People really do ask me this sort of thing.
And so it came to pass that one day I was asked my opinion in regards to vampiric tumescence. Given my reputation I felt it was only fair that I should at least attempt some sort of answer. This is that answer.
The initial question when framed as basically as possible is as follows. Are all vampires, some vampires, or indeed any vampires capable of achieving tumescence?
The answer to that is short and sweet. Yes. As a fictional creation the vampire can be made to follow any set of rules the creator desires so vampiric erections are clearly possible.
The real question, of course, is how. It can be argued that as the vampire is a fantasy creation an entirely valid answer to this query is, because vampires capable of erections are amazeballs. However, as this answer will satisfy only those among us who consider amazeballs proper English I think I shall have to work a little harder for an answer.
So, before we go any further we need to divide vampires into two categories, the traditional and the non-traditional. Taking the second one first, non-traditional vampires is a category which includes unknown Earth species, aliens, robots, and androids, in short any creature which possesses some sort of motivating energy other than magic. This category however is so varied that it would be impossible to make any generalities about any of their capabilities, let alone whether such creatures are capable of erections. Of those examples I can recall which fit this category Hal Clement’s 1976 short story, A Question of Guilt, features an alien which if I remember correctly (and it has been a long time since I read A Question of Guilt) has sufficient vampire-like qualities that it could be mistaken for an off-world version of a vampire but as the story includes no mention of alien reproductive practises the question is an impossible one to answer. The Tobe Hooper movie, Lifeforce, is no more useful despite the large amount of tumescence inducing female nudity. The alien vampires admit they have taken on the form of attractive humans in order to make their hunting on Earth easier but hunting is a different kettle of fish to breeding. In the film how they breed and whether erections are involved are never delved into though given the ship the alien vampires were found in was alive and seemed to be somehow connected to the vampires I suspect the alien reproductive cycle had no need for erections. I’ve not read the 1976 Colin Wilson novel, The Space Vampires, which the Hooper film is based upon but reviews mention that the aliens in that are actually energy beings which would seem to put them in the non-tumescence column.
However, I have read one short story in which vampire erections are go. Unfortunately I read this story so long ago for I have absolutely no idea who wrote it or what it was called. (Any suggestions as to the name of the author or that of the story wouod be very much appreciated.) I can’t even be sure of all the details but as far as I can recall the main character was an orphan who had come to realise that while his adoptive parents were human he was not. As he grows older a yearning grows in our protagonist to meet other vampires, creatures like him. He begins to search the rural countryside because for reasons I can’t remember he’s confident there are vampires living locally. Eventually he does meet several male vampires and discovers them to be little better than hill-billy stereotypes living hand-to-mouth in a half-wild state. They take him to a barn (I think) where the hill-billy vampires take turns to breed with a female vampire (incidentally revealing that vampire genitals are quite different in design to those of homo sapiens) and invite him to join in. The protagonist declines this offer and returns home to deal with the knowledge that he is trapped between two worlds, neither of which he is capable of integrating into. That’s the story as best I can remember, the implication being that the vampires were no more than flesh and blood creatures with no magical powers. Therefore the one story I know of where vampire erections unequivocally exist how the vampires achieve tumescence doesn’t need to be explained, especially given it’s possible the vampires are distantly related to homo sap.
I don’t think I need to consider non-traditional vampires any more deeply than this. I think it’s obvious that their physical abilities can be explained by either terrestrial or alien biology, assuming achieving tumescence is even relevant to them at all. However before I go any further I’d like to pause and mention how much I hope somebody one day attempts to explore the possibilities of robot or android vampires. Yes, I know, something like that is hard to make work without involving great dollops of super-science and at least one mad genius but some of us don’t see such additions as a bad thing at all.
This brings us to the question of the traditional vampire. The traditional form of the vampire, though we can see it was once a living human, is now one of the dead that has chosen to remain among the living. The traditional vampire is therefore by definition undead and only continues to function in our world through the hand-waving explanation of the supernatural, that is magic.
Now if the creators of traditional vampires have never cared to explain whether their creations are capable of achieving tumescence, well, neither do they explain how any other part of their creation’s bodies manage to continue working despite the absence of life. In other words if we accept that a being which is no longer living can flex it’s muscles in order to walk and talk then it would be churlish indeed to demand that they stop to explain the mechanics of tumescence. However, though we don’t expect authors to explain how their traditional vampires exercise non-living muscles that doesn’t mean I can’t try. It occurs to me that the use of the supernatural to explain the undead’s simulation of life can be made to explain not only that but various questions about vampires and blood.
