Sexuality in Vampire Fiction

Since the late 1800's, vampires have found their way into literature, folklore, and popular culture. In 1872, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu introduced the literary world to Carmilla, one of the first vampire novels of its kind. The novel clearly illustrated the power of vampire seduction and set the tone for the most famous of all vampire characters. Shortly after Carmilla, the world renowned novel, Dracula, helped mainstream vampire literature and created a stock character that remained unchanged for over a century. Recently, the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the popular novel series Twilight have also influenced and supported popular vampire tradition, utilizing the sexual qualities that have defined vampire behavior. While the vampires of Twilight are a far cry from the sadistic, sexual vampire that sprung from Bram Stokers imagination, they still retain the seductive and sexual characteristics of their more violent relatives. However, despite the differences between these mythical characters, one fact remains crucially certain: Over the course of time, the overt sexuality of vampire characters remains a constant and powerful tool in adding to the fascination of these creatures of the night.

Carmilla (original artwork)Carmilla, a vampire novel that actually predated Dracula by twenty-five years, takes a unique turn by placing a female vampire as the seducer of the young Laura. Carmilla not only illustrates the power of female sexuality but takes the role of the feminine to a new level by demonstrating sexuality between two young women. Laura's first encounter with Carmilla occurs immediately after a carriage accident that leaves Carmilla wounded. Her mother claims that she is on a journey of urgent importance and requests that the injured Carmilla remain in the care of Laura and her father until her return. During her recovery, Madame Perrodon recounts Carmilla's physical qualities; "the prettiest creature I ever saw... She is absolutely beautiful" (Le Fanu, 12), thus emulating the physical qualities of traditional vampire folklore. Laura and Carmilla begin a close friendship that helps to fill the void of a friendly female companion in Laura's life. However, once their friendship is strongly established, the relationship between Laura and Camilla takes a more romantic turn. Laura observes that Carmilla has becomes more openly affectionate with her and finds it difficult to avoid Carmilla's advances:


Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever (Le Fanu, 26).


Carmilla's whispers of ownership and personal belonging will once again be heard in the dialogue between Dracula and Mina Harker, joining the thematic devices of both novels. A vampire's claim to ownership holds the power to their purpose; to claim an individual as their own, they are slowly moving towards their final goal: to either kill their victim by drinking their blood or to turn their victim into a vampire. Carmilla's seductive qualities instantly draw Laura to her with a powerful, magnetic fascination. While Laura's encounters with Carmilla often leaned towards the verge of fright, she is nevertheless trapped by Carmilla's attraction, "I felt rather uncomfortably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, "drawn towards her", but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed" (Le Fanu, 23). Laura is clearly unable to break free from Carmilla's captivating charm and the overwhelming power of the vampire prevails; though Carmilla and Laura never actually engage in physical intimacy, "it is an erotic love she offers Laura... a slow gravitation toward the sensual and the forbidden" (Twitchell, 130).

Carmilla's seduction and attacks not only take place physically but also subconsciously through Laura's dreams. The relationship between the two women escalated when Laura recounted that she saw in Carmilla "the very face which had visited me in my childhood at night, which remained so fixed in my memory, and on which I had for so many years so often ruminated with horror" ( Le Fanu, 22). In fact, Carmilla exclaims that she too has a similar experience, "Twelve years ago, I saw your face in a dream, and it has haunted me ever since" (Le Fanu, 22). The occurrence of the dreams became a foreshadowing device to illustrate how Carmilla would inevitably haunt Laura's dreams. "Carmilla attacks Laura by first appearing in her erotic dreams; then she transforms herself into a cat to bit her, not on the throat but on the breast" (Twitchell, 130). Carmilla's strategic placement of her attack intensifies the narratives sexuality. "Nowhere in Romantic Literature has the myth been this frank: the element of sexual delight in sucking" (Twitchell, 130) immediately references not only a sexual intimacy between Laura and Carmilla but also the interchangeability of breast milk and blood. Similar to the interchangeability of semen and blood in Dracula, the sucking of blood from Laura's breast implies that Carmilla is taking on the role of both predator and infant. Blood for a vampire and breast milk for an infant both supply nourishment and food- the necessary means for growth and development. While in her dreams, Laura experiences moments of erotic delight and mental fatigue,


Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep... they left an awful impression, and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger... Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and more lovingly as they reached by throat... My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me, and I became unconscious" (Le Fanu, 44).


