Monday, 30 May 2016

'Carmilla' and the History of the (Female) Vampire

I chose to add Carmilla to my list of 100 Classics because I had been told it was one of the most important pieces of vampire fiction and that it also had a female protagonist. So of course I was going to go with it. Carmilla is a fascinating novella by the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu from 1871, and is one of the earliest works of vampire fiction. You thought Bram Stoker was the first one who came up with the vampire? The history of vampire fiction is long and fascinating, and Sheridan le Fanu and Carmilla play an interesting role in it. The Vampire has been a part of the culture and mythology of many countries for centuries, appearing in folk tales and myths in different shapes and forms. In England they frequently appeared in 18th-century poetry but it wasn't until the early 1800s that the Vampire became part of England's literary landscape as well. This post contains spoilers for Carmilla, The Vampyre and Dracula.

One of the first stories in which the Vampire appears is in John William Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819. In his book Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling describes Polidori's short story as 'the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre' (p.108). The story has a lot of elements we now consider as tropes of the Gothic genre. There are aristocrats, there is travelling, young women who seem to know an awful lot about vampirism and, of course, death by exsanguination. A story is connected to this novella, which says that it and its vampire were inspired by Lord Byron. This is only indirectly true and, for once, the actual story is much more interesting. Many know about that mythical summer in which Lord Byron invited some of his close friends to his villa by Lake Geneva. Among those friends were Mary Shelley and Percy Bysse Shelley, but also his young physician, John Polidori. When, one day, the youngsters found themselves bored they decided to give each other three days to come up with ghost stories. This is when Shelley came up with the initial draft for the masterful Frankenstein, and it is also where Polidori came up with The Vampyre.

Polidori's novel was the start, in many ways, of a genre, of which Bram Stoker's Dracula was a high point. Stoker's novel continues many of the trends which The Vampyre sets out, while developing them. There is the combination of those well-off and those who are poorer, there is the idea of the vampire as a foreign threat, there are young women at the heart of the plot's development, and there is a lot of attention on how a vampire goes about his business. Stoker's Dracula also adds the wise old mentor to the vampire tale in the famous figure of Van Helsing. What always fascinated me the most in Dracula, however, were Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Whereas the former is a school teacher the latter is an aristocrat, and together they present a perfect example of the so-called Madonna-whore dichotomy. Just looking at the screenshot from Dracula below it should be clear what is meant by this.


A term originally coined by Sigmund Freud, who else, the Madonna-whore dichotomy originally refers to the problem of the man who desires a debased woman but can't desire the respected and saintly partner. In popular culture, and much feminist criticism, the Madonna-whore dichotomy refers to how female characters have to deal with the worst side of both characterizations, constantly walking the line between sexually available and respectful. Often, this finds its expression in splitting the stereotypes between two characters. In the case of Dracula we have the respectful Mina, who dutifully helps her fiancee, and the lascivious Lucy, who is turned into a seductive vampiress. There is a clear divide between these two and although Dracula hopes to turn Mina as well, he can't quite do so. The female vampire, then, is at once a creation of the male vampire while also a threat to the male protagonists. She can beguile them, play on their nurturing instincts and on their physical desire for her. So how does this dichotomy work in a story with a female vampire at the core of it?

Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla is a true story, according to its framework. The Introduction aspires to an academic tone, suggesting that the story the reader is about to encounter came to him in a document and that the reader should form his or her own judgement. Laura, the protagonist, narrates her story from childhood and she comes across as a lovely and well-adjusted young lady, despite a horrible nightmare early on in life. But the Gothic edge to the novel means you can never quite trust anything or anyone. When Laura and her father witness a carriage crashing on their estate they kindly take in the daughter as the mother continues on a mission of great importance. Carmilla seems a lovely girl and she and Laura immediately become friends. However, despite Sheridan Le Fanu doing his best to hide it, the affection between Carmilla and Laura quickly becomes romantic and passionate. Carmilla is almost too affectionate and, of course, towards the end of the novel it is revealed that she is a vampire who became obsessed with Laura, slowly draining her. They are like lovers and yet they're not.

Vampirism in literature (and cinema) is something I find fascinating. On the one hand it has been analysed as a very masculine and sexual act. The victim is penetrated by sharp teeth which has an almost orgasmic effect on the victim. Similarly, the vampire is a very erect and thereby a phallic figure. And yet, by the very simple fact that a vampire can "create" other vampires there is something feminine about him, in the most theoretical of ways. As Creed notes in her book The Monstrous-Feminine, the way vampires are represented in film has something effeminate. They are well-dressed, foreign, can dance, are seductive and emotional, etc. When the vampire then becomes female, it seems that she becomes extra dangerous. Carmilla can move, within seconds, between sweet and subdued to furious and powerful. She lifts a man in the air with a single hand and yet also sighs melodramatically at the smallest thing. She is two-faced and manipulative, almost animalistic in how she is out for her own survival, and yet there is still something seductive about her. Reading Carmilla, she is the one you want to know more about despite Laura narrating. Even Laura herself still seems fascinated with Carmilla, and the way in which vampire fiction and film has grown, it's not difficult to see this fascination has continued.

The female vampire continues to hold sway in popular culture. One of the most anticipated films of 2014 was the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which reinvigorated the slightly comatose genre that is the vampire film. Similarly, the Swedish film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) from 2008 focused on a little girl who happens to be a vampire. Similarly, shows like The Vampire Diaries have female as well as male vampires who also walk the fine line between seductive and dangerous. The female vampire has been a part of the vampire fiction genre since its genesis and she continues to hold a special kind of sway. Her ability to be seductive is dangerous to both men and women, making her much more of a threat than the male vampire, who seems to only be attractive to women. It's interesting to see how this genre has developed from its very beginnings and how it's still retained some of its most fundamental tropes.

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