The first time I heard the term “energy vampire,” I experienced a very visceral “a-ha moment” (shoutout Oprah) about my entire social life. The term so perfectly described people I’ve encountered who seem to take pleasure from extracting all the joy from every conversation or situation. Whether they’re aware they’re doing it or not, an energy vampire projects negativity, dismisses what you have to say, and/or prioritizes their own feelings with little regard for yours or anyone else’s. They’re all around us: in our Facebook friends list, waiting to comment “not funny” on a photo you shared; standing by the cluster of soda bottles at a party, waiting to tell you how busy and important and above the party games they are; even all over our movie screens, disguised as some of our favorite characters!
The more I thought about it, the more I realized Energy Vampires were EVERYWHERE on my screen. Like “doofy boy our hero shouldn’t have a crush on, but does,” “inspiring mentor who leaves right at the end, leaving our hero to work their life out on their own,” and “working mom who wants to HAVE IT ALL and talks about spreadsheets a lot”, the energy vampire is a recurring character trope that’s appeared in some real cinematic gems. I’ve cataloged a few key ones here.
Enid Coleslaw, Ghost World (2001)
Enid feels too big and worldly for her suburban town, but is terrified of what else is out there; she resents having to take a summer school art class, but still wants her art to be appreciated; she makes a sincere effort with very few people besides her best friend Rebecca, but still hopes someone will try to crack her wry, cynical facade. She’s tough on everyone she spends time with, and Rebecca is no different; they share so many interests (namely: mocking everything), but sometimes I wonder how Rebecca spent all that time with Enid and still managed to cling to a shred of happiness. Giggling together about a goofy graduation-day rap is one thing, but when Enid negs out on a kitschy apartment Rebecca’s clearly super into just to avoid having an honest conversation about their futures—not just as friends, but as adult humans—Enid’s insincerity really hurts Rebecca’s feelings. Tina Fey once gave an interview where she said, in high school, she was “a mean nerd” who made biting, sarcastic comments about everyone, sure that she was doing it before they could do the same to her. Like teen Tina, Enid can’t refrain from using cynicism as “humor” to ensure nobody pays her too much close attention: “I’m taking a remedial high school art class for fuck-ups,” she tells her dad’s girlfriend, Maxine, after she reminisces about how smart Enid has always been; “What a dork,” she immediately decides, when a guy shows a little interest in Rebecca. The ultimate result is that everyone extracts themselves from her company feeling a little dazed and unsure what they did to incur her scorn.
Ms. Norbury, Mean Girls (2004)
Speaking of Tina Fey: She wrote Mean Girls and starred in it as the protagonist Cady’s math teacher Ms. Norbury, a character that reminds me that energy vampires aren’t always out-and-out nasty. More often than not, my encounters with IRL EVs began with me putting in a reasonable amount of effort, getting bummed out, and walking away wondering why I bothered. Ms. Norbury’s inability to contribute an equal amount of conversational legwork means her peers are left out of breath and in need of a lie-down after trying to make polite small talk with her, e.g., “How was your summer?” “I got divorced.”
Denise Fleming, Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Denise’s page in the yearbook summed it up:
ACTIVITIES: NONE FUTURE PLANS: N.Y.U. QUOTE: “A true friend stabs you in the front.” —Oscar Wilde
Denise is suspicious of anyone who tries to get close to her (for justified reasons: her childhood best friend ditched her and scrawled “DENISE FLEMING IS A TAMPON” on her locker in an attempt to earn cool points the second they got to high school) but that protective force field means she even keeps her best friend Preston at arm’s length. She doesn’t want to hear the story of how he and Amanda are fated to be together (for the zillionth time), nor does she want to celebrate the end of their high school careers together—even though he’s moving away the next day; high school wasn’t kind to Denise, and she kind of wants to put it all behind her without indulging in too much nostalgia, even if it means a lot to her BFF. “Well, have fun tonight,” she tells Preston, “be sure to tell everyone how much I’ll miss them.” Denise both wishes people tried harder with her and resents or disparages anyone who dares to. In some ways, Denise reminds me of myself, BUT THAT’S A CONFESSIONAL PAGE OUT OF MY JOURNAL FOR ANOTHER DAY.
