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Vampire Feeding Patterns Reconsidered

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In Never Leave Me Spike, having been binge eating humans for some time, starts to have what Buffy describes as withdrawal symptoms. He vamps out, seems to lose all rational thought and snarls and lunges trying to bite. It is interesting that both Buffy and Willow, and more importantly Spike, all attribute this to the human blood and the effects of its withdrawal.

Spike
...so you trump up some charge about me being back on the juice.

Sleeper

Willow
Buffy, he’s been feeding... on human blood. That’s gotta do stuff.

Sleeper

Buffy
He’s been feasting on humans for weeks. He’s having some pretty bad withdrawls. I think we need to get him some blood.

Never Leave Me

Buffy goes back into her room where Spike’s tied up. She shuts the door behind her.
Buffy
Better? Good.
Spike
I don’t remember anything.
Buffy
Well, you were having pretty bad withdrawal.
Spike
No, not that. I don’t remember... what I did.

Never Leave Me

When I first saw this I was simply irritated by the relatively new metaphor of blood = addiction for a vampire. There had of course been slight hints of it before but never anything so blatant. And since it had echoes of the hated magic = drugs metaphor of Season 6 I was more than happy to forget about it. Now though, I wonder.

I always find it helpful to examine vampires through the lens of predator/prey ecosystems. Not that I think for a moment ME planned anything that way, but it is surprising how consistent they can turn out to be.

Many predators seem to have two modes of behaviour. The first is ‘normal’ hunting – they hunt when they are hungry and eat to their fill. So even if there is other potential prey around once they have killed they won’t be interested – they switch off and enjoy the meal of the moment and then rest or play. This is obviously a terribly sensible way of behaving since it provides for maximum energy efficiency. It is the default mode when a predator is settled in an established territory with no more than the usual pressures. They become terribly habit ridden actually – patrolling the same areas of their territory at the same time each night, returning to familiar places where they have hunted successfully before, and generally saving thought as well as action.

However, predators can also behave in a second less ‘rational’ manner. This normally occurs when for some reason there is a super-abundance of food. The classic example is a fox that has broken into a poultry pen and goes into a killing spree. I have seen the results of this – the fox will literally try to kill every bird without pausing to eat or cache its first kills. But this behaviour isn’t unique to foxes. I’ve seen a cat return to a blackbird’s nest and take each fledgling in turn – kill it, play with it for a few seconds, then go for the next one. Dogs will do it when they worry sheep. Humans when they are shooting driven game. In each case the behaviour only stops when the prey runs out or they are forcibly stopped.

It is harder to understand the advantage of such behaviour. On the face of it a killing spree is enormously wasteful of both energy and food, especially for those species that don’t store their food in any way. The usual explanation therefore is that the predator has switched into some sort of ‘automatic’ mode, responding unthinkingly to the stimulus the prey provides and killing regardless of possible adverse consequences. Spike’s killing spree in Season 7 could comfortably be viewed in such a way. Especially if we consider the First as having ‘flicked the switch’ to send him into spree mode.

But why would predators have such a potentially harmful ‘switch’ at all? And how does it relate to ‘addiction’? I think the process works as follows:

As I mentioned, most predators seem to rely a lot on routine and habit for their hunting. They practice as cubs (or kittens, children, whatever) and ingrain certain actions, then as adults establish tried practices and places that work for them which they keep repeating. Thus for example you can have a cat who is a birder, a mouser or a rabbiter. I think we can clearly see repeat patterns amongst our vampires – Spike stated he was a veal kind of guy (School Hard), Dru goes for children, Angelus for nuns, Russell for lonely girls.

Habit is a useful tool for animals that allows them to free up thought for other things but it does have the disadvantage that, thanks to the way our brains work, the line between habit and addiction is unclear. Our society likes to make artificial distinctions between habits and addictions, but just as body chemistry will change to break down an addictive substance more frequently, the brain is also changed to make the thought required for a habit less onerous and more automatic. Which is harder to overcome can depend on individual character. For example they sometimes say that breaking the habit of smoking is far harder than breaking the addiction of nicotine. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that – as any psychiatrist will tell you, you simply can’t make distinctions between body and brain. What affects one affects the other. So I think it is rather futile to make some distinction between a habit and an addiction – it is perhaps more helpful to consider them synonyms with some variation as to power.

