Is a Teenager Still a Teenager, if They’re Also a Centuries-Old Immortal Vampire?Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett
When she was younger, my wife was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, the emphasis here is on the past tense.
She was recently telling me about a conversation she had with a friend about it, where they discussed at length just how creepy it was, in hindsight. Not because of the occult and supernatural aspect, or the more recent unpleasant allegations regarding the show’s creator, although they certainly don’t help.
No, their main concern was, then and now, focussed on the romantic, and eventually sexual relationship between the title character, high school student Buffy Summers, and Angel, a vampire who, despite his youthful appearance, is over 200 years old! That’s quite an uncomfortable age gap, as many have pointed out.
Mind the eye-watering age gap
Alarmingly, this “teenager is romanced by a centuries-old supernatural being” is hardly an anomaly. It’s basically the central point of the Twilight series, and the Vampire diaries, both massively successful and popular. I’ve often been told that younger women find older men attractive, but surely there are limits?
However, is this objection fair? Or even valid? In these examples, the older man is a vampire, who was turned at a young age. Therefore, he still looks and sounds like a teenager, or twentysomething. If he looked his actual age, akin to a poorly animated mummy, then the young woman would presumably be less enthusiastic about physical intimacy.
Here’s the thing; does chronological age matter, when the ageing process has been disrupted? I know countless women, of all ages, who find Chris Evan’s portrayal of Captain America in the MCU severely attractive. When Avengers: Endgame was released, the character was 101 years old. That didn’t put anyone off.
But then, Steve Rogers is that age because he was frozen in ice for decades, whereas your average vampire has ‘lived’ their extended lifespan. How much difference does that make? Are young-looking vampires actually wizened old gnomes trapped in youthful, sculpted bodies? Or should they still be considered teenagers, albeit ones with more memories than most? The answer would determine how inappropriate their ‘romantic interests’ are.
And, as a neuroscientist, I’d argue it all comes down to how vampirism affects the brain.
The bloodthirsty elephant in the room
I must confess something up front; I don’t know how vampires work, in the biological, physiological sense. In my defence, I don’t think anybody does. Vampires are hard to study scientifically, given the whole ‘not actually existing’ thing.
I’ve seen numerous explanations in fiction. Sometimes it’s a pathogen, a bacteria or virus or bioweapon gone wrong. Sometimes it’s an evolutionary quirk. Sometimes it’s demonic possession. Sometimes it’s spiritual contamination, or biblical prophesies. Basically, it’s hard to say, with any confidence, how vampirism affects human biology, or whether it’s biological at all.
Some of the more ‘classic’ vampire traits suggest it is. Transmission via biting implies an infectious process at work. The constant need for blood suggests a demanding, yet picky, metabolism. The violent, often lethal reactions to garlic and sunlight imply a powerful immune system at work, given such intense allergic reactions.
On the other hand, a powerful aversion to holy water or crucifixes hints at a much more mystical process. And a full-sized human transforming into a bat shows a blatant disregard of the laws of physics. Overall, it’s impossible to say how vampirism would affect the underlying human biology.
However, there are some consistencies that suggest we can make at least some reasonable conclusions about how a vampire brain works.
The blood(sucking)-brain barrier
There are many different portrayals and explanations for vampires out there. But there seems to be one thing they all can do. Even the most bestial, rudimentary take on vampires seem to recall their desired victims, learn to avoid hazards or try new approaches, and so on. The more typical ones adapt to changing times, stalk new victims, recognise foes, etc. This reveals that all vampires can remember.
This is revealing, because long term memory depends on the formation of new synapses, the creation of new connections between brain cells. This reveals that, at the most basic levels, a vampires brain is constantly changing, the cellular processes that govern it are still active in some form. At the very least, everyone agrees that a vampire’s brain is constantly changing, accumulating new memories. So, they are ageing. Therefore, a romantic relationship between a centennial vampire in a teenage body and a teenage girl is well creepy.
The (endless) summer of (seventeen) sixty nine!
They say, “with age comes wisdom”. Age also comes with hair loss, weight gain, slower metabolism, brittle bones, memory impairments, and a lot more. That stuff doesn’t make for such a pithy phrase, though. So, we tend to focus on the wisdom bit.
Is it right, though? True, our brains carry on accumulating information, memories, no matter how old we get. But then, there’s no guarantee that this information will be right, or helpful. As anyone who has an ageing relative on Facebook will know, if there’s one thing we’ve all seen recent years, it’s an abundance of older people who, from a purely objective perspective, really couldn’t be described as ‘wise’.
My point is, ‘accumulating memories’ are not interchangeable with ‘maturing’ or ‘developing’. They’re a big part of it, undoubtedly, but they’re not the defining factor. Particularly when it comes to adolescent development.
Our brains undergo extensive overhaul during our teens. All the different parts of our brain mature, become more efficient, but at different rates. This means our emotion processing regions become more mature, more powerful, at a faster rate than our higher cognitive regions, the parts that (eventually) keep them in check. Trust me, I wrote a whole book all about this.
This isn’t to say that teenagers are slaves to their emotions, because they’re not. They can, and regularly do, overrule them, and think rationally. It’s just harder overall for the teen brain to do that, and all their experiences are more emotionally infused. Which strongly influences memory formation.
That’s why the music you heard during your teens is always ‘the best music’, no matter how old you are. And why the passion you feel during your adolescence is, by and large, more potent than at any other point in your life, because your brain hasn’t learned to reign it in yet.
Imagine living like that for decades. Centuries. Forever! Yes, vampire brains may be able to form new memories, but that’s a constant, fundamental process. It’s like your heart beating; that keeps happening, in the same way as always, from birth to death. The more complex, wide-sweeping changes that lead to maturity and wisdom, are separate, distinct. Maybe vampirism keeps the biological basics of the brain ticking over, while halting the more sophisticated hormone-and-genetic-dependent maturation processes at bay?
This would still mean that a teen vampire acquires more memories, more knowledge, as they age. But all the memories they acquire would be dominated by emotions. And given how recent research reveals that our brain is regularly removing memories that are deemed insignificant, and emotional memories are deemed biologically more significant than any other, you could argue that centuries-old vampire teenagers are less mature, and more beholden to their emotions, than your typical human teen.
Here’s the thing: I’m not saying it’s not creepy when a being several centuries old romantically pursues a literal teenager. Because it is. But they may have far less insight and self-awareness than is often assumed. Rather than a wily old letch with a preference for naïve youngsters, they may well be as much at the mercy of their emotions as those they’re enamoured with. I guess because we can’t ever know how vampire brains work, we can never be totally sure.
What I am totally sure of, though, is that I recently finished writing a very serious, heavy book, so wanted to write something utterly pointless and nonsensical as a palette cleanser. You’re welcome.
Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is @garwboy on Twitter.