In search of lesbian vampires

It’s a beautiful day. I don’t know if going outside and being overwhelmed by “Yellow! Green! Blue!” is objectively beautiful. But hell, it’s spring, it’s warm in a nonobjectionable and physically comfortable way – I’m happy! It’s May. Time for May Poles, maybes, and Ashley’s birthday. So what’s on the old mind today? Slept in, feeling sickish, got work in 2 hours. And by work I mean, I wander the library bringing books up and putting them back. I love helping to organize the knowledge of the world. And the fact that shelving allows me to go about, glancing at interesting books. Like when I shelved the entire selection of books about menstruation, a couple weeks ago. Fun stuff.

I’m hungry. Oh, hunger. Hunger, a novel by Norwegian Knut Hamsun. The Hunger Artist, a short story by Kafka. The Hunger, a 1983 sucky (no pun intended) vampire movie whose best part, as I was discussing the other day, is almost certainly the sex scene between a blood-drinking Catherine Deneuve and a naive Susan Sarandon. Maybe among the best scenes in lesbian vampire film history. Oh, the lesbian vampire – a topic which I am known in certain circles (i.e., quiz bowl) to be an expert on. Let’s explore it briefly, shall we? Antecedents to the subgenre (as in, horror -> vampire -> lesbian vampire) go back to Gothic literature: Coleridge’s poem “Christabel,” for example, as well as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s landmark novella Carmilla, which served as a template for many future lesbian vampire works. So, you may ask, why vampire? Why lesbian? Vampires are an undyingly fascinating element of folklore.

One may even ask, why is horror such a big part of folklore in the first place? I think folklore’s great to dive into. It’s the collected tales, some codified and some more vague and flexible, that float around our culture, from ear to ear and mind to mind, and generally serve pretty well to give us ideas about our heritage, our history, and our identity. Lore. “Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” Lore was also the name of Data’s evil doppelganger in Star Trek: TNG, but that’s another story. Folk – ein volk, one people, “your folks” as a term for “parents” that has always intrigued me. Folkish as an adjective for Will Rogers. Folk music harkens (after looking up and making sure “harkens” was the appropriate word and spelling, I come to the conclusion that it’s an absurd word, and once you double-check your usage of it, you can hardly look upon it without laughing) back to times past and brings people together, more or less. So we have these two words: folk and lore. Folks are people; it’s a very populist word. It suggests that we all share in something. We’re all the folks – folk is what Ma Joad meant in The Grapes of Wrath when she said, “Because we’re the people.” And then lore is stories. Like a Tome of Eldritch Lore. Like folk, it has implications of the past. You can’t just make folklore; it has to marinate. It has to age. Because we’re not the folk now; we’ve always been the folk. And some new novel can’t be lore. Lore needs time to collect dust. So with that… I was talking about vampires.

I’ve puzzled on many occasions over what vampires mean. And why I love them so. Vampires are not really human beings – they’re a whole other animal. But they’re kind of people. Let’s take an example: Prince Mamuwalde, aka Blacula, central character of his namesake 1973 film. He’s recognized by Tina and Juanita Jones and all the others as a human being. Vampires play the part of a still-living human being, go into the midst of real people, and insinuate themselves into their lives. Because, after all, if a vampire is revealed – as in, “Whoa, you cast no reflection! You hiss at the sight of crosses! Could you be some creature of folklore-?” – you can guess that either some would-be Van Helsing or an angry mob with pitchforks is going to storm into their castle and kill the shit out of them. Because people have a general antipathy toward undead things that drink their blood and turn them into undead things. God, vampires are the ultimate evangelists. Imagine if Jack Chick could just bite you and then voila, you’re a fundamentalist Christian. Or if Jehovah’s Witnesses marched up to your door and then as soon you opened it – well, you get the idea. Vampires are essentially rapists. But instead of (most of the time) violating their prey with genitalia, instead it’s the teeth. But at the same time, are vampires really in control? All these thoughts remind me that I need to watch Abel Ferrara’s vampire deconstruction The Addiction, which stars Valerie Solanas herself, Lili Taylor, as well as Christopher Walken as the head vampire. That’s about as great a recipe for awesome as I’ve ever heard. If only I could find a copy anywhere.

But anyway, the vampire is both a victim and villain. After all, nobody becomes a vampire without, well, being made one. This reminds me of a discussion I was having yesterday with Ashley: isn’t it bullshit to be able to get a transmissible disease without really having physical contact with someone? As I wrote in my Halloween CLAP article last October, “Vampirism is a venereal disease. Vampires are horny old syphilitics.” So that’s one viewpoint. It’s VD. It’s AIDS. You go to bed with someone whose genitalia are all covered in pustules, you wake up with a thirst for blood. One way or another, being vampirized requires intimate physical contact. Whether it’s Dracula going down a foggy street and approaching a streetwalker, gazing into her eyes until she’s petrified, then raping/biting her and running off, or if it’s Deneuve luring Sarandon into bed and in the midst of their passion, biting her. A vampire’s bite is like a mosquito sucking out the blood and spitting in some saliva, to make it coagulate, but also causing an itch. And sometimes handing over West Nile virus or meningitis or what have you. So in STIs and mosquitoes, we’ve got some origins; also, as some have claimed, vampire stories could have originated in experiences with the corpses of rabies victims – how they’d still have liquid blood, as this article points out. I’ve read some extensive, very plausible theories along these lines before. There’s cases like that of Peter Plogojowitz, a Serbian “vampire” of the early 18th century, the truth about whom is probably linked to rabies or something similar.

