You're cover-shopping at the bookstore. If you're lucky there's a horror section: otherwise, you may be in sci-fi, fantasy, romance, or that wondrous catchall, "novels." You want to find vampire books, of course. Other than the word "vampire" in the title, what will tip you off? You look at the cover paintings. A masked woman gazes at you haughtily, fangs like an adder's at the corners of her mouth; disembodied red lips smile around the claw-like teeth protruding between them; a gilt-framed portrait could be period art ... except for the tusk-tips resting on the man's lower lip.
Other icons are identified with vampires: the silhouette of a bat; a red-lined full-length cape with a chokingly high collar; an exposed neck with two holes (bleeding optional); a single drop of blood depending from a pair of red lips; a widow's peak of black hair; a stake and hammer. But none tell us "vampire" so quickly, so surely, so alluringly as fangs.
Why do those pointy teeth say "vampire" to us? And why do we love them so?
Vampires haven't always had fangs. European vampire lore does not list fangs among the vampire's traits. Historical accounts of vampires include blood in the coffin and blood on the mouth, but no fangs for drawing of said blood. The earliest fictional vampires are similarly fangless. Polidori's description of Lord Ruthven in "The Vampyre" (1819) makes no mention of his teeth; one of the great missed opportunities to mention fangs occurs in John Stagg's 1810 poem "The Vampyre," in which the eponymous fiend is caught in the very act and
Indignant roll'd his ireful eyes,
That gleam'd with wild horrific stare....
His jaws cadaverous were besmear'd
With clotted carnage o'er and o'er,
And all his horrid whole appear'd
Distent, and fill'd with human gore!
But no fangs.
Perhaps the earliest literary instance of a fanged vampire occurs in the first chapter of Varney the Vampyre (1840): "With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth...." (That this is indeed an early description is attested by use of the expression "fang-like" to refer to the teeth, as opposed to simply calling them fangs.) A few decades later the eponymous Carmilla (1871) had "the sharpest tooth -- long, thin, pointed like an awl"; "the tooth of a fish." All the vampires of Dracula (1897) had pointy teeth: the three vampire women of the castle, the transformed Lucy, and of course Dracula himself. One of the earliest cinematic vampires, Max Schreck's portrayal of Graf Orlock in Nosferatu (1922) sported prominent ratlike incisor-fangs.
Early vampires of the stage and screen, however, in general did not use dental prosthetics. In the case of the stage, vampire's fangs might not have been practical: anything big enough to see likely would have interfered with an actor's ability to deliver his lines. For movie vampires, however, this need not present a problem. Yet Bela Lugosi's classic portrayal of Dracula did not include fangs, nor indeed did Lugosi ever wear them as part of a vampire role. The first talkie vampire to sport fangs was Atif Kaptan's Drakula in the Turkish production Drakula Istanbulda (1953); the first widely-known portrayal of a fanged movie vampire was Christopher Lee's Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958).
So even in fiction, even in movies, vampires haven't always had fangs.
And fangs certainly aren't unique to vampires. Many species of animals, from snakes to apes, have two long, pointed upper teeth near the front of the jaw. Even in normal humans the canines are a little longer and sharper than the neighboring teeth. Yet snakes, tigers, chimpanzees, and so forth have no connection to vampires. Vampire bats have canines like many carnivores yet, ironically, they use their incisors to draw blood. And some fictional vampires do not use their teeth for blood-draining: in the movie The Hunger, the "vampires" carried small knives for that purpose.
Fangs are not unique to vampires, are not necessary for drawing blood, do not occur in the earliest Western vampire fiction, and are absent from traditional Western vampire lore. Yet these are foremost among the images (or at least among the foremost images) associated with vampires in popular culture, so essential that artists often violate basic mechanical principles in order to include them in their portrayals of vampires. Look at those book covers again (and stop drooling!). It is not physically possible for vertical fangs to protrude downward between closed human lips as many cover paintings show. But the advertising people want the fangs there. They make for good marketing, if not good mechanics.
None of which answers the question: Why?
Here are some thoughts.
As a visual indicator of the vampire condition, fangs have advantages over most other possible symbols. For one thing, they are, for lack of a better word, 'innate'. A vampire can have fangs without turning into a bat, being swathed in a cape, or wearing an ankh or medallion. And despite their lack of folkloric attestation, fangs for a vampire make intuitive sense. If you're going to drink blood, you've got to get it somehow; what more reasonable than to pierce the skin with something sharp ... like a tooth? Like, in point (ouch!) of fact, a fang?
Fangs give the vampire's appearance an unhuman touch more understated than almost any other animal-like trait could. The fanged vampire is visually a human-animal hybrid, his or her face a human facade that can, in a flash, reveal the gleaming weapons of a beast. And this animal connection may well add to the vampire's appeal, for fangs suggest the strength of the lion, the fierceness of the wolf, the speed of the striking snake. Yet for all their connotations, fangs -- elongated canines -- have an elegant simplicity, a grace that smooths over the raw animal power they represent. A few works of fiction (most notably The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas) and some lore give the vampire a tongue- prick, but its folkloric authenticity can't compete with the aesthetic appeal of the fang.
Fangs in a vampire's mouth necessarily have phallic overtones, but they lack the penis-like grotesqueness of a pointed or barb-bearing tongue. It's difficult to associate a thrusting tongue with any socially acceptable behavior. Fangs, however, suggest biting, an act that can be performed in public (at least while eating). Although not explicitly sexual, biting retains strong sexual and pre-sexual overtones related to both power and pleasure. Biting with fangs can be considered a sublimated form of sexual intercourse, even of rape. However, the mouth is not merely an erogenous zone: it is the part of the body that we consciously control literally from day one. In Freudian terms, it is associated with the earliest stage of development (oral): oral stimuli, and oral acts, can yield satisfaction at a level even more profound than the purely sexual. Thus biting, the most visceral form of oral aggression, appeals to us at the deepest instinctual level. The tot who wants a Halloween costume with vampire fangs recognizes this, even though he (or she) can't articulate the appeal of those pointy teeth. Phallic interpretations notwithstanding, it may be that their location -- the mouth -- accounts more for their charisma than do the fangs themselves. Whether we fear vampires or identify with them, their fangs intensify our focus on the mouth, whether as an erogenous zone or an instrument of aggression -- or both.
Framed by the snarling lips of a fiend or underlying the kiss of a demon lover, fangs are more than a marketing gimmick (though they certainly are that). They are the steel beneath the velvet, strength and speed, pain and delight, the promise of devouring or being devoured -- all rolled into a snippet of dental enamel. Rather than question why the vampire's fangs appeal to us, perhaps we should ask: how can they not?
About those covers:
I took a little artistic license with my bookstore scenario in the first paragraph: given the varying dates of publication, it's unlikely that all covers described would have been visible in a bookstore at the same time. Here, at any rate, are the "cover vamps" I had in mind:
The masked, fanged woman graces the cover of Domination by Michael Cecilione (Zebra, 1993). The design with disembodied red lips is that of Blood Rites by Elaine Bergstrom (Jove, 1991). Gilt-framed eighteenth century-style paintings appear on P. N. Elrod's Jonathan Barrett paperbacks, all published by Ace: Red Death (1993), Death and the Maiden (1994), Death Masque (1995), and Dance of Death (1996).
Other covers, however, may fit some of these descriptions. Fangs are everywhere!
Author: Catherine Krusberg