The overt sexual imagery of this passage clearly identifies Laura undergoing an orgasm-like experience. The physical descriptors of fast paced breathing and muffled moaning clearly identify with a human experience similar to an orgasm and enhance the sexual tension between Laura and Carmilla. Although coitus is never achieved, the experience clearly alludes to the taking away of Laura's virginity, a theme that is almost always within the structure of a vampire narrative. The feelings of erotic physical intimacy and mental weakness in Laura's dreams demonstrate her subconscious reaction to Carmilla's intimate touching and blood draining; Laura's nightmares are direct products of Carmilla's feeding. The visual imagery demonstrates the mental and physical changes that Laura endures while sleeping, implicating an ambiguous conclusion: Is this really happening or is she simply dreaming? The text does not specify whether the eroticism was clearly physical or simply mental, thus bridging the gap between actuality and delusion.

The blatant sexual interactions between Laura and Carmilla exemplify not only the dangers of feminine sexuality but also lesbian intimacy. The subtle references throughout the narrative imply a slow, erotic, and sensual sexuality that displaces Laura's ability to reason. The narrative also illustrates an appreciation of the feminine; although the social commentary may seem to warn readers of the sexuality of women, the fact that two women are so strongly placed at the forefront of the narrative is not a traditional practice at this time in literary history.  Though Carmilla predated Dracula, the novella certainly stands out within the gothic genre as one of the most renowned female vampire narratives within the Romantic era.

The traditional male vampire is characterized as a "handsome aristocrat, fatal to women... he is interested only in virgins; he sucks their necks; they die; he lives" (Acocella, 102); this is the vampire often read about in literature and portrayed in cinema, such as Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptation of Dracula. The cultural mindset that vampires are not only lethal but also sexually appealing is a great factor in establishing their long lasting mystique. Dracula's wives are a similar example of his overwhelming sexual power towards women. "Not only do vampires combine feeding with reproduction, they collapse the distinction between sexual partners and offspring (Stevenson, 143).  In the novel, Dracula "has the need for self preservation" (Stevenson, 142) and therefore commits a "sexual theft; although the count has women of his own, he is exclusively interested in the women who belong to other men" (Stevenson, 139).

In the instances that involve Mina Harker and her cousin Lucy Westenra, Dracula feverishly hunts these women in hopes of expanding his harem and also overpowering the male-dominated society; "your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine" (Stoker, 312). Dracula's only way of controlling the women he captures is through a sexual union, beginning in the physical realm and transcending his victims into the world of the undead. A common association with vampire reproduction is the interchangeability of fluids, such as blood and semen:


The explanation of these fantasies is surely not hard. A nightly visit from a beautiful or frightening being, who first exhausts the sleeper with passionate embraces and then withdraws from them a vital fluid; all this can point only to a natural and common process... blood is commonly an equivalent for semen. (Jones, 119)


Through the symbolic reference to blood and semen being interchangeable fluids, Dracula is able to obtain control over his women. When blood is transfused from vampire to victim, a transformation is initiated, turning the virginal women into sex-crazed, bloodthirsty daughters of the night. By being sexually intimate with them, Dracula is solidifying their bond and connection to him. Virginal women were to consummate their relationship with their dominant male partner; once a women had intercourse with a man, she was considered a part of his property. Sex to Dracula is a way of obtaining ownership, not establishing a mutual commitment; the women were left with no choice in the matter.  The issue surrounding Dracula's sadistic practice focuses primarily on his personal needs and demands. His actions are solely used to benefit himself and ensure his survival.

Originally, the vampire art form was much like the vampire itself: a lone individual feeding off the blood of others, sexually captivating his victims, and creating a breeding ground that would expand his progeny. However, with the introduction of the Cullen family in Twilight, the characteristic sexuality of the vampire persona is slightly softened and toned down. The physical differences between the Cullens and Dracula may be small but it is in the realm of the moral that draws the line between sadistic sexuality and celibacy to be brought to the surface.

