It is within the medium of cinema that the concept of the vampire is introduced, born out of the ideology surrounding the myth. In the first decade of feature films, Andrea Weiss noted “[…] at least forty films about this mortal female vampire, whom men could find sexually enticing while women could fantasize female empowerment.” The notion of the “vampire” derived from the cinematic offering of ‘A Fool There Was’ (1915). The movie was inspired by a poem by Joseph Rudyard Kipling called ‘The Vampire’ (1897). However, the film itself did not portray an actual vampire, rather a woman who possessed seductive powers over men and used those powers callously without conscious or remorse, to the detriment of men and one married man in particular.
Although there is no literal vampire in the movie, the female lead clearly inherits the essence of the female vampire which constitutes “[…] a primal force of unleashed sexuality that holds her lovers in thrall […] a creature that lives off the life force of others.” David Pirie noted that these types of depictions of women as vampires were made “[…] simply as an innocuous alternative for femme fatale or vamp.” Whilst, Andrea Weiss also determined that these early movies always appeared to portray a “beautiful woman whose sexual desire, if fulfilled, would drain the lifeblood of a man.” The ubiquity of this “vampire” persona or predatory female character has been portrayed since the advent of film. It is a deterrent that cautioned females who disregarded certain societal laws. A narrative that depicts female autonomy, as women who “[…] actively controlling and debilitating men […] women who appropriated the masculine agency utilised in seduction, who refused to restrict their sexuality to procreative heterosexual monogamy sanctioned by marriage.”
This hypothesis is supported by movies such as ‘Les Vampires’ (1915), a French film released in episodes and considered one of the longest movies ever made. However, it was the infamous character Irma Vep (Jeanne Roques) who is the “belle dame sans merci” in the movie playing the scheming vampire strategist who carries out most of the vampire group’s plans. Also, in the movie ‘Lilith und Ly’ (1919) the statute of Lilith (Elga Beck) is brought back to life by the obsessed protagonist. However, later it is revealed, through continuous appearances on a special screen invented by the protagonist, that she is a vampire that is gradually imbibing the life from his body. The protagonist begins to fade away only to realise that his girlfriend Ly has been possessed by Lilith and the same effect is being imposed on her.
In the 1930s, there was an introduction of female vampires in cinematic texts, such as Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1936). This seminal performance of a female vampire reached iconic status drawing on the legacy by virtue of which: “[…] the ‘Vamp’ is a projection of both male fantasy and fear; a response to modern redefinitions of ‘the feminine’ and to the social and sexual freedoms which were increasingly being demanded by women […]”
In ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1936), which was a sequel to ‘Dracula’ (1931), Countess Marya Zaleska attempts to break the blood hungry familial legacy she has inherited. However, it becomes clear that although she has gone to great lengths of both stealing and burning her father Dracula’s body and seeking help from a psychiatrist, Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), for a cure, she still remains entrenched in a blood thirsty pursuit for survival. She recommences her hunt for victims by mesmerizing her victims with a striking ring. The climax of the film is after the Countess has attacked Lili (Nan Grey) and kidnapped the doctor’s love Janet (Marguerite Churchill). She is eventually killed by her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Countess Marya Zaleska epitomised the vampire as a “[…] transgressive figure who violated standard patterns of feminine behaviour and explicitly challenged the values of a male-dominated social order.”
Therefore, although David Pirie and Andrea Weiss have some merit in their observations, their arguments, however, do not consider the vampire as an alternative form of female representation. An alternative female representation which presents as a caution to the male gender of the consequences of temptation, which if indulged, will ultimately render a male powerless. Furthermore, this symbolic depiction has a binary feminine significance from the standpoint that it can also act as an agent that pronounces itself as an instructive narrative for women to remain within the boundaries ruled by patriarchal structures. Otherwise, the only alternative remains to inherit the role of victim and position them as “Other.” Plus, it can be noted that within all the vampire and Dracula movies from cinematic inception, there remains one common character, that of the female victim. The vampire, it can be argued, can be seen as either nemesis to Dracula or Gabriel Van Helsing. Yet there are always victims in these movies and the majority of them are female. What this visionary dictum articulates about the female initially is that they are victims of a dominant social order.
One prominent component, as discussed previously, within Dracula narratives is the presence of the characteristics of the ideal Victorian women, as J. H. Buckley noted; “[…] pure […] selfless centre of a tight closed domestic universe.” However, when under the malevolent enchantment of Dracula, they succumb to his sexual magnetism but periodically this is exercised as a mode of sacrifice to save their loved ones. This principled action reinforces their moral virtues and negates their forbidden carnal appetite. In ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), which is a close adaptation of the Victorian novel, the character of Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder) learns from the ‘Book of Vampires’ the only way to destroy Count Orlok (Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck). Count Orlok is Dracula incarnate and Ellen Hutter must yield to his blood thirsty ways until dawn when the cock crows, a task she executes in order to save her husband and village. This is an act of heroism although she does give herself willingly. However, throughout the film, Ellen Hutter carries herself as the dutiful wife on the departure of her husband Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim). She weeps and mourns for his return and is the consummate personification of female sensibility.
Furthermore, in Tod Browning’s adaptation ‘Dracula’ (1931), the two female leads fall prey to their own sexual desires yet this craving is constrained and contained by pertinent guardians of the patriarchal hierarchy in the form of Gabriel Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). The character of Lucy surrenders to Dracula’s charms quickly and suffers the consequences with her life. Conversely, Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) who attempts to resist the hypnotic gaze to no avail loses the battle against Dracula’s (Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó) powers of persuasion. Subsequently, it is Gabriel Van Helsing whose action of destroying Dracula liberates Mina Seward, which in turn restores the patriarchal structures. Thus, Mina Seward is appropriately returned to her societal role of wedded life after her victimising experience.
Interestingly, it was the ‘Son of Dracula’ (1943) that produced a different type of feminine representation. In this celluloid version, Count Alucard (Creighton Tull Chaney) is “[…] reduced to a subordinate role; but vampirism as a moral and existential question becomes thematically central.” The main female lead character Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) is Dracula’s enthusiastic victim and her agenda is distinct from all other female experiences and identities portrayed in any aforementioned Dracula movies. Kay Caldwell’s willingness to engage with Count Alucard pivots on the premise of acquiring everlasting life for her and her fiancé. Kay Caldwell schematically deceives both Count Alucard and her fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), unbeknownst to all characters in the movies, which renders her on the same malevolent scale as the Count Alucard. However, Kay Cadwell’s disingenuous and fabricated ambitions remain outside of societal acceptable structures and her impending death is brought about by her fiancé Frank Stanley, who burns her vampire body to restore equilibrium within the natural patriarchal code of society.