You are currently viewing Vampires, lesbians and Carmilla

Vampires, lesbians and Carmilla

Skrevet av Susanne Aanestad

Attitudes towards female homosexuality have been considerably different from male homosexuality, no doubt influenced by the conception of independent female sexuality as nonexistent or contrived, unlike the supposed natural, biological male sexuality.1 Throughout the 18th and 19th century the idea of female romantic friendships, relationships between women with deep emotional and physical intimacy, was considered common. Part of the acceptance of these relationships stemmed from the common conceptions of female sexu- ality: There could be no sex between two women even in the presence of intense physical intimacy, by virtue of both of them being non-sexual beings in their own capacity. Romantic relationships between women have historically (and still are) either been desexualized or objectified.2 If a woman does, despite all odds, express physical attraction, she is usually condemned for it:

To have strong passions is held to be rather a disgrace for a woman, and they are looked down upon as animal, sensual, coarse, and deserving of reprobation. The moral emotions of love are indeed thought beautiful in her; but the physical ones are rather held unwomanly and debasing.3

Very few of the prominent female characters in literature seem to have any sexual agency, that is if they have any sexuality at all, arguably due to the moral condemnation of women’s expressions of physical love. If one wants to see such a character, one must look beyond the chaste, asexual heroines of novels and rather explore the occult characters that represent what is feared and condemned in our societies.

While today the lesbian vampire may be connected to the male-gazey vixens of campy 70’s films, her roots go further back. All the way back to 1872, with the novella Carmilla by the Austrian author Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 – 1873). The novel, which predates Dracula by several decades, is narrated by Laura who describes her relationship with the vampire Carmilla, or Millarca. Carmilla is often brought up as a representation of a lesbian relati- onship that is quite progressive for its time, as it does not explicitly condemn homosex- uality and seems to depict it’s a neutral manner. The book is centered around the main character Laura and the vampire Carmilla, and their passionate relationship. Carmilla, in contrast to many depictions of male vampires, is emotionally involved with her subjects, expressing herself through physical contact, constant presence and her passionate decla- rations of love to Laura. Her affection is “unmistakably the momentary breaking out of suppressed instinct and emotion”, “like the ardor of a lover”, Laura remarks.4 However, Laura struggles to comprehend the reasons for her affection in her internal monologue: “Was she, notwithstanding her mother’s volunteered denial, subject to brief visitations of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance?”.5 She entertains the idea of Carmilla being a man in disguise as a way of explaining her affection: When seen in the light of masculinity, Carmilla’s behavior would be completely natural, her advances would be normal and even appreciated. Laura eventually discards the idea of Carmilla secretly crossdressing to woo her, which leaves insanity as the only possible explanation. That is until Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire. When revealed to be a vampire, the men, who were passive during the prior events, hunt Carmilla down and find her body, lying in a coffin, submerged in blood. She is then violently executed, in typical vampire fiction fashion, and the threat is subdued.

Vampirism and sexuality
Vampirism can easily be understood as a thinly veiled metaphor for sexual desire and lust. The vampire craving (and pursuing) the body mirrors human sexual desires, and the lesbian vampire introduces an element of bodily desire so commonly absent from other depictions of female sexuality. The occult nature of the vampire allows the audience to explore taboo expressions of sexuality without having to come to terms with their real-life implications. The vampire is fundamentally different from us, and their depraved sexuality does not reflect us normal, civilized humans. Unlike our own inner thoughts and desires, the vampire can be killed with a stake through the heart or a silver bullet. The female vampire, particularly the lesbian vampire, reflects simultaneous fear and curiosity about female sexuality; she subverts the heterosexual paradigm of desire, and forces the audience to acknowledge the existence of an active, and independent female sexuality. In this way, the vampire can serve as an empowering character, one that challenges the status quo and has the power to be recognized as who they are.

The real danger of queer vampires
While they may be interesting vehicles for exploring sexuality, lesbian vampires such as Carmilla are not unproblematic representation by any means. Her monstrosity sets her at odds with the rest of human society, and while that may be relatable for those ostracized from their own communities, it also reinforces the idea of female sexuality and lesbianism as fundamentally at odds with the functioning of society. She harms and often kills the women she is involved with and does so for her own gain. Her violent execution at the hands of the patriarchal powers that be reaffirms the heterosexual and masculine status quo, reassuring that the evil has been vanquished. The lesbian vampire risks further demo- nizing a group that has already been discriminated against and legitimizing their treatment. The occult nature of vampirism allows us to safely explore the nature of taboo topics of sexuality without ever questioning or endangering our own, but it also hinders us from truly recognizing it and coming to terms with it in our own lives. However, given lesbians’ history of being erased and made invisible, one must consider whether being portrayed as the monster is worse than never being mentioned at all.

1 Baumeister, Roy F., and Jean M. Twenge. “Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality.” Review of General Psychology 6, no. 2 (2002): 166-203.
2 Martin, Sylvia. “’These Walls of Flesh’: The Problem of the Body in the Romantic Friendship/Lesbianism Debate.” Historical Reflections 20, no. 2 (1994): 243-66.
3 Veeder, William. “Carmilla: The Arts of Repression.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22, no. 2 (1980): 197-223.
4 Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla. (Project Gutenberg, 2003.) 30.

5 Ibid.