Introduction to the Monstrous Women of Dracula and Carmilla

Agnieszka Kotwasińska
Agnieszka Kotwasińska

As one of the most popular and recognisable monsters in Dollarspean and American media, vampires have a unique cultural significance. In Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires are especially compelling because of their versatility, which allows them to “shape themselves to personal and national moods”; because of this adaptability, she says, their “appeal is dramatically generational” (5).

In recent years, the character of Dracula has particularly demonstrated this versatility, transforming from the inhuman villain of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to the tragic, handsome antihero of recent adaptations. Not all vampires are so mutable, though.

Portrayals of vampire women have changed very little from the nineteenth- to the twentieth-first-century, as is especially evident in the characterisations of the vampire women in ‘Dracula’ and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s eponymous ‘Carmilla’ (1872) in recent adaptations.

Although the changes between novel and film are frequently subtle, they still reveal standards for femininity through their treatment of women. In this thesis, I focus particularly on female vampires because they serve as signposts for cultural attitudes towards women.

Vampires, in general, are closely connected with eroticism and taboo sexualities, and the female vampire is thus a figure who is particularly suited to an analysis of gender and sexuality.

In considering the various versions of the female vampire, it is useful to consider the concept of adaptation. Linda Hutcheon writes, “Just as there is no such thing as a literal translation, there can be no literal adaptation” (16), further noting that “as a process of creation, the act of adaptation always involves both (re-)interpretation and then (re-)creation”.

In this article, I will be contrasting the adaptation of male and female vampires, focusing on the female vampires as they appear in novel and in film. In the films in particular, Dracula himself has been reinterpreted as a tragic antihero, more sympathetic and romantic than blatantly terrifying.

As Holte writes, “film vampires, Draculas included, constantly change to reflect the changing concerns and fears of the culture out of which they rise, and the monsters that walk through the nightmares of the late-twentieth-century are not those of the end of the Victorian age” (‘Dracula in the Dark’ 84).

In the cases of the vampire women, though, the main difference between the original women and their adapted counterparts is that filmmakers of the twentieth- and twentieth-first-centuries can depict them more explicitly. Sensuality that was merely suggested in the books is transformed into explicit sexuality in the majority of the films. Studying adaptations reveals that despite the seeming permissiveness of cultural attitudes towards women, twentieth-first-century filmmakers are still uncomfortable with depicting women as sexual, powerful, and morally complex, especially when those women are not romantically attached to men.

It is perhaps largely due to their transgressions against social norms that vampires have remained popular throughout the past few centuries. In his discussion of adaptations of Dracula, James Craig Holte writes, “the vampire is a creature who stands outside of the conventions of civilisation, conventions that impose order and hierarchies within a culture. The vampire … unites the lust for blood and the lust for sex, and in doing so threatens the foundations of civilisation” (‘Dracula in the Dark’ 10).

While it is usually male vampires who represent the species as a whole, these anxieties about cultural hierarchies and conventions are even more obvious in the depictions of female vampires. Carol Senf argues, “The woman vampire … differs significantly from her male counterpart in that her character is linked to specific historical periods, and that the factors most responsible for altering her character are the same as those which altered the characters of women in general over the past two centuries” (‘Daughters of Lilith’ 213).

As cultural values shift, so too do depictions of women. However, while shifts in the treatment of female vampires have occurred in some cases, many of the female vampires of these adaptations, especially the vampire sisters of Dracula, have remained remarkably static.

Several critics have suggested that vampire women have become more prevalent in twentieth- and twentieth-first-century novels in particular due to increasingly flexible gender roles.

Nancy Schumann, for example, argues that the human women who become vampires in recent novels like Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’, Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’, and E.L. James’ ‘Vampire Diaries’ are neither the mindless seductresses nor the passive victims of earlier works. Instead, these women are “ubermothers” whose ferocity is employed to protect their families, adopted or otherwise (116).

Carol Senf similarly argues that “The overt eroticism of the female vampire is no longer frightening because sexuality in women is now an acceptable, even desirable, trait,” (‘Daughters of Lilith’ 213).

Critics have noted a similar shift in the acceptance of female vampires in film and television, perhaps especially because many recent vampire films are actually based on those same twentieth and twentieth-first-century novels. In addition to being “ubermothers,” the vampire women in many recent films are made sympathetic through tragic backstories and because they are played by attractive, nonthreatening actresses.

