavoisier claimed Mesmer’s results had more to do with suggestion than with any invisible magical force. Then the Marquis de Puységur, whose estates produced some the best Armagnac in France, discovered that he could get identical results by inducing a peaceful, sleep-like trance. There was no need for magnets or convulsions.

Patients would obey Puységur and even speak while in a trance. They could follow instructions given during the trance – and say their symptoms had gone – even after Puységur snapped them out of it. He was amazed, however, to find his subjects could not remember what had happened while in the trance. He had discovered the power of suggestibility and of hypnotism. Vampires would turn out to be master hypnotists, sometimes, as they were able to put their victims in trances and bend them to their usually evil will.

The most astonishing demonstration of the power of hypnosis came in the mid-nineteenth century. James Esdaile was a surgeon in India. He needed something that is now routine but did not exist then, an effective anaesthetic. Having read Mesmer, he wondered if his technique might help. On April 4, 1845, he performed his first mesmeric procedure on a patient who had found a previous operation on his scrotum unbearably painful. Esdaile wrote; I have a great mind to try it on this man, but as I never saw it practised, and know it only from reading, I shall probably not succeed.

Esdaile was not a quick hypnotist; his ‘mesmeric act’ was an exhausting procedure, according to the Scottish doctor and philosopher James Braid. It was Braid who seems to have first used the word ‘hypnotism’.

Esdaile’s method was to make the patient lie down in dark room, wearing only a loin cloth, and [Esdaile would] repeatedly pass the hands in the shape of claws, slowly over the [patient’s] body, within one inch of the surface, from the back of the head to the pit of the stomach, breathing gently on the head and eyes all the time [and] he seems to have sat behind the patient, leaning over him almost head to head and to have laid his right hand for extended periods on the pit of the stomach.

Esdaile became famous for painless surgery, especially in cases of the scrotal ‘tumours’ that were in common in Bengal at that time; the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes. Esdaile’s mesmeric anaesthesia turned to be extremely safe as he claimed in his 1846 Mesmerism inIndia, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine.

The Viceroy, who ruled India in Queen Victoria’s name, set up a committee to investigate. He appointed the Inspector General of Hospitals as its chairman and nine others, including the Surgeon to the Native Hospital. Their tasks were to see if Esdaile’s results were real and if the primitive natives were more susceptible to hypnosis. The committee studied 10 of his surgical cases and concluded he had not faked the results. His discovery became irrelevant, though, when ether started to be used as an anaesthetic a decade later, as it was far simpler than hypnosis.

Esdaile’s work, however, remained a landmark and was known to Jean Marie Charcot, the most famous neurologist of the era, who was also interested in hypnosis. Freud studied with Charcot at the Salpetriere in Paris in 1885 and was so awed he had to take cocaine to fortify himself every time he was invited to a soiree at Charcot’s house. Freud used hypnotism in his early work and also knew of Esdaile’s achievements.

A much less famous doctor was a more obscure link between Polidori and psychoanalysis. William Carpenter had also qualified at Edinburgh, studied thinking and also saw that unconscious prejudices could be stronger than conscious thought and that they were more dangerous as a result. Carpenter worked with William Hamilton, who argued that the mind contains far more ‘mental furniture’ than consciousness reveals. Hamilton wrote, “the sphere of our conscious modifications is only a small circle in the centre of a far wider sphere of action and passion of which we are only conscious through its effects.”

Carpenter gathered evidence for what he called ‘unconscious cerebration’. He cited cases where people recalled knowledge they did not know they possessed. Emotional reactions can occur, Carpenter said, outside of consciousness until attention is drawn to them:

Our feelings towards persons and objects may undergo most important changes, without our being in the least degree aware, until we have our attention directed to our own mental state, of the alteration which has taken place in them.

Carpenter clearly anticipated Freud’s thinking. It was only a small step from the unconscious to the uncanny. In his 1906 paper, Ernst Jentsch saw the uncanny as a product of ‘intellectual uncertainty’ – and vampires illustrated that. What is more uncertain that the question of whether one is living, dead or undead?

Freud took Jentsch’s title for a paper of his own. He devoted a large part of it to the origins of the German word ‘unheimlich’, which is more accurately translated as ‘unhomely’ than uncanny. This, Freud argued, feeds on unresolved childhood anxieties and unconsciously reminds us of our forbidden, repressed impulses and fears – including the terror of death. His followers embellished and suggested vampires wanted revenge for some trauma, which explains why they have to bite – the most primitive form of aggression.