I think therefore a spree should be thought of as not unlike an addiction – a habit that has become too engrained to stop, at least temporarily. Think of someone sitting beside a bag of peanuts – they will all too easily just eat one after another without rational thought entering the process. This isn’t normal behaviour, or sensible behaviour, but for the brief period of abundance – the depth of the bag – that person will spree.

So far so good – Spike’s Season 7 killings can be seen as an addiction. But what about the withdrawal symptoms? When the peanut bag is empty most people don’t foam at the mouth. (Please insert your own joke here.) A dog that has been worrying sheep will notoriously return home calm and friendly. What all predators will do however is return to the site of their spree. This is the old habit muscles at work again – sheep worrying for example will happen in the same field time and time again while sheep two fields away are never touched. I saw that cat I mentioned earlier repeatedly checking the same bush where it had found the fledglings for the rest of the summer. (And when I checked it myself there were no les than three emptied nests – that blackbird was heading for a Darwin award.)

What becomes more interesting is when you consider what happens when you prevent an animal that has had a memorable spree from hunting again. I have had one experience of this, it was with my own cat when the number of mice he was bringing in during the course of one night became unacceptable. I guess he must have unearthed a nest somewhere and he was bringing them in in turn, playing for a while then going straight back out for another. After the fourth I shut him inside – and he went through the roof. A beast that under normal circumstances would happily settle down and sleep after a single kill was prowling back and forth, whining and scratching, charging at anything remotely resembling prey (my feet) and generally behaving not at all unlike an addict undergoing bad withdrawal symptoms.

Hmm. So maybe the withdrawal ’metaphor’ isn’t so far fetched after all.

All of which makes me think about what implications such behaviour patterns would have for vampires. Certainly Spike seemed as well aware of the withdrawal problem as Buffy and Willow, and that he needs to be weaned off human blood and onto animal – and from there presumably down to more acceptable levels of feeding over all. If the risk of uncontrollable behaviour resulting from spree feeding is acknowledged and understood by vampires then it is the first indication in canon of a serious requirement for the vampires to exhibit self control.

There have of course been hints of vampires who limit their feeding for their own advantage – Harmony sticking to her otter diet, the whore-house vamps in Season 5 who don’t kill – but these are shown as vamps self-limiting to avoid external risks. Those who don’t fear the wrath of the Slayer or Angel are portrayed as killing pretty much at whim. If however the result of spree killing is a potential serious addiction problem that results in uncontrollable behaviour then the stakes are obviously much much higher and it really behoves a vampire to keep an eye on his diet.

Do we suddenly have an explanation for the difference between the calm rational vampires we occasionally see (i.e more or less any vamp you can name) and their mindless cousins who attack any passing girl in a graveyard?

Let’s think about Sunday’s gang back in Season 4. They had never met the Slayer – they had heard about her and were excited that she was coming to their university, but they clearly felt no real fear of her. Yet they were already hunting very circumspectly – they took a few carefully picked freshmen each year. I have always assumed this was (almost the only) example in canon of vamps being cautious to avoid rousing the suspicions of the human population. Yet in all other instances the humans are shown as being extraordinarily oblivious to demon risks, so why this exception. Perhaps what is in fact being shown is that organised, sensible vampires not only wish to avoid being too blatant but also, and possibly more importantly, have to limit their hunting to avoid going into spree mode.

Which of course instantly brings to mind this famous conversation:

Spike
Come on. When was the last time you unleashed it? All out fighting a mob, back against the wall, nothing but fists and fangs? Don’t you ever get tired of fights you know you’re going to win?
Angelus
No. A real kill. A good kill. It takes pure artistry. Without that, we’re just animals.

Fool for Love