Holte suggests that, like their male counterparts, female vampires in recent films are increasingly complex and attractive. While “still dangerous,” he says, they “are not monsters” (‘Not All Fangs’ 172). While depictions of twentieth-first-century protagonists who happen to be vampires are usually fairly sympathetic, though, most of the vampire women who have been adapted from early vampire fiction remain monstrous seductresses.

In some cases, these female vampires are more inhuman than in their original versions, especially in the case of the three vampire sisters of Dracula. Erotic, remorseless killers, they often serve as mere foils for female protagonists, like Mina Harker. These heroines are much more reflective of shifting cultural standards for women, and they are usually as intelligent and physically active as their male counterparts.

While their heroic human counterparts gain independence and skill, the female vampires often remain chaotic, bloodthirsty monsters, entirely under the control of masculine authority.

In this study, I examine the ways in which vampire women have and have not been changed to fit different cultural contexts, focusing especially on critical issues in the representation of women, including female sexuality, gender and power, and the treatment of villainous women, especially within communities.

‘Dracula’ and ‘Carmilla’ offer two distinct approaches to vampire women: the vampire sisters of Dracula are chaotic, unsympathetic villainesses in the original novel as well as in most film adaptations, and examining their treatment within those twentieth- and twentieth-first-century films reveals the extent to which transgressions against gender norms are still unacceptable.

The eponymous ‘Carmilla’ is actually fairly sympathetic in both the original novel and in film adaptations, yet she too suffers a brutal fate in the original novel and most of the adaptations. Examining her characterisation in the three most recent adaptations reveals cultural attitudes toward sexual relationships between women.

Chapter One focuses on the three female vampires in Stoker’s original novel. These vampire sisters are much less complex than ‘Carmilla’, and are primarily described in terms of their sensuality, especially in the scene in which they attempt to feed upon one of the novel’s heroic men, Jonathan Harker.

The vampire sisters are comparatively alien with their constant, inexplicable laughter and their confused relationship to ‘Dracula’. Their presence in the castle is never explained, nor is their subservience to Dracula, who seemingly must hunt for them (43- 44).

Traditionally read as representing uncontrolled female sexuality (Roth, Bentley), they have also been connected with corrupted motherhood (Craft). Ultimately, the three sisters exist primarily in contrast to Mina and Lucy, who are both more independent of other women and more accepting of men’s influence.

Examining the novel before my discussion of the films emphasises the fact that adaptations are, as Hutchinson claims, interpreting the novel rather than transcribing it. This reinterpretation of the novel by the filmmakers is particularly apparent in the film’s treatment of the vampire sisters.

All three films take Jonathan’s description of the women at face value, interpreting the vampire sisters as sexually provocative, single-minded monsters. However, reexamining the text reveals that the descriptions of them are all from Jonathan or Van Helsing’s points of view, and while the men are both certainly attracted to the female vampires, at no point do the women’s actions suggest any sexual interest in any men at all. The women do attempt to tempt Mina to join them, but even then they seduce her with promises of female community rather than sexuality.

Stoker’s original novel allows for some complexity of the women by presenting them only through Jonathan and Van Helsing’s biased points of view, and a closer reading reveals that the female vampires serve to critique gender roles of the early nineteenth-century. By basing their depictions of the women on Jonathan and Van Helsing’s reactions to the women rather than the women’s actual actions, the films eliminate much of the complexity of those original women, who in the text serve as complex symbols rather than a mere opportunity to titillate an audience.

The second chapter examines several recent cinematic adaptations of ‘Dracula’. Since Stoker’s novel has spawned hundreds of adaptations, not all of which even include the vampire sisters, this chapter examines a representative film from each of the past three decades, including Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992), Stephen Sommers’ ‘Van Helsing’ (2005), and Dario Argento’s ‘Dracula 3D’ (2012).

In all three films, the bloodthirsty and chaotic vampire women are dramatically contrasted with the more complex, aristocratic, and even refined ‘Dracula’. The vampire sisters serve as a contrast to Mina and Lucy in the original novel; here, they serve as a foil to Dracula himself. Where the women are chaotic and motivated by fury or simple bloodlust, Dracula is motivated by a desire for his lost love in Coppola and Argento’s films and his desire to father children in ‘Van Helsing’.

The depictions of these women suggest that it is not vampirism itself that is horrifying, but uncontrolled female sexuality and violence.

In this chapter, I clarify that when the vampire sisters have been changed from their original characterisation, they are most often simplified to fit obvious stereotypes of promiscuous women. Still, their depiction in these films also reveals twentieth and twentieth-first-century mindsets about women and gender, suggesting that while eroticism is acceptable within the limits of monogamous, heterosexual unions, like that of Mina and Jonathan, it is still worthy of punishment in other contexts.

Their treatment also suggests that filmmakers are often less interested in depicting women’s relationships with each other than they are in assuming that women’s inner lives largely revolve around men, since the films largely eliminate women’s communities entirely.

The third chapter focuses on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella ‘Carmilla’. Unlike the vampire women of ‘Dracula’, the eponymous ‘Carmilla’ is fairly sympathetic in both Le Fanu’s original novella and in the twentieth-first-century adaptations.

As Senf suggests, “Despite the presence of the supernatural in ‘Carmilla’… LeFanu uses the vampire motif primarily to focus on the condition of women’s lives during the time that he wrote” (‘Women and Power’ 25).

Through protagonist Laura and vampire Carmilla/Millarca Karnstein, Le Fanu explores power dynamics in relationships between women and between women and men, ultimately concluding with a bleak picture of the consequences of old-fashioned notions of chivalry.

I include this chapter to demonstrate how the sympathetic depiction of ‘Carmilla’ has been revised to fit later cultural contexts. In Le Fanu’s novel, Carmilla is a sympathetic antagonist, but she does still poses the most significant threat to protagonist Laura. The secondary antagonists in this original novel are patriarchal figures like Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf, who are made ineffective by their own adherence to gender roles.

In the film adaptations, the representatives of the patriarchy become the only antagonists, and Carmilla opposes them even more explicitly. In this original novel, though, Carmilla is not marked by rebellion but manipulation, both of the men and Laura.

The fourth chapter focuses on adaptations of ‘Carmilla’, particularly its three most recent adaptations: two independent horror films, ‘Styria’ (2015) and ‘The Unwanted’ (2014), and ‘Carmilla’ (2014-present), an ongoing web series in which the characters are transformed into students at a supernatural university.

Early twentieth-century adaptations of ‘Carmilla’, Holte says, present a female vampire who is “depicted as clearly outside the accepted norms of traditional Western culture: she is not only unnatural, undead, she is both a lesbian or bisexual and sexually aggressive” (‘Not all Fangs’ 166).

However, in twentieth-first-century adaptations of ‘Carmilla’, of which there were three in 2014 to 2015 alone, Carmilla is often portrayed much more sympathetically. Rather than suggesting that Carmilla herself is unnatural, either for her defiance of authority or for her desires for Laura, these films are instead more likely to present the representatives of the governing systems that oppose her as monstrous and violent.

Still, Carmilla is not necessarily representative of a particularly progressive mindset, since her presence still has negative consequences for other women in the films. At her most villainous, Carmilla is portrayed with the same signifiers of aggressive sensuality and violence as the vampire women of ‘Dracula’.

This chapter examines the ways in which depictions of ‘Carmilla’ have changed. Again, she is no longer the antagonist, a role that has instead been taken by violent patriarchal figures. Her relationship with Laura is also much more openly romantic, and in two of the films she and Carmilla are in a fairly healthy sexual relationship.

Even at her most positive, though, Carmilla is victimised by members of an oppressive patriarchy, providing filmmakers with the material to critique traditional, oppressive power structures that lead to sexism and homophobia.

In some of these films, the vampire women are made at least slightly more sympathetic, especially due to tragic backstories. The ways in which they remain the same, though, are troubling in terms of what the portrayals reveal about the limits of women’s emancipation.

While the contexts change drastically, even including comedy in the web series, the depiction of highly sexualised and amoral female vampires remain the same. Where the vampire women in recent novels like ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ often begin as humans who choose to become vampires for the sake of love, the sister-brides from ‘Dracula’ and the eponymous ‘Carmilla’ remain the villainous, sexual monsters of their original tales.

This constant suggests that even in recent sympathetic and even empowering contexts, the female vampire still serves the function of a cautionary role model, indicating that some aspects of female sexuality, like promiscuity, are still considered monstrous. They also suggest that even when the filmmakers themselves critique homophobia and sexism, their portrayals of groups of women are still marked by violence and inequality.

While readers and viewers might enjoy the portrayal of female power presented by these fascinating vampire women, they must also be aware of the limits of the figure, who is still largely defined by her existence within a homophobic, sexist culture.

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