Musings & Meditations

The Vampire Lovers

The following is from the article “The Vampire Lovers” by Pam Keesey and Toni Armstrong Jr. Excerpted from HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture (volume 10:3, September 1994).


Countess Dracula and Ancient Vampires

Most people are surprised to find out that the earliest vampires are actually associated with the Goddess, especially Kali, Ishtar, Isis, and Cybele. She wasn’t called a vampire; she was the Goddess of Death, the Goddess of War, the Goddess of the Underworld. Hers was the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Blood, the symbol of life and death, was her domain. She embodied both life and death, both mortality and immortality (Holte, 1987; McNally, 1983). As warrior tribes superimposed their patriarchal religions on the Goddess-worshipping societies they conquered, those sacred symbols of life were vilified as evil. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight — the process took place over generations and generations.

In the Jewish tradition, the vampire was Lilith, who defied Adam’s supposed authority over her. She was punished by becoming the demon woman who seduced men, draining their life force and giving birth to more demons to populate the earth and terrorize good, god-fearing but sexually weak men (Salmonson, 1991; Time-Life Books, 1985; Twitchell, 1981). In one story, “Lilith’s Cave,” a young woman whose body is taken over by the spirit of Lilith is condemned by her father to “flit from man to man” in the form of a bat (Schwartz, 1990).

In Christian lore, she is Eve the temptress. Eve is blamed for not only the downfall of Adam, but for the destruction of Paradise. She never attained Lilith’s reputation for evil, but Eve has certainly become a scapegoat for good, god-fearing, but sexually weak men. By the time Bram Stoker wrote his novel Dracula in 1897, the vampire had already been in the public consciousness throughout Europe for several centuries. (Note: most cultures of the world have their own vampire lore.) Some people believed that vampires caused bubonic plague. In Eastern Europe, reports of vampire sightings and villages plagued by the undead were made to local authorities on a regular basis. Priests and scholars wrote tomes on how to protect self and loved ones from possession by the devil and from vampire attacks. Bram Stoker was actually jumping on the vampire bandwagon long after their popularity had been established.

Dracula’s Mother
More than twenty-five years before Dracula, Irish ghost-tale writer J. Sheridan LeFanu published Through a Glass Darkly (1871), a collection of supernatural short stories including the famous “Carmilla.” The story is told ten years after the fact by the heroine of the story, Laura, who lives in an isolated castle with her father, when Carmilla (the victim of a carriage accident) comes to stay with them. Carmilla has dark hair, sharp eyes, languid gestures, and pale, luminous skin. Laura is delighted with her new companion, but finds her mysterious ways confusing. Carmilla tells Laura how much she loves her, and that she regrets knowing that one day Laura will marry a man and forget all about her. Laura reassures her that theirs is a friendship that will last forever. In the meantime, Laura is becoming pale and lethargic, spending more and more time in bed. She is haunted by strange dreams in which she is bitten by a cat and suffers from an overwhelming sensation consisting of trembling, shortness of breath, and convulsions that sound very sexual in nature. Laura’s father calls for the doctor, who discovers a bite just above Laura’s left breast — the work of a vampire, he concludes. Carmilla’s ruse is discovered and she is hunted down and killed.

But even in the telling of the story ten years after the fact, Laura believes she hears footsteps outside her door — the light, quick step of her beloved Carmilla. Sheridan LeFanu’s ghost stories were very popular in his day and age. Despite the lack of clear proof, most literary historians are confident that much of Bram Stoker’s inspiration came from the lesbian vampire Carmilla. “Carmilla” itself seems to have been inspired by an even earlier lesbian vampire tale: “Christabel,” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (which was published in several different forms, one of the earliest in 1797). Christabel lives in an isolated castle with her father, Sir Leoline. One evening, she is just outside the castle gates dreaming of her groom-to-be when she hears a sound. She finds Geraldine, a young woman whose carriage was attacked by vandals, and invites her to stay in the family castle (does this sound familiar?).

Geraldine’s evil nature is hinted at throughout — the family dog growls at her; the flames nearly go out as she walks by; Christabel’s father, a light sleeper by nature, sleeps heavily that night, as though a spell has been cast over him. Geraldine shrinks from the cherubs that decorate Christabel’s room, and when the ghost of Christabel’s mother appears to protect her daughter, Geraldine chases her away. Geraldine undresses, baring her breasts. Christabel describes this as “a sight to dream of, not to tell.” They embrace, and in the morning Christabel isn’t sure if she dreamed the events of the previous night or if they actually took place, but she isn’t well: she’s tired and pale. She has no will around Geraldine, and is left speechless by Geraldine’s power. Geraldine has had her way with Christabel.

Many other vampire stories were written in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, including Keats’s “Lamia” (1828) and Edgar Allen Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838), both of which feature mysterious raven-haired beauties who thrive on the life force of others. The first English language vampire story, Vampyre by John Polidori, was originally attributed to Lord Byron. Interestingly, the story itself came out of an evening of storytelling that took place with Lord Byron, Percy Byshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John Polidori (who was Lord Byron’s resident physician). Mary Shelley’s monster tale Frankenstein also was a product of that creative evening.

Dracula’s Daughter
Vampire. The word alone conjures erotic images of blood, lust, and dark sensuality. Perhaps that association is why the vampire continues to have such enduring popularity in a society in which fads and fetishes change as quickly as the weather. Sex is dangerous; it is an intimate act that lays open one’s body and emotions. At the very least, you are risking heartbreak and despair.

