The Lesbian Vampire: Fantasy or Fear?
by Jamie Zaccaria
A beautiful siren appears in the night- probably with pale skin and dark hair. She has a face like a goddess but holds a sense of danger about her. She doesn’t walk; she floats, and as she approaches, it’s clear that her target isn’t any of the handsome bachelors. She only has eyes for the innocent young woman- someone indeed so naïve that she has never heard of a vampire before. She is a monster who will take her life but even more threatening; she is a deception. At first glance, she seems like your average woman, but when you look deeper, she’s all wrong. Not only is she one of the undead but equally unnatural, she’s queer. She is a usurper of the patriarchy.
Being a feminine-presenting queer woman has its difficulties. All queer experiences are challenging, but as this is the only one I know and it’s the only one I can talk about. Until my girlfriend and I moved to an area rich in LGBTQ+ diversity, we only had hometown bars to spend our nights in. At these places, there was always a good chance we’d get hit on. Which is fine if the person doing the proposing is polite. Unfortunately, there are too many straight cis-men out there who will fetishize my identity.
What is it about queer women who present heteronormatively that elicits certain toxic behaviours? Thinking about this always reminds me of the infamous lesbian vampire genre. Both lesbianism and vampirism are wrong- they go against the natural order of things. Women should be with men, and dead things should stay dead. It makes sense why so many vampire characters are also queer- there is a forbidden yet attractive quality to both identities.
Vampires have always been considered sexy. Maybe it’s the everlasting beauty or the danger hidden behind an attractive human facade. Or perhaps it’s the parallels between drinking blood and sex. Vampires have always been sexy and forbidden, so it makes perfect sense to me that the genre would blend so well with queer storytelling. The relationship between the queer community and vampires are endless- we are monsters; we are “other.” While this is not only limited to queer women (see Anne Rice’s characters or even the hints of sexual attraction between Jonathan and Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic novel), the lesbian vampire genre in itself is a fascinating reflection of contemporary perceptions of, and attitudes towards, queer women.
The lesbian vampire genre is one of the oldest film categories with one of the strongest cult followings in cinema. Many of the films that make up this genre are inspired- either directly or indirectly- by the famous 1872 gothic novella Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The story, which predates the more-famous Dracula is about a mysterious young woman who preys on innocent girls in more ways than one. A wealthy widower and his innocent daughter Laura, living in Styria, take in a young woman named Carmilla after a carriage accident. While the two girls continue to get closer, Laura seems to suffer from an unidentifiable illness. Eventually, our heroes (all men) determine that Carmilla is a vampire, slowly draining Laura’s life, and dispose of her appropriately.
Hypnotizing your victim into a false sense of consent and draining them of their life force can easily be symbolic of losing one’s virginal innocence. A man may take a woman’s “innocence,” but if he’s her husband, then it’s ostensibly permissible in a heteronormative society. Another woman, though? That’s dangerous- even life-threatening. Why has Carmilla spawned so many adaptations over the years? What is it about a female vampire who preys on other women that is so interesting a topic? This sense of fear tinged with sexiness is what makes lesbian vampires so attractive to the silver screen.
According to Andrea Weiss in Vampires and Violets, the lesbian vampire ‘dramatizes men’s fear, anxieties, and hatred of women.’ This is an interesting observation considering that the lesbian films made by Hammer Studios exploded at the same time as the feminist movement. Many lesbian vampire movies exploit the “pornographic value of the relationship between the vampire and her victim” (Weiss 1992, 88). While the latter half of film history has turned to exploiting their lesbian vampires, it started much differently.
1936’s Dracula’s Daughter is a sequel to the 1931 classic Dracula (both produced by famous monster-makers Universal Studios). The movie was directed by Lambert Hillyer and starred Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, the daughter of Count Dracula. Unlike her father, Zaleska is ashamed of being a vampire and fights her urges to drink blood. After her father’s death, she attempts to destroy his body in hopes that her own curse will disappear and she will become human. When this attempt fails, she turns towards psychiatry to cure herself of her primal urges.
Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), Zaleska’s psychiatrist, attempts to cure her (although he does not know what he is healing her of) by telling her to confront her cravings to defeat them. She then goes on the prowl, using a jeweled ring to mesmerize her victims before biting them and sucking their blood. Zaleska’s manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) brings her a model to paint, Lili (Nan Grey). After trying to resist her urges, she eventually attacks (seduces?) Lili. Lili survives the attack but dies during Dr. Garth’s attempt to hypnotize her and determine what happened.
