by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2017
What makes a vampire different from a cannibal?
Both look human, both are spooky because they are eating humans, both are reviled by conventional society and hunted down if they reveal themselves.
What's the difference? Why are there lots of vampire stories and only a few cannibal stories?
Why vampires are different from cannibals is the topic of this essay.
Vampires look human and they can act human. They can mix with humans in some social circumstances, and in these circumstances they are often indistinguishable from humans.
This ability to mix undetectably is part of what makes them spooky and fun to tell stories about. But they are not human, and the fact that they aren't needs to be kept in mind when creating urban fantasy stories about them.
Two of the big differences between humans and vampires are that vampires are long-lived and filled with lots of magic.
The ageless longevity makes a difference. Humans rarely exceed one hundred years in life span, and they look and act older as they get older -- humans rarely mistake a teenager for middle-aged person or a middle-aged person for an oldster. (even though trying to look younger is one of the pillars of fashion)
Life experiences and wisdom are also different between humans of different ages -- teenage thinking and emotional expression are recognizably different from those of older people. One of the big differences this should make in vampire story telling is that vampires should act older and wiser than humans -- even those that look like children or teenagers. If they aren't acting older and wiser it should be part of their disguising themselves, as in, it is an act and the act can end in an eye blink if the situation calls for wise thinking.
Magic makes a difference because this means that the world a vampire experiences is not the same as the world a human experiences. Two of the obvious differences are how difficult it is to damage a vampire with physical weapons, and how much damage sunlight causes. Another is that vampires regenerate quickly from most kinds of damage. These kinds of difference change thinking. They change what is worried about and they change what is taken for granted. An example: getting in a car wreck is not going to cause great inconvenience to a vampire so drunk driving is only an issue because those pesky humans also in the area make it one. This makes drunk driving for vampires like dope smoking is for humans in those places where it is outlawed.
And there is the issue of vampire food. Handling this well is going to take a lot of thought about choices in the world the story maker is creating, and the consequences of those choices. One example of making some different choices and ending up with a quite different story is the Twilight series. This came out as both different and popular.
Given these differences, the Bram Stoker's Dracula story begins with the vampire being quite sensible about where he is living. Transylvania is remote and primitive (compared to England of that day) and having peasants routinely disappear isn't going to be much of a blip on the usual human death rate of the area. And being wise and experienced he can easily fit into the role of local eccentric noble.
The challenge of fitting a human eating, magic using creature into a contemporary urban setting is a daunting one. The biggest problem is that contemporary people are both much better educated and much more diligent about keeping track of each other. As a result it is hard to find places where having people routinely go missing does not cause lots of high-profile uproar and then much diligent investigating. And in the same vein it is hard to find occupations and social circles where exceptional wisdom and exceptional eccentricity are routinely tolerated.
This is such a challenge that Stephenie Meyer decided to back off and make her vampires benign and sparkly instead. Her choice proved popular with lots of readers.
These differences of magic, longevity and diet mean that vampires are not going to think like humans, which means they are not going to act like humans. They should be portrayed as quite odd ducks compared to humans. Portraying them as some kind of a cannibal human with a bit of magic added is not doing the vampire concept justice, and the story is not going to be as unusual as it could be.
Vampires and humans are separate, as well as not equal.