I have finally read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Carmilla was not the first female vampire of nineteenth century literature, and not even the first lesbian vampire, but she does mark the real beginning of a long association of female vampires with F/F eroticism.
And it has got me thinking about female vampires generally. Here are some quotes and musings.
Male vs Female 19th Century Vampires
Here is how Polidori described the vampire Lord Ruthven:
… a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities than his rank … dead grey eye … the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint … the reputation of a winning tongue … he was as often among those females who form the boast of their sex from their domestic virtues, as among those who sully it by their vices.
Polidori claimed to have written The Vampyre, published in 1819, based on a fragment written by Byron himself in 1816. In Dracula, published nearly eighty years later in 1897, Stoker described the eponymous vampire as:
… a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere … his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man …
The mouth … was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth … his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed.
In other words, the nineteenth century male vampire was aristocratic, powerful and even charming, but also cruel and … cold.
Théophile Gautier’s Clarimonde, published 1836, is the tale of a young priest who has led a solemn and sheltered life until his awareness of the world, and himself, is exploded by a chance encounter with a vampire. From the 1908 translation by Lafcadio Hearn:
… a young woman of extraordinary beauty, and attired with royal magnificence … She seemed herself radiant, and radiating light rather than receiving it … all sparkling with prismatic colours, and surrounded with such a penumbra as one beholds in gazing at the sun …
(Mmm… Sparkling vampires… What does that remind me of?)
I had never till then touched the hand of any woman. It was cold as a serpent’s skin.
Beautiful, but again cold.
In Carmilla, published 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu described the female vampire as:
… above the middle height of women … slender, and wonderfully graceful … very languid … Her complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed … talking in her sweet low voice … an animated talker, and very intelligent.
Oh, and she liked to drink hot chocolate for lunch, after which she would go for a brief walk outside.
What of the three vampire women in Dracula’s castle?
All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips … a silvery, musical laugh …
There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal … white sharp teeth.
(‘Voluptuous’ is a word used normally, and almost exclusively, to describe large breasts, so it’s interesting to see it used in its more general sense. The Cambridge online dictionary defines voluptuous as describing ‘an experience or object that gives you a lot of pleasure because it feels extremely soft and comfortable or it sounds or looks extremely beautiful’.)
Sex and the Female Vampire
That Carmilla’s demure nature is a deception is hinted at repeatedly with a feather-coated literary sledgehammer, making her a sinister creature indeed, as well as a predatory lesbian who entrances the narrator, Laura. Dracula’s ‘brides’, on the other hand, are simply dangerous – overtly sexual and animalistic. In both, however, the femininity and sexuality of the characters seems to compound their vampiric evil.
Carmilla wasn’t the first lesbian vampire. Coleridge’s poem Christabel, published in 1800, gave us Geraldine:
There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandaled were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’t was frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she-
Geraldine isn’t called a vampire, but has many of the attributes of one.
In her Master’s thesis, Visualizing the Vampire: Carmilla (1872) and the Portrayal of Desire, Lauren E. Williams analyses ‘the origins of female vampirism through the literature and images of Lamia and Lilith, Blood and Roses and its source, Carmilla.’
Early mythological female vampires, like Lamia and Lilith, had at least one of three defining characteristics in common with later literary manifestations: “bloodsucking, rebellious behavior, and overt eroticism.” These early figures set the stage for the female vampire genre through their representation of everything traditional women were not supposed to be. They were dangerous and destructive while at the same time alluringly beautiful.
For the nineteenth-century male, and many females of the time, sexually aware women were feared and frequently associated with life draining vampires … The female vampire also served as an example of a sexually aggressive woman unable to be controlled by men and therefore someone to beware of.
In lesbian vampire films there is a more specific narrative that takes place and this includes the rivalry between the lesbian vampire and a mortal man for the attention of another woman. A bisexual love triangle is created with the male representing the natural, good side of things and the female vampire being quite the opposite. Scenes of sexual attraction between the vampire and her victim are predominantly portrayed to appeal to heterosexual male audiences. More so than violence the vampire embodies the threat of sexuality as she seduces her victims rather than violently attack them.
The 1971 film Daughters of Darkness subverts this slightly. Delphine Seyrig is Countess Elizabeth Bathory (although resembling Carmilla more than either the real or mythical Countess Elizabeth Bathory) whose lover and companion vampire is the (possibly bisexual) girl Ilona. The Countess is determined to seduce the newly-wed Valerie away from her husband Stefan. The twist is that Stefan is a very disturbed and sadistic individual. He may represent ‘the natural order’, but only in the sense of human evil versus supernatural evil.
