Season 5 of True Blood is out. It made me revisit the symbolism inherent in the different characters and in the different kinds of Sups (supernatural creatures). Think of Sci-Fi / Fantasy what you want, there are many psychological metaphors in vampire stories. I do not intend to pathologise or label or assign negative characteristics, but instead I am interested in how certain emotional and interpersonal difficulties are depicted and enacted in fictional ‘Bon Temps’, Louisiana, and how this can be viewed in psychoanalytic and attachment terms. What is interesting especially for more progressive and inclusive treatment perspectives is how the issue of difference is experienced by different groups of Sups, and how different views and needs are being negotiated, both within and outside each group, and in both constructive and destructive ways.
There are many examples of the different attachment styles in the series, and emotional difficulties or relational conflicts frequently get enacted in abuse, sex or violence. The series is based on vampires having
‘come out of the coffin’, attempting to coexist with humans and continuously fighting for equal rights. This has largely been made possible by the development of synthetic human blood, ‘Tru Blood’, which can be bought in bottles. Some vampires do not adhere to the concept of Coexistence and have contempt for humans, whilst most humans discriminate against ‘Fangs’ for a number of reasons, including fear, xenophobia and envy. Another analogy to the gay rights movement can be found in the slogan of anti-vampire right-wing Christian group ‘The Fellowship of the Sun’, which is ‘God Hates Fangs’.
What is interesting about True Blood is that, unlike many other fantasy stories involving rather two-dimensional vampires, the series depicts vampires with empathy, exploring their complexities and their struggles, which sometimes raises difficult questions around the notion of personal responsibility. It moves beyond the stereotype of the cold violent killer to seeing the individual’s history, pain, trauma, and underlying issues which he or she has been struggling with. It shows the different ways in which individuals deal with similar issues. The underlying difficulties are chronic feelings of emptiness, anger management problems and difficulties with emotional self-regulation (or the absence of emotions altogether), unstable moods and sense of self, low impulse control, extreme fear of rejection and abandonment, problems with empathy and mentalising, hypersensitivity to attachment bonds, and a sense of hopelessness – thinking that they will remain in this state forever (or at least until The True Death, when they get staked in the heart or burnt by the sun.)
At the core of the figure of the vampire is trauma – every vampire was human once and went through the traumatic experience of being ‘turned’, bitten, by another vampire, which makes the trauma very similar to relational trauma subject to someone more powerful. Many vampires seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), regularly getting flashbacks to the event of being turned, combined with a chronically overactive stress response, or in a constant state of vacuous dissociation. The coping mechanisms unconsciously employed are pre-emptive attacks when fearing abandonment or let-downs; isolation and not trusting or depending on anyone; control via intimidation, emotional and physical violence, and manipulation (the practice of ‘glamouring’); narcissistic behaviour and splitting (us vampires vs. them humans). They also struggle with understanding and respecting boundaries, and this is symbolised by the fact that they cannot enter the house of a human without explicitly being granted permission – a basic boundary which most of the insecure humans struggle to enforce – often their only way to protect themselves. This is especially difficult when a human doesn’t manage to protect him or herself from being glamoured by an intruding vampire.
Some vampires deal with this by accepting their state of being as ‘fate’, fully identifying with the label and the stereotype, and subsequently engaging in destructive/self-destructive, impulsive and volatile behaviour. Others have a sense of an ‘alien self’ residing inside of them ever since having been ‘turned’, and do the best they can to fight their destructive and self-destructive ways of being and relating. One of the main characters, Bill Compton, falls into this category, as does Eric Northman to a degree later in the series. The difference seems to depend on the type of attachment a vampire has to his or her ‘Maker’ – the vampire who ‘turned’ or ‘assaulted’ them and deprived them of their humanity in a sense, as well as on their Maker’s character. A socially relatively integrated Maker will have a mellowing effect on the freshly turned vampire, emphasizing the importance of values and honour, whereas a Maker who doesn’t buy into the idea of Tru Blood and Coexistence but instead still feeds on humans will have the opposite effect. The relationship between a vampire and his or her maker is very merged, a kind of object relating rather than object usage in Winnicottian terms. This seems to be the only form of relating that feels safe to them. It allows for some kind of connection, albeit symbiotic, in which they can control or avoid the intolerable risk of rejection, abandonment and loss. The vampire adores and idealises the Maker, which evokes the concept of the identification with the aggressor, popularly known as Stockholm Syndrome. This goes to the extreme of compulsive self-sacrifice, being willing to die in order to save the Maker. The Maker, on the other hand, has full control over the new vampire, and they are so merged that he or she can feel when the new vampire is in danger. A quite dysfunctional kind of care in a cycle of abuse and guilty, misattuned and badly-timed attempts to repair that is characteristic of an abusive upbringing, leading to avoidant, ambivalent, preoccupied or disorganised attachment patterns. What binds all vampires together is a tragic history of abuse and having been abused, passed down the generations, and justified, enabled, legitimised and sometimes even encouraged by the peer group. Most of them suffer from addiction to alcohol, violence, sex, power and real or Tru Blood.
The way in which young vampires adapt to this new state they find themselves in after the traumatic event of being turned probably also depends on whether they had secure attachments in their human life or not. Research has shown that individuals with secure attachments are much less likely to develop PTSD after trauma and are more able to recover. Freshly turned vampires are usually very disorganised, dysregulated, highly impulsive, destructive and self-destructive, in short, traumatised. This can develop in constructive and destructive directions, depending on the care they receive after the traumatic event and depending on how they are able and willing to use it.
Frequently it does however seem to develop into PTSD, and what can be observed is Freud’s concept of the repetition compulsion – repeating, or, in attachment terms re-enacting - the traumatic event in the hope that this time one might be able to achieve a better outcome, or in order to try to forget it altogether by keeping it out of awareness via unconscious repetitive behaviour.
Securely attached humans generally are able to keep protecting themselves from such attacks by having and enforcing healthy and clear boundaries. Some humans, however, usually with their own histories of difficult attachments with their caregivers, feel very drawn to them and enter co-dependent or abusive relationships with them.
Most vampires in True Blood find themselves magically drawn towards the series’ main character Sookie Stackhouse, who is struggling with her ability to hear other people’s thoughts. Sookie frequently feels like this ability is a bit like a curse, especially when she can’t switch other people’s voices off and they become instrusive. Many of those who know about her ability react with distrust and fear and withdraw from her, or treat her unfairly. She frequently feels lonely and confused because of her difference. Once she finds out that there are such beings as fairies out there, and that she is half fairy, half human, makes her find comfort in her new identity. This is an example of the positive effects of labelling. Since fairies cannot read the minds of vampires (probably because of the latter’s experience of inner emptiness), Sookie likes being in the presence of Bill Compton, because she can be close to someone without the intrusion of someone’s thoughts. Vampires are drawn to her because of special qualities in her blood, which might really be a symbol for her sensitivity, empathy and energy. Around her, vampires feel ‘seen’ for the first time, and it gives them a sense of hope that one day they might be able to be safe enough to allow themselves to feel, to relate and to experience intimacy again. Hope for secure attachment in Bon Temps.
Silke Steidinger - Psychotherapist writing about developments in psychotherapy