Women as Vampires

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Anne Parillaud plays the vampire Marie, who takes a bite out of a mobster (Robert Loggia) in Innocent Blood.
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The vampire Regine in Fright Night Part 2 shows that female vampires sport fangs, too.
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Sylvia Kristel as Countess Dracula in Dracula’s Widow.
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Female vampires are just as blood-thirsty as males, as shown here in the film The Vampire’s Night Orgy.

Women as Vampires

(pop culture)

The image of the vampire in both the literary and cinematic context has been dominated by the likes of Lord Ruthven, Dracula, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee, all males. The dominant image of the male vampire, frequently preying on weak females, has tended to obscure the role of female vampires in the creation of the vampire myth and the important female vampire figures who have helped shape contemporary understanding of vampirism.

The Original Vampires: In most cultures, the oldest vampire figures were females. They included the Greek lamiai, the Malaysian langsuyar, and the Jewish Lilith, among others. Each of these vampire figures points to the origin of vampirism as a myth explaining problems in childbirth. The story of the langsuyar, for example, told of a woman who bore a stillborn child. Distraught and angry when she learned of her baby’s death, she flew into the trees and from that time forward became the plague of pregnant women and their children. Magical means were devised to protect mothers giving birth, and their newborns, from the bloodsucking langsuyar. In like measure, before evolving in various ways, the lamiai and Lilith were the terror of pregnant women. Each of the three, however, did evolve, and in slightly different ways.

However, at one point each took on the characteristics of the young vamp, the beautiful female stranger from a foreign place who seduced the unwary young man looking for a mate. The most famous account story of the lamiai, of course, was told by Philostratus in The Life of Apollonius. In the story, one of Apollonius’s students, Menippus, was about to marry a wealthy young woman; she turned out to be a vampire who would have sucked the life out of him. He was saved by the wise Apollonius. Other similar female vampires included the loogaroo, sukuyan, and asema, all vampires operating in the Caribbean area. They lived incognito in a community, living a seemingly “normal” life during the day and operating as a vampire at night. Even their husbands did not know they were vampires.

As the vampire story became more death-related, i.e., associated with the phenomenon of the death of a loved one, rather than simply associated with problems in childbirth or the problems of errant young men, the female vampire partially gave way to the male. Many vampire-like creatures, who also happened to be female, were prominent in the lore of polytheistic cultures. Kali, the dark goddess of India, was such a figure, as were the witch/vampires in West Africa. In many cultures, the vampires might be of either sex.

Closely related to the female vampire, of course, were figures such as the incubus/succubus and the mara. Neither of these entities was a vampire, but each behaved in ways reminiscent of vampires, attacking male victims in the night and leaving the victims distraught and exhausted in the morning.

The Blood Countess: The creation of the modern vampire depended in large part upon the nineteenth century’s appropriation of information on two historical personages: Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula, and Elizabeth Bathory, a seventeenth-century Hungarian countess. Bathory’s career became well known in the 1720s when an early account was published just as Europe was experiencing one of its periodic waves of vampire hysteria. An account in English appeared in 1865 in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves. Bathory became famous for draining the blood of servant girls and bathing in it in the belief that it would keep her skin healthy and youthful. Bathory’s career seems to have directly influenced Bram Stoker in the creation of Dracula.

The Literary Vampire: The vampire entered literature at the end of the eighteenth century. Almost all of the first literary vampires were women, beginning with the unnamed woman remembered simply as “The Bride of Corinth,” the title character in the 1797 poem by Goethe. In the original story from ancient Greece upon which Goethe based his poem, the woman’s name was Philinnon. She had died a virgin and returned to taste the joys of her budding sexuality before leaving this life altogether. The character now believed to be the first vampire in English literature was also a woman—Geraldine, the villain in Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s poem, “Christabel,” written at the end of the 1790s. Contemporaneously with Coleridge, Robert Southey wrote of his hero Thalaba, who killed the vampire inhabiting the body of his deceased bride, Oneiza.

However, after Goethe, Coleridge, and Southey, vampire literature (be it poetry, fiction, or drama) was dominated for three-quarters of a century by Lord Ruthven, the aristocratic Byronic vampire who preyed upon unsuspecting women. Introduced by John Polidori in 1819, Lord Ruthven appeared in a host of French plays and was the basis of the mid-century British penny dreadful, Varney the Vampyre.

The absolute dominance of vampirism by males was relieved occasionally by short story writers. In 1836, for example, French writer Théophile Gautier penned a story variously called in English “Clarimonde” or “The Beautiful Vampire.” In 1848, Alexandre Dumas wrote of “The Pale Lady.” Then in 1872 Sheridan Le Fanu finished his novella of the two-hundred-year-old “Carmilla”, destined to become the most popular female vampire ever. Carmilla, like her male counterparts, tended to prey upon young women who were the same age as she was when she became a vampire, though the story begins with her attack upon a prepubescent Laura, the story’s narrator.

For many years the female vampire would be largely confined to short fiction, though some, such as Anne Crawford’s “A Mystery of the Campagna,” (1887), would become classic tales.

The Cinematic Vampire: While female vampires occasionally appeared in vampire stories and novels, it was the movies that offered the female vampire her due. An older female vampire arose in Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s famous silent vampire feature. The female vampire would first be the star of a movie in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the first sequel of Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula (1931). Early in the story, Countess Marya Zaleska (portrayed by Gloria Holden) stole the body of her father, which she burned. She was quite different from her father, however, in that she was searching for a cure of her vampiric state; in the meantime, she was unable to control her blood urges. By the time she realized that she could not be cured, she had fallen in love with Dr. Jeffery Garth, a former pupil of Dracula’s killer, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. She lured him to Castle Dracula in Transylvania, where she planned to make him her vampire companion for eternity. Her plans were thwarted by her jealous servant, who attempted to kill Garth. In the process of protecting him, the countess was dispatched by a wooden arrow that penetrated her heart.

Interestingly enough, the female vampire made her next appearance in a series of films produced in Malaysia beginning in 1956. Maria Menado starred as a woman made beautiful by magic. She married and was soon confronted with potential disaster when her husband was bitten by a snake. She sucked the poison out of her husband, but in the process was transformed into a vampire.

She in turn attempted to vampirize her daughter but was killed before she could accomplish her goal. Menado’s Pontianak was followed by Dendam Pontianak (1957), in which Menado returned from the grave to seek revenge upon her killers. Her death at the end of the second movie proved inconclusive, and she returned a second time in Sumpah Pontianak (1958) and a third time in Pontianak Kembali (1963). These films, seen by few in the West prior to their recent release in the United States on video, had little effect upon the developing image of the vampire in Hollywood.

While Menado was gaining stardom in the Orient, Italian filmmaker Mario Bava discovered an intriguing woman who would become a legend in horror movies, Barbara Steele. Her introduction to an emerging generation of horror fans was a 1960 vampire movie, The Mask of Satan (La Maschera del Demonio, released on video as Black Sunday). Steele played Princess Asa, a seventeenth-century witch who had been killed by the placement of a mask on her face. The inside of the mask was covered with spikes. Brought back to life by a drop of blood, she terrorized the community in an attempt to assume the role of Katia, her double, who was involved in her revival.

At the same time as Bava’s work in Italy, French director Roger Vadim sought a film to display the talents of his wife, Annette Stroyberg.

He discovered the perfect role in a cinematic adaptation of “Carmilla”, Et Mourir de Plaisir (released in the United States as Blood and Roses). Stroyberg played Carmilla who, in this version, attacked her cousin Georgia (Elsa Martinelli) and was in eventually impaled on a fence post. Through the rest of the 1960s, female vampires were few in number and primarily appeared in brief supporting roles as the victims of the male star or as members of a group of otherwise anonymous vampires (especially evident in many Mexican vampire features). Of the several stories featuring female vampires that did make it to the screen, Roger Corman‘s Queen of Blood was possibly the most memorable because it was one of the early science fiction vampire films. Florence Marly played the alien picked up on Mars by an expedition from Earth. On the trip home she attacked the crew. Other women who made it into vampire roles during the decade included Beth Porter (The Naked Witch, 1961); Joan Stapleton (The Devil’s Mistress, 1966); Rossanna Ortiz (Draculita, 1969); and Gina Romand (La Venganza de las Mujeres Vampiro, 1969), all appearing in forgettable motion pictures. These films would be followed however, by a group of the best female vampire movies ever made.