Really, at the heart of it, the vampire myth is a lot about being afraid of the dead coming back. We invest the dead with terrifying powers, because, well, we know no mortal, living made-of-flesh man would hypnotize you or walk through walls or bite into a human skull (like vampires, ghosts, and zombies). But who says there are such constraints on the dead? Ghost legends say that the dead are often pissed. “I was murdered? And my killer married my wife and controls my kingdom? Hamlet Senior is not happy with this…” And at the same time, it’s about more than not wanting the corpses of people we didn’t like it to come back – it’s also about being afraid of our own mortality. And for that matter, as with many such myths, these ones are ambiguous, and hence the immense appeal of the vampire. Why would we keep telling stories that terrified us – Holy shit, I thought he was dead but he’s gonna come back! – unless we wanted to hear them, too? After all: wouldn’t you want to know that when your body gives out and you finally die, you have a chance of coming back – with superpowers! – to get all the revenge you want? Just a possibility. There are all kinds of dense psychological motivations for telling these stories. That’s why we tell them over and over again, century to century, and though we’ll cover our eyes and ears – “No more, no more, it’s too scary!” – well, of course we’re going to be in line again for the next showing. That’s how it’s always been. The next night, the terrified children are pleading with their dad to tell them about the headless ghost who’s out for blood, all over again.

And this brings me to the lesbian vampire. A few months ago, Ashley and I watched a very interesting, informative, and analytical lecture from a 2004 Los Angeles Pride festival, called Queer for Fear. It does a good job of delving into the innate links between the horror film and supposedly “deviant” sexualities, or those who are sexual outsiders or minorities. This is another part of the ambiguous appeal of the monster story. It’s driven by a combination of fear and identification. Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula was one of my idols growing up. You’re simultaneously afraid of him – mind-controlling lord of a cobweb-ridden Transylvanian castle – and you sympathize with him, pity him, know what he’s going through. He’s got his lion’s share of pain, guilt, and suffering; it’s inherent in the vampire. Most vampires don’t go around happily, greedily draining innocent bystanders of their blood. Vampires can be sociopaths, but it’s not part of the definition. The best vampires are reticent. They’re addicted, and they know they have a problem, but they just can’t stop. In the end, monsters just want a hug. But, well, when you’re green and scaly and 8 feet tall, nobody realy wants to hug you, now do they? Anyway, the point is that sexuality is an inextricable aspect of the vampire. Neck-biting is an intimate act no matter how it’s done. And so a lot of vampires happen to be bisexual – or bi-neck-biting-ual – or however you want to describe it. As I noted earlier, there’s a metaphor here about sexually transmitted disease. Vampirism anticipated HIV by centuries. Just think about it: Count Dracula (already an unapologetic polygamist) lures in a vulnerable young man – stealing him from his poor wife! – and after licking his bleeding finger, turns him into the vampire’s unhesitating slave. Could there conceivably be some subtext here?

As you can see if you watch Queer for Fear, about the earliest lesbian vampire who can be identified on film is Countess Zaleska, the enigmatic, reluctant vampiress played by the little-known Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the first sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracula's Daugher (1936)

Zaleska isn’t a “vamp”; instead, she’s exotic and mysterious, constantly playing hard-to-get to the naive human who lusts after her, because she doesn’t want to see him get hurt. I watched the movie a few weeks ago and it really is full of interesting subtexts which, I think, are the primary reason for watching it – beyond the performances of Holden and future director Irving Pichel as her eunuch-like servant Sandor, it’s not an overly interesting or well-made film. But it’s short and serves its purpose as an attractive quickie sequel to a hit movie; after all, Universal in the 1930s was the place to be if you’re making a film about vampires. Of course, as it’s shortly after the Production Code was enforced, the lesbianism isn’t explicit – but here’s the deal. Zaleska is a vampire. A “deviant” sexuality is part of her character, as it was part of her father’s. It’s built into the core of the film, the concept, the myth (or is it? I really need to read Stoker’s novel, as well as Carmilla and Polidori’s The Vampire, written during that June of 1816 that also produced Frankenstein), and no amount of Hays censorship can take that away. The Code zipped up mouths about sexuality, so it was expressed through its own code, a beautiful code of nuances and double entendres. Yeah, it’s family friendly; all Zaleska wants is for that girl to pose for her. With her breasts exposed. And their bodies pressed together, her teeth in the girl’s soft, alluring neck. Nothing sexual about that! My point? She’s a lesbian vampire. Or at least a bisexual vampire. Because blood doesn’t have a gender. Renfield sucks the vital juices out of rats and flies. Is he into bestiality? You tell me. (Probably not, but it’s worth asking.)

I guess another aspect of this is the whole “predatory/insane homosexual” stereotype, too. When homosexuals aren’t busy being pansies or fruits or butch dykes or gender inversions, well, they’re often off being evil and crazy because, hey, they don’t respect sexual conventions, so why would they respect any morality? The logic here is kind of at the heart of a lot of horror movies, but it’s also undermined just as frequently, partially because of the identification factor I mentioned earlier. The norm is established as a two-person heterosexual relationship. Jonathan and Mina Harker. Or Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth. Or Brad and Janet. But something goes astray… hence the horror. Next thing you know, Count Orlok’s seducing both man and wife, Frankenstein’s off “creating life” with Dr. Pretorious – you get the drift. But after all, you don’t go to the movie to see the heteronormative happiness. You go there to see the perversion. No one’s interested in watching a couple be happy and unthreatened for 2 hours. But toss in a queer, unnatural monster, and there’s a threat I can get behind! Nobody watches Dracula and spends the whole time unambiguously praying for Lugosi to get killed. He’s the most charismatic, well-developed, and lovable character in the movie. So, while the monster may be sexually deviant, evil, crazy, and not care what gender his/her victims are, the monster’s still the one you love, who draws you in to the movie. Why did Universal make a bajillion sequels to their original 3-4 monster movies? Because people wanted to see the monsters. And yes, in the end, the monster must die a karmic death to pay for all the people he killed, and normalcy must be restored, and the heterosexual couple lives happily ever after, because that’s what society demands. But why is there a smile on your face as the credits roll? Because you got see the monster.

So, why lesbian vampires? Why not lesbian werewolves (oh my God I totally want to make that movie) or lesbian mummies (maybe not that one quite so much…)? I guess in the first place it’s easiest to represent a beautiful woman as a vampire; they don’t undergo gruesome transformations (becoming a bat is as easy as a puff of smoke) or have hideous bodily disfigurements. And OK, granted, there are female (maybe lesbian?) werewolves, see She-Wolf of London (1946) or the very similar concept behind one of my favorite horror movies, Cat People (1942), but that’s kind of barking up a different tree. Vampires are seductive. Just as you catch more flies with honey, it’s “the spider spinning his web for the unwary fly,” as Dracula puts it. Vampires, unlike werewolves, rarely maul unwary passers-by – unless you count the brilliant recent film Let the Right One In, which has a whole different, very fascinating take on the subject – but instead lie in wait in their dark castle for society ladies to keep private appointments. And this, I think, fits a little with the sometime-stereotype of the wealthy butch lesbian who entrances a protege who over time becomes her lover, like Frédérique in Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968). Another possible reason for lesbian vampires: we have an inherently sexual, deviant, and voracious monster. How best to, dare I say, take away its teeth and make it palatable for mainstream male audiences? Make it a deviant woman. This brings up some interesting questions about, well, what gender do we make our monsters? For example, a natural step was going from Frankenstein to Bride of; have you ever heard of a horror movie called The Groom of…? I think the sexuality of monsters is an important area to explore; after all, monsters are there for us to fear. What, 9 out of 10 times, is our fear going to involve? Sexuality. Ashley and I watched Repulsion (1965) last night, and… that’s a whole other blog, twice as long as this one (believe it or not). But the point is, it’s sexually derived horror. We’re afraid of sex. Or afraid of rapists. Or else we’re afraid of homosexuals. Or we’re afraid of deformed sexual organs (cf. David Cronenberg’s entire career). Since sex is supposed to be the beautiful source of pleasure, and since so many varieties on it are possible, and since so many kinds of sex are widely condemned, and since so many things can go violently wrong in sex – is it any wonder that it’s the root of endless horror? And so, I return to where I began, with the mediocre horror movie The Hunger, a film most notable for its lesbian vampirism (or vampire lesbianism?). Of course the “hunger” of the title is one for blood, but it’s also the carnal hunger of Miriam for Sarah. At their core, I think, that’s a lot of what vampires are about: hunger. Vampires are like fire in their endless consumption – even after they’ve downed many pints of blood, they still need more. They’re an extreme version of endlessly consumptive human beings. But in the end, vampires would be OK with going thirsty (“To die, to be really dead…”) and really just want a hug. Or in the case of lesbian vampires, to fuck Susan Sarandon.

I hope you found this overlong analysis somewhat informative. I must be off to dinner (to consume!); feel free to leave any thoughts about lesbian vampires, monsters, horror in general, or anything at all.

The Hunger (1983)

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Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

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