The vampire has become the symbol people want to identify with today; vampires are brooding, dangerous creatures who express their sexuality without consequence. However, the early depictions of vampires were not admired by readers, instead they were feared. The first popular story to feature a vampire, was published in 1872 and titled “Carmilla.” She is an aristocratic vampire who preys upon women; this was not the glamorous, bloodied beauty, but rather a horrific beast that needs to be put down. Written during the Victorian era, the theme and moral was that women with power, especially those who are sexually deviant, need to be put in their place or destroyed. The title character Carmilla is identified as “Other” by the standards of her time because she rejected society’s norms. The most famous work during this time was Dracula, which has solidified the vampire mythos into popular culture. Count Dracula also preys upon young women of virtue to twist and distort them into becoming his brides. Although time and changing standards have morphed the vampire into a romantic figure that women fantasize about, its origin was less than sexy.
The folklore of the vampire in western culture started in eastern European with stories of the dead rising from their graves and feeding on the living; their source of food was blood, the essence of life. This stemmed from the lack of knowledge about biology and what happens to the body when it dies. However, ignorance is bliss and so lowly villagers began telling tales of loved ones, mainly men, returning from the cemetery. With the advances in trade and local commerce, these stories made their way into western European countries. The stories took their hold with not only the lower classes but with the intellectual elite as well. One of the earliest works about the undead came from famed romantic poet Lord Byron, who wrote about a lonely vampire in a friendly competition against Percy Shelly as regarding who could write the best supernatural tale. Traits and common themes came from the Romantic era (1780’s- mid 1800’s), which followed the Enlightenment, a time of political upheaval and the birth of democracy in America, and revolution in France (Brians). Unlike the writings during the Enlightenment focused on political ideology and criticism, the Romantics focused more on the human soul and emotion. The centrality of emotion was expressed within literature, art, and music (Brians). The Gothic story has blended both the rationality and emotions of man into its stories.
The Gothic story is a subgenre of Romanticism, with a darker twist. The first Gothic novel was written by Horace P. Walpole, The Castle Otranto (1764), thus setting the standard for all future Gothic stories to follow (Holte). Elements of the Gothic story are: 1) an ominous, vast, ancient castle that has been abandoned, 2) The villain is a darkly handsome, evil nobleman, 3) The heroine is just as virginal as she is naïve, 4) The hero ultimately saves the girl from the evil nobleman’s castle, and 5) The setting and story contain a mix of foreign names and places, making the plot even more exotic (Holte). These elements are necessary for stories that are identified as Gothic; thus setting the stage for our first observation, Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.”
Written in 1872 “Carmilla” is the perfect example of how fearful men were of the rising wave of powerful women. The story takes place in the Austrian country side, where our protagonist Laura and her father stationed; they are both English in nationality, and in an almost subtle way wish to spread their English ways of life on the Austrian peasants they come across. Laura is the stereotypical Victorian young girl: virginal, sweet, naïve, and loyal to her authority figures, i.e. men. Her first encounter with Carmilla happens when she was a little girl, around age seven. She awoke to a woman on her bed, smiling at her and the woman bent over Laura and bit into her breast. Laura dismisses this as merely a dream and continues with her life as if nothing occurred. A decade later, she comes across a young woman who has a striking resemblance to the woman she encountered as a little girl. The woman introduces herself as Carmilla, and recalls that night when they met, and the two become fast friends. Soon enough, their friendship quickly shifts into a seemingly romantic relationship, where Carmilla kisses Laura and holds her hand, as if they are a couple. Laura, ever naïve, thinks they are simply close friends (who happen to kiss) and nothing more. Laura soon falls ill after having a bizarre dream about Carmilla drenched in blood. Laura’s father, fearful for his daughter’s life, contacts his superior, a General whose niece died of a similar disease. The General tells of meeting a mysterious noblewoman, who appears to resemble Carmilla. The two men then come across a baron who is also a vampire hunter and they set off to destroy Carmilla in her castle. Carmilla is then staked through the heart and Laura is saved.
In many ways, Carmilla could be seen by feminists as a heroine in an antagonist’s role because the story is written by a man. Feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book, The Second Sex, how women in Western culture are seen as the Other, an object whose existence is defined and interpreted by the dominant male. Beauvoir asserts that the female must break the bonds of her patriarchal society and define herself as she wishes. Women must ask themselves “What is a woman?” and to Beauvoir the answer is seeing themselves as autonomous beings. Beauvoir further argues that women must reject societal constructs of them as Other. Carmilla represents that break from a male dominated society and to Victorian era men that is truly horrific. Carmilla sees herself as an aristocratic woman who is free to do as she pleases; she has the wealth and power to do as she wills and move about all the through the country without need of a man. Her victims are women, because she decided she wanted female victims. Carmilla answers to no man, only herself and no other.
Carmilla, the antagonist, is the Other by standards of her society. She challenges the system around her, mainly the men, a point made clear with the treatment of Laura’s father. First and foremost, she is not of the living world, being undead already labels her as Other; she cannot truly participate in the human world. Her appetite and diet require that she feed on the living, and her preferences are for young women. Carmilla is of a noble family, which allows her the privilege to act on her impulses and seemingly get away with murder for centuries. She mostly lives on her own, while her mother is a ploy to lure her victims into allowing her to stay with them. Carmilla shows little remorse towards her victims, many of whom are peasants. However cruel Carmilla may appear, she does have a soft spot for her newest victim Laura, holding hands with her, asking if they are indeed true friends and kissing. In Victorian times, these behaviors were considered blasphemous, something to be demonized and hopefully corrected. However this would not be the only famous vampire story to be written. Another creature of the night, with noble blood was lurking, waiting for the perfect moment to strike audiences.
The most famous and recognizable vampire in popular culture today is Count Dracula. This classic horror novel has been adapted time and again into stage productions, films, miniseries, and more recently in Germany, a musical. The story was heavily influenced by Sheridan’s “Carmilla,” as well as the author’s interest in the occult. Written by another Anglo-Irishman, Abraham “Bram” Stoker published his novel in 1897 and Dracula became an instant hit among British readers, eventually reaching an audience across the Atlantic in the Americas (Belford). The story begins with a lawyer from London named Jonathan Harker who has gone to Transylvania to meet with a nobleman to finalize the properties he has just purchased. The nobleman is Count Dracula, who at first appears as an elderly man that takes a liking to Harker’s fiancée, Mina, after seeing her portrait. Harker is warned not to explore the castle where he is staying, but curiosity gets the better of him and he comes across Dracula’s brides. They seduce Harker, using sex appeal as their primary weapon, and drink his blood. Before being killed, Dracula stops them, and instead offers them a baby to feast on.
The story then shifts from the points of view of Mina to Dr. Steward, and then to famed vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Dracula travels to England, leaving Harker to his death in the castle. However, Harker does manage to escape and is cared for by nuns in an abbey. Mina’s friend Lucy, whom she is staying with, begins sleepwalking and having terrible nightmares. Lucy soon becomes ill, and fearful that she might die, Dr. Steward calls his mentor Dr. Van Helsing to assist him. Lucy eventually dies of whatever disease afflicted her, but Van Helsing is unconvinced of her death. He, along with Dr. Steward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, all her former suitors, break into her family’s crypt where she is buried. They discover she is not dead, but “alive,” preying on small children. Her former fiancé, Arthur, takes it upon himself to stake her through the heart, bringing her the final death. Soon Mina falls ill, under the same affliction Lucy had. Harker, who has now returned to London with Mina as his wife, blames himself. One night the three men catch Dracula in the act of feasting on Mina. The chase back to Transylvania begins, and the men pursue him back into castle, bringing along Mina as their guide because she has a connection with him. They reach his castle, and a fight among the gypsies that Dracula hired to protect him, breaks out. Quincey is killed in the process but not before staking Dracula in the heart, killing him. Mina is cured, and she and Harker have a son named Quincey, after their deceased friend.
