By Nadia Saleh
While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.
Monstrosity, and monster theory itself, deals with the idea of boundaries and the us/them dichotomy that they work to uphold. As Barbara Creed writes in her book The Monstrous Feminine, definitions of the monstrous are grounded in “ancient religious and historical notions of abjection” with a specific emphasis on religious “abominations”: sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest” (Creed 8-9). These various practices often deal with things that humans find repulsive and unsavory, or things that counter religious and societal ideals. The monster serves to “demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot–must not–be crossed” (Cohen 13). These strict borders are primarily in place to control the traffic in women and to maintain the ties between heterosexual men that keep a patriarchal society together (Cohen 14). As the boundary marker for society, the monster cordons off the “social space through which cultural bodies may move”; for example, the culturally acceptable expressions of female sexuality. Under this logic, monstrosity and sexuality go hand in hand, as many of the rejected societal practices (incest, sexual perversion, homosexuality) reflect the fear of deviant sexuality. The monster “embodies those sexual practices that must not be committed, or that may be committed only through the body of the monster” (Cohen 14). The monster’s deviant sexuality is linked to its “outlaw” status, the out-group shunned by proper society. The fact that these unacceptable practices are embodied by monsters makes them obvious targets and examples of how not to behave.
Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, The Powers of Horror, defines abjection as having “only one quality of the object: that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). The abject is something that a person does not recognize either as a subject or an object, an in-between condition linked to both thingness and nothingness. The term literally means “the state of being cast off.” What is being cast off is anything that repulses a human: blood, pus, or even simple things like the skin on top of milk (Kristeva 3). The abject signifies that which humans “permanently thrust aside in order to live,” the ultimate form of the abject being the human corpse (Kristeva 3). The human corpse, “the most sickening of wastes,” is a border that has “encroached upon everything” (Kristeva 5). To see a human corpse is to see mortality and accept it for what it is.
The vampire takes the already abjected human corpse to another level. Dead, but not dead, the vampire marks an even further encroachment upon the borders between life and death. Coupled then with the insatiable need for blood, abjection is intensified. Human blood, something carefully kept internal, must be made external for the vampire to survive. The externality of blood causes fear amongst humans because blood is supposed to remain inside the body. Any sign of blood outside the body is typically a warning of grievous injury or menstrual blood; the former is perceived as alarming, the latter as disgusting. Thus, the extraction of blood and externalization of blood by the not-living, not-dead body of the vampire crosses multiple borders, causing the vampire to be the ultimate abjection. At the core of the vampire lies an affinity for “rupture, change, and mutation,” because all vampires share one trait: the power to move between and undo borders otherwise holding identities in place (Butler 1). The female vampire, however, further increases this abjection. She is abject because she disrupts “identity and order”; her blood lust drives her and thus she does not respect “the dictates of the law which set down the rules of proper sexual conduct” (Creed 61).
The original female vampire, Lilith, appears in several ancient traditions, from the Talmud to ancient Babylonian bowls inscribed with magic texts. The version of Lilith that is most important in the context of the female vampire comes from the Talmud. In this tradition, Lilith is Adam’s first wife, created out of dust by God. Their marriage was not happy; when Adam tried to have sex with her, Lilith refused to lie beneath him: “Why should I lie beneath you, when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?” (Patai 296). Adam did not respect her wishes and when Lilith saw that he was determined to “overpower her,” she spoke the magical name of God and flew away to the Red Sea, a “place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons” (Patai 296). It is important to note the choice of words in “overpower.” Adam, Lilith’s male counterpart, wanted power over Lilith. When she refused to acknowledge this power, she flew away to a place full of demons, where she engaged in “unbridled promiscuity” and birthed more than one hundred demons a day (Patai 296).
The legend then continues that three angels, sent by God to retrieve her, were unable to get her to come back with them. Met with Lilith’s disobedience, the angels threatened to drown her in the sea. She argued that she was “created in order to weaken the babes,” and ordered the angels to leave her alone (Patai 296-297). In claiming her identity and worth in injuring babies, Lilith rejects the identity given to her by God and Adam as the submissive wife and forms the archetype for the female vampire. She is a female predator, seeking out babies to feed her blood lust. She is the mother of evil, birthing hundreds of demons a day. And she is the fallen woman, having descended into “unbridled promiscuity” by lying with demons. The fear of Lilith, the archaic mother, turns out to be “essentially fear of her generative power” (Kristeva 77). As Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu puts it in Carmilla, “it is the nature of vampires to increase and multiply” (95). Lilith’s power and influence stretch throughout the literary tradition, coloring the way female vampires are portrayed by other authors.
My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.
Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator
The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature. So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?
Charles Baudelaire touched on the theme of the female predator multiple times in his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal, first published in 1857. In the first poem, “Sed Non Satatia,” or “but never satisfied,” the speaker is enslaved to a “daughter of darkness, slattern deity” (Baudelaire 32). The object of his affections is a female predator, a prostitute goddess, a daughter of “filthy covens” of witches. The speaker claims that “to wine, to opium even, I prefer the elixir of your lips on which love flaunts itself” (Baudelaire 32). With the reference to lips, the reader is reminded of the comparison between a woman’s mouth and the sexually aroused female genitals. The woman is drawing him in with both an addictive kiss and the sexual wiles that are present even in her facial features. The speaker then makes comparisons about being trapped in the wasteland of her eyes, where hellfire rains from her soul and he is trapped forever (Baudelaire 33). The speaker is “no Styx, to cradle you nine times”; the river Styx is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld, known as the river of hate. The number nine refers to completion and fulfillment (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 295). The speaker cannot find fulfillment and completion with her, perhaps reflecting a pseudo-sexual relationship where the speaker wants to have sex with the woman, but can never reach completion despite her sucking the life out of him. “Sed Non Satatia” has one final lamentation: “Alas, and cannot with some Fury’s lust/to break your spirit and your heart, become/in your bed’s inferno…Persephone” (Baudelaire 33). Without some supernatural power, the speaker cannot break the woman’s spirit and, in doing so, turn her hellish bed into the bed of Persephone, the goddess of flowers. It is worth noting that in the myth of Persephone and Hades, Persephone was unwillingly kidnapped, as the woman in this poem would be unwillingly made into something other than she is.
The second poem in Les Fleurs Du Mal to speak about female predators is aptly named “The Vampire.” In this poem, the speaker has been enslaved to a woman, who has made in his corrupted mind “your bed and bedlam there/Beast who bind me to you close/As convict to his chains” (Baudelaire 37). The Devil has given the woman the power to hold the speaker to her, where she will “make her bed,” which can be interpreted either as a form of sexual slavery, or as the place where she can rest and drink what she needs to survive. The speaker curses her, “as a gambler to his winning streak/As drunkard to his wine” (Baudelaire 37). He, too, is suffering from an addiction to the vampiric woman; as much as he hates her and curses her, he cannot leave her behind. There appears to be no release for the speaker, as he begs “both poison and steel” to set him free, but both “as with one voice/contemptuously refused/”You are not worthy to be free/Of your enslavement, fool!” (Baudelaire 37). The reasoning is simple: the speaker is so addicted to the woman that even if she was killed, the speaker’s kisses “would resuscitate/Your vampire’s waiting corpse” (Baudelaire 38). The speaker would be so desperate to regain his lost tormentor that he would immediately resurrect her, continuing the cycle of addiction and degradation.
Both poems deal with themes of addiction and dependency on women, and both reflect societal fears of the demimonde, the shadowy world beyond the edge of society. The woman to whom each speaker is addicted is, at least to them, obviously demonic and sucking the very life out of them, and yet they cannot escape from her charms. Even success in killing the vampress, as the poison and sword in “The Vampire” suggest, would be pointless, because the speaker would only resuscitate her, desperate to have her back. There are other poems in Les Fleurs du Mal that deal with similar themes, even if they are not explicitly on female vampires. Baudelaire seems to be making a comment on the addictive properties of women, using the familiar image of the vampire to further illustrate his point. After all, what is more dangerous to a mortal man than a demonically powerful, sexually powerful vampire? If even opium, a highly addictive substance and a drug that was commonly looked down upon in 19th century society, is said to be preferable to the woman, then something must be very wrong with her. In this case, it is not so much the woman who is breeching boundaries, as she is forcing the man to do so. A man should not be subservient to a woman in patriarchal society, and he certainly should not be so addicted to her that he cannot live without her.
