Vampires: Can They Smell You Coming?

In modern fiction, specifically urban fantasy, vampires are frequently characterized as having an acute sense of smell.  Often they can smell humans from several yards away; they can smell fear like a dog or wild animal, or they can track a person through a crowd by their perfume, deodorant or the lack of it. 

Very interesting, really.  Scent as a descriptor is underutilized in most writing, and it’s a sense that has atrophied in humans—and for good reason.  Think about it; think about living in a city or even riding in a crowded elevator.  Scent is associated largely with predators—and vampires play as predators, rather than scavengers or parasites, in most urban fantasy. 

I like the idea of vampires having acute predator senses.  It makes them both more dangerous and more fun to write.  Here’s my problem with a strong sense of smell in this particular predator, though—scent works on inhalation and vampires don’t need to breathe. 

They’re dead, don’t need to breathe.  Just that simple, really.  Of course, vampires who want to talk to people, or other vampires, need to inhale and exhale in order to make the vocal cords work, but they don’t need to breathe to survive.  Would a sense dependent on inhalation really evolve in a creature that doesn’t have to inhale? 

Maybe “evolve” is the wrong word to use here.  Vampires, after all, don’t evolve.  They didn’t “evolve” from humans. Humans transform into vampires after some sort of process.  It may be spiritual, or viral, or it may be demonic possession, depending on the writer.  I guess it’s not evolution, though. Whatever the process is, it could result in a superior sense of smell.

 In The Vampire Tapestries, Suzy McKee Charnas portrays her vampire character’s sense of smell as a weakness.  Strong perfumes and other scents bother him, and drive him away from potential prey, as a scene where he shares a cab with a woman demonstrates.  Charnas’s vampire has some other unusual traits (he doesn’t have fangs, but a stinger under his tongue if I remember correctly) and may be a creature that evolved. I’m not sure she ever tells us.  

Vampires must have sensitive noses, though, otherwise, why would garlic work as a deterrent?  Maybe we’ve been too narrow in our thinking.  Would a wreath of really ripe Limburger cheese on the door ward them off?  How about a delicate necklace of anchovy fillets? This is an area that needs to be explored.

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2 Responses to Vampires: Can They Smell You Coming?

  1. Chad Hull says:

    That is some serious intellectual thought given to vampires. As you said, I think your answers will vary depending on the writer.

  2. Marion says:

    Vampires deserve intellectual thought as much as the next dead person, right?

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