Striking similarities between the story plots of “Carmilla” and Dracula are evident. Both feature antagonists who are members of the nobility, are set in a far eastern European country side, depict women as the victims and vampire hunters from a prestige class, and identify men as saviors to these helpless victimized women (Auberbach). The main female protagonists begin as naïve and virginal, unaware of what is evil. Laura acts ever faithfully to her father’s demands, and does not question him. Carmilla, however, challenges him on the subject of religion. Laura’s father is amazed at how fierce her questioning is, and relents not because he was bested, but because Carmilla is a higher rank than him in society. In Dracula, the two female protagonists are Mina and Lucy: Mina is a schoolmistress engaged to Jonathan Harker, and staying with her childhood friend Lucy while her fiancé is away; Lucy is an aristocrat, young, vivacious, and sexually more liberal than Mina, who is offered three marriage proposals in one day. Carmilla is the foil to Laura, and Lucy is the foil to Mina. Carmilla and Lucy break away from what society demands of them, and are identified as the New Woman; this term was coined by feminist novelist Sarah Grand. The New Woman represents more a style of living than a political stance (Auberbach). The New Woman wants sexual freedom, to smoke cigarettes, drink in public, and wear men’s clothing.
The rise of this New Woman threatened the notion of male masculinity to the point of anxiety. This anxiety is shown with the apparent deaths of Carmilla and Lucy, both women who have come to embody this new trend among Victorian women (McGunnigle). Le Fanu and Stoker were decades apart, but both men lived and died under the same era. They saw the rise of the women’s movement and sought to write their opinions of it whilst telling a story. It is the men who save Laura and Mina from the fate of becoming an immortal monster. Those who follow in pursuit of sexual freedom are killed, much like Dracula’s brides were by Van Helsing after they attempt to seduce him as well (McGunnigle). But in an odd contrast to “Carmilla”, Dracula’s brides are not freed, but rather imprisoned by their master, bound to serve him no matter the cost. When the brides come across Harker and start to feed upon him, Dracula becomes angry, claiming that Harker is his alone. Stoker, in a different light, shows how those women who seek to become an equal in a male dominated society will never achieve it, and instead remain in servitude (Belford). Lucy’s death was brought upon her by her desire to be free of her societal chains, toying with suitors, unlike virtuous Mina who has only Jonathan Harker. Mina is saved by her virtue, represented by the men who go far beyond the call of duty to destroy Dracula, and it is that same virtue that saves Laura from Carmilla as well.
“Carmilla” and Dracula dramatize the fear and anxiety of Victorian men towards the rising female working class. Their roles would soon become redundant and thus women would slowly achieve the ability to provide for the family. Le Fanu and Stoker used the Gothic genre to express this growing fear among men, while maintaining the appearance and style of a true Gothic story. Carmilla and Lucy would be in today’s standards seen as heroines, fighting the male-dominated system; Laura and Mina, in contrast, would be mocked for protecting their virtue and staying loyal to their figures.
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and The Demon: the Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.
Belford, Barbara. Bram Stoker: a Biography of the Author of Dracula. New York: Knopf, 1996. Print.
Brians, Paul. “Romanticism.” Washington State University – Pullman, Washington. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb 2012. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html
Holte, James Craig. The Fantastic Vampire: Studies in the Children of the Night : Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.
McGunnigle, Christopher. “My Own Vampire: The Metamorphosis Of The Queer Monster In Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Gothic Studies 7 (2005): 172-184. 16 Feb. 2012 . Web.
Shepard, Leslie, and Le Fanu Sheridan. “Carmilla.” The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1977. 3-30. Print.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
Gabriella Coro is a senior English major specializing in literature at Barry University in Miami, Florida. She wrote this piece, incorporating feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s theories of the Gothic genre, for a course in Gendered Images. A fan of vampires since childhood, and with a self-professed crush on actor Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Gabriella hopes to earn a Master’s degree with a specialty in Gothic literature.
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