Carmilla, written in 1871 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is another example of the female predator. Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 28 years, the novella articulates anxieties surrounding female sexuality, with its female predator, Carmilla, and its virginal protagonist, Laura, by showing not only woman’s capacity to captivate but also her possible erotic disinterest in men. Not only is she a predator, but specifically of women. The lesbian vampire is an especially frightening instance of boundary crossing, not only because of the taboo against homosexuality but also because essentially she is invisible to general society until she strikes. In the nineteenth century, close female relationships were societally acceptable, even necessary if one was to move easily among high society (Weiss 87). Wealthy women had governesses, handmaids, and close friends of similar status. All of these relationships potentially could disguise a homosexual relationship. The lesbian woman is already a crossing of the boundary of societally accepted sexuality; that is, any sex that is non-procreative is deviant and abhorred, in order for Christian-organized society to continue. The lesbian vampire, a creature that cannot procreate in general and seeks to feed on virginal, innocent women, is a doubly frightening figure.
The lesbian vampire merges two kinds of “sexual outlaws,” because she is not simply a negative stereotype, but a figure that is at once “an image of death and an object of desire,” drawing on subconscious fears of the living toward the dead, and of men toward women (Weiss 84). In an era where women were encouraged to “lie back and think of England” during intercourse, any interest in sex that a woman might show was considered dangerous and disruptive. A female vampire interested in female victims essentially operates in the sexual rather than the supernatural realm, because her feeding is hypersexualized. The physical closeness of the vampire and her victim becomes inherently sexual, an embrace of love and passion alongside the felt necessity to suck another’s blood. The specter of this possibility makes a female friendship something to be avoided and further draws the boundary between societally accepted sexuality (i.e. married, procreative heterosexual sexuality) and deviant sexuality (non-procreative, unmarried, homosexual).
Carmilla is set in Styria, a small state in Austria, in a Gothic mansion in the heart of a forest. Laura’s father is English, but Laura has lived all her life in this borderland between the civilized West and the uncivilized East. Despite this obviously sinister location, Laura claims to be “one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly” (Le Fanu 4). Because she has not been taught to fear darkness and the things that come in it, Laura is not alarmed one evening to see a “solemn, but very pretty face” looking at her from the side of her bed. Nor is she frightened when the pretty stranger lies down in bed with her and caresses her. It is not until Laura is awakened by “a sensation as if two needles ran into [her] breast very deep at the same time” that she is at all scared (Le Fanu 4). The phantom girl disappears and all is dismissed as a nightmare, because there are no marks on Laura’s chest. The initial bite on her breast is significant, because it codes the vampire’s attacks on Laura as homosexual, even from a young age.
This phantom girl is none other than Carmilla, the girl who suddenly arrives at the family mansion in an unexplained carriage crash. One of Laura’s governesses claims that when the “moon shone with a light so intense it was well known that it indicated a special spiritual activity” (10). It is no surprise that the mysterious Carmilla and her mother, who requires Laura’s father to take in Carmilla for three months in order to handle some urgent business, arrive under the light of such a moon. When Carmilla and Laura come face to face that night, Laura recognizes her as the face that had visited her, which she had “for so many years so often ruminated [on] with horror” (Le Fanu 19). This horror swiftly disappears, as Laura finds gone whatever she had “fancied strange” in Carmilla’s face, and her “dimpling cheeks” were now “delightfully pretty and intelligent” (Le Fanu 20). Laura welcomes her with open arms, happy to have a companion close to her own age after the sudden and mysterious death of Bertha Rheinfoldt, a friend who was supposed to have joined Laura at the estate.
Carmilla immediately expresses a sexual interest in Laura. The strange girl claims that it was Laura’s looks that won her, and Laura feels “rather accountably towards the beautiful stranger,” drawn to her, but also feeling “something of repulsion” towards Carmilla (Le Fanu 21). This repulsion suggests that Laura finds something abject in Carmilla and her attraction to her, as such feelings disrupt Laura’s identity as a virtuous, heterosexual maiden. While she is drawn to Carmilla, her repulsion may lay not only in Carmilla’s secrecy but also in her homosexual overtures. Laura is unable to learn anything about her house guest, except that Carmilla’s family was “very ancient and noble, and her home lay in the direction of the west” (Le Fanu 25). The direction of the west, the orientation of the setting sun, is also a typical site for mortuaries and cemeteries, the first clue into Carmilla’s deathly nature (Rickels 161). Laura constantly pesters Carmilla for information on her background and family, because the secrecy between the two of them angers her. Her idea of a close female relationship involves a blurring of boundaries where all things are open between the two. Carmilla’s thwarting of friendship is one of the first occasions where she is both “attracted to the vampire and also . . . quite turned off by her” (Rickels 161). Carmilla’s responses to these repeated interrogations use romantic and morbid language, an unfamiliar language in the context of friends:
If your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others and learn the rapture that is cruelty, which is yet love; so, for a while, seek to no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit. (Le Fanu 26)
The beginning of this passage, where Carmilla professes her pain at hurting Laura, is the only part of this speech that seems like a normal interaction between two friends. Carmilla is living in Laura’s “warm life,” her living world, but intends to have Laura “sweetly die” into her own, a world of walking death. Carmilla appears to be obsessed with Laura and wants to kill her before Laura can fall in love with someone else.
Immediately following this speech, Laura is pressed closely into Carmilla’s “trembling embrace” and Carmilla kisses her several times on the cheek (Le Fanu 26). Laura dislikes these embraces, and suffers them only because Carmilla seems to be hypnotizing her: “her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms” (Le Fanu 26). Laura experiences “a strange tumultuous excitement,” reflecting her “love growing into adoration,” but these feelings are mingled with “a vague sense of fear and disgust,” stemming from her abhorrence of these homosexual embraces (Le Fanu 26). In another episode, Laura is trapped in an embrace and kissed by Carmilla as the other girl whispers “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever” (Le Fanu 27). The desire for companionship of one’s equal is not strange; the desire to kill one’s friend in order to keep them forever and prevent them from ever loving someone else is. It crosses the boundary of acceptable female friendship and moves into obsessive, all-consuming homosexual love. The desire to destroy the boundary between Carmilla and Laura is to destroy both of their identities as separate people, and bring them together as one, single object in the ultimate form of consumption.
At the end of the novella, the reader is informed of certain facts about vampires, collected by an unknown narrator. The first is that the vampire is “prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons” (Le Fanu 94). This fits with the depiction of Carmilla’s growing obsession over Laura, feeling a kind of love towards her that could only be satiated when she had “drained the very life of her coveted victim” (Le Fanu 94). Strangely enough, when it comes to these victims of the vampire’s passion, the vampire desires “something like sympathy and consent” (Le Fanu 94). Carmilla could not kill Laura without being loved by her, without gaining her consent to drain her blood. This point is stressed in the text when Carmilla kills without courting other victims, like the swineherd’s wife and various village women, who are killed “often at a single feast,” overpowered by violence (Le Fanu 95). Carmilla, despite her mesmeric powers, perverts the act of human love by hoping for consent, rather than outright controlling her partner. However, as Carmilla tells Laura, she does not require that consent: “You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me and hating me through death and after” (Le Fanu 42). No matter what Laura decides, Carmilla owns her and controls her, and she will be killed whether or not she accepts it.
Debating whether or not Carmilla truly loved Laura is unnecessary, and unknowable, because the point of the novel does not hinge on that particular fact. What does matter is the various levels at which this novel operates. On the most obvious level, Carmilla is about the dangers posed by unnatural creatures to virginal heroines, a typical Gothic plot. But beneath the obvious plot line are other themes, interconnecting like strands in a spider web. Carmilla does not seek out male victims; every recorded death attributed to her is of a young woman. Her conflicting impulses “towards narcissistic love and annihilation compel her to seek out victims of her own age and sex, reflections of herself” (Silver, Ursini 103). In other words, Carmilla is a self-fetishizing predator; by killing reflections of herself, she acts out her own murder, over and over, while feeding her lust for blood. As a distant relation of the Karnsteins, Laura is an obvious victim for Carmilla, given that she resembles her by age, appearance, and blood. They share a bloodline, adding another dimension to Carmilla’s consumption of Laura. While she drinks Laura’s blood and consumes her life force, Carmilla also consumes herself, her own bloodline and ancestry.
The question remains why Carmilla, an obviously powerful and ancient vampire, has to be depicted as a lesbian. She could simply seek out those who are her mirrors without seducing them first; after all, she exhibits a mesmeric power that would pacify any victim, allowing her to feed without much fuss, and she does kill several women this way in the village. But Bertha Rheinfoldt and Laura both are given special treatment, an extended hunt that utilizes the mesmeric power but does not rely solely on it. Le Fanu purposefully characterizes Carmilla as a hunter whose favorite prey is women of her own age and likeness. By depicting her as such, as a “vampire rapist who violates and destroys her victim,” the male readers of the novella are soothed of their fear that “lesbian love could create an alternate model” to heterosexuality (Creed 61). If the female vampire, the female predator, only preys on unwilling victims who actively dislike her attentions, and would resist them if they were physically capable, then readers are assured that the female vampire is a true monster. She preys on virginal, pure victims who are violated by her mere presence. In a society that values virginity and chastity, the story serves as a warning towards women to beware of homosexuality and its deadly consequences, and as a way to alleviate male fears that homosexuality could become an alternative model of love that would detract from heterosexual relationships. This hypothesis is sanctioned by the end of the novella, in a scene that can only be described as revenge pornography:
The body, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed upon a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away. (Le Fanu 92)
Carmilla’s death scene involves gratuitous violence. The descriptions of her death and the state of her body are unnecessarily violent and graphic. In vampire lore, the burning of the body and the scattering of the ashes are not a requirement. If anything, this scene appears to be Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf’s revenge on Carmilla for her attacks on their daughters. By acting out this male fantasy of vengeance, Le Fanu gives a not-so-subtle warning as to what happens to women who cross the boundaries of accepted sexuality: complete and utter destruction by the patriarchal structure.
While the other female vampires of this archetype appear willing and hungry for blood, the female predator of Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” is an unwilling one. Described as “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler,” Countess Nosferatu is the last in a long line of vampires occupying her ancestral chateau. The village below is abandoned, as “all shun the village…in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes” (Carter 93). Carter portrays the Countess as someone who cannot help but feed, someone who is bound by her ancestry to feed on the blood of humans. The Countess is “a system of repetitions…a closed circuit” (Carter 93). She perpetually lays out the Tarot to predict her future “as if the random fall of the cards…could obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden” (Carter 93). No matter how many times she deals the Tarot, which by all accounts should be a random combination of cards drawn from the stack, she receives the same three, over and over: La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie (Carter 95). The High Priestess represents either wisdom, or the inability to make good judgement. The card of Death represents transformation and change, or lethargy and an inability to move on. Finally, the Tower, a card typically depicted as a tower being struck by lightning, is a sign of radical change, or a resistance to that change (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 199-198). In a literal rut of continually drawing the same Tarot cards, the Countess’s fate as foretold by those cards reflects her inability to change and move on from her condition.
That she is an unwilling predator is made apparent in an early comment that the Countess loathes the food that she eats: “she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce….but hunger always overcomes her” (Carter 96). Even the small creatures she ate as a young girl disturb her, but she has no other means of feeding herself. And now that she is a woman, she must have men. Any man who ventures to the fountain in the village will be led to the Countess’s chateau by her mute keeper. The men “can scarcely believe their luck” when the Countess leads them to her bedroom, where they will be consumed and then buried in the garden. The Countess is a perpetual virgin, dressed in her mother’s wedding gown. Every night would be her wedding night, where she would like to stroke her victim’s “lean brown cheeks and their ragged hair,” but she must eat. Every wedding night ends only in blood and the continuing of her miserable, repetitive existence, as she “only knows one kind of consummation” (Carter 103). Rather than allow herself to be consumed in the marriage bed, the Countess must constantly consume and reject the possibility of change.
The unnamed hero of the story is described thusly: English, virginal, and rational. He is “a being rooted in change and time,” riding a bicycle on a collision course with “the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires” (Carter 97). The night he arrives in her village, the Countess pulls a card she has never turned before: Les Amoureux (Carter 97). The Lovers card is symbolic of affairs of the heart, inner harmony, and temptation or separation. Already the cycle has been broken. The Countess has always desired a fate that involved love. Patricia Duncker argues that the Countess longs for the finale of a snuff film, in which she is sexually used and then ritually killed. By doing so, “she can abandon her predatory sexuality, the unnatural force, as her own blood flows, the symbolic breaking of the virgin hymen, the initiation into sexual maturity and then into death” (Duncker 9). Her cyclical, repetitive life hinges on the one thing she cannot rid herself of: her virginity. And when the unnamed hero arrives, he rescues her like a maiden from a tower, a knight in an old fairy tale. The rational young man takes pity on her, thinking she needs psychiatric help, and in doing so, breaks the cycle forever. He refuses to be a victim or a meal, and thus “denies the complicity essential to the maintenance of a vampiric relationship” (Sceats 11). The Countess does not take unwilling prey, it seems. Every man on whom she has fed has walked willingly to his doom. By refusing to submit to her desires and treating her with compassion, the unnamed hero provides her with a cure: he renders her human, adult, but mortal and then dead.
By “completing” the Countess, by showing her compassion and a kind of love, the unnamed hero releases her from her condemnation to “solitude and dark” (Carter 97). He plans to “cure her of all her nightmares,” a heroic notion, if a slightly misogynistic one that assumes she needs him to save her. But his compassion, rationality, and unwillingness to follow the well-trodden path to her bed and to destruction releases her from the cycle of predation and consumption. The hero then takes his bicycle and pedals off, sad to see her gone, but none the more affected. The defining moment of the Countess’s life is nothing more than a blip for a man with “the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France” (Carter 97). The unnamed hero has a fate far beyond the Countess and her dilapidated mansion.
“The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:
Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).
The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71). The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.
The unnamed hero makes a connection between the roses outside, and the Countess’s lips almost immediately. He describes it as an “extraordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth with wide, full prominent lips of a vibrant purplish-crimson” (Carter 101). Once again, her engorged lips are a metaphor for the female genitals with their red color and swollen appearance. The hero even goes so far as to think of her mouth as a “morbid mouth, even a whore’s mouth” (Carter 101). Her sexuality is so strong that it manifests itself physically in her face and mouth, the very mouth that contains her sharp teeth. The roses have developed their appearance from a different source; when the Countess finishes with her victims, her keeper buries their bodies under the rose hedges. This man-fertilizer gives the roses “their rich color, their swooning odor that breathes lasciviously of forbidden pleasures” (Carter 105). As such, the roses have become a part of the Countess’s closed circuit. The roses entice the men entering the mansion, filling their heads with the scent of forbidden pleasures. Their bodies feed the roses, giving them more power and allowing them to lure more men to feed the Countess.
The final rose of the piece is the rose that the hero takes back with him to his regiment. In the Countess’s narration, she says that she leaves him the “dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave” (Carter 107). She has given him the gift of her virginity as a souvenir. Trapped in her virginal state, she could not give that rose to anyone, except the man who set her free and allowed her to die. The rose he takes appears to be an extraordinary one, as it survives the journey from Romania to Bucharest, and then seemingly revives itself when the hero places it in water. The “heavy fragrance” of the rose fills the barracks and he sees it as a “glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor” (Carter 108). The Countess’s roses, fed on the lifeblood of young men, are repulsive even in their beauty, and can survive long trips and spread their powerful, lustful scent even when separated from the rest of the bush. The rose also serves as an omen of consequences that the hero has not considered: he consumed the Countess’s blood when he kissed her cut finger. He, like the rose, may bear some attributes of the Countess that he does not know yet.
As a tale of a female predator, “The Lady of the House of Love” invokes sympathy for the Countess, who does not want to be a killer and seducer of men. She wishes only for love and humanity, but cannot fight the primal state she inherited from her ancestors. The rational hero, protected by his “power in potentia” of virginity, is the wild card in the Tarot deck that can set her free (Carter 97). Carter is probably not making a commentary on the power of virgins, but rather on the rationality of the hero. He does not believe in vampires, does not believe that she is anything other than an anorexic, nearly-blind noble lady who needs his help. It is his rationality and desire to help that frees her. By not believing in her power, the hero renders the Countess powerless, mortal, and dead. But her power is greater than even he knows; her dark, fanged rose lives on with him, and her blood is in his veins. He may not believe in the power, but a dark cloud hangs on his horizon, from the trenches and from the bloodline of the Nosferatu.
The female predator is a voracious consumer, a woman who feasts on blood and enslaves her victims, and reflects a deep-seated fear of boundary crossings in society. These female vampires ignore social convention and reject values of female purity and chastity in favor of feeding their own lust for blood. Their unbridled sexual powers draw in unsuspecting victims, male and female alike, and drain them of their blood, or enslave them and keep them as food sources. The lesbian vampire is the mirror that society holds up to its members as a warning of what sexual deviancy leads to: destruction. The female predator cannot survive in a society that needs her dead in order to continue. Carmilla is brutally murdered in a scene of violence; Countess Nosferatu dies to allow for the future to roll forward. Baudelaire’s vampires exist to decimate the male population, enslaving them and addicting them to their feminine wiles. Their victims are painted as weak, deviant addicts whom society must cull from the herd in order for society to grow stronger. In the end, it comes down to a very simple choice: predatory women, or patriarchal society. And in the literary canon, the predatory woman loses every time.
The Blood is the Wife: The Fallen Woman in Dracula
The concept of the “fallen woman” reigns supreme in many works of 19th century literature. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “fallen” “ascribes a moral connotation to the verb, fall, meaning that the fallen person has lost their purity or innocence. A fallen woman is one who has surrendered her chastity; whether this occurs through prostitution, rape, or a sexual encounter, the term still applies. While Lilith is the most obvious candidate for the first fallen woman, Eve seems to be the more common choice for embodying the archetype. While admittedly Eve did not surrender her chastity, she lost her purity and innocence by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She was the one to cause humanity’s fall from grace, an act that still reverberates in the collective psyche of society. The long line of neo-Eves who appear in literature reflect the “neurosis of a culture that feared female sexuality and aggression”; why else recycle the character of the fallen woman over and over? (Auerbach 31) By doing so, society enshrines a “respectably sadistic cautionary tale,” punishing female sexuality as a constant reminder of the constraints of appropriate female sexuality and chastity (Auerbach 31).
The novel Dracula was originally published in 1897 and has been remade into a film an estimated 217 times. Some feature only the character Dracula in otherwise unrelated stories; others, like the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, reshape the original story for their own purposes. In the case of the Coppola film, Dracula gains an origin story, a quest, and something that could pass for a redemption story. We learn that although Dracula defeats the Turks in a battle, his beloved wife commits suicide after getting false news of his death. Upon learning that she is damned for killing herself, Dracula desecrates his chapel, renounces God, and stabs the cross with his sword. By then drinking the blood leaking from the cross, he becomes a vampire. While giving the Count a three-dimensional character, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart also expanded upon the five female characters that appear in the film: Lucy Westenra, Mina Murray, and the three brides. For our purposes, it is significant that each of these women fall or has already fallen in the film, and that each woman takes a separate path to her loss of innocence.
Dracula’s brides, referred to as “the sisters” in the novel but as “the devils of the pit” in the film, have already experienced their fall. When Jonathan Harker first encounters them in the bowels of Dracula’s castle, they appear as specters. Feminine laughter, the tinkling of bells, and then a voice that sounds eerily like Mina’s calls to Jonathan to “lay back into my arms”. Behind him, but visible to the viewer, the bed is moving from underneath the covers. A bride suddenly appears between his legs and the other two appear as if birthed from the bed itself. Because of the way the camera is angled and the positions of the brides, the cavity from which they emerge resembles a vagina, or perhaps even a mouth. If a mouth, it mirrors both the mouth of the vampire, and the mouth of hell. As Aspasia Stephanou states in her book Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood, “it is not accidental that “mors” (death) is derived from bite (morsus)” (116). Thus, the vampire is not only a fanged death, but an embodiment of the mouth of hell. If the shape is viewed as a vagina, then these fanged women are birthed out of the mouth of hell and a vagina dentata, reflecting the male fear of the castrating female.
Their costumes make it quickly apparent that these are no ordinary women: one bride is wearing an Oriental or Russian style headdress; another has live snakes coiled in her hair. All of them are bare-breasted, their lower halves swathed in loose, sheer cloth. With bells around their ankles, they seem more at home in a harem or belly-dancing in a brothel. Such costuming exoticizes them while it eroticizes them, distancing them from Western civilization. By doing so, the brides become more monstrous and less humanized. The encounter seems like a fever dream, the camera moving too quickly to really get a sense of the action besides its erotic nature, which is intense. The brides are moaning as they kiss and stroke the prone Jonathan Harker, until they bare their fangs and sink their teeth into him in a cannibalistic frenzy. One bride bites from the pulse point at his wrist, an easy source of blood. Another cuts his nipple, allowing the blood to pour out like milk and making the act of drinking blood into a perversion of breast-feeding. The third bride drinks from between Jonathan’s legs, close to his genitals, making the feeding into a sexual act. It is probable that they would have consumed Jonathan completely had Dracula not entered and given them a baby to eat instead. That an infant is their chosen meal further codes them as monstrous women; because they eat the baby instead of breast-feeding it, they pervert the association of women with nurturance.
Highly seductive and barely clothed, the brides essentially are presented as prostitutes, one of the more common depictions of fallen women in the literary canon. But other features go beyond this characterization, as when they kiss each other’s bloody mouths over Jonathan’s prone body. Here the fallen woman converges with the monstrous woman, who combines features of cannibalism with lesbianism. That the brides express sexual desire for each other intensifies their fallenness. They are meant to be seen as villains, first for making Jonathan unfaithful to Mina (as Van Helsing later puts it) and secondly for nearly killing him. But beyond their obvious role as villain-antagonists, the brides serve another, deeper purpose. They show where the “fall” ends. It does not end simply with being thrown out of Eden, or out of the family home, as other fallen women narratives end. Instead, they become “the whores of Satan,” their bodies available for use by the Devil, feeding on the blood of the living in a perversion of “normal” female behaviors like marital sex or breastfeeding. If the question is whether the brides take after Lilith or Eve, the answer is Lilith.
Lucy Westenra, on the other hand, takes after Eve. From the beginning of the film, Lucy is portrayed as a rather spoiled, rich young woman interested primarily in fashion and flirtation. Her costumes typically are off-the-shoulder, flowing dresses framed by the loose tendrils of her red hair. The dress she wears the night that her three suitors are introduced is referred to as her “snake dress”: indeed, it is tight, green, and decorated with embroidered snakes. The allusion to the serpent, coupled with her red hair, which was often associated with Mary Magdalene and viewed as a sign of her sexual impropriety, clues in the viewer about the role that Lucy is going to play: that of the sexually loose woman (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 108). Mina claims that “Lucy is a pure and virtuous girl,” even though her actions seem to suggest the opposite. Lucy claims to know what men desire and proceeds to make a sexually explicit joke to Quincey Morris about the size of his Bowie knife: “Please, Quincey, let me touch it. It’s so big.” This, coupled with Lucy’s dreams about sex, show that she thinks about sex quite a bit more than would be appropriate for a woman of her age and class, and is willing to openly express it without fear of the consequences. Her aristocratic status probably offers her more leeway and protects her from bourgeois judgments, but she is expected to get married and give up this sexual agency soon.
Nothing in the film implies that Dracula is aware of Lucy’s flirtatious nature when he chooses her for his first victim after he lands in England. But for some reason, Lucy is drawn by Dracula’s call out in her garden and leaves her room during a violent storm caused by the Demeter’s arrival at port. Perhaps her sexualized nature makes her more susceptible to his call, or perhaps Dracula did not want to feed on Mina until he had begun to woo her. In any case, Lucy’s “nightgown” resembles red lingerie more than anything else, and is made up mainly of red gauze and a reddish scarf that mixes with her hair in the wind. The use of red in Lucy’s costumes has sexual implications; red, of course, being the color of love, passion, and blood-lust (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 280). Dracula rapes and feeds from Lucy on top of a stone bench; when he vanishes, she is left on top of it like a used sacrifice. As Mina brings her back inside, Lucy describes the encounter, believing it to be a nightmare, and reveals that Dracula had also fed her his blood.
The arrival of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, “the metaphysician philosopher,” sheds light on Lucy’s predicament. Her regular doctor, Dr. Seward, calls in Van Helsing because Lucy had been complaining of nightmares and other “changes,” like being able to hear the maids whispering from across the house. Ultimately, Van Helsing is able to diagnose Lucy’s attacker as the “vampyre”:
We are dealing with forces beyond all human experience and enormous power. Guard her well, or your beloved Lucy will become a bitch of the Devil. A whore of darkness. Lucy is not a random victim attacked by mere accident. No, she is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower, I dare say a devoted disciple. She is the devil’s concubine.
Van Helsing’s words, although cautioning, also imply that Lucy has drawn Dracula to herself with her perceived promiscuity. In the doctor’s understanding, Lucy is not innocent, but instead is responsible for drawing Dracula to her and desires to be turned into a vampire as well, and thus must be protected from her desires by the men around her. Lucy’s sexual agency is frightening and must be curbed in order to save her soul. It is no wonder that Van Helsing makes the connection between her illness and sexual desire; when the telegraph calling him to London arrives, he is lecturing on sexuality: “The very name venereal diseases, the diseases of Venus, imputes to them divine origin. And they are involved in that sex problem that which the ethics and ideals of Christian civilization [sic] are concerned”. The idea of sexually transmitted diseases being the diseases of Venus gives them not only a divine origin, but also a feminine origin. In this, Van Helsing places the blame for venereal diseases on women, which ties in with his belief that Lucy’s illness is her own fault. The feminine origin of these venereal diseases has caused the “sex problem” that Christian society is focused on: in order to keep society safe, men must curb the sexual desires of women to prevent the spread of these diseases.
The night that Mina leaves the Count to marry Jonathan in Romania, Dracula kills Lucy in a fit of rage. Just before ripping out her throat, he exclaims, “Your impotent men and their foolish spells cannot protect you from my power. I condemn you to living death, to eternal hunger for living blood”. In calling the three suitors and Van Helsing “impotent,” Dracula not only asserts his power over mortal men, but conflates power with sexual prowess. In a way, if mortal men were not impotent, they would be able to protect Lucy from unlawful desire by keeping her sexuality within the bounds of societal norms. Because they cannot, Lucy is buried in her wedding gown. This dress signifies that Lucy was about to perform femininity “properly” by getting married, but was diverted from that path by her vampiric death.
Despite the film’s emphasis on her sexuality, Lucy, it turns out, does not seek out men on which to feed, but instead prefers babies. Whereas in the novel, multiple reports of a “bloofer lady” signal Lucy’s change into a vampire, the film presents the transition differently. The night of her funeral is when Lucy “makes her big comeback” and kidnaps a child to eat; the men refer to her as a “nightmare of Lucy,” although she is still recognizably Lucy, and also a vampire (Rickels 33). Once again, her costuming accentuates her characterization. Her wedding gown is pure white with a ruff so wide that Lucy resembles a frill-necked lizard. This was a deliberate choice by the film’s costume designer, Eiko Ishioka, who wanted Lucy to look like a predatory reptile. As with the brides, the costume choices link vampirism with predation, in which women use sexual wiles and vampiric mesmerism to catch their prey. This notion of being captivated is illustrated when Lucy’s fiancé, Arthur Holmwood, falls under her spell as she calls for him, and refers to him as her husband. This implies that Lucy has received the holy sacrament of marriage, along with the unholy sacrament of baptism of the blood. By attempting to seduce her “husband” so that she can drink his blood, Lucy perverts “normal” female sexuality. Her desire to indulge in “lawful” sex is not for procreation, but rather to satisfy her own bloodlust. In the event, Van Helsing saves Holmwood from this fate and they kill Lucy’s vampiric self. Lucy’s bloody mouth and “wildly contorted body under Holmwood’s vigorous thrusts form a terrible parody of a wedding night,” and marks an ending of her fall (Butler 116). She returns to her marital bed and is freed from her fate as a “concubine of the Devil.”
Out of the female characters, Mina appears to participate most willingly in her fall, and yet she is the one who achieves redemption. At the beginning of the film, Mina identifies herself as “only a school-mistress” and seems repulsed by sexuality, even as she peeks at Richard F. Burton’s A Thousand Nights and a Night, considered a work of pornography in the 19th century. Her costumes are typically sage green, green being the color of nature, harmony, and freshness, and having a strong emotional correspondence with safety (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). In fact, Ishioka stated that Mina’s costumes were to be “very strict, tight, conservative costume [sic]…really like virginity, or modesty.” This costuming establishes Mina as the paragon of virtue. However, when she becomes the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost wife, Elisabeta, she embodies the prey in Dracula’s hunt in London. In her first meeting with Dracula, Mina is sharp with him, and calls upon the laws that protect virtuous women to get rid of him: “Do I know you sir? Are you acquainted with my husband? Shall I call the police?” By invoking the safety of marriage, Mina discourages Dracula’s advances and stays well within societal bounds. Still, she accompanies Dracula to the cinematograph, where Dracula attempts to bite her but is unable to go through with it. Whether his restraint is out of vestigial love for Elisabeta preventing him from harming her, or a realization that the time isn’t right, Dracula lets Mina go and pursues a more gentle approach in wooing her. Despite his ability to overpower Mina, Dracula seems to want Mina’s consent to change her, as if he wants her to remember him first. Mina’s recognition of Dracula as her husband would also prevent her from “falling”; after all, then she would only be performing her duties as a good wife by being with him.
Mina is drawn to Dracula from the beginning, and manifests her memories of life as Elisabeta more than once. But Dracula is able to carry on his courtship of Mina only so long as Jonathan is trapped in the castle with the brides. Once Jonathan escapes, Mina rejects Dracula and goes to Romania to marry Jonathan. On the ship to Romania, Mina destroys her diary that describes her infidelity with Dracula, and muses upon her own nature: “perhaps though I try to be good, I am bad. A bad, inconstant woman”. With the fallen woman appearing often in Victorian literature and art, Mina would have been familiar with the whore/virgin anxiety surrounding female sexuality. Despite her best efforts, something in her is wrong, the original sin of Eve coming to the forefront. Now that she is married, and has presumably consummated her marriage to Jonathan, Mina “understands the nature” of her feelings for Dracula, recognizing them as desire and love. Dominant views make female sexuality black and white, proper behavior separated from improper by clear boundaries. Mina would prefer to be firmly in the “white” area, in love and faithful to her husband, but is unable to keep herself from wavering towards wanting an extramarital affair with Dracula.
When offered the choice, Mina does not fall so much as jump. While the men consecrate Carfax Abbey, Mina retreats to the asylum, where Dracula appears first as green mist, and then as his young self. Dracula is dressed in blue, the color of emptiness; Mina, in white, the color of purity (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). During this encounter, Dracula admits to his true nature as a vampire, and to killing Lucy. Although Mina is obviously upset by the murder of her friend, she weeps, “I love you! Oh, God, forgive me, I do.” Despite her wedding vows, despite the terrifying nature of the man she loves, Mina makes an active choice to be with Dracula: “I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.” In order to make her a vampire, Dracula drinks from her neck in an erotic embrace, and then perverts the act of breastfeeding by cutting open his chest and feeding her his blood. Even when he tries to back out of the conversion, not wanting to curse Mina to “walk in the shadow of death for all eternity,” Mina begs him to take her away from death. At this moment, Elisabeta seems to have taken control, and Dracula and his bride are reunited, four hundred years after Elisabeta leapt into the river.
However, when the men burst in and frighten Dracula away, Mina’s first words are “unclean,” signaling the struggle within her between her love for Dracula and her need to be a good wife to Jonathan. She mourns for what she has done to Jonathan on the train back to Romania; yet once at the Borgo Pass, she calls up a storm to protect Dracula. Her double nature as Mina and Elisabeta keeps her in a constant tug-of-war. Despite her best efforts, Jonathan slits Dracula’s throat, and Quincey stabs him through the heart with a Bowie knife. Mina then takes the dying Dracula into the chapel he desecrated, bringing the story full circle. As Mina professes her love for Dracula, the candles light and the cross heals itself. Her narration says simply, “There in the presence of God, I realized how my love could release all of us from the powers of darkness. Our love is stronger than death.” In some way, Mina’s love, as a proxy for Elisabeta’s, repairs the damage done to Dracula’s soul and to the chapel itself, and redeems both of them. The burn from the communion wafer on Mina’s forehead vanishes as Dracula dies, signaling her cleansing from the unholy baptism of Dracula’s blood. The ending of the film implies that Dracula and Elisabeta both ascend to Heaven, freed not by God but by Mina’s love.
Mina is the only woman who is seen to choose vampirism on screen, and yet she is the only one to find any redemption. The brides and Lucy are beheaded and freed from vampirism, but the fate of their souls is unknown. It can be assumed that Mina, despite eating the apple, is allowed to return to Eden with Jonathan rather than be cast out like the other fallen women of the film. The question is, why is Mina different? In the film, it seems that because Mina received the sacrament of marriage, the unholy communion she has taken is rendered void with the death of Dracula, and she is capable of giving salvation even as she receives her own. Without Jonathan’s continuing love for her, Mina would have been cast out as one of many fallen women, discarded for their infidelity. Jonathan seems capable of understanding Mina’s duality as both Elisabeta and Mina, and her honesty about her attraction to Dracula contributes to her salvation. Her lack of monstrosity also seems to protect her. Unlike the brides or Lucy, Mina had never ingested blood besides Dracula’s, and lacks the foreign object inside her that would have sealed her fate. She becomes the monster, but never monstrous.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not intentionally about the concept of the fallen woman, or Victorian ideals for feminine chastity. But as a text set in the Victorian era, when the fallen woman was appearing frequently in literature and art, the historical context is important in reading the film. The film presents a spectrum of falls: the brides, their fall unknown; Lucy, the fall of assumed choice; and Mina, the chosen fall. The brides are the end point, the final piece of the triptych that shows the degradation of the woman who chooses sexuality over societal values. Their callous, vengeful beheading by Van Helsing is their punishment. Lucy, who is flirtatious and woos three men at once, is the symbol of overt female sexuality. Her fiancé’s role in her murder reflects man’s position in keeping female sexuality contained: by killing her vampiric self, Holmwood protects society at large from her. Finally, Mina is the “saved” woman. Her loving, benevolent husband takes her back, saving her from the fate of the fallen woman. In this sense, Jonathan is able to decide Mina’s fate, reflecting the patriarchal power of the husband in Victorian society. As much as Mina’s narrative reshapes the fallen woman archetype, reflecting a new understanding between husband and wife, the film itself is still troubling. The brides, Lucy, and Mina are set up as a continuum. Mina’s narrative is advanced, but the other women in the film are still sexualized and murdered horribly. Every fallen woman’s punishment is delivered by a man; their vampirism is what makes their punishment a physical death, rather than a societal death.
Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith
As discussed previously in this work, the Mother of Evil archetype originates with Lilith, Adam’s first disobedient wife. It is important to note why Lilith argues for her freedom, and how she does it. In a different translation of the text, she uses Biblical jurisdiction, calling on Deuteronomy 24:4: “Her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife; after that she is defiled” (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333). Twice, Lilith called upon God to free her from her subservience to Adam: first, when she used His name to flee Eden, and second when she used His law to protect herself. The next part of this translation is phrased in an interesting manner: “Lilith accepts her punishment, in return for her freedom, and agrees that 100 of her children will die every day” (333). Lilith preferred the death of her children over having to return to and obey Adam; her freedom meant more to her. The folklorist Haya Bar-Itzhak construes this story as a myth that serves a narrative purpose:
It does so in a sophisticated manner and rules out any possible challenge to that order. The first woman’s equal status in creation bodes disaster because it leads her to demand equal status. When this is denied, she rebels against man. Her rebellion leads her to betray man and couple with a demon. But this is not the end of the chain that leads from equality and satisfaction of erotic needs to rebellion and betrayal. The culmination is when she is made into the archetypal anti-mother. (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333)
The patriarchal narrative requires that rebellious women not be allowed to take part in any normal feminine behaviors, especially not motherhood. To be a mother is to have power over one’s children; a rebellious woman cannot be a mother, because children were meant to be the property of the father. So women cannot be created equal, or they follow Lilith’s path straight to rebellion and damnation. This reading of the myth creates a false equivalence, however. Because Lilith is a woman, and a mother, it is assumed that she has maternal feelings for her children and is suffering as a result of their daily deaths. Nothing in the myth suggests that she feels anything about her demonic children, which are not birthed as much as spawned.
Showtime’s three-season long series, Penny Dreadful, constructs its narrative around the Lilith myth and follows in the tradition of the penny dreadful, a sensationalist comic or magazine much like our contemporary National Enquirer. These pamphlets often contained Gothic thrillers, like Sweeney Todd, or Varney the Vampire. The series itself is not cheap or sensationalist, but combines the supernatural and Gothic elements of the penny dreadful with the myth of Lilith, incarnated in its main protagonist, Vanessa Ives. Penny Dreadful traces the path of a woman who struggles to be good, despite the duality of her nature and the fierce struggle she wages to keep her dark side at bay rather than become the new Mother of Evil. From early life, Vanessa has been haunted by the other side, “things not of this world” (“Night Work”). She has been marked and tormented by demons and supernatural abilities, which constantly war against her own moral code and her devout Catholicism.
It is not until the episode that Vanessa encounters the Night Comers, dark witches who appear naked, bald, and scarred with the Devil’s claws, that she truly understands why she has been marked. The Night Comers speak the Verbis Diablo, the language of the Devil, which is a corruption of angelic speech (“Verbis Diablo”). Vanessa and her hunter companions considered it to be a dead language, or a made up one at least, but Ferdinand Lyle, an Egyptologist at the British Museum, proves otherwise, producing a collection of odds and ends with the Verbis Diablo written across them. He explains how a Carthusian monk named Brother Gregory began to lose his mind and believed he was possessed “by a demon or the Demon” (“Verbis Diablo”). He wrote down everything he heard on anything that he had on hand: shards of pottery, a chest, even a dead bird. After careful arrangement of the different puzzle pieces, the group is able to decipher the Verbis Diablo, and the story it tells:
At the Great War for the heavenly throne we were vanquished. So God looked down on his defeated Angels and found us to be evil angels so he cast us out. He took us by our winged backs and raised us over his head. Thence did he fling us from his heavenly throne and cast us down to Earth and to hell. So we were cleaved apart, two brothers cast out two realms. One brother to earth and the other brother to hell. And thus were we set in eternal enmity, my brother on Earth to feed on the blood of the living by night, and myself in Hell to feed on the souls of the dead. Both in an eternal quest for the Mother of Evil who will release us from our bondage and allow one of us to reconquer Heaven and topple God from his bloody throne. And so will Darkness reign on Earth, in Heaven, everlasting, and so comes the Apocalypse. (“Memento Mori”)
The Verbis Diablo tells of Lucifer and Dracula, two brothers cast to different realms, one to the realm of spirit (Hell) and the other to the realm of flesh (Earth) and held captive there, waiting for the Mother of Evil to release them. The Mother of Evil, of course, directly correlates to the myth of Lilith and her demonic spawn. Earlier in the series, Vanessa was identified as Amunet, an Egyptian goddess known as “The Hidden One” who could never be shown with her consort because their union would cause the Apocalypse (“Séance”). Comparing the two stories reveals several similarities: Vanessa, as a powerful female, must not copulate with a powerful male figure, or they will cause the destruction of the world. Not only does this associate her femininity with inherent danger, but also it stipulates that she must be carefully policed or else risk her starting the Apocalypse through having sexual intercourse.
It is no accident that Vanessa is the only woman in her group of hunters: the other members are her adoptive father, Sir Malcolm Murray; her love interest, Ethan Chandler; Ferdinand Lyle, the Egyptologist; and Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Although the constant presence of the men would assumedly give her opportunities galore to have sex, Vanessa and Ethan never do, because it could prompt a possession, as it did when she slept with Dorian Gray (“Possession”). When asked why Vanessa is the particular target of the fallen angels, Lyle comments on the various “chosen ministers of evil”: “Amunet from Egyptian religion, Lilith from the Talmud, Nordic Hella, the Celtic Macha, Mara from the Hindus, all variations of deities or demigods who are destined to unleash annihilation on the world” (“Memento Mori”). All of these deities are female, because there was “something thought unholy [sic] in the erotic power they held over men” (“Memento Mori”). Female sexuality, unconstrained by societal norms and proper behavior, could be so powerful that it could cause the Apocalypse, simply because of the sexual power they held over men. After all, it was Lilith’s demand for sexual equality that robbed Adam of his wife, and caused a proliferation of demons on earth.
The viewer learns that Vanessa has met both Lucifer and Dracula, in “the white room, just you and he and that other” (“Good and Evil Braided Be”). The white room refers to the institution that Vanessa spent months in, the Banning Clinic, where she was taken after an “inexplicable illness” (“Closer than Sisters”). After committing a sexual transgression by having sex with her best friend’s fiancé, Vanessa falls into a nearly-comatose spell broken up by seizures. At a loss for any natural explanation, she is taken to a women’s clinic where she is treated with hydrotherapy and an experimental brain surgery for “hysteria of a psychosexual nature” (“Closer than Sisters”). Vanessa’s demonic possession (she speaks in tongues and attempts to tear out her treating physician’s throat with her teeth) is mistaken for female hysteria, a word the root of which comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. This dismal dismissal of her condition as a “woman’s disease” prevents Vanessa from seeking appropriate treatment and part of her memory is erased as a result of the trephining. With the help of her alienist, Dr. Seward, Vanessa undergoes hypnotism and retrieves her memories of the Banning Clinic.
During this time Vanessa manifests the pull she feels toward the two brothers that she experiences as the Mother of Evil. She cannot resist either Dracula or Lucifer, but responds to each in kind as they try to seduce her. Lucifer appears first, taking the form of her guard in a hallucination. He calls to Vanessa, saying “let us be as we were. Before there was time, there was thee and me” (“A Blade of Grass”). Lucifer wants Vanessa’s soul, and wants it to be freely given, so that she can be what she is and always was: the Mother of Evil, and his bride. Once Lucifer has taken possession of her, he states that they will “turn their eyes heavenward” and “smite the Heavenly Father from his Heavenly Throne” (“A Blade of Grass”). During this speech, Vanessa and Lucifer slide across the floor of her padded cell on their bellies like snakes, eyes fixed on each other. Despite the animalistic actions, Lucifer is calling for Vanessa to give up her earthly form, the flesh that she has inhabited.
But for the appearance of Dracula, Vanessa may have given in at that exact moment. The other brother appears first as a shadow, and then manifests physically, also taking the form of Vanessa’s guard. The physical doubling of the brothers makes them seem almost identical, which makes sense given that the outcome for the world (Apocalypse) is the same whether Vanessa chooses Dracula or Lucifer. Their methods of seduction draw the contrast between their personalities that their illusory appearances do not give. Dracula does not want Vanessa’s soul, but her blood, because she is not “a thing of the spirit,” like Lucifer, but “a thing of the flesh,” like Dracula himself (“A Blade of Grass”). Dracula calls upon Vanessa’s power, telling her to feel it “coiling” within her, giving it a serpentine quality. While Lucifer focuses on destroying God and Heaven, Dracula is more concerned with the earth: “be my bride and then all light will end and the world will live in darkness…the very air will be pestilence to mankind” (“Blade of Grass”). In this context, pestilence has something of a generative quality, as if Vanessa herself will spawn the disease that rids the world of humanity. It follows the Lilith myth of the ever-generative mother; as Lilith sets her demonic children on the world, Vanessa will spread an epidemic to kill mankind.
Dracula concludes his speech by reminding Vanessa of where she is, and how she got there: “in this mortal world you’ll always be shunned for your uniqueness, but not with me. They will lock you away in rooms like this. They’ll brand you a freak and a sorceress but I won’t” (“Blade of Grass”). Dracula references the constraints of society, the very boundaries that forced Vanessa into the clinic where she is tormented daily, to draw on Vanessa’s hatred of “normal” society. It seems as if Vanessa has chosen the brother she wants, until she rejects them both, saying that she sees them clearly, for who they are, “the spirit and the animal” (“A Blade of Grass”). Both assert their claim on her, but Vanessa has already promised herself to another: “He who vanquished you, He who is my protector and even now stands with me” (“A Blade of Grass”). God, not Dracula or Lucifer, is her choice, as she casts aside her identity as the Mother of Evil, exercising her free will.
Vanessa finds herself balancing carefully between the divine and the animal; a tip in either direction could deliver her into the hands of one of the brothers. If humanity is conceived as flesh, then flesh dictates earthly needs, lusts, and desires, more animal-like than human. The question of the flesh also draws upon the Lilith myth: Lilith was made from the same earth as Adam, but after her flight from Eden, claims arose that she had been made of tainted earth. Adam’s second wife was made of his body as an attempt to avoid that same mistake. Eve’s role as the originator of sin raises the question whether it was the earth that was tainted or Adam was simply a bad husband, but also whether flesh can ever truly be “clean.” If humanity is spirit, then the human soul is the most powerful object in the world, a splintered piece of God and the divine, and can be used as a weapon. Lucifer, the brother who feeds upon human souls to gain his power, wants to use Vanessa’s soul as his sword to remove God from Heaven. Both brothers threaten to unleash unholy terror upon Vanessa when she rejects them, but in the end, it is Dracula who wins.
Dracula initially appears as Dr. Alexander Sweet, the head of the Natural History Museum. He is a tall, tanned man of unknown age and unknown nationality, with no discernable accent to indicate where he came from or when (“The Day Tennyson Died”). He arrives when Vanessa is at her weakest, when Malcolm Murray and Ethan Chandler both have seemingly abandoned her, and her faith in God is the most tenuous. As Dr. Sweet, Dracula seduces her, but Vanessa soon learns of his true identity, and goes to the House of the Night Creatures, his lair, to kill him (“Ebb Tide”). He convinces her otherwise with simple words: “I don’t want to make you good, I don’t want to make you normal. I don’t need you to be anything but who you truly are” (“Ebb Tide”). Dracula, the Beast, king of the animals, does not require a perfect wife bound by the confines of society. He does not need her to be anything but who she is, Amunet, flesh and blood and animal. This same choice was one that Lilith faced: to choose God, and return to Eden, in this case the Murray mansion; or to turn toward flesh, toward the dark, and choose freedom. Dracula then asks if she accepts him; as he takes her into his arms, she says, “I accept myself” (“Ebb Tide”). After spending so much time fighting evil and trying to deny her dual nature, Vanessa has decided to accept herself the way she was made, and accept the pull she feels toward Dracula. And thus, she becomes the Mother of Evil, the Lilith who walks in the 19th century.
Even in her new role as the Mother of Evil, Vanessa does not eschew the boundary between good and evil. A devout Catholic for most of her life and a strong, independent spirit, she quickly grows to hate the plague that she unleashed upon London. Whereas Lilith made an agreement to allow 100 of her children to die each day, Vanessa made no such agreement for her freedom, and the plague that is claiming thousands of Londoners a day troubles the spirit that clings to the flesh. When Ethan Chandler finally makes his way to her, Vanessa pleads with him to kill her. “They will hunt me till the end of days. My battle must end, or there will never be peace on earth. Let it end” (“The Blessed Dark”). Ethan, revealed to be a werewolf earlier in the series, is Dracula and Lucifer’s only natural foe: Lupus Dei, the Wolf of God. His role in the divine play depicted in the Verbis Diablo was unclear, given that “Lupus Dei” appeared only as a refrain with no other context. As he and Vanessa recite the Lord’s Prayer together, his role becomes clear: to kill the Mother of Evil. With a kiss, he shoots Vanessa in the abdomen and kills her. The plague disappears almost as soon as Vanessa dies, and Dracula vanishes upon seeing her body. Lupus Dei, God’s chosen warrior, was victorious, reflecting the need for a male, religious figure to save the world.
Placing a moral judgment on Vanessa’s decision is not the point of the series. Vanessa is not evil; Vanessa was formed in a certain way that dictated her decision even before she was Vanessa Ives. Nowhere in the Verbis Diablo does it say that the Mother of Evil is anything other than that, or that she has any other option besides Lucifer and Dracula. Vanessa made the choice to die rather than allow the plague on earth to continue, a fairly noble choice for someone who had only been searching for peace and freedom. In a way, this is her Lilith punishment. For choosing evil, Vanessa has to die, in the same way that Lilith had to give up 100 of her children a day for her freedom. While Lilith appears not to suffer as a result of this choice, Vanessa must suffer, a return to typical endings of stories that deal with female agency and vampires. On the surface level, this series deals with supernatural entities and a battle between good and evil. On a deeper level, Penny Dreadful is about the search for freedom in a society that does not celebrate female sexuality or choice, and the double-bind that women find themselves in. They yearn for freedom, for choice, but in seeking it out, they become evil and hunted. Rather than kill Dracula, the series writers chose to kill Vanessa, a move that reinforces conventional heteronormativity. As much as the series allowed for Vanessa to be strong and independent and an equally fierce warrior as her male counterparts, in the end she is the sacrificial lamb. Feminine evil must be killed off, or the world will end.
The Re-Vamp: Why Vampires?
With so many vampires in the literary canon, and so many continuing to rise from the grave and join their undead brethren, the question remains: why vampires? Why are we so fascinated by their narratives? First, as my study shows, they embody horror, making them frightening to the reader, which is often a source of pleasure, but this horror retains a seductive quality. The abject is at play in the consumption of vampire narratives, with the push-pull of desire and repulsion keeping the reader interested. Second, an author can kill off a vampire woman in various graphic and gratuitous ways without that murder being overly-upsetting, because the vampire woman is not a human, or a good woman in most contexts. Finally, the vampire allows the author to explore various forms of boundary crossing without the work being flagged as controversial or subversive. Because the monstrous body by definition embodies boundary crossing, authors can examine homosexuality or voracious female sexuality from a safe distance, a safety usually maintained by killing off that character.
Authors and readers enjoy vampire characters because the surreal aspects of the vampire allow them to say things about human women that make for good entertainment, but must be policed in reality. This policing keeps the consumer and the creator safe from the abject. At the core of the abject is humanity’s need to reject lust, or bloodlust. Facing those aspects head-on requires us to accept ourselves as creatures that bleed and die. As a society, we must open the coffin and see how deviance and unreality go together, and how we ingest different archetypes about women without thinking about them too deeply. For instance, the vampire bite, typically portrayed as two small, neat holes, defies all reality. Long canine teeth would rend flesh and leave a gaping wound, not the tiny pinpricks popular in film and television. Instead, the feared teeth of the vampire resemble a snakebite, injecting poison into the victim’s neck. Adam’s second wife, Eve, the woman who was supposed to replace Lilith and be obedient, was tricked out of Eden by a serpent. Perhaps the depiction of the neat, snake-like bites is a commentary on the fall from Eden, and the fall that women take when they become vampires, intentionally crossing the boundaries that society depends on to survive.
The line of neo-Liliths in the literary canon is more extensive than this work has covered, but their sheer number and formulaic stories are what prompts further study of female vampirism, and why their stories are so compelling to us. And that is what lies at the heart of monster theory:
These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we have created them. (Cohen 20)
The vampire holds up a mirror and shows us everything we want to deny and thrust aside. We become abject when we deny ourselves the full range of emotion that we are capable of, and we abject women when we deny them the full scope of motivation that they are capable of.
Some important steps forward are evident in current media representations of female vampires. For example, there is no longer such a strict division between human and monster, and the vampire has begun to inhabit regular society rather than stay in the borderlands. This is most obvious in True Blood, the HBO series based on Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries. The series takes place two years after vampires “came out of the coffin” and revealed their presence to the world at large. While the vampires become less monstrous as they begin to “mainstream,” Pamela Swynford De Beaufort, one of the main characters, is still portrayed as a lusty, voracious bisexual. As a former brothel owner, her vampiric change stems from her desire to not die as a pariah and a whore, even though being a vampire would make her a different kind of pariah. Her sexuality comes into play in the series more than once, with different characters offering her sexual favors in return for her help. Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana, is also a bisexual vampire, but she is portrayed as a spoiled child with little to no power, and is forced into an arranged marriage and used as a pawn by a stronger, male vampire. Lorena Krasiki epitomizes the female predator, pretending to be a lonely widow to lure men into her bed so she can feed on them. Even in a contemporary setting, and in a world where vampires are commonly accepted, the same tropes still appear; the women are weaker than their male counterparts, they are hyper-sexualized, and they tend to end up dead.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not deal with vampires being a part of open society, but because of the content of the show, vampire characters were a constant fixture. The two most prominent female vampires were Drusilla and Darla. Drusilla was insane and almost completely dependent on her lover Spike, but her sexuality has an uncomfortable quality for the viewer. The discomfort stems from her childishness, as she spends most of her time playing with her dolls. Her insanity may contribute to her ruthlessness, but it may have had more to do with her lack of a soul. She is also offered up as a mere token of Spike’s love for Buffy when he offers to kill Drusilla to prove himself, marking Drusilla as disposable. Drusilla then disappears from the series, no longer useful in her role as Spike’s lover. As for Darla, she was another former prostitute-turned-vampire that used her sexual wiles to lure her prey, even going so far as to dress in a schoolgirl’s uniform to project innocence. Both characters are villains and follow in the footsteps of their Victorian counterparts. They are sexual, they are dangerous, and they do not live to the end of the narrative. Their narratives are a contrast to Spike’s, who begins as a villain and later, through his love for Buffy, redeems himself and gains a soul by going through the demon trials. There is no analogous redemption arc for any other Buffy character, and such redemption arcs rarely exist for women.
Twilight seems to be the outlier of the vampire narratives in the 21st century. Most of the vampires central to the series are “vegetarian,” meaning that they only feed on animal blood. This may be because the author, Stephenie Meyer, is a Mormon, and some of her religious beliefs made their way into the novels. In an interview with The Times, Meyer says that she does not consciously intend her novels to be Mormon-influenced, or to promote the virtues of sexual abstinence and spiritual purity, but admits that her writing is shaped by her values (Mills). This seems to have saved the female vampires in the novel from being overly sexual and killed off at the end. At the same time, this apparent restraint creates an atmosphere in which Bella’s sexuality is controlled by Edward’s refusal to have sex with her until they are married, and then not again until she is made into a vampire. Meyer is not the only author to project her religious beliefs into her works, but while others have used their religious beliefs to portray the vampire negatively, Meyer uses her beliefs to “keep it light” (Mills). The damsel in distress is always rescued by her prince, and every danger is quickly vanquished.
Penny Dreadful, one of the works discussed in this thesis, is a contemporary series, but does not have the same ”progressive” features of vampire assimilation and trendiness as these others. This is because while the show was written in 2014, it is set in the Victorian era. The series stays true to other Victorian depictions of vampires, which treat the vampire as monstrous and abject. In today’s culture, we seem to have made friends with the monsters in the shadows, even as we hobble them with the same archetypes that have always existed. While some steps were made to re-vamp the female vampire narrative in the earlier texts that this thesis examines, for example, Mina’s rescue at the end of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Vanessa’s agency in Penny Dreadful, the problems remain. Too often, the female vampire is depicted as sexy, bloodthirsty, and disposable. My point is not that writers should stop portraying female vampires as villainous characters altogether, since erasing acknowledgment of women’s capacity for evil is more regressive than progressive. But portraying all female vampires as evil is reductive and destroys the complexity of desire and motivation that exists in any viable characterization. My exploration perhaps should not be read as a call for gender equality on behalf of female vampires but for better endings. Rather than relying on cheap devices and turning women into bloodthirsty harem girls into whom the male hero can thrust his stake without remorse or a second thought, it would be refreshing to see more tales of redemption or even tales where the vampire wins. Better storytelling and better endings might lead to better acceptance of female sexuality and less phobic treatment of the things that society wants to sanitize. The formulaic retellings of Lilith’s “sins” have haunted the literary canon as much as Eve’s: the predatory woman, the archaic mother, the fallen woman. We arm them with teeth and then defang them by cutting off their heads in the end. Give them a fighting chance to show their so-called deviance, their homosexuality, their lustfulness, to let the reader examine them for what they really are: women exhibiting behaviors that society must thrust aside to maintain order.
This thesis could not have happened without so many important people in my life. I’d like to take the time to thank some of them for their love, support, and advice, and dedicate this work to them.
To Professor Julie Carlson, my beloved thesis advisor. Without your advice, direction, and enthusiasm, I could never have finished this. Thank you for giving me a love of the Romantics and for embarking on this journey with me.
To Alanna Bartolini, for taking the time to tear apart my thesis with me, word by word, until I was able to give it blood and life. Thank you for all of your encouragement and support, and for pushing me to be better.
To my parents, for not batting a lash when I told them I wanted to write a thesis on vampires, and for supporting me throughout the writing process.
To James McFeely and Danielle Greer, for your unending love and support.
To Amy Chase and Matthew Santos; thanks for coming on this crazy journey with me. We’re officially thesis writers, and I wouldn’t have picked anyone else to do this with me.
To Professor Christopher Newfield and Baron Haber, for brow-beating me into the thesis program and helping me make one of the best decisions of my college career.
To Brian Ernst, John Arnhold, Scott Kneece, and the rest of the English department, for their support of the Honors Program and the Arnhold Research Fellowship.
To Libba Bray, for being the novelist you are and inspiring young women to write, and to Laurence Rickels, for showing that humor and high academia can mix.
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