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Carmilla is the title character in the vampire novelette by British writer Sheridan Le Fanu. “Carmilla” was originally published as a short story in a story collection entitled In a Glass Darkly in 1872. The story took place in rural Styria, where Laura, the heroine and narrator, lived. Her father, a retired Austrian civil servant, had been able to purchase an abandoned castle cheaply. Carmilla first appeared in the opening scene of the story as she entered the six-year-old Laura’s bed. Laura fell asleep in her arms but suddenly awakened with a sensation of two needles entering her breast. She cried out, and the person Laura described only as “the lady” slipped out of bed onto the floor and disappeared, possibly under the bed. Her nurse and the housekeeper came into the room in response to her cries, but found no one and no marks on her chest. Carmilla reappeared when Laura was 19 years old. The carriage in which Carmilla was traveling had a wreck in sight of the castle. Carmilla’s mother, seemingly in a hurry to reach her destination, left Carmilla at the castle to recover from the accident. When Laura finally met their new guest, she immediately recognized Carmilla as the same person who had visited her 12 years previously, and thus the vampire was loosed again to prey on Laura. Gradually her identity was uncovered. She began to visit Laura in the form of a cat and a female phantom. Laura also noticed that she looked exactly like the 1698 portrait of Countess Mircalla Karnstein. Through her mother, Laura was a descendent of the Karnsteins.
At this point, an old friend of the family, General Spielsdorf, arrived at the castle to relate the account of his daughter’s death. She had been wasting away; her condition had no known natural causes. A physician deduced she was the victim of a vampire. The skeptical general waited hidden in his daughter’s room and actually caught the vampire, a young woman he knew by the name of Millarca, in the act. He tried to kill her with his sword, but she easily escaped.
As he finished his account, Carmilla entered. He recognized her as Millarca, but she escaped them before they could deal with her. They all then tracked her to the Karnstein castle some three miles away where they found her resting in her grave. Her body was lifelike, and a faint heartbeat detected. The casket floated in fresh blood. They drove a stake through her heart in reaction to which Carmilla let out a “piercing shriek.” They finished their gruesome task by severing her head, burning the body, and scattering the ashes.
One can see in Le Fanu’s tale, which would later be read by Bram Stoker, the progress of the developing vampire myth to that point. People became vampires after committing suicide or following their death if they had been bitten by a vampire during their life. The latter was the cause in Carmilla’s case. Le Fanu understood the vampire to be a dead person returned, not a demonic spirit. The returned vampire had a tendency to attack family and loved ones, in this case, a descendent, and was somewhat geographically confined to the area near their grave. And while somewhat pale in complexion, the vampire was quite capable of fitting into society without undue notice. The vampire had two needle-like teeth (fangs), but these were not visible at most times. Bites generally occurred on the neck or chest.
Carmilla had nocturnal habits, but was not totally confined to the darkness. She had superhuman strength and was able to undergo a transformation into various shapes, especially those of animals. Her favorite shape was that of a cat, rather than either a wolf or a bat. She slept in a coffin, which she could leave without disturbing any dirt covering the grave.
As would be true in Dracula, (1897) the mere bite of the vampire neither turned victims into vampires nor killed them. The vampire fed off the victim over a period of time while the victim slowly withered away. The victim thus fulfilled both the vampire’s daily need for blood and its fascination for a particular person whom it chose as its victim.
As many have noted in discussing Carmilla, her fascination with Laura and the general’s daughter, an attachment “resembling the passion of love,” has more than passing lesbian overtones. In horror stories, in general, authors have been able to treat sexual themes in ways that would not have been available to them otherwise. Early in the story, for example, Carmilla began her attack upon Laura by placing her “pretty arms” around her neck, and with her cheek touching Laura’s lips, speaking soft seductive words. While earlier writers had written about the vampirelike lamiai and other female vampires who attacked their male lovers, “Carmilla” introduced the female revenant vampire to gothic literature.
One unique element of vampire lore in “Carmilla” that was not used by later writers was Le Fanu’s suggestion that the vampire was limited to choosing a name that was anagrammatically related to its real name. Both Carmilla and Millarca were derived from Mircalla.
“Carmilla” would directly influence Stoker’s presentation of the vampire, especially his treatment of the female vampires who attack Jonathan Harker early in Dracula. The influence of “Carmilla” was even more visible in “Dracula’s Guest”, the deleted chapter of Dracula later published as a short story.
Through the twentieth century, “Carmilla” has had a vital existence on the motion picture screen. The story served loosely as inspiration for Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s 1931 classic, though “Dracula’s Guest” provided the base for Universal Pictures’ first post–Dracula movie with a female vampire, Dracula’s Daughter (1936). However, with the expanded exploration of the vampire theme in the movies after World War II, “Carmilla” would be rediscovered. The first movie based directly on “Carmilla” was the 1961 French Et Mourir de Plaisir (also called Blood and Roses) directed by Roger Vadim and starring his wife, Annette Vadim. It was followed in 1962 by La Maldicion of the Karnsteins (also known as Terror in the Crypt). Then at the beginning of the 1970s, in the wake of its other successful vampire movies, Hammer Films would turn to Carmilla and her family for three movies: Lust for a Vampire (1970), The Vampire Lovers (1970)—possibly the most faithful attempt to tell the Le Fanu story—and Twins of Evil (1971). The Hammer movies inspired other attempts to bring “Carmilla” to the screen, the first being three Spanish productions. La Hija de Dracula (The Daughter of Dracula) was released in 1972. La Comtesse aux Seiens Nux (1973) was released under a variety of titles, including a 1981 highly edited version, Erotikill. La Novia Ensangretada (1974) was released in the United States as Till Death Do Us Part and The Blood Spattered Bride. Over the last 20 years, “Carmilla”-inspired movies have included The Evil of Dracula (1975), Valerie (1991), and Vampires vs. Zombies also released as Carmilla the Lesbian Vampire, (2004). Television adaptations were made in England in 1966, Spain in 1987, and the United States as part of a short-lived series, Nightmare Classics, in 1989.
“Carmilla” was brought to the world of comic books in 1968 by Warren Publishing Company’s Creepy No. 19, one of the comic magazines that operated outside of the Comics Code, which forbade the picturing of vampires in comic books. In the 1970s, Malibu Comics released a six-part adult version of Carmilla. In 1972, the story was included on a record album, Carmilla: A Vampire Tale, released under the Vanguard label by the Etc. Company.