On The Violent Lesbian: Part 4

Carmilla

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever’.

Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, 1872

The lesbian vampire flick is a well-known sub-genre of trashy exploitation horror, particularly visible in the mid-20th century; infamous enough to warrant several parodies such  as spoofs Dr Terrible’s House of Horror, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) and Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009). So established is the relationship in film between vampirism and lesbianism that one blog described their co-dependence as ‘interwined as the stars and the sky’. So many of these films have been produced that the variations in themes, style, period, quality, wonderful trashiness and gore are gloriously diverse: from the abstracted, 80s cool, feeders on human life force in Hunger (1983) to Elizabeth Bathory-inspired Daughters of Darkness (1971) to the original lesbian vampire film Blood and Roses (based on le Fanu’s Carmilla) in 1960 that kicked off the cinema tradition.

All vampiric lesbians in the world have their origins in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872), a Victorian Gothic classic whose plot is mirrored in all other ‘blood dyke’ stories: lesbian vampire seduces straight women then is murdered by men. That’s pretty much it. The levels of explicit sex and violence vary widely depending on censorship in varying decades, but Carmilla was most recently referenced in 2011’s The Moth Diaries, so it still provides some sustenance: opportunity for growth or regression.

Anyway, online there are hundreds of ‘top ten lesbian vampire films’ lists so I’m not going to repeat them here. Instead I want to explore the reasons why ‘lesbianism’ and ‘vampirism’ came to be so closely linked and brought to the point of cliche in culture since 1872.

The ‘vampire’ is part of the 19th century Gothic cabinet of monsters, and this era of the Gothic is fundamentally concerned with symbols of fear which is the Gothic tradition that stays with us until the present day. As Dracula represents a fear of foreigners and immigrants and Frankenstein’s monster represents fear of extreme possibilities of medical experimentation, Gothic creatures take on the hysteria and paranoia of contemporary society, and turn them into a monster with which to play out their worst fantasies in a fictional setting. In this era, we probably use zombies most commonly as our nightmare beast, exploring our fears of worldwide epidemics, breakdown of Western society, loss of self and mistrust in science.

The lesbian vampire occupies a particular fear that is related to female sexuality. Of course there are obvious references to menstruation, puberty, losing one’s virginity, mental illness, female intimacy and childbirth in terms of the literal female body, but there’s more to it. Since the earliest appearance of the vampire in culture, he or she has been primarily an exploration of nightmare sex: penetration, intermingling of bodily fluids, being seduced or raped and unable to defend yourself, becoming transformed by uncontrollable urges, corruption and loss of innocence. The vampire puts together elements of transgressive sexuality (sexual violence, cannibalism, homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity) and is punished, in a very Victorian way, by a living death and exile from the community. Transgressive sexuality is also depicted as Satanic, against God, and is fought with religious paraphernalia. As David Pirie, author of The Vampire Cinema (1977) puts it: ‘Sexuality versus society: the struggle at the heart of every vampire film.’

What is more against society than unbridled female desire, according to the Victorians? It suggest the loss of the good mother and wife, an attack on the home, the foundation of civilised society. Just look at how poor Lucy in Dracula is affected: she turns from a perfect genteel lady into a messy, dangerous monster, unrecognisable, consumed by uncontrollable urges, from the moment of Dracula’s bite. Christianity has for centuries sought to crush female desire or deny its existence as method of control, associating women’s bodies and sexuality with pain, humiliation and death. Vampire stories allow a safe space for a titillating exploration of women’s desire while ultimately destroying the characters as hypocritical punishment for their slavery to their lust. Female vampires in these stories represent male fantasies about what ‘liberated’ female sexuality would entail, both pleasurable and worrying, because in its selfishness and violence it resembled (the only frame of reference) male sexuality.

The proliferation of vampire lesbians since the 1960s I think represents a loosening of the church’s hold over the public and a move into more secular society, especially when you consider how subtle and nuanced Carmilla‘s homo-eroticism is compared with what it’s become: spectacular pyrotechnics of fangs, tits, blood and desecrated virgins. I don’t think anyone would argue that the ‘blood bitch’ in film really shows a complex or empathetic portrayal of female queerness, but there are many who feel that characters like Carmilla or her numerous descendants were their first experience of an exciting representation of a gay female character, and hold a special place in their hearts. Indeed, I feel that the beauty, glamour, charisma and power of the many Carmillas in film – as well as their independence, mystery, alienation and outsider status – are not only seductive but aspirational … but they are also all cannibalistic mass-murderers. Still, sometimes a little queer visibility, even if in a negative, problematic framework, is meaningful enough to be forgiven.

Despite the endless possibilities of pleasure from the vampire lesbian in film, her image does boil down to (with a few exceptions) a pornographic male fantasy. She is characterised as essentially non-human, animalistic and outside society’s rules; she’s motivated solely by an insatiable appetite; she is incapable of feeling pain; in her relations with straight women she occupies a masculine role as seducer or corrupter. She at once performs a crude explanation of lesbianism (she has to be against nature to lust after normal women) and through her inevitable destruction an ultimate denial of real transgressive sex or homosexuality. She also, I would argue, provides a guilt-free way to enjoy violence against women: she is fictional and female, so while you may identify with her terrible deeds for sexual pleasure, she is acting independently against one of her ‘own’ so the viewer is blameless – and can still enjoy her ultimate downfall. The addition of violence to the lesbian is essentially a way of forming explanation by making female sexuality more similar to male sexuality, thus un-sexing or distorting the ‘inverted’ female, and by turning this narrative into a vampire narrative we are only adding an extra element of the surreal and fantastic for some spice.

In my next and final segment on this topic I’m going to be looking at how this mix of sadism, violence, fantasy and the taboo have infiltrated pornography and changed our sexuality. While there was obviously lesbian pornography before the mass cultural infiltration of the lesbian vampire (I’ve read enough historical erotica to be aware of that), I wonder if the relationship between the two isn’t more closely affiliated than you may first think; and this is especially in regard to sadistic, gonzo or hardcore porn that is especially relevant for the internet generation. Both this kind of pornography and lesbian bloodsuckers are thinly veiled excuses for enjoying some kind of violence against women, which even women now enjoy.

In pleasant opposition to these lovely nasty lesbian vampire stories, I’d like to draw your attention to Norwegian musician Jenny Hval’s 2016 album Blood Bitch: a fascinating and sophisticated exploration of the complex relationships between intimacy, sexuality, gender, menstruation, transformation, fantasy, romance as well as between art and pop, the low brow and the high brow. All these concepts and dialogues are naturally at play when we consider the close ties between female sexuality and the vampire; suggesting that there is still potential for creativity, self-expression and innovation in a tired old trope. As someone who has a lifelong love for the vampire genre, what drives me is finding new ways to enjoy familiar stories that work with who we are now.

Blood Bitch | Jenny Hval

Album cover for ‘Blood Bitch’ by Jenny Hval (Sacred Bones Records, 2016)

If you would like more information check out my website and my personal blog, Sertraline Dreams.

Rosie Dahlstrom

***All uncredited images are from The Vampire Cinema by David Pirie (Hamlyn, 1977)