Zaleska finally realizes that there is no cure for her vampirism. At the same time, the doctor figures out what she really is. Zaleska then kidnaps the doctor’s girlfriend, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and whisks her away to Transylvania. Once there, Zaleska offers to trade Janet for Garth’s transformation into a vampire (to be her eternal companion). Although he agrees to this transformation, it does not happen because Sandor (angry because Zaleska does not love him) kills the countess by shooting her with an arrow.
In Censored Screams, Tom Johnson says the film is “highly suggestive but relatively tame” and is remembered mostly today for its implied lesbianism (Johnson 1997, 132). While it is never said in the movie, it is implied that Countess Zaleska is a lesbian. The film had difficulty with the Production Code Administration because of those implications of homosexuality. The scene of her attacking Lili plays out as a sort of seduction scene with Zaleska approaching Lili (who at first declines but then is hypnotized into compliance) in a predatory sort of way. Zaleska does not only want to drink Lili’s blood, but she wants to sleep with her as well.
The scene clarifies that lesbianism is equivalently dangerous to vampirism, a deadly disease that cannot be cured. While today the scene is known for the hidden homoeroticism, it was more ambiguous when it was released, and more likely that most viewers did not catch on. Hiding the sinful secret of vampirism is symbolic for the secret of lesbianism, especially in the earlier films such as Dracula’s Daughter. In the movie, her vampirism is hidden from those around her (and, if you read into it, her lesbianism is as well). This is quite different from modern-day lesbian vampire films, which push the boundaries of the appropriate.
In the 1970s, the LGBT communities came out of the darkness and began advocating loudly for equality. In the early part of the decade, Hammer Studios released The Karnstein Trilogy, three films about lesbian vampires (1970’s The Vampire Lovers, 1971’s Lust for a Vampire, and 1971’s Twins of Evil). Unlike the films of earlier days, these made it quite clear that the blood-sucking fiends were sexually attracted to other females. In fact, these films pushed the envelope of camp and sex. Beautiful women stalk their prey (even in the day time) and seduce them as well. These films are considered by some to be ‘soft-core erotica’ even. The female villains are always traditionally beautiful (aka attractive to straight men) and almost always defeated by the very masculine hero.
What’s especially interesting about the lesbian vampire films of the 1970s is that these queer villains are incredibly fetishized and almost always overcome by manhood’s power. In many of these films, the innocent young woman is seduced by the vampire- both sexually and into a blood-drinking lifestyle. This is a clear parallel for women discovering their gayness despite society’s rejection of it. We can admit to being attracted to the idea of lesbians but, eventually, must recognize that being gay is not the natural order of things. The vampires (aka the lesbians) must be destroyed in the end.
One of the stand-out films from the decade is the 1972 Spanish film The Blood Spattered Bride. While it contains its fair share of exploitative shots of women’s bodies and gore, it has achieved semi-cult status due to its underlying messages rejecting misogyny. Susan (Maribel Martín), a young bride, finds solace in the arms of a mysterious woman (Alexandra Bastedo) while attempting to escape the increasingly odd sexual behavior of her new husband (Simón Andreu). She is seduced by a vampire (named Carmilla, of course), and together they go on a nasty spree of violence. In the end, both women meet their deaths, but the ‘hero’ is shunned as a murderer. Curiously in this film, while the women did not win, neither did the male protagonist.
The 1970s was a time of sexual exploration, which is mirrored in the lesbian vampire films of the time. While the lesbian vampire characters may be sexualized to the max, they still retain a somewhat villainous role; we still have a bit of respect for them being powerful demons of the night. Not so much with 2009’s Lesbian Vampire Killers. This British horror comedy directed by Phil Claydon is the ultimate campy satire of the lesbian vampire genre. The film stars Mathew Horne and the now ultra-famous James Corden as Jimmy and Fletch (respectively), two average guys who decide to take a holiday when Jimmy’s girlfriend breaks up with him and Fletch loses his job.
The pair decide to hike to a remote village which, unbeknownst to them, has been plagued by a curse since the time of the Crusades. The curse originated with the Vampire Queen Carmilla (Silvia Colloca), who regularly killed the menfolk and seduced the village’s women, and was finally killed by Baron Wolfgang Mclaren. Before she died, she put a curse on the town so that every woman upon her 18th birthday would transform into a lesbian vampire. She also said that when the blood of the last of Mclaren’s bloodline mixed with that from a virgin woman, Carmilla would be resurrected.
When Jimmy and Fletch arrive in the village, they go into a local pub and are greeted by a morose crowd of men and a seemingly crazed vicar (Paul McGann). The bartender directs the two visitors to a cottage further down the road, which also happens to be housing four college students (all very attractive young women) who study mythology and folklore. As the six of them drink and dance, the young women begin to go missing one by one until only Lotte (MyAnna Buring) remains. She and the two guys search for her missing friends, only to realize that they’ve all been turned into lesbian vampires by the area’s already substantial lesbian vampire population.
The vicar shows up and informs them that Jimmy is actually the descendent of the Baron. Eva (Vera Filatova), leader of the lesbian vampire killers and Carmilla’s lover, also discovers this fact and mixes his blood with that of Lotte’s (who is a virgin, naturally) to resurrect Carmilla. After a struggle, Lotte kills Eva. Using the Baron’s sacred sword, Jimmy kills Carmilla before she can turn Lotte into a vampire. Carmilla’s death lifts the curse, and the remaining vampires are turned back into humans (although, at Fletch’s annoyance, they are still lesbians). The movie ends with Jimmy, Fletch, and Lotte deciding to rid the world of other evil dwellers and a “gay werewolf” howling in the background.
Where Dracula’s Daughter subtly hinted at homosexuality, Lesbian Vampire Killers throws it in your face. Lesbians are over-exploited in such a way that it becomes a comedic parody of lesbian pornography. All of the lesbian vampires are extremely attractive in the cis-gender norm and always passionately embracing each other. The sacred sword that is the only weapon that can kill Carmilla has a handle shaped like a penis. Whether or not the symbolism is ironic, it’s implying that the power of the penis (aka of a man) is stronger than the power of lesbians.
“Camp humor is a way of exposing and disempowering those cultural myths and representations which would otherwise be unrelentingly oppressive, especially to women and gay people” (Weiss 1992, p.107). Lesbian Vampire Killers is nothing if not campy. Its over-sexualization of lesbians may indeed be perceived as being in bad taste or as a spoof of various lesbian-centric vampire films of the past. The film presents such a ridiculous menagerie of scenes that it can only be determined that it is making fun of itself. The campy exaggeration of lesbianism is a parody of how lesbians are viewed in today’s society as objects of men’s desires. After years of making lesbian vampire movies, it seems we have reached the point where they are popular enough to be mocked.
Despite this apparent growth in the genre (and in society’s acceptance of queer women), why is it that whenever you see a queer female vampire character on screen, she always looks stereotypically beautiful in a way that the average cis-male would lust after? Why don’t we ever see a short-haired, flannel-wearing Butch with fangs? This likely speaks to many things, not limited to the different levels of acceptance offered to the wide variety of women who identify as queer. Even within the community itself, stereotypes run rampant.
In his essay The Monster and the Homosexual, Harry Benshoff compares the horror genre to queer activism, saying, “Like the mad scientists of horror films, queer proponents do want to restructure society by calling attention to and eventually dismantling the oppressive assumptions of heterocentrist discourse” (Benshoff 2020, 227). Perhaps we need to take our love of the lesbian vampire genre a step further. Maybe we can use it to represent this richly diverse community while reminding the general public that not only do we exist, but we are varied and mighty.
The lesbian vampire genre has evolved over time with changing movements and production codes alike. From subtly hinted at sexual attacks (Dracula’s Daughter) to the obvious exploitation and mockery of society’s fascination with lesbians (Lesbian Vampire Killers), the films that feature these characters are an expression of society’s attitudes towards lesbians in general, and especially men’s fear of them. There are many times where I do wish I invoked more fear in the pesky men who can’t take a hint or, even more importantly, the unfortunately large part of society that judges a person based on their sexuality. After all, if we can’t be loved for who we are, why not be feared?
Benshoff, Harry. 2020. “The Monster and the Homosexual.” In The Monster Theory Reader edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, 226-240. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Johnson, Tom. 1997. Censored Screams: The British Ban on Hollywood Horror in the Thirties. Jefferson, NY: McFarland & Company.
Weiss, Andrea. 1992. Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film. London: Pandora Press.
Jamie Zaccaria is a wildlife biologist by trade and writer by pleasure. She currently works for a wildlife conservation organization and writes fiction in her spare time. She is also a part-time Staff Writer for The Rational Online. For a complete portfolio, please visit www.jamiezaccaria.com