By Martha Brockenbrough
Is anything grosser than blood sucking? Mosquitoes, bed bugs, leeches -- these are the products in Mother Nature's little shop of horrors.
This is why the love affair with vampire stories we've had for the past century or so baffles me. Even stranger, vampires have morphed from monsters to heroes, from life stealers to love interests.
Witness the very popular "Twilight" books and movie.
A blood diet -- known as sanguivory or hematophagy -- is gross, though. Really gross.
It's also not all that nutritious. It's 95 percent water, with just a dash of protein, sugar and minerals. It definitely doesn't have the fat your body needs, which probably explains why the vampires you see on TV and read about in books are lean and beautiful.
Vampire bats need to drink half their body weight to avoid starvation. Can you imagine hanging out with someone who needed to chugalug 100 pounds of blood every day? The slurping sounds alone would probably get old quickly.
But this doesn't mean I haven't thought about it for entirely selfish and shallow reasons. How great would it be to write a best-seller that got turned into a movie? I could put up with a lot of annoying sound effects for that.
The first step, of course, is to figure out why something so yucky has become so appealing. And mark my words, humans love their vampire stories. In a database at my public library, I found 1,678 vampire books available, including romances, horror stories, comics and graphic novels. There's even a whole "vampire slayer" genre. By comparison, there are 268 books about werewolves and 309 about zombies (including "Grandpa's Zombie BBQ").
Vampires leave all other supernatural humanoid menaces in the dust, and have since Bram Stoker's "Dracula" came out in 1897. His wasn't the first vampire tale, not by a long shot.
The people who keep track of these things say that tales of nocturnal bloodsuckers plaguing the countryside have infected the English-speaking world as far back as 1196.
The word vampire is much more recent, though. The Oxford English Dictionary pegs its introduction to our language in 1734, borrowed from French, which in turn imported it from Eastern Europe. There, a variety of bloodsuckers have been called, among other things, "vampir," "vapir" and "upir," which itself might come from "ubyr," meaning "witch."
Interestingly, the old vampire tales probably are not inspired by vampire bats. The tales tend to come from Eastern Europe, and the three varieties of vampire bats are found only in Latin America.
It's true that bats aren't the only bloodsuckers out there, of course. There are bed bugs, leeches and even a blood-sucking species of finch on the Galapagos Islands. It preys on the blue-footed booby, pecking at the hindquarters until it strikes red gold, at which point other dark-hearted finches line up "like customers at a deli counter," according to a book called "Dark Banquet" by the Long Island University biologist Bill Schutt.
As startling as the gross factor is, it's probably less a part of the vampire allure than the fascinating contradictions vampires embody.
Maybe itís the immortality?
Allie Costa, who wrote an essay published in a collection about the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV show, says, "They inspire both horror and awe, both fear and intrigue, as they simultaneously represent death and immortality. I, however, do not aspire to become or to be involved with a vampire Ö I'm a vegetarian, so I'd starve if I became a vampire. Thanks, but no fangs."
The author Christopher Golden said his frustration with religion and a desire to invert some aspects of it inspired him to write his first novel, "Of Saints and Shadows."
He went to Catholic school for 12 years and was puzzled by the notion of the pope's infallibility, among other things. How could this be, where there at one time were three popes? His questions inspired him to turn the whole idea of vampires on its head. In his book, a priest is the villain and a vampire is the hero.
I definitely get what he's saying here. Bloodsuckers aren't just gross. They actually can be seen to represent an inversion of Christianity, which is one of the most powerful stories of all time. Vampires, though dead, have a twisted kind of immortality. Jesus represents the other kind of eternal life. Vampires drink blood to steal life and perpetuate their own. Jesus offered his up as a means of salvation.
All this egg-headery is getting me nowhere with my shallow and selfish plans, unfortunately. But don't shed any tears, because I've certainly enhanced my repertoire of disgusting facts, and I've come to realize there's one angle to the blood sucking that really hasn't been explored thoroughly. And it's super gross.
A catfish called the candiru lives in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers and follows the scent of urine through the gills of larger fish (yes, fish pee through their gills). The sly candiru slips inside to slurp up blood, then leaves.
Apparently,100 years of jungle lore say these fish will swim up your urethra and do the same. There's just one case of a fish attack on tender human vittles, but reality never gets in the way of a good story.
Don't you think it's high time someone took this jungle legend to the streets? Perhaps the world is simply waiting for the first horror story about a beast irresistibly drawn to the smell of human wee. Unlike any sort of traditional vampire tale, at least this one won't completely ... suck.