I loved writing modern vamps who are obsessed not with “Ooohh, oh, me so lonely and angsty” but with a vigorous, fiercely competitive kind of Antiques Roadshow life (well, without the “life” part).
But I digress. There’s an interesting blog post by Evie Byrne (author of Called by Blood): On the Female Vampire:
But what of the vampire heroine? Female vampires are scarce on the ground, any sort of female vampire, much less a romantic heroine. They occasionally appear as slutty minions in vampire gangs, or as a minor antagonist. And of course, in some romantic vampire tales the hero vampire will elevate his love to immortality by turning her, but that is the end of the tale, not the beginning.
For these sensitive 19th century poet types, the female vampire was the embodiment of feminine devourer who, if left unchecked, sucked dry the masculine life force. She was definitely an erotic figure, but that eroticism was laced with repugnance and the fear of emasculation.
It’s hot when an alpha vamp claims his mate through blood and sex, but that power relationship cannot be flipped. When a female vampire penetrates her human lover, it somehow makes him less of a man.
Alpha males get all the glory…
The alpha heroine (see The Ultimate Alpha Female) is very popular in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but while male vampires can be (and often are) alpha heroes, it’s unusual for female vampires to be alpha heroines. (Selene in the Underworld movies springs to mind.)
Getting completely away from romance… In Misogyny in Geek Culture, Anne Thériault says:
Women are still woefully underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy. Queer, trans, racialized and disabled people find even less representation in geek media, and when they do, they’re often depicted in sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic ways, exotified and tokenized for what’s perceived to be a largely straight, white, male audience.
The Vampire Project: Women as Vampires
The Vampire Project serves ‘as an online vampire research portal, with resources and information, terminology, folklore and historical writings, and other related materials.’ One post on this site, Women in the Vampire World, looks at women as victims, as vampires, and as readers. I myself am particularly interested in the second of these.
The article says some interesting things. For example, on the roles open for a vampiress to fill:
- She may be a vampiress fulfilling the whims of a mortal man, or a male vampire.
- She may be a lesbian, where she is almost always in the dominant role in the relationship.
- She may be a dominant, independent, heterosexual vampiress with male consorts of either mortal or vampiric background.
On the first of these:
For women, a vampiress in such a position is no different than a mortal woman, with whom the female reader can identify and long to be. What better thing than to have your sexual fantasies fulfilled every night for an eternity?
Hmm, maybe. I can’t say I’m thrilled by the idea.
The second is more interesting. However, the article’s attitude towards homosexuality (or rather the projected attitudes of readers towards homosexual characters) is very binary:
So, why are there lesbian vampiresses? Certainly straight women have as little interest in homosexual vampiresses as straight men have in homosexual vampires. What’s the other factor that makes homosexual vampiresses appealing? Men. Whereas women are not drawn to lesbian vampiresses, men are. For whatever reason, many men fantasize about lesbian women. A friend of mine thought, as I do, that men have an inherent denial of women being able to be homosexuals. Men cannot fathom that a woman can be independent of a male in all things, including sex. Men secretly think that they have “the right stuff” to change a lesbian into a straight woman. So because of this fascination with lesbian vampiresses, men make up a big enough audience to support such literary work, whereas homosexual male vampires play to a much smaller audience.
There are, indeed, men who think this way. Indeed, there are lots of people who simply don’t understand, or don’t believe in, homosexuality. But it’s absurd to generalise. I consider myself to be a strictly heterosexual male, and while male-male eroticism leaves me cold, female-female eroticism is something I find quite beautiful – and this has nothing to do with a secret desire to be the one man whose powerful charisma overcomes their natural orientation. There is certainly a significant market for M/M romance/erotica and F/F romance/erotica that doesn’t necessarily correlate with readers’ gender and sexual orientation.
The most interesting point in the article is in response to the third point:
A male vampire is all about sexual appeal for a woman. So can it really be said that the same women who want to be taken in bed would find a woman who was in control appealing? Not very likely. While women can appreciate the strong, in control woman for being the ideal of feminism, and as something they’d like to be in the workplace, perhaps, the majority of women just don’t want to dominate in the bedroom. Romance novels and fairy tales are built on the basis of men being the protector and the ravisher. Women are taught to rely on more inner strengths and wit.
There certainly are men who like to be dominated, so indisputably a powerful vampiress would appeal to them. But an overwhelming majority of men prefer to be the dominant partner. Just as the homosexual male vampire plays to a very small audience of readers, so does the female dominant vampire only appeal to a certain few.
Vampire Girl On Top
There are a few stories where female vampires have a strong character and aren’t overshadowed by an alpha male. Here are some examples with links to the descriptions at TV Tropes: