Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever’. (Carmilla, Chapter 4).
The very roots of vampirism and popular vampire fiction are intertwined inextricably with lesbianism. This may come as a surprise to some of us, in a post-Twilight world – one of the straightest, vanilla-est barstardisations of the vampire genre. But Carmilla, the book which sparked this entire subgenre, actually predates Dracula by 26 years. The lesbian vampire has been referenced somewhat in horror-comedies such as Lesbian Vampire Killers (gaining mostly negative reviews, and a 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), which took the character of Carmilla and coloured her, once again, as the villain, a cruel mistress who leads young girls down an irreversibly gay path. The lesbian vampire film also had a moment in the 70s, with the Hammer studios churning out countless exploitation flicks.
But when did these tropes begin? Were they ever anything other than a fetishisation of girl-on-girl action which simultaneously condemns the very thing it lusts after? And how does the story end for these women who have dared to go against the patriarchal grain? Here is a brief outline of some of my favourite stories from this subgenre, an introduction to some tropes we can see explored, expanded on, and/or subverted, with a specific exploration of the penetrative corrective-ness of the deaths of these vampires, as well as how the female gaze and the lesbian gaze have evolved over time.
Whew. The book that launched a thousand ships. (the Tumblr form of ship, not the boat kind). This 1872 book created a whole subgenre purely from the fact that it was so hot. And even more taboo than the normal, straight vampire story (which was still pretty taboo because SEX) – this story showed a woman in power, taking advantage over a (presumably) straight woman. (whether this stock character was definitely straight or not varies over time). Carmilla manages to get a lot further than some of her later counterparts in the genre, but this is perhaps more due to how very far behind her prey, Laura is. “Are we related?” she asks, before imagining how she would have felt if a “boyish lover” had entered her house and ‘hung out’ with her in the same way that Carmilla is now doing. If would have been really romantic, right? But whatever could it mean with Carmilla being decidedly not a boy? Laura’s taste of f/f romance is something she never fully recovers from, being sickly and frightened til the end of her life. Even with Laura’s father staking Carmilla as she lies in her tomb, the penetrative power of the stake cannot correct the seeds of gay that have been sown.
This film is the first time we see this subgenre explored on the big screen. Whilst all the gayness is more hinted at than fully shown, the scene where The Countess brings in a girl off the street and asks her to pose for her so she can be drawn is undeniably gay. Universal exploited the sexual tension from the beginning of production, and in some early advertising, using the tagline “Save the Women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” (sidenote: I will be forever indebted the person who finds and buys me one of these posters)
What I find interesting about this film is how much the Countess’ eyes are emphasised throughout. It, to my mind, seems to hint at a certain agency, one which may not necessarily have been intended as lesbian liberation but hey, I’m taking it as such. She is the voyeur in this film, time and again; the seduction of the woman she asks to model for her is just the most overt example. This is where we can see a female gaze beginning to be formed (taking Death of the Author as canon here, since all these films were, sadly, directed by men). The Countess’ eyes are the first thing we see of her, they are – alongside her ring – how she hypnotises and traps her victims and seduces them into submission. The power is put firmly in her hands. And her eyes, since getting Lily to model for her allows her to take on a voyeur role once again. The Countess is killed by an arrow, which means that she dies at the hand of her male servant, who wants her to turn him into a vampire. She refuses, perhaps because he is a man, and so his method is once again corrective, penetrating her in his anger.
Daughters of Darkness and Vampyros Lesbos
Daughters of Darkness was probably my favourite film that I watched in preparation for this article. It’s sexy, campy, ridiculous, and the lesbian vampire legend is continued on past the film’s conclusion. There is, however, another penetrative death in the form of the Lady Bathory at the end, who (through a series of incredibly over-the-top events) ends up impaled on a tree and then burnt alive just for good measure. As I said, the lesbianism wins out here, since the penetrative death succeeds only in stopping the one vampire. Valerie carries on her legacy, and we see her beginning to seduce another couple at the film’s conclusion. (This film may actually qualify as more of a bisexual vampire film, in actual fact, but god forbid there be any bisexual visibility in the 70s).
Dracula is mentioned, but absent in Vampyros Lesbos. He is an absent figure of power, which allows femininity to have the centre stage and Nadine to wield her power without the presence of a superior, masculine vampire. This film explores the notion of a female gaze to the best extent, at least of the films mentioned here. When Nadine performs in the strip club at the beginning, it is clear that Linda is watching her, and it is this POV through which we watch the scene. This female gaze is also how Linda is seduced into coming to the island – Nadine places visions of herself into Linda’s mind and she is drawn to Nadine because of this. Nadine is eventually murdered by Linda, who kills her by stabbing her through the eye with a pole – thus we have both a penetrative death, and one which removes Nadine’s voyeurism and gaze.
Some concluding thoughts…
The vampires must always, ultimately, be destroyed by some form of phallic object. This is no different to male vampires, always killed by a stake, but is sometimes taken further in these examples. The notion of sight is also emphasised or somehow subverted in these examples, perhaps since this is what the male viewer or filmmaker subconsciously fears, and simultaneously longs for – a world in which women sexualise themselves and each other, cuckolding him completely.