Vampires have always been a convenient metaphor for unconventional sexuality. “Sex = death” is the morality equation at the heart of many a vampire tale. At its most literal interpretation, the danger of sex is the transfer of disease. In Victorian times, it was syphilis; today it’s AIDS. (For more on this analogy, see “Un-dead” by Ellis Hanson in Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, edited by Diana Fuss, Rutledge University Press, 1991.) Those with power like to blame the “promiscuous” for their illnesses, citing the Bible and God’s wrath for the suffering these people endured. The self-righteous could brandish the cross and the stake against the damned — it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to make the leap from Van Helsing the Vampire Hunter to the Randall Terrys and Pat Robertsons of today.

Promiscuity is something for which women have always been condemned and chastised — i.e., “follow society’s rules or be damned.” Women are traditionally classified into two categories: virgins and whores. The whore and her counterpart, the femme fatale, are closely tied to the vampire myth. In the 1920s, the femme fatale was personified by silent movie-era actress Theda Bara, also known as “The Vampire.” She was dark, sensuous, and exotic. Her vampirism was not of the blood-sucking variety; instead she used men’s bodies and souls for her own sexual and emotional needs. In Hollywood, it was shortened to “vamp,” and applied to any sexually assertive/sexually autonomous woman who sought pleasure on her own terms. Actresses Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, and Gloria Swanson all came to be known for their “vampish” roles. (Allen, 1983; Higashi, 1978).

Being associated with perverse sexuality and autonomous action, it’s really no wonder that the vampire would also become an expression of the evil allure of lesbianism. This is definitely the basis for “Carmilla.” It’s also hinted at in the film Dracula’s Daughter, the 1936 sequel to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. In one scene, the Countess Zaleska leers with obvious sexual pleasure at her soon-to-be victim, the model Nan Gray. John L. Balderston, who authored the screenplays for both Dracula and Dracula’s Daughter, wrote in his notes of the need to tone down the lesbian content of the film: “The seduction of young men will be tolerated, whereas we had to eliminate seduction of girls from the original as obviously censorable” (quoted in Skal, 1993). The scene with Nan Gray is all that remains.

Despite the toning down, Dracula’s Daughter is still cited for its portrayal — albeit a negative one — of lesbian eroticism. It’s also interesting to note that Anne Rice considers Dracula’s Daughter as one of the inspirations for the creation of Louis and Lestat, her own homoerotic vampires (soon coming to a theater near you, played respectively by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise). Lesbian sexuality became a mainstay of vampire movies in the ’60s and ’70s. As early as 1961, overt lesbian sexuality was appearing in films such as Blood and Roses (1961), La Danza Macabra (1963), and The Vampire of the Opera (1964). Raymond McNally (Dracula was a Woman), professor of Eastern European studies and a well-known Dracula scholar, has called the years 1970-1974 “the golden age of lesbian vampire movies.” Carmilla and her heirs appear in films such as The Vampire Lovers, To Love a Vampire, and Twins of Evil.

Stephanie Rothman, the first woman to direct a vampire film (The Velvet Vampire, 1971), makes use of a bisexual female vampire who disposes of a mugger and kills a potential rapist during the course of the film. Daughters of Darkness (1971) was inspired by the real-life story of Elizabeth Bathory, a well-connected sixteenth century Hungarian countess. Over the course of many years, she killed up to 650 young local women, draining them of their blood and, they say, bathing in it, believing this practice would maintain her youth. [For more about Countess Bathory, see Dracula was a Woman and my introduction to the Daughters of Darkness anthology.] In the film Daughters of Darkness, the countess makes her appearance at an inn in Belgium, where she seduces a young bride who has been beaten by her husband. Lesbian scholar Bonnie Zimmerman has said of Daughters of Darkness that it depicts lesbianism as “attractive” while treating heterosexuality as “abnormal and ineffectual” (Zimmerman, 1984).

More recently, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon steamed up the silver screen in The Hunger (1983). Catherine, as the sophisticated and alluring vampire Miriam, has no trouble at all seducing Susan’s character, a doctor researching the aging process.

The combination of feminism and vampirism might still seem a paradox. After all, the image of the vampire has been used to reinforce anti-woman and anti-lesbian stereotypes. Although that’s beginning to change, the vampire was — and often still is — the personification of society’s fear of the power of women’s sexuality. The vampire causes men and good women to lose control, unleashing a wave of pent-up sexuality while she herself maintains control over the situation.

Vampires are one of the few images of women in popular culture that combine power, desire, and sexuality in a way that allows women to hold the key. And lesbian vampire movies are among the few movies in which even if the vampire (read lesbian) dies, her protégé lives on. In the words of Theda Bara, “I have the face of a vampire, perhaps, but the heart of a feministe.”

References

  • Allen, Virginia M. The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. Whitston Publishing Co., 1983.
  • Higashi, Sumiko. Virgins, Vamps and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine. Monographs in Women’s Studies. Eden Press, Montreal, 1978.
  • Holte, James Craig. &#147The Vampire,&#148 Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Sourcebook and Resource Guide. Greenwood Press, 1987.
  • McNally, Raymond. Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. McGraw Hill, 1983.
  • Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era. Paragon House, 1991.
  • Schwartz, H. Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Folktales. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. W.W. Norton, 1993.
  • Time-Life Books. Night Creatures. 1985.
  • Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Duke University Press, 1981.
  • Zimmerman, Bonnie. “Daughters of Darkness: Lesbian Vampires.” Jump Cut, March 1981.
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