Why do vampires need blood after all? It’s not like they need fuel themselves the way the living do. They don’t need anything but magic to operate their undead limbs. But suppose they do, suppose the blood they drink but don’t seemingly excrete in any manner doesn’t rot in their veins but instead is consumed as the fuel which feeds the magic so vital to their functioning. There is no evidence to support this supposition of course. Neither does it explain an aversion to daylight or garlic, vampiric shape changing abilities, or why cutting off the head or putting a stake through the heart might end a vampire but given all those are outside the brief I was given I don’t particularly care. All that matters to me is that the idea of blood being fuel for the magic which operates them is a very useful explanation for the whole why and wherefore of the vampire’s blood drinking habits.
Anyway, even if we go with the assumption that traditional vampires are animated by magic (regardless of whether blood is involved or not) this still leaves the question of vampiric capability unanswered. That’s because as far as I can see for a vampire to achieve tumescence two conditions would need to be met. First the vampire needs to be properly equipped in order to be physically capable of the act. This is trickier than you might think as not all traditional vampire legends involve well preserved creatures of the night. Secondly the vampire needs to possess the appropriate desires because without such it doesn’t matter what a vampire is physically equipped with.
Thus what we need to do is examine those earliest genre defining stories to see what they can tell us.
Which means starting with the first generation of vampires, the denizens of the traditional folk tale. Now I’m by no means an authority on such folk tales but I’ve certainly read bits here and there and this first generation doesn’t seem overly endowed with suitable candidates. Indeed I’ve long thought most folk tales regarding vampires shouldn’t even be considered to be about proper vampires. It’s a tricky situation because on one hand there was no consensus back then as to what constituted a vampire but on the other hand the tale range so widely it would be better to describe them as being broadly about ‘creatures of the night’.
Take for example the Irish legend of Abhartach. In Derry is a place called Slaghtaverty, but which ought to be called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of the Abhartach or dwarf. This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant who perpetrated great cruelties until slain by a neighbouring chieftain. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he reappeared, more cruel than ever. So the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place but upsidedown. This subdued his magical power, so that Abhartach never again appeared abroad.
As you can see all Abhartach has in common with our idea of the vampire is being supernaturally undead. All too many of these early legends are like this, the Nachtzehrer of Germany, the Sumerian Ekimmu, and the Striga of Italian legend are all too often incomprehensibly labelled as vampires. On the whole I think it’s safer when discussing the nature of vampires to give the folk tales a big swerve and move right on to the literary vampire. The only reason I’ve written as much as I have about folk tale vampires is to make clear the lore is too all-encompassing to be very useful.
To me the most interesting difference between the folk tale and the literary vampire is one of intelligence. In most folk tales the assorted creatures of the night lumped beneath the term vampire are often (but not always) bestial creatures with little or no capacity for thought. Indeed a lot of these creatures are closer to the modern zombie than anything we would recognise as being vampiric. The literary vampire as portrayed in such formative stories as The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori, Carmilla (1871) by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker is on the other hand described as an intelligent and scheming creature. As well as that these literary vampires are physically capable of participating in human society without comment (or at least without too much comment). This leads me to suspect they are all still suitably equipped and with the application of the magic which drives their undead bodies I imagine they would all be capable of achieving tumescenc in one fashion or another and simulating the sex act. I can’t imagine they would be able to either conceive or impregnate another as both those act involve processes which seem to me to be a bit too complicated even for magic.
That brings us to my second condition, not just the ability but a desire to achieve that state. However none of the vampires featured in the three stories mentioned above seem especially interested in carnal matters. Apart from their intelligence the most consistent feature of these vampires is their disdain for humanity. And yes, that includes Carmilla, who while she carries on in a touchy-feely manner to disarm her victims (thus allowing the unobservant to come to the utterly erroneous assumption of lesbianism) does rather let the cat out of the bag at various points in the story about her true feelings for the human race. I assume that while any of them can use supernatural magic to create the right physical conditions it’s hard to imagine situations where they would feel the need to actually do so.
In conclusion I don’t think the how of tumescence is the right question to be asking. If authors need to be asked searching questions about their sexy vampires then to my mind the only question worth asking is why? Given the usual accepted facts about vampire lore I’m struggling to see any reason for a vampire to have an interest in sex. Which is not to say it can’t be justified, just that I’ve not yet encountered a successful attempt to do so. If some author I’m not aware of hasn’t already produced a suitably clever justification then it’s about time this motivational hole was filled.
Nature abhors a vacuum after all, even when it comes to the supernatural.