The ‘Doppelgänger’ and Female Monstrosity in Vampires

The ‘Doppelgänger’ and Female Monstrosity in Vampires
© Photograph by Valery Sahno

In recent decades, the concept of identity and what constitutes human nature has been challenged by many scholars, who have perceived there to be a crisis to the previous humanist ideas based on man’s central position, and a belief in his exceptionalism.

Humanism regards categories as stable, promoting an anthropocentric view of the world based on hierarchies and binary oppositions that, in the past, confronted the category “human” with that of a “non-human” or “inhuman”; a world view where “man”, traditionally understood as a white male, is placed at the highest hierarchical position, above the rest of humanity, the animal species and technology.

But, as Rosi Braidotti suggests, “the concept of the human has exploded under the double pressure of contemporary scientific advances and global economic concerns”. Posthumanism has appeared not only as a philosophical but also as a cultural theory, rejecting this traditional articulation of the human, and stating that his supposed uniqueness is a myth.

Nevertheless, far from a unified theory, posthumanism can be addressed from a variety of perspectives. As Pramod K. Nayar explains, the term can be used to refer to two basic ideas. First, it is regarded as “an ontological condition”, where the human body is subjected to modifications. This idea of transhumanism has been proposed by many authors, including Cary Wolfe, who has commented on “the decentering of the human by its imbrications in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks”, or N. Katherine Hayles, who focuses on the relation between human and machine where the former is understood as a construct whose “characteristics might be enhanced through technological intervention”.

Secondly, from a more philosophical perspective, the term posthumanism is also used to refer to “a new conceptualization of the human”. Referred to as critical posthumanism, it questions previous humanist ideas based on dualism and human exceptionalism and replaces them with “a non-dualistic understanding of nature-culture interaction”. This second strand of posthumanism “sees the uniquely human abilities, qualities, consciousness and features as evolving in conjunction with other life forms, technology and ecosystems”.

Although both branches of posthumanism differ in many aspects, they share the common idea that “humanity is now a liminal zone where individuals are forced to confront the meaning and future of the human”.

In this regard, Micheal Sean Bolton explores how Gothic narratives and the posthuman intersect at the point of “the postmodern fear of disintegration of the human subject”, a fear that is reflected in the representation of our monsters. In the twenty-first-century, when a “profound acceleration in changing symbolic, economic and technological systems” has been taking place, the study of monstrosity and how it is constructed is crucial in understanding the problems facing contemporary Western societies.

Monsters represent “a category crisis”; they stand for “the dialectical other”, and for this reason they become the perfect site for interpreting the way discourses are articulated in every period.

David Punter and Glennis Byron have also highlighted how monsters are used to construct “the politics of the ‘normal’ [and] police the boundaries of the human, pointing to those lines that must not be crossed”. In this sense, both posthumanism and monster theory analyse the Other in terms of its liminality, not only as a representative of transgression but, as Milburn explains, drawing on Derridean theory, it is also a way of “reaching for other posthuman futures”, since they help in breaking “boundaries and binary oppositions”.

These non-human bodies do not only serve to contain; their intrinsic liminality threatens “the liberal humanist principle of uniqueness” and raises the question of what it means to be human, allowing hybridisation as a new politics of representation that challenges previously established boundaries.

Understood in terms of liminality, there has not been a monster that better embodies this “projected difference [and] poses a danger for any form of categorisation” than the vampire. This supernatural creature evolved from folklore tales in the eighteenth-century to become a successful theme in nineteenth-century Victorian narratives, including, amongst others, John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Bram Stoker’s well-known ‘Dracula’.

But it is the adaptation of vampires for cinema and television in the following centuries that completely changed the way they were represented. In fact, as Nina Auerbach states, adaptability becomes one of the vampire’s most relevant features, emphasising their ability to “blend into the changing cultures they inhabit”.

These supernatural creatures were originally portrayed as the dangerous Other and given animal-like characteristics that fit into the humanist discourse of the superiority of man over all other species. However, in the second half of the twentieth-century, one of the most significant changes to the vampire concept was undertaken in novels such as Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire’, when the creatures started to be presented, not as the villains in the story, but “as a source of empathy and identification”.

In addition, the emergence of the supernatural romance in the 1990s, a new genre that mixed the main features of horror and romance fictions, also marked a transition from the vampire being “associated with instinctual, primitive and animalistic energies” to a connection with love and “a passion beyond life and death”.

In this sense, the transformation from animalistic creatures to Byronic heroes has now led to a portrayal of the vampire as the-boy-next-door, a trope that appears in supernatural romance fiction aimed at a young-adult audience.

Vampires have always stood for the Other but this taming of the vampire, their “domestication” and transformation into a romantic hero has also turned them into a marketable product that generates huge revenues.

The relationship between this type of cultural production and the system in which they have been created is a complex one. In fact, as Fred Botting explains, romance has always had a double reading. On the one hand, it contributes to reinforcing mainstream ideas by means of binary oppositions and its depiction of adequate and inadequate behaviours through its representation of otherness and its involvement in the post-industrial society.

Rosi Braidotti complements this idea by stressing the process of objectification that is taking place in many cultural products, and how this has become part of a power strategy where “the commodification process itself reduces humans to the status of manufactured and hence profit-driven technologically mediated objects”. However, Botting also claims that, despite being part of this society of consumption, “popular romance seems both critical and supportive of the established institutions”.

It neither totally complies with the establishment nor is it intrinsically subversive, presenting an ideology “at times complementing and at times contradicting prevailing currents”. Based on this theoretical background, I will analyse Elena Gilbert and Katherine Piers, two characters of the American TV series ‘The Vampire Diaries’, as representatives of this category crisis between human, inhuman and posthuman, and discuss the way the traditional Gothic figure of the uncanny double is presented in this supernatural romance in order to explore the dialectics of otherness.

In addition, I will examine how the image of the female monster is used to echo contemporary concerns about identity and the construction of subjectivity, in line with posthuman theories about the articulation of the subject in Western societies marked by capitalism and a fierce promotion of consumerism, through the study of the vampire as a popular culture product.

Monsters and, in particular, vampires have been transformed into a product that has not only evolved but adapted to each period. From Malcolm Rymer’s periodical story of ‘Varney the Vampire’ to the Hammer Horror Dracula films, or the more recent and lucrative ‘Twilight’ phenomenon, vampires have proven a particularly successful product.