The 1970s: The female vampire made her major impact in a series of films in the early 1970s based upon the fictional “Carmilla” and the very real Elizabeth Bathory. Hammer Films led the way with its revival of “Carmilla” in The Vampire Loves starring a new face, Ingrid Pitt, and an old standby, Peter Cushing. Director Roy Ward Baker emphasized Carmilla’s lesbian attacks upon the young women, which continued until vampire hunter Cushing, whose daughter was under attack, caught up with her. The further adventures of Carmilla in a nineteenth-century girls’ school were captured in Lust for a Vampire, directed for Hammer by Jimmy Sangster. Pitt and Cushing were replaced by Yutte Stengaard and Ralph Bates. The third film of Hammer’s Carmilla trilogy, Twins of Evil (1971), starred Katya Wyeth. She vampirized her relative Count Karnstein and together they face the equally vile witch-hunter Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). The Hammer trilogy suggested the potential of “Carmilla” to other directors. Jesus Franco, for example, made two Carmilla movies, La Fille de Dracula (1972) and La Comtesse aux Seiens Nux (1973). The latter, in spite of its rather boring story line and the wooden acting of Lina Romay as a modern Carmilla, was released under a variety of titles, most recently on video as Erotikill. A more interesting modern Carmilla story was La Novia Ensangrentada (The Blood Spattered Bride, 1974) in which Alexandra Bastedo as Carmilla seduced Maribel Martin, a frigid bride. The pair met their doom when the offended husband discovered them asleep in coffin specially made for two.

Looking for more stories to continue the success of its earlier horror movies, Hammer Films also sought inspiration from the legends of Elizabeth Bathory, whose story was brought to the screen in Countess Dracula, with Ingrid Pitt playing the title role. The film, made as a follow up to Pitt’s earlier success in The Vampire Lovers, was notable more for Pitt’s nude scenes than for the acting. About the time that Countess Dracula appeared, Harry Kumel released his Belgian-made film, Daughters of Darkness, featuring Delphine Seygig as a contemporary Countess Bathory encountering a young, newly married couple. After the husband revealed himself as a sadist, the wife and Bathory joined forces and killed him. Later, the countess was killed and the wife, now a vampire, took her place.

Bathory was also portrayed by Lucia Bose, Patty Shepard, and Paloma Picasso (the daughter of painter Pablo Picasso), respectively, in a series of less noteworthy films: Legend of Blood Castle (1972), Curse of the Devil (1973), and Immoral Tales (1974). A delightful comedy based upon the Bathory character was Mama Dracula (1980), starring Louise Fletcher.

Women had never enjoyed so much exposure in vampire roles as they did in the rash of Carmilla and Bathory films produced at the beginning of the 1970s. In spite of the dominance of Dracula and his male cohorts, a variety of other female vampires found their way to the screen. Among them were: Vampyros Lesbos die erbin des Dracula (1970); The Legendary Curse of Lemora (1973); Leonor (1975); Mary, Mary, Blood Mary (1975); Lady Dracula (1977); and Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula (1979).

Much of the problem with introducing female vampires to the screen has been due to the dominance of the directing profession by men. Among the few female directors, Stephanie Rothman began her directing career with a vampire movie, The Velvet Vampire (1971), produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The story concerns a modern-day vampire, Diana Le Fanu (played by Celeste Yarnell), who lived in the desert and invited victims to her secluded home. While the number of female directors has grown steadily, the field remains largely a male domain.

The 1980s and 1990s: The 1980s saw the appearance of several of the most notable female vampires, possibly the most prominent being Mariam Blaylock (played by Catherine Denueve), the alien vampire in the movie version of Whitley Strieber’s novel, The Hunger. The story centered upon the immortal Blaylock’s problem: her male human partners began to age rapidly and to decay after a century or so of vampiric life. In her attempts to save her current lover (David Bowie), she seduced a blood researcher (Susan Sarandon) but in the end was unable to find a cure to their predicament. In contrast to Strieber’s horrific vision, Once Bitten (1985) was a delightful comedy that had Lauren Hutton as a vampire in search of virgin blood in modern-day Hollywood. Finally locating Jim Carrey, she was opposed by his girlfriend Karen Kopins, who was forced to make the ultimate sacrifice of her virginity to save him.

In Vamp (1986), a vampiric Grace Jones managed a nightclub, After Dark, into which a group of college kids arrived in search of a stripper for a college fraternity party. While the movie suffered from an identity problem (is it a comedy or a horror movie?), Jones was memorable as her vampiric nature became obvious and she vampirized one of the boys who joined her in the underground After Dark world. Other female vampires of lesser note in the 1980s included Gabrielle Lazure (La Belle Captive, 1983); Matilda May (Lifeforce, 1985); Britt Ekland (Beverly Hills Vamp, 1988); Sylvia Kristel (Dracula’s Widow, 1988); and Julie Carmen (Fright Night Part 2, 1988). Several women also emerged as directors. Of these, Katt Shea Ruben (working for Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures) was most prominent for her direction of Dance of the Damned (1988). The film did not star a female vampire, but featured a strong woman as a potential victim who was forced to spend an evening describing the daylight to the moody vampire. The movie climaxed as the dawn approached, and the vampire finally attacked. In the end the woman was able to fend off the attack.

Kathryn Bigelow directed Near Dark, another of the new breed of vampire movies with contemporary, nongothic settings and vampires. The story involved a band of vampires who traveled the countryside in a van. They were joined by a farm boy attracted to one of the vampires, played by Jenny Wright. Once the young boy became a vampire, he was unable to bring himself to kill and suck the blood of innocent victims. He had to rely upon Wright to feed him.

Obviously a drag upon the vampires, who had to keep moving, the story climaxed in the confrontation between them, Wright, the boy, and the boy’s family.

Early in the 1990s, one of the finest vampire movies featuring a female lead appeared. Anne Parilland starred in Innocent Blood (1992) as a very careful modern vampire who had learned to survive by living according to a very precise set of rules. She did not play with her food, and she always cleaned up after dining. One evening, she was unable to complete her meal of a Mafia mobster. He arose from her bite as a new vampire. She was forced to team up with a human cop to try and stop him. A second prominent entry in the vampire genre did not include a female vampire but did unite director Fran Rubel Kuzui with Kristy Swanson in the title role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). A high school cheerleader, the reluctant but athletic Buffy was designated as the Chosen One, the person who must kill the King of the Undead, played by Rutger Hauer.

The Female Vampire in Recent Fiction: As in the movies, Dracula and his male vampire kin dominated twentieth-century vampire fiction writing. However, some females vampires gained a foothold in the realm of the undead. Many of these have been the imaginary product of a new crop of female writers, though some of the most popular female vampire authors—Elaine Bergstrom, P. N. Elrod, and Anne Rice—have chosen male vampires for their protagonists.

The century began with an assortment of short stories featuring female vampires, including F. G. Loring’s “The Tomb of Sarah”, Hume Nisbet’s “The Vampire Maid”, and E. F. Benson’s classic tale, “Mrs. Amworth.” Female vampires regularly appeared in short stories through the 1950s but were largely absent from the few vampire novels. Among the first novels to feature a female vampire was Peter Saxon’s 1966 The Vampires of Finistere. Three years later Bernhardt J. Hurwood (under the pseudonym of Mallory T. Knight) wrote Dracutwig, the lighthearted adventures of the daughter of Dracula coming of age in the modern world.

In 1969, possibly the most important modern female vampire character appeared, not in a novel, but in comic books. Vampirella, an impish, voluptuous vampire from the planet Drakulon, originated in a comic magazine from Warren Publishing Company at a time when vampires had disappeared from more mainstream comic books. Vampirella was an immediate success and ran for 112 issues before it was discontinued in 1983. The stories were novelized in six books by Ron Goulart in the mid-1970s. Most recently, the character has been revived by Harris Comics and is enjoying new popularity.

Female vampires have continued to emerge as the subject of novels. From the 1970s one thinks of The Vampire Tapes by Arabella Randolphe (1977) and The Virgin and the Vampire by Robert J. Myers (1977). These were followed by the reluctant vampirism of Sabella by Tanith Lee (1980) and the celebrative vampirism of Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (1981). Through 1981 and 1982, J. N. Williamson wrote a series of novels about a small town in Indiana that was home of the youthful-appearing but very old vampire Lamia Zacharias. The books describe her various plots to take over the world. In spite of some real accomplishments in spreading her vampiric condition, she never reached her loftier goals. Other significant appearances by female vampires occurred in Live Girls(1987) by Ray Garton, Black Ambrosia (1988) by Elizabeth Engstrom, and the first of Nancy A. Collins‘s novels, Sunglasses after Dark (1989), which won the Bram Stoker Award for a first novel from the Horror Writers of America.

The 1980s ended with the appearance of the “Olivia” novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Olivia had first appeared in Blood Games, one of the more famous Saint-Germain vampire novels. However, beginning in 1987 Yarbro produced four lengthy explorations of Saint-Germain’s former love living on her own. These novels included A Flame in Byzantium (1987), Crusader’s Torch (1988), A Cradle for D’Artagnan (1989), and Out of the House of Life (1990).

Also memorable during the 1980s was Vamps (1987), an anthology of short stories of female vampires compiled by Martin H. Greenburg and Charles G. Waugh. It included some often-ignored nineteenth-century tales, such as Théophile Gautier‘s “Clarimonde,” and Julian Hawthorne’s “Ken Mystery,” as well as more recent stories by Stephen King and Tanith Lee.

Novels featuring female vampires continued into the early 1990s. Traci Briery, for example, wrote two substantial novels, The Vampire Memoirs (1991) and The Vampire Journals (1992), chronicling the lives of two female vampire heroines, Mara McCuniff and Theresa Allogiamento. Kathryn Meyer Griffith’s The Last Vampire looked into the future to explore the problems of a reluctant vampire after a wave of natural disasters had wiped out most of the human race. And not to be forgotten is The Gilda Stories, a lesbian vampire novel by Jewelle Gomez, an African-American author.

Conclusion: Viewing the male vampire as a representation of the male desires for power and sex, women tended to become stereotyped as victims, and the vampire myth emerged as a misogynistic story to be constantly retold.

In its worst form, so it remains. However, in modern vampire fiction, even the male bloodsucker has became a much more complicated character and the females he confronts have had much more varied roles. In contrast with the powerful male vampire, the female vampire of the 1980s emerged with the many new roles assumed by women in the larger culture and as important models (however fanciful) of female power.

A further, if much more speculative, explanation of the emerging female vampire myth has been offered by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove in their book The Wise Wound (1978). They took a new look at old folk stories of a snake that lived in the moon and bit women, thus bringing on their menstrual flow. Shuttle and Redgrove saw the intertwined motifs of womb, snake, and moon as integral to the vampire myth. Of some interest, they noted (as had many a moviegoer) that when the vampire bit the young woman, the two marks usually were much closer together than were the vampire’s fangs. They appeared to be the bite marks not of the attacking vampire, but of a viper. The passive victim often responded to the vampire’s bite by first bleeding and then becoming active and sexual. That is, the vampire functioned like the snake of the old myth, bringing on the flow of blood that initiated a new phase of sexual existence.

Such an explanation of the vampire has found a popular response among feminists attempting to deal with exclusively male appropriations of the popular myth.

Sources:

Brownworth, Victoria A. Night Bites: Vampire Stories by Women. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1996. 259 pp.
Cox, Greg. The Transylvanian Library: A Consumer’s Guide to Vampire Fiction. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1993. 264 pp.
Hambly, Barbara, and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Sisters of the Night. New York: Aspect/Warner Books, 1995. 277 pp.
Johnson, Alan P. “‘Dual Life’: The Status of Women in Stoker’s Dracula.” In Sexuality and Victorian Literature. Don Richard Cox, ed. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984: 20–39.
Jones, Stephen. The Illustrated Vampire Movie Guide. London: Titan Books, 1993. 144 pp.
Keesey, Pam. Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 1997. 171 pp.
Kuhn, Annette. The Women’s Companion to International Film. London: Virago, 1990. Rept. Women in Film: An International Guide. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991.
Ursini, James, and Alain Silver. The Vampire Film. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1975. 238 pp. Rev. Ed. The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. New York: Limelight Editions, 1993. 273 pp.

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