Freud’s ideas on the uncanny must be put in some context. Every child goes through a series of fixed psychosexual stages which Freud labelled the oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. The name of each stage, apart from latency, highlights the area of the body which is then the main source of pleasure but also the main potential source of frustration. At the oral stage the baby is all mouth. He or she gets satisfaction from putting objects into it. Babies suck, breastfeed and bite. In doing so they pander to the infantile ‘id’, which for Freud represented the wildest primitive instincts. The pleasures of the baby id are oral, and this could lead to an oral fixation.

Infants who are not well fed may become orally fixated. Typically, Freud also suggested that if a baby is too well fed, that could also lead to oral fixation. The orally frustrated baby might become a psychologically dependent adult who was always trying to make up for what he or she was denied in infancy. They develop into highly manipulative persons too.

Freud himself smoked cigars even after he developed cancer of the jaw. He needed oral stimulation and often said he could not think if he did not smoke. A doctor who smoked was more acceptable than one who bit his nails or sucked his thumbs while listening to his patients.

As a young doctor, Freud had to do military service and worked in the army. He retained a fondness for military metaphors and compared the mind to an army on the march. The troops represented the libido, which is not just the sex drive, as often assumed, but something like a life force. As they advance, the enemy attacks. If the Freudian forces, as one might describe them, win the battle and resolve the conflict of the psychosexual stage they are in, most troops can move on to the next battle, which is, in fact, the next stage of psychosexual development. If they do not succeed, more troops have to remain behind to fight. So only fewer troops, or a weaker libido, can march on to the next stage. A healthy libido will advance to the phallic stage and also desire the right object to love, someone of the opposite sex. Freud did not condemn homosexuality but said it was no great boon either when a mother asked him to cure her son of what she saw as a perversion.

The libido could get in a tangle and, even to steal Hardy’s phrase, in a ‘human jam’. One of Freud’s favourite patients was Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great grandniece, who helped bring up Prince Charles’ father, the Duke of Edinburgh. The princess consulted Freud because none of her lovers satisfied her. At least two were French prime ministers. Her husband, the brother of the King of the Hellenes, had a particularly tangled libido, as he was in love with his uncle. Freud persuaded Marie not to sleep with her son, which she thought might finally satisfy her. When the troops were bogged down, the development of the libido was stalled. The result was fixations.

Freud also proposed a map of the mind dividing it into the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. There were three other parts to the mind – the ego, the rational self; the superego, which could be translated as the conscience; and the id, the most hedonistic of all. A British clinical psychologist I interviewed before he died gave one of the most entertaining descriptions of Freud’s thinking. Freud saw the mind, Don Bannister wrote, as “basically a battlefield.” The ego was in a dark cellar “in which a well-bred spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego).” The ego has to balance the demands of the id and the superego, which asks a great deal of a rather nervous bank clerk. Hergenjahn and Olson (2007) sum it up; “The id is the part of our mind we share with lower animals and is governed by the pleasure principle. The ego is the executive of the personality and is governed by the reality principle. The superego is the moral component of the personality and consists of the conscience and the ego ideal.”

Freud said that the aim of psychoanalysis was as follows, that “Where id was, there ego shall be.” The vampire’s problem is that he or she is fixated at the oral stage.

The vampire has another psychological problem – sadism. No psychiatrist spoke of sadism till the nineteenth-century German, Richard von Krafft-Ebing. He named the natural tendencies to cruelty in honour of the eighteenth-century Marquis de Sade, who wrote;

How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold. 

– Marquis de Sade, Les prospérités du vice

Poor sado de Sade spent much of his time in jail where he could not flog anyone, so he had to fantasize. It is astonishing that he had not attended an English public school. Winston Churchill once told the House of Commons that the beatings he received at his prep school were much worse than those inflicted on borstal boys. He was only removed from his prep school after the family doctor saw the marks on his bottom. George Orwell wrote a brilliant description of the beatings he received at school in SuchWeretheJoys. Orwell went to Eton, as Byron did. Polidori also went to a public school. They all knew about sadism, a factor in their vampire tales.

The vampire is not just an orally fixated sadist, but a cunning one. So he, or the rarer female sadist, seeks out masochists who hope to be beaten. Kraft-Ebbing named masochism after the nineteenth-century Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venusin Furs.

In Three Papers on Sexual Theory, Freud argued sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals and called this sadomasochism. For him sadism was a distortion of the aggressive component of the male sexual instinct and masochism a form of sadism against the self.

The tendency to inflict and receive pain during intercourse was, Freud said, “the most common and important of all perversions,” and ascribed it – as so much else – to incomplete or aberrant psychological development in early childhood.

As well as mapping the mind, Freud said famously that the baby was a polymorphous pervert. He had six children and observed them sporadically, though he hardly ever wrote about these observations. He was a fond father, however, and would have known that some ‘normal’ childhood behaviours include elements of sadomasochism. Tickling is the most benign. Freud’s great hero Charles Darwin noted, back in 1837, that his baby son, William, laughed when tickled.

When Freud was developing his ideas, William Preyer (1895) got a baby to laugh by tickling when the child was only 8 weeks old. The British psychologist Valentine made his babies laugh by tickling them when they were just under 4 months old. In my Ph.D. thesis on the development of laughter, I suggested, not very originally, that tickling was a modified form of attack. Children like to be tickled but are also a little afraid of it.

Later, analysts Van der Bengh and Kelly wrote a review of the literature on vampires in 1964 and concluded: the popularity of the vampire figure evidences a role for Freud’s notion of an inherent primary masochism. This erotic impulse is primitive in nature and seeming non-oedipal. Vampire dramatizations are a convenient location for the playing out of these repressed tensions.

Van der Bengh and Kelly stressed that drawing blood gave the vampire sexual pleasure and that:

The specific symptoms of vampirism have their dynamic basis not only in the unresolved conflicts at the oral sadistic level, but at other levels of libidinal development as well. . . . Oedipal wishes, fear of castration, and aggressive hostile wishes, are examples of these many various unresolved conflicts which can be symbolized in the patients’ minds by the blood.

The sadist may also want unconsciously to punish someone who attracts him precisely because they arouse his desire. We speak of sexual conquests, but the phrase is two-edged. I may conquer you by persuading you to sleep with me, but by making me want you, in some sense, you have also conquered me. The love object for the vampire is all object, however, just a trophy, a human tiger skin. Love does not come into it.

The original producer of True Blood, Alan Ball, summed up the popular appeal of vampires much more simply, as he said vampires are sex. I could argue that he got it only half right and should have said vampires are about sex – and more sex.

Freud’s loyal biographer, Ernest Jones, wrote a long paper, On the Nightmare; he devoted 30 pages to the psychology of the vampire. Vampires were versatile, Jones pointed out; they could change into animals – into cats in Japan and into pigs in Serbia, for instance. They often appeared as snakes. Odder than snakes, Jones pointed out, vampires can flit in the shape of charming butterflies. He didn’t explain how butterflies bite. In some folk tales, vampires also sucked the udders of cows and goats. Milk and blood, the liquids of life.

Jones was the first psychoanalyst to explore in detail the relationship between vampires and the lure of death, “the land of mysterious possibilities, the land where all fantasies might be fulfilled” and “all secrets revealed.” Death was not the end. We might never be truly posthumous if we had made sure our teeth were sharp and we found toothsome necks. As I warned at the beginning, vampires need to be studied seriously but also with some humour.

Jones had some vampire traits himself; he was sacked by two London hospitals for molesting women patients, though he drew the line at biting them. Freud, Jones and many psychoanalysts also believed fairy tales offered a window into the unconscious.

Freud’s rival, Carl Jung, saw the vampire as representative of “the dark, unconscious aspect of the self that the ego tries to avoid as it bubbles with destructive energy.” Jung developed the theory of the archetypes, figures that are ancient in the human psyche. The Healer archetype is intriguing and appears in every culture, from the earliest tribes of ancient man. It is a part of the human experience to be hurt, wounded or injured in some way, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual. And because of this, there has always been someone who shows an aptitude for how to help the hurt person. The development of this archetype has had some interesting twists and turns in its very long life. Especially relevant to the vampire is the archetype of the Wounded Healer. Shamans have to be initiated and deliberately suffer pain before they can heal.

Some authors, such as Andrea Schneider, have suggested the vampire suffers from narcissism and is so self-centred he or she has no sympathy or empathy. Schneider has even coined the term narcissistic abuse. The only world is his own world. Narcissists will drain everyone else of ideas, energy, even blood, to feed their own needs.

From the 1890s, psychologists who were not Freudians also studied children’s fears, as the great late-nineteenth-century English psychologist James Sully did. Children’s fears were predictable; often they were afraid of the dark, and particularly of being left alone in the dark. They also were scared of animals, such as large barking dogs. Some children also feared fires, high places or thunderstorms. In the dark, monsters are especially terrifying. The main character in Monsters, Inc. is appropriately named after Sully. A factory which produces creatures that will scare children is at the heart of the action.

Both J. K. Rowling and, before her, J.R.R. Tolkien created memorable monsters – Voldemort who cannot be named and the legions of orcs Sauron commands. Tolkien taught Old English at Oxford and was very well read, so it is reasonable to suppose he had read some psychoanalytic material. In 1939, after he had finished The Hobbit, he gave a lecture on fairy stories, which he clearly thought important. He said, “It is a deeply perceptive commentary on the interdependence of language and human consciousness.” He stressed it was not just for children.

In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien distinguished them from ‘traveller’s tales’, science fiction, beast tales and dream stories like Alice in Wonderland. The true fairy tale, he said, must be credible. “It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as ‘true’.” But convincing.

Tolkien emphasized that through the use of fantasy, the reader could experience a rational and consistent world whose rules differed from those of the normal world. They had been an influence on him, as he said: “It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Fairy stories, he concluded, could provide moral or emotional consolation, through their happy ending, an ending children love. He emphasized the joy of the resolution. This echoes Freud’s analysis of a satisfying joke. Tolkien concluded:

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

Rowling’s chronicles of Harry Potter often threaten an unhappy ending, but good eventually triumphs. Vampire tales are a darker fantasy, and usually climax – the pun is deliberate – in blood.

After Freud and Jones, another analyst, Bruno Bettelheim, studied fairy tales, which he saw as helpful in child development. In Once UponaTime, Marina Warner includes ‘On the Couch’, a chapter in which she acknowledges the relevance of psychoanalysis for fairy tales and of Bettelheim’s study, The Uses of Enchantment (1971). She gave her chapter on his work a title she took from an Angela Carter story ‘House training the Id’. This is specifically what the parents of vampires never have done.

Current children’s books do not have many vampires. An exception is Vampire Baby by Kelly and Meisel. When she starts teething, it’s obvious she is not a normal baby. She sinks her pointy fangs into everything – furniture, toys and especially her big brother (“Youch, Tootie! No bite!”). Mom insists that it’s just a phase, but Tootie’s brother knows better and says “Just look at her hairline! Or the fact that all her favourite foods are blood red!” There is also the life-affirming LittleVampire, who is more interested in making friends than blood. There is also a Horrid Henry book for slightly older children in which Henry has to confront the Zombie Vampire. Dracula Madness brings in a dog detective, who sniffs out a man called McIver who never goes outside, never turns on his light and has bats flapping in his house. Dog versus vampire is, of course, cute rather than terrifying.

More recently, psychoanalysts have returned to the theme. For example, Van den Bergh and Kelly argued in 1964;

The myth can be understood along various levels of psychosexual development: in oedipal terms, for example, the vampire is seen as an abductor of women, killing and enslaving any men who cross his path. . . . The significance and universal persistence of the myth suggests deep roots in the evolution of our psyche. It suggests the omnipresent desire to conquer the secret of life while containing the elements of its renewal. It represents the terrible desire for survival, destroying others to maintain his own existence. . . . Vampirism, as a mortal sin, is contained in the image that most often comes to mind, the perverse of the vampiric act, in which the bite and the sucking of blood produce an orgasmic sensation which supersedes coitus.

There are some interesting recent case histories too. Jolene Oppawasky (2011), who has written in detail on sexual abuse, has described a case of a 36-year-old man who reported sharing blood between five other adult men who also considered themselves to be vampires. After becoming engaged to a woman, the man entered therapy highly motivated to stop this behaviour. He stopped drinking blood altogether after two months.

Psychoanalysis offered a theory of how sadism developed – a key aspect of vampire psychology. Freud would have insisted, of course, that one had to examine [John William] Polidori’s childhood to understand how he came to write The Vampyre.

- Extracted from The Psychology of Vampires, by David Cohen (9781138057678, £9.99), published by Routledge, as part of The Psychology of Everything series, www.thepsychologyofeverything.co.uk.  

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