While Carmilla and Dracula both exemplify the sexually-driven vampire novels of the gothic genre, Twilight is the beginning of a new wave of modern vampire literature in which sexuality still plays a main role, but the physical act itself has taken a back seat. However, while the vampires in this narrative still maintain the traditional stunning looks and aristocratic status. Meyer spares no detail in describing the physical beauty and attractiveness of her characters, "They stood out from the rest of the crowd, their beauty and grace otherworldly. I wondered how I'd ever fallen for their human farce. A couple of angels, standing there with wings intact, would be less conspicuous" (New Moon, 354). However, when compared to the blatant sexuality of Dracula, the Cullens (Edward especially) retain the traditional, human belief in physical morality. Edward adamantly declines any intimate physical advancement from Bella and advises her that they wait until they are married to consummate their relationship; "I guess you can call me old fashioned... If I cannot protect you from becoming a vampire, I can at least protect your virtue" (Eclipse, 454). Edward is more conservative when dealing with physical intimacy because of his lack of physical experience, "Edward had spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification. I knew it was terrifying to him trying to change those habits now" (Breaking Dawn, 25). Edwards vow to remain celibate with Bella does not follow the blatant sexual tendencies that occur is most vampire novels. In fact, not only is he denying the biological pleasure of sexual intercourse, he is also creating a boundary that is based on a personal sense of moral duty.

The belief in a moral boundary in a physical relationship not only includes Edward and Bella but also extends to the other members of the Cullen family. In fact, Edward's older pair of siblings waited until after marriage to be physically intimate, illustrating that not only were they following a certain set of social guidelines, they also relied upon intimacy to strengthen their bond. Unlike Dracula, the Cullens highly value the commitment and consent of their partner when dealing with sexual intimacy. Meyer strategically incorporated this theme into the novel because, while it still maintains the use of sexuality in vampire literature, there is a personal, religious message to the narrative. Meyer felt that it was time for a new breed of vampire, a slightly more "human" character with a strong value system. Certainly, the Cullens of Twilight bring more to the table than the traditional vampire character; they represent a new generation of vampire lore, less sexually charged and more focused on a strong moral system.

While most Dracula fans find a form of excitement in his ruthless tactics of female domination, the Twilight cast offers a great comparison between the two literary pieces. There seems to be an appreciation of the feminine in Carmilla and Stephenie Meyer's novels, slightly different from the sadistic forms of affection that Dracula expresses with his female prey. In fact, that is exactly what they are to him- Dracula's overt sexuality crosses the border between arousing and frightening, engaging his female targets in an erotic game of cat and mouse. Of course, the similarities of the two narratives cannot be ignored. A vampire is still a vampire, no matter how one would like to see the differences. However, the overt use of sexuality in Dracula also illustrates how the characters are different. Edward is far more concerned for Bella's well being rather than forcing her into intimacy and taking control of her life, he allows her to have a say in the matter. The opportunity of choice is something that Lucy and Mina were never offered.

Breaking away from vampire literary fiction, "The cult TV program Buffy the Vampire Slayer... incorporates central themes of romantic and sexual relationships. As in other vampire fiction, there is also a strong violent theme, which is intimately related to the romantic and sexual themes" (Burr, 343). While the interactions between the characters may not follow traditional vampire/human relations, the sexuality of the series makes it especially significant in the dynamic between traditional and modern vampire sexuality. The relationships between the characters on the show are quite complex, since the intermingling of races (humans and vampires) creates "an explicit sado-masochistic theme... and many scenes dealing with romantic and/or sexual encounters are erotic.

