This Friday's release of New Moon, the second film in the phenomenally successful Twilight saga, confirms that 2009 has truly been the year of the vampire. The non-beating heart of Edward Cullen, Twilight's beautiful vampire hero, has set pulses racing all over the world. At last week's London premiere, Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, was greeted by thousands of girls screaming not because they fear they'll die if he bites them, but because they know they'll die if he doesn't. Cold-blooded creatures have never been so hot.
And Twilight is at the end of a long list of vampire films which have filled the cinemas this year. Thirst, a Korean tale of a vampire priest, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. The Swedish cult hit about a vampire girl and the boy who lives next door, Let The Right One In, was released to critical raves in April. It's now being remade in the US. And they haven't all been arthouse flicks, either. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, which opened a couple of weeks ago, might well have been a big box office hit, had it been anything other than vein-openingly tedious from start to finish.
The blood-suckers are all over television, too. Being Human is a traditional flat-share comedy-drama, except the flat is shared by a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire. The Vampire Diaries follows the love affair of a human girl and her vampire boyfriend. And don't bother trying to escape the blood-frenzy at your local bookshop: my nearest one has an entire section devoted to Vampire Romance.
So why are we so in love with the vampire? Firstly, they fulfil our need for monsters. People have always needed epic story-telling: that's why Homer was such a hit. We want gods, heroes, and monsters, because fantasy takes us away from the pedestrian world in which we live. And when the economy is faltering and the news is depressing, we look for escapism even more than usual.
Vampires are a special kind of monster, too, because we can all become one. Vampires aren't born, they're made; becoming a vampire is like becoming an astronaut, except you aren't ruled out if you wear glasses or are bad at maths. And although there is the whole demon-dwelling-in-your-body thing to deal with, turning into a vampire doesn't look like such a bad deal. You become immortal, unless a pointy stick is applied to you with force. You don't get ill, you don't get old. In a culture which worships youth above all things, is it really any wonder that we are falling for ever-young, ever-strong vampires? And quite aside from the youth and beauty issue, there's the economics of it: if you live for several centuries, inflation alone means you often have a lovely house, which you paid for with a mere handful of groats.
Vampires are also the acceptable face of fetish. The universal vampire characteristics are being pale, going out at night, wearing dark clothes and having nice manners (because when you were turned into a vampire, it was in a more polite age than ours). Call me a pervert if you must, but those are pretty much all the things I have always looked for in a chap. And biting isn't too deviant, on a sliding scale from nought to Max Mosley.
The attraction for teenage girls is inescapable. Being bitten by someone is probably somewhere between first and second base. It's a long way short of a home run. Much as we like to wring our hands at the immorality of the young, their love for vampire stories suggests they're just as nervous about sex as any previous generation; there's something very innocent about the current vampire fad. Bella and Edward don't have sex in Twilight. They can't. Just touching leaves them both reeling with overwhelming emotion. This isn't a horror story, it's Jane Austen. When they meet for the first time, Edward won't speak to Bella, or even look at her. They share a desk, and he turns away from her for the whole lesson. She is devastated by his obvious dislike, which turns out to be caused by the powerful attraction he can't control. Relocate this scene to a ball in Meryton, and you have the first encounter of Elizabeth Bennet and a pointy-toothed Mr Darcy.
And, by the way, Edward can sense Bella's every shifting feeling, not because he can read minds (although he can, just not hers), but because he is so highly attuned to her that he knows where she is, and if she's in danger. For any fifteen-year-old girl who's ever spent an hour in a huff, waiting for her paramour to notice and ask what's wrong, the mind-reading vampire boyfriend is a pretty alluring prospect.
The vampires we like most are always the exceptions, not the rule. Vampires are creatures of pure id, hedonistically compensating for the coffin-sleeping and lack of a tan. But the ones we love most are those who could behave like that, but don't. Edward Cullen doesn't feed off people, he eats deer and other animals, just as he did when he was human. The fiercely foxy vampire Bill, in HBO's True Blood, drinks synthetic blood, rather than human, for the most part. And when he does drink human blood, it's willingly given by his human girlfriend, Sookie. She occasionally drinks his in return. And Angel, in Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer, was the inspiration for all these minxy tortured vampires. He had a soul, so he didn't feed from people either.
So what looks like a masochistic passion for blood-sucking, fang-sporting monsters is actually far more human than it first appears. We have the hots for these vamps because they look like angels, and they have superpowers. But we stick with them because they choose to give up their cruelties and excesses, and live like ordinary men.