“What do you see in my eyes?” “Death.”
—from 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter
The image of the cinematic vampire femme fatale is so ubiquitous, it’s strange to think that Dracula’s Daughter, its earliest iteration, was the only one of its kind for a generation. It becomes markedly less strange, though, when these characters are seen as dots on a timeline, with a rise in cinematic vampire women paralleling changing social attitudes about feminism. What easier form is there for an ambitious woman than a monster, and what better way to subvert derogatory attitudes then by making them infinitely powerful and alluring?
Dracula’s Daughter arrived at Universal in 1936, an unwanted stepchild of its horror family, more famous for an absence of Bela Lugosi than the presence of anything in particular. Studio disillusionment was palpable in the way it was sold: The trailer halfheartedly promised, “More exciting than DRACULA,” with the exclamation point sheepishly excised. But the film offered images that became a blueprint: Contessa Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is a woman of preternatural self-possession, with intellect and powers above those of mortal men. She also trends toward the Sapphic—a poster warned, “Save the Women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”
The film itself, though with fewer Gothic thrills than its predecessor, is buoyed by a focus on the psychology of its namesake, inviting feminist interpretations. Zaleska—who keeps a manservant to clean blood off her evening cloak, and bends others to her will almost as an afterthought—longs for independence from Dracula’s ways, burning his body in hopes of shaking the family legacy: “Free to live as a woman,” she vividly imagines, “free to take my place in the bright world of the living!” She even hopes psychiatry can cure her, though it takes only one fetchingly aimless young woman to push Zaleska off the wagon. And smarmy Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger) soon discovers her powers easily overcome the male condescensions of science. The only thing stronger than Zaleska… is death. (Exclamation point sheepishly excised.)
The movie underperformed, and ended up being the last of Universal’s initial run of classic-monster movies, but Zaleska—longing to escape from patriarchal obligations—became the first onscreen vampire with a feminist agenda. Appearing less than a generation after American suffrage, a mere eight years after full U.K. suffrage, and three years before Countess Zaleska could have voted in Romania, that’s no small feat.
Vampirism is a charmingly reliable metaphor for a particular brand of cinematic feminism. There’s no more economical embodiment of the powerful woman as both terrifyingly predatory and soothingly seductive. Whether it’s Hammer’s chemised pin-ups or hyper-stylish Miriam Blaylock in The Hunger, tucking desiccated conquests out of guests’ sight, the vampiric woman reflects both the horror premise that a powerful woman is a direct threat—a literal bloodsucker, out for domination—and the fantasy premise that even if a woman who casts no reflection is out to kill you, she’ll still take the time to look her best. And as the cultural discussions around feminism shift, so too do onscreen portrayals of vampire women.
The transformative nature of vampirism, and the autonomy that comes with it, is crucial. Dracula had his captive brides, but usually, the lady vampire is an active, independent figure in her narrative; she holds the frame with that force of will. Vampirism in film is largely its own occupation—cinematic vampires are consumed with the hunt for blood, the search for love, or the nature of immortality itself. A female vampire is, by default, a career woman. She might not always be elite (as with the blue-collar vampires of Near Dark), but vampirism provides her both goals and resources—a powerfully feminist combination. It also suggests freedom from prescribed sexual and social mores, a narrative pulp culture has never hesitated to explore.
Though some filmmakers (like Jean Rollin) explored this connection through original mythology, many drew on foolproof source material. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla is a playground of psychosexual Gothic tropes, including a lesbian vampire whose desire for a milquetoast ingenue eventually blows her cover. Carmilla is a mysterious firebrand perfectly suited to cinema about women’s taboo appetites. Roger Vadim adapted it as the surreal, slightly straightwashed baroque feature Blood And Roses, but perhaps the most familiar exploration is 1970’s The Vampire Lovers. A more-faithful-than-expected Hammer adaptation of Carmilla, it follows enigmatic Carmilla (frequent Hammer star Ingrid Pitt) as she ingratiates herself with virgins of the country gentry, drawing them away from fiancés and fathers, and putting them under her influence. With Carmilla seducing victims in a very literal sense, that influence is largely erotic, to nobody’s surprise: the source material is Sapphic, the studio is Hammer, and the gaze of the lens is male.
But Carmilla’s intent reads as something other than mere lust, bloody or otherwise. Pitt’s cool-eyed dismissal of men’s opinions repeatedly swamps the frame—the real warning sign, the movie suggests, of her evil. In the soft-focus, softcore Hammer wonderland, intimate moments with her familiars are framed as enthusiastic love scenes or as bittersweet struggle. Carmilla is tempted to kill the girl she loves—at the psychic behest of the horseman who haunts her steps, which only underscores hatred of men as the major conflict.
Coming in the midst of second-wave feminist discussions of sexual freedom as crucial to an independent life, women’s eagerness to keep Carmilla’s company suggests a mirror to political lesbianism, the movement that emerged within the second movement in which activists were encouraged to disown men altogether, regardless of sexual orientation. All three of Carmilla’s targets abandon men’s attentions in Carmilla’s favor. In that light, the film hints at a campy undead female solidarity. (The film beat the cult honeymoon-disaster tone-poem Daughters Of Darkness to the post by a year: Daughters also had the subtext of sisterhood at the expense of men, with vampire Elizabeth Bathory attempting to rescue a newlywed from the clutches of her abusive husband.)
The lustful-vampire sisterhood quickly became one of horror’s most popular low-budget tropes. It got a particularly explicit narrative in 1974’s Vampyres, which is more concerned with the sex life of its lesbian couple than any vampire lore. But even that movie claims as its most uncanny moment a post-coital male victim awakening to find seductress Fran (Marianne Morris) watching him with unblinking eyes, an inversion of the usual sexual gaze—both his and the camera’s. And in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, one of cinema’s most stylish takes on the female vampire, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) sets aside David Bowie himself in favor of the more modern Dr. Sarah (Susan Sarandon)—who decides she wants nothing to do with the lifestyle to which Miriam’s consigned her. Though Scott’s original ending left it ambiguous whether anyone survived, MGM insisted on an epilogue that showed Sarah making the most of the luxe afterlife, with Miriam a half-living specter of her past.
Reportedly, neither Scott nor Sarandon approved of the ending, seeing it as too neat a finish for a story suffused with the visual entropy of addiction. But it was the beginning of a new era for the vampire femme fatale—one who sought to examine and understand her nature, and who often rejected her expected role, or asked the audience to reject their expectations. These were Dracula’s granddaughters.
Some of the most deliberate deconstructions of the vampire woman are those that actively engage with the supposed eroticism of the familiar image, turning it into an element of horror. In Interview With The Vampire, Neil Jordan uses Claudia’s immortal ennui as currency, