The Significance of the Vampire in Gothic Fiction

Gothic fiction is that which provokes fear - fear of the unseen or unknown, fear of the taboo or forbidden, fear of "the Other", fear of what lies outside of 'normality' to name a few. There are many kinds of fear that are connected with the vampire in Gothic fiction.

CarmillaThe basic role of the vampire in fiction is the disruption of normal reality; human "hunters" work to regain a sense of normality through destroying the vampire. Vampire fiction falls into the horror gothic category due to the (often disturbing) violence perpetrated by or upon the vampire. The stories are mystery stories, with well-defined signs and symbols (e.g. the puncture wounds on the neck) that must be decoded by both characters and reader in order to recognise the vampire. This essay will look at the some of the meanings of the vampire in the Gothic fiction of the nineteenth century: the vampire has been used as a vehicle for many things over its literary history, constantly evolving from its fictional beginnings in the early nineteenth century. This essay will focus on vampires as portrayed in what are arguably the three most influential early vampire stories - Polidori's The Vampyre (1816); J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872), and the quintessential vampire novel, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Unfortunately discussing in length all of the possible meanings of the vampire is a topic for a book rather than an essay, so this essay will focus on the areas of sexuality, parenthood, class, "the Other", and religion.

The nineteenth century is when vampire fiction began appearing in English, with Polidori's The Vampyre usually being credited as the first. Earlier vampires of folklore were usually connected to misunderstandings about death - when fictionalised, the meaning of the vampire changed (Schopp, 1997, p.231). "In the nineteenth century, the vampire transformed from a cultural phenomenon to a desired cultural product, from mythic explanation of the unknown to receptacle of cultural desires" (Schopp, 1997, p.231). This is what makes the vampires of this period and beyond a rich field for commentary. The fictionalised vampire is used to "animate the unspeakable" (Gelder, 1994, p.60), and can be used to symbolise "everything that our culture has to repress - the proletariat, sexuality, other cultures, alternative ways of living, heterogeneity, the Other. " (Jameson, 1981, p.19 quoted in Gelder, 1994, p.52). Signorotti sees the vampire as representing "… the economic dependence of women; the parasitic relationship between the aristocracy and the oppressed middle and lower classes; unrepressed female sexuality… enervating parent/child relationships, and… sexual relationships deemed subversive or perverse in hegemonic discourse" (Signorotti, 1996, p.3). Overall, the vampire is a way to evoke fear based upon a dislike of what has been repressed.

Vampires have close links with sexuality - in the crudest manner the use of the bite as the sexual act could be used to make certain that a work would not be banned for pornography. The vampire is also used to create a horrific image of deviant sexuality - whether this is homosexuality, unfamiliar gender roles, or other kinds of perversion. The vampire is a "biological" way of showing the late nineteenth century breakdowns of 'normal' gender posed by both the aesthete and the New Woman through creating an almost irrevocable, horrific physical change in the vampire's victims (Hendershot, 1995, p.374) (1). These 'changing gender alignments' would have brought anxiety to the upholders of Victorian 'normality' (Hendershot, 1995, p.374). "In a society where gender was being radically redefined, belief in the biological differences between the sexes remained the only means of clinging to difference" (Hendershot, 1995, p.377). This physiological difference is broken down by the vampire, however - for example, Lucy becomes "a demonic version of the New Woman" [Hendershot, 1995, p.378]. Hendershot argues that the fictional vampire possesses a further breakdown of physical difference: the one-sex body. This is a reflection of earlier models of the human form where men and women were given the same anatomy but the male was considered a superior version (Hendershot, 1995, p.373).

Because the act of a vampire feeding has traditionally been perceived as a sexual act, if a vampire feeds from a human of the same sex, the feeding becomes homosexual (Schopp, 1997, p.233).

The fictional vampire may be a way of showing anxiety about the potentially disturbing effects of homosexuality to the 'normal' nineteenth century ideas of gender roles and sexuality. In Le Fanu's Carmilla, the homosexual connotations of the vampire are realised in Laura and Carmilla's lesbian relationship, with the "penetration of female vampires...[as] an act of empowerment" (Signorotti, p.11). The story shows lesbian desire as 'disruptive to the established partriachal social order', but the change in Laura "…is never reversed, suggesting that her shifting desires are, for her, healthy and vital" (Signorotti, 1996, p.3). Also, Carmilla's same-sex relations are not written in a way that inspires horror or terror (Gelder, 1994, p.61). This is in contrast to the horrifying vampire women in Dracula, who are killed for their voluptuous nature. Homosexuality is also an issue in Polidori's The Vampyre - the relationship between Lord Ruthven and Aubrey is suspected by critics to have homosexual undertones, with Aubrey attracted to Ruthven, with Aubrey's horrified reaction to Ruthven possible one of "homosexual panic" (Gelder, 1994, p.60). Gelder claims that Ruthven's homosexuality is "unspeakable" - we can say he is a vampire "because we cannot say that he is gay" (Gelder, 1994, p.60). Dracula, too, has been viewed as a homosexual - that "Dracula's heterosexual feeding…represents a displacement of homoerotic desire" in that he uses the novel's women to attain the men (Schopp, 1997, p.233). This is shown through his desire for Jonathan, when he claims Jonathan as his (Dracula p.53) and when he tells the men that "Your girls that you all love are mine already, and through them you and others shall be mine…" (Dracula p.365).

Although "male" and "female" vampires possess the same reproductive sexual organs, there is a social difference between female and male vampires in Dracula - the female vampires are subservient to the male vampire (Hendershot, 1995, p.379). Vampirism is often seen as the demonising of female sexuality, particularly in Dracula - Signorotti makes the point that in Dracula the Count's deviant sexuality is not given as much attention as that of Lucy and Mina (Signorotti, 1996, p.11). Lucy and Mina are contrasted in the novel - Lucy as representative of threatening sexuality, Mina of normal sexuality. Even before being "vamped", Lucy displays "personality traits potentially dangerous in women" - she wishes to have multiple partners, and she goes for walks at night, suggestive of prostitution (Signorotti, 1996, p.11). Once turned into vampires, women are able to take on the role of penetrator with their phallic teeth - in Dracula, "Lucy's unmanageable sexual penetration is presented as inherently evil because it threatens fixed gender distinctions" (Signorotti, 1996, p.12). The vampire woman is woken by the phallus of "the Other" - a sexually deviant vampire, and rescued or returned to "normal" female sexuality by the normal sexual exchange (the stake being representative of the phallus) (Signorotti, 1996, pp.12-13). This happens both to Carmilla when she is staked by the men, and to Lucy. Lucy's death is seen by "the feminist backlash against Dracula" as "gang rape" as she is killed by the group of men by an enormous, phallic stake, under the influence of which she "shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions" (p.259), but also enforcedly given blood before her death in an environment where the transmission of blood signifies sexual intercourse (Gelder, 1994, p.77). Lucy receives blood transfusions from the other men, meaning that she has effectively had more than one partner, as Van Helsing notes on pp.211-212. Mina, although she is not monogamous as a vampire does not penetrate in order to drink blood - she reports that in her enforced feeding, Dracula opened his own vein (Dracula p.343), thus keeping Mina in the 'safe' realm of not being an ambiguously gendered body. Dracula's gender is, however, under question in this scene, the 'thin wound' and Mina feeding from his 'breast' feminising him (Hendershot, 1995, p.380).

"Bad" parenting is a consistent theme in the Gothic - heroic figures are often orphans, with villainous figures taking the place of guardian figures, or taking advantage of those without guardians. Jones' Freudian view of the vampire parent has been influential - "The vampire may return as the father, evoking fear, or as the mother, in which case desire is evoked - or, indeed, both emotional attitudes may be projected simultaneously onto the vampire who then represents both father and mother" (Jones reported in Gelder, 1994, p.67). The mother and the vampire are closely connected in both Carmilla and Dracula.

In Carmilla two figures are linked with the mother image - Carmilla's mother, and Carmilla herself. Both victims of Carmilla are motherless, although a connection is drawn between mothers and vampires (Gelder, 1994, p.46). All of the mother figures in the story are connected to the Karnsteins (the vampire family) - Laura's mother has inherited the portrait of Mircalla (Carmilla p.96); Carmilla is the countess Karnstein (Carmilla p.97), and the General's wife was "maternally descended from the Karnsteins" (Carmilla p.116). There is a link established between Carmilla and Laura's mother in the dream (Carmilla p.106) where Laura is warned to "beware of the assassin" by a mother who has come back from the dead to warn her (Gelder, 1994, p.46). The warning identifies Laura's mother with Carmilla though ambiguity - the warning is possibly about Carmilla, or about the assassin who seeks to kill Carmilla (Gelder, 1994, p.46). In Carmilla and Laura's initial encounter, Carmilla also "plays the replacement mother to the orphaned girl," although a reversed mother in gaining nourishment from the child rather than nourishing the child (Signorotti, 1996, pp.5-6). Carmilla's mother is a 'bad' mother because she "allow[s] her to disrupt social order", rather than training Carmilla to support the patriarchy (Signorotti, 1996, p.5).

The act of vampirism in Carmilla is one that evokes the image of breastfeeding - Laura feels the vampire feed from her breast. The significance of breastfeeding is one that carries into Dracula as well, particularly in the vampire women. Vampire women are 'bad mothers', feeding from children instead of children feeding from them (Gelder, 1994, p.75). This creates fear and dissonance because of the disruption of normal relationships - because of the sexual connotations placed on the bite of the vampire, these women also become child molesters (Gelder, 1994, p.75). When Mina is force-fed from Dracula, she feeds from his 'bare breast' - an image which evokes a horrifying disturbance of the idea of mother as nurturing from the breast (Dracula, pp. 336-7; McDonald, 1992, p.139). Dracula himself is also a "bad father" - he "creates new children every time he makes a new vampire" (McDonald, 1992, p.139), and "little Quincey" carries the possibility of being a child of Dracula because he shares Dracula's blood (McDonald, 1992, p.142). Dracula also separates mothers and children - Lucy and her mother, and the mother at the castle - Lucy follows this lead and tempts children away as a "bad mother" [Croley, 1995, p.8].

The relation of vampires and nobility stems back to early vampire fiction. Polidori's "vampyre" is a nobleman outsider, like the majority of the other vampires discussed in this essay, paralleling the nobility and the vampire; the vampire as a representation of the noble classes. Vampire fiction is essentially a middle-class form: this is apparent from Dracula's "Crew of Light" (2) and in Polidori's narrator, the "vampirism" of the upper classes inspiring fear because of the relationship of the hero to the middle class. The image of the vampire as a capitalist (3) probably began with Marx's analogies. Marx's statement analogising Capitalism with Vampirism was influential in the perception of the aristocratic vampire (Gelder, 1994, p.20). Dracula is the "wrong kind" of capitalist - one who uses his wealth for purely self-interested reasons, whereas the Crew of Light, although wealthy, shares their wealth for 'sensible' purposes (Gelder, 1994, pp.17-20).

The upper class in Polidori's story "contains no vampire hunters or potential hunters at all, in fact - only the corrupt, the corruptible, and the naively innocent all easy prey for the aristocratic vampire" (Wallen, 1986, p.49). These naïve and corruptible may also be easy prey for the vampire of the aristocracy. "Polidori's story seems to suggest that 'society' itself is vampirish; its aristocratic representatives prey on 'the people' wherever they go" (Gelder, 1994, p.34). Le Fanu's Carmilla also offers an image of the "vampiric aristocrat" who is there to "suck dry the middling county gentlefolk" (Signorotti, 1996, p.5). The effects of Carmilla's vampirism have lasted for many years and her contempt for the peasantry links to the vampire's contempt for humans (Signorotti, 1996, p.5). "True to her ancestry, Carmilla feeds off of peasant girls, while she seduces and drains the life from the daughters of the upper class - nourishment is not always synonymous with pleasure" (Waller, 1986, p.51). So we see an aristocratic class trying to make the middle or upper classes like them, creating a distinct difference to merely feeding off the blood of peasants. This creates a difference in fear for the reader too, depending on social class. This is also seen in Dracula with Lucy feeding from children for nourishment, but seeking Lord Godalming for pleasure and to make him one of her own, and Dracula's singular pursuit of Lucy and Mina.

In opposition to the readings of the vampire as a criticism, representation or demonisation of the nobility, Croley makes a convincing argument for Count Dracula as being representative of "the poor in England at the start of the 19th century" - the "lumpenproletariat" (Croley, 1995, p.1). Although the Count is represented superficially as a nobleman, Stoker's readers would have been familiar with the aristocrat disguised as a vagrant and vice versa (Croley, 1995, p.4). The Count is also represented as various subservient groups - in his own castle, he fulfils basic domestic roles; he is allied with gypsies, animals, madmen and dockworkers (Croley, 1995, pp. 4-6). Physically and in his abodes, Dracula is reminiscent of decay that also connects him to the "lumpenproletariat" (Croley, 1995, p.3-4).

This portrayal of vampirism extends from fear - "…that the English as a nation will become, like the residuum, weak, sensual, and undisciplined, and that this transformation will bring about England's decline" (Coley, 1995, p.7). Croley says that "moral depravity" in Dracula is "represented as spreading from the vampiric residuum to the respectable middle-and upper-classes" [Coley, 1995, p.8]. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Dracula is an aristocrat, who targets the "wives and fiancees of England's working class" (Signorotti, 1996, p.11) in a similar manner to Ruthven and Carmilla. Upon discovering Dracula's tomb, Van Helsing also refers to Dracula as the "King Vampire" (Dracula, p.440) - reinforcing the idea that Dracula may be aristocratic. If, however, we examine this statement it in the light of Croley's argument, then this means that the vampires are so horrifying that even their king is worse than a vagrant is.

Yet another form of fear that the vampire embodies is the desecration of religion - for example the biting is called vampire baptism by Van Helsing (p.383) in Dracula. The vampire has god-like powers such as immortality, great strength, and the ability to create "children" in it's own image, but is a reverse God, rejecting the Christian religion. Carmilla is openly irreligious; preferring to refer to nature as a creator (Carmilla p.95), and Dracula and his progeny can be warded off by the use of sacred objects. The vampire as a desecrator of religion makes fun of the communion ritual of eating blood: "The sucking/eating aspect of vampirism becomes a communion act through which the inverted form of immortality is conferred" (McDonald, 1992, p.141). 'Blood' is drunk as communion 'wine' in both traditions - Christians drink the blood for spiritual immortality, vampires for physical immortality. The portrayal of the vampire as a kind of "false saviour" comes from the conference of physical, rather than spiritual immortality (McDonald, 1992, p.141). This threatens the established tradition of immortality, the idea that the dead would be animated corpses rather than the happy beings of the Christian heaven (it is symbols of the Christian cosmology that hurt both Dracula and Carmilla). The invincibility of the vampire changes from story to story - Ruthven is "not only triumphant but also seemingly invincible, and human society can do absolutely nothing to challenge, much less destroy him" (Waller, 1986, p.49). Dracula, on the other hand, "has trouble with closed windows" (Croley, 1995, p.10), and open to religious killings - "Mina is scarred by the Sacred Host, and both Lucy and Dracula suffer crucifixion by staking" (McDonald, 1992, p.141). Carmilla, too, has her ashes scattered on the water (Carmilla p.134).

The various characteristics of the vampire as discussed in this essay have indirectly shown one of the most important significations of the vampire - the vampire as "the Other". This Other may be social (nobility/proletariat), sexual (both gender and sexuality), racial (the vampire as "reverse colonisation (Gelder, 1994, p.12)) or physical (the 'disease of the vampire', the undead, the one-sex body). The vampire provides a source of fascinating horror by blurring the boundaries between these 'Others' and the self (Gelder, 1994, p.42). Dracula blurs the boundaries between self and other - Jonathan and Dracula - the Count visits the village in Dracula's clothes (Dracula p.59), and the forlorn woman at the castle mistakes Jonathan for Dracula (Dracula, p.60) (Gelder, 1994, p.43). Dracula cannot be seen in Jonathan's shaving mirror, either, giving rise to the notion that he may represent self, as when Jonathan looks into the mirror, he can only see himself (Dracula, p.37). Schopp suggests that this mirroring of self is a representation of the vampire as a "desired cultural product" onto which we project hidden or taboo desires (Schopp, 1997). Carmilla mirrors Laura in Le Fanu's story - she claims to have seen Laura in a dream reminiscent of that which the narrating Laura has already related (Gelder, 1994, p.45). These mirror-images help us to see "…the vampire as Self-image, a means of figuring socio-political-sexual excesses which, although represented as foreign, actually live much closer to home" (Gelder, 1994, p.43).

The vampire is a form that confuses boundaries - notably those between self and other; man and woman; alive and dead; and noble and peasant. It is through these transgressions that vampire fiction maintains its sense of horror and fear: most of the horrific aspects of the vampire stem from the demonisation of aspects of real life that threaten through the crossing of boundaries. This is most clear in nineteenth century vampire fiction rather than modern-day vampire fiction, because the vampire in these fictions is a monster that should be destroyed. Interestingly enough, none of the three vampire tales discussed above have firm closure. Polidori's Ruthven escapes having killed both of the Aubreys; in Dracula there is the possibility of little Quincey carrying some of the King-Vampire's blood (McDonald, 1992, p.142), and in Carmilla there is the suggestion that Laura has become like Carmilla (Signorotti, 1996, p.3). This lack of firm closure suggests that although the elements demonised in the vampire fiction are repressed in our society, they will eventually work their way to the surface again.

(1) Note that Hendershot uses Dracula as her defining vampire source.

(2) This term for the group of vampire hunters in Dracula originated from an article by Christopher Craft, and has been adopted by the majority of sources to refer to the group of Jonathan and Mina Harker, Lord Godalming, Dr. Seward, Dr. Van Helsing and Quincey Morris; and shall be used thus in this essay (Gelder, Croley).

(3) This image is related to that of the vampire as a nobleman, and also has links to the vampire as a reverse-coloniser.


Croley, A (1995) 'The rhetoric of reform in Stoker's 'Dracula': depravity, decline, and the fin-de-siecle "residuum"' Criticism Vol. 37 n.1 sources from Expanded ASAP Int'l ed.

Gelder, K (1994) Reading the Vampire Routledge: London

Hendershot, C (1995) 'Vampire and Replicant: The One-Sex Body in a Two-Sex World' Science Fiction Studies Vol.22 pp.373-398

Le Fanu, S. Carmilla in Ryan, A (ed.) (1987) The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories: Penguin: Suffolk pp. 71-137

McDonald, B (1992) 'The Vampire as Trickster Figure in Bram Stoker's Dracula' Extrapolation, Vol.33 No.2 pp.128-143

Polidori, J The Vampyre in Ryan, A (ed.) (1987) The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories: Penguin: Suffolk pp. 7- 25

Schopp, A (1997) 'Cruising the Alternatives: Homoeroticism and the Contemporary Vampire' Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 30.4 pp.231-243

Signorotti, E (1996) 'Repossessing the body: transgressive desire in 'Carmilla' and 'Dracula'' Criticism, Vol.38 No.4 sourced from Expanded ASAP Int'l ed.

Stoker, B Dracula 1999 reprint by Claremont Classics: Australia

Waller, G (1986) The Living and the Undead: from Stoker's Dracula to Romero's Dawn of the Dead: University of Illinois: USA

Source: © 2003 J. Hanson

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As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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