The vampire/vampire relationships in the show are "characterized by sadism and an aggressive sexuality" (Burr, 350). The lack of actual love in the relationship illustrates that non-human entities are unable to experience human emotions. The use of violent acts to define vampire sexuality is a common theme throughout the series, "Spike's first killing of a Slayer is clearly sexually arousing to both him and Drusilla: 'Ever hear them say the blood of a Slayer is a powerful aphrodisiac?'... pulling her forcefully to him and kissing her passionately" (Burr, 351). In fact, most sexually charged encounters take place at the scene of a kill; "When Drusilla kills a young couple for her and Spike to feed on, there is a clear sexual tone to the manner of their appropriation of the bodies" (Burr, 351). The violent sexuality of the vampire/vampire relationships is clearly not by choice but by nature, "The portrayal of vampire sexuality is therefore a covert configuration of traditional sexual ideals and mores" (Burr, 351).

Human/human relationships in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are characterized by a sex and love intimacy rather than the sadistic and violent sexual acts of the vampire/vampire pairing. In these relationships, an unmistakable display of mutual love can be seen through the intimacy of the human characters; ". . . in the portrayal of sex as about love rather than sadism, they are consistent with the morality of human relations in contrast to those of vampires" (Burr, 352). The most detailed of human relationships on the series occurs between Buffy and Riley. While they both enjoy being sexually intimate, their relationship is defined as tender and loving. However, despite the loving and caring relationship they share, it is clearly evident that it is denied a passionate flame. Buffy continually shows that her love for Riley is clearly non-existent. She does not confide in him, depend on him, or ask for his advice. There is no real romance between them and "the relationship lacks the human 'vicious circle' quality" (Burr, 352). "Early in their relationship, Buffy discusses her feelings for Riley with Willow: 'It's nuts, but part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with lots of pain and fighting'" (Burr, 352). Sexuality still plays a role in human/human interaction but the passion of love and the eroticism of violence remain absent.

The third category that is depicted on the show is the human/vampire relationship. It is characterized as a highly erotic interaction by blending the love of the human element and the violent passion of the vampire persona. Burr argues that "these relationships are essentially ambiguous and that this is the source of their eroticism" (Burr, 353). The relationship between Buffy and Angel elaborates on the ambiguity of their intimacy, "it is either loving or sadistic" (Burr, 354). Angel is constantly changing form throughout the series and his current disposition depends "on whether he has currently been invested with his soul" (Burr, 353).  The core of their relationship is determined by him and his constant changeability; "When in possession of his soul he loves her. After losing it, he is maliciously cruel to her" (Burr, 353). Buffy, as well, changes from loving to murderous, "She loves him but must ultimately kill him" (Burr, 353). Through the analysis of these inter-racial relationships, one can clearly see a division between two different worlds: the sadistic and the loving. While the vampire/vampire and human/human relationships offer a more predictable outcome, "it is the human/vampire relationships that allow something more recognizably human to emerge" (Burr, 357). The sexuality in all three relationship categories clearly illustrates that modern vampires are able to connect with their classic counterparts by maintaining the traditional thematic qualities of a sexually charged environment.

The explicit sexuality in Carmilla and Dracula certainly outweighs the softened sexual references in Twilight, illustrating the qualities that belong to traditional vampire definitions.. While sadistic sexuality characterizes a common theme in traditional vampire literature, the modernized vampire in Twilight creates a new type of stock character that still maintains the sexualized qualities of the classic vampire but emphasizes a moral code that is both appealing and refreshing. The overtly sadistic and violent vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer also emulates a media adaptation that will remain constant, whether in literature or on TV. However, it is without a doubt that the recognizable, classic vampire we have grown to love and hate would not continue to exist if the sexual context of all that they represent was taken away.

     

Works Cited


Acocella, Joan. "In The Blood." The New Yorker (2009): 101-107. Print.

Burr, Vivien. "Ambiguity and Sexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A Sartrean Analysis."    
     Sexualities 6(2003): 343-360. Print.

Jones, Ernest. On the Nightmare. New York: Liveright, 1951. Print.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. 1872. Carmilla. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. Eclipse. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2006,         
     2007. 2008. Print.

Stevenson, John Allen. "A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula." PMLA 103(1988):
     139-149. Print.

Stoker, Bram. 1897. Dracula. New York: Signet, 1965. Print.

Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Duke
       University Press, 1984. Print.


 

Source: written by Lauren Smith © 2009

 

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