Hilary Faye, Saved! (2004)
Hilary Faye is the worst kind of negative Nancy because she feels so justified in all the awful, passive-aggressive (and, sometimes, straight-up aggressive) shit she pulls “because” of her faith. For Hilary Faye, religion is a competition that she intends to win: Coming out on top means having the power to tread on everyone lower or weaker on the social food chain. Her Christianity also makes her kind of the ultimate energy vampire because so much of her belief system requires her to display kindness and generosity to draw people in, but once she’s got them to confess their secrets, her selfish, cruel streak destroys them from the inside out by breaking their trust. She makes digs about her friend Tia’s dad’s alcoholism, Mary’s boyfriend’s homosexuality, and her brother Roland’s disability. Hilary Faye is like the Goblin King from Labyrinth: She can only be defeated once Mary (with the support of Roland, Patrick and Cassandra) realizes her own inner strength and lets H-Faye know she has no power over her anymore.
Laney Boggs, She’s All That (1999)
Laney, the wise artist and falafel store waitress, was right to be icy and skeptical when Zac, the most popular guy in school, suddenly begins showing an interest in her (after all, he was only trying to transform her into the prom queen to win a bet with his buddies), but she’s no easier on the other people in her life who genuinely care for her; she keeps her dad, brother, and best/only friend Jesse at arm’s distance, too. Since her mother passed away, she’s had to look after her family and both resents the responsibility and leans on it as an excuse to get out of activities she’s a bit sus on. Laney’s response to any of Zac’s social invitations—whether it’s an afternoon trip to the beach or a house party or the prom—is along the lines of, “Why are you asking me to hang out with you?” which makes it really hard for people to get close to her. It takes four of Zac’s friends asking her to come to a party for Laney to accept their invitation, then it takes Zac cleaning her entire house and having his sister give her a makeover to get her to stick to her word. It can be hard, when you’re used to being on the outside or not being invited, to let your guard down, say yes and allow yourself to have fun. But when someone spends all their time reassuring Laney that they want to be spending time with her, every genuine hang (that she assumes is part of “some sort of dork outreach program”) becomes a one-way street of reassurance and encouragement.
Max Fischer, Rushmore (1998)
In the world of the elite private school Rushmore’s most dedicated student (and biggest fan) Max Fischer, the only people that matter are Max Fischer and the people Max Fischer wants something from. Whether it’s love, money, or an extra set of eyes on his latest elaborate screenplay, Max’s needs are number one. He manipulates and belittles anyone who might come between him and his ultimate goal of remaining a student at Rushmore, and requires constant reassurance, attention and monitoring to make sure he doesn’t do anything too destructive; you know, casual teen stuff like trying to seduce a teacher or cutting the brakes on a man’s car when he learns that man is dating said teacher. It’s Max Fischer’s world, and we’re just living in it, nervously whispering to each other, “He knows we exist, right?” (No, he doesn’t.)
Kat Stratford, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Kat is awesome in many ways: She listens to Bikini Kill and other “angry girl music of the indie-rock persuasion” and kicks dudes in the balls when they try to grope her at school. But being her friend does not look easy. Kat’s unwavering cynicism and dismissal of everything her classmates enjoy would make it pretty tough for her BFF, the Shakespeare-obsessed Mandella, whose balloon of hope and excitement is gleefully burst by Kat when they talk about the upcoming prom.
KAT: Who the hell would go to that antiquated mating ritual?
MANDELLA: Uh, I would! But I don’t have a date.
KAT: Do you really wanna get all dressed up, so some Drakkar Noir-wearing ’dexter with a boner can feel you up while you’re forced to listen to a band that, by definition, blows?
Dude, she just told you she wants to go, don’t make her feel shitty about wanting an experience just because you don’t value it!
Indominus Rex, Jurassic World (2015)
It’s like, ugh, we get it, Indominus: you were engineered in a lab and have never known life outside the pen you managed to escape and now you’re just trying to figure out where you fit in the food chain by going HAM on every li’l dino (and human) who gets in your way, but, damn could you just take a breather and let the T. Rex get a few more minutes of screen-time!? It’s not all about you!!! ♦