Trust vampires to whip up a bit of mass hysteria. They were at it in the 1700s, sending Europe into a frenzy of alleged sightings and grizzly exhumations. This time around, the sightings – on TV, in films, on the cover of a 3-for-2 paperback – are real enough, but we know vampires are not. Yet somehow the craze has taken on global proportions and been heralded with glee by the media.
Viewing figures for steamy US TV series True Blood (pictured) and reams of internet silliness eulogising Robert Patterson – aka Ed Cullen, brooding hero of tweenage saga Twilight – confirm we are hooked. And, predictably, women are worst afflicted.
The best anecdotal evidence comes via an acquaintance, who recounted the tale of a friend who left her husband to look for someone "more like Ed Cullen". (How many guys with an eternity of sexual experience in a teen's body are there on Match.com?)
Extreme though it may be, this example illustrates the overwhelming seductiveness we are told distinguishes modern vampires from old-school portrayals of gothic spookiness or camp silliness. "Bela Lugosi they aren't," winked the New York Times recently – and it's right: this lot are much more disturbing.
The idea of the vampire traditionally attracted and repelled in equal measure, embodying an unsettling relationship between sex and violence. What is troubling now is the nonchalance with which themes of domination and submission have been assimilated into mainstream light entertainment for both kids and adults.
Attempts to explain our new proclivity are predictable – "in times of conflict or recession, we need escapism" etc. But neatly cordoning off fantasy from reality is a cop-out – what we watch or read says something about what is already on our minds (and if not, soon will be).
"In difficult periods, a little subversion is necessary," venture others. Fine, but what's subversive about virginal girls wanting to be ravished by tall, dark, handsome bad boys? You can give them fangs, set it in post-9/11 America and make smart points about persecuted minorities, but the narratives still turn on a fulcrum of good old-fashioned gender stereotypes.
The creator of True Blood, Alan Ball, unwittingly put his finger on the potential for serious misunderstandings in his crude analysis of the show's popularity: "Women love the romance and the love story, and men love the sex and violence." We're all watching the same thing, but we're taking away dangerously different ideas. Sex is a complicated domain at the best of times; all this vampire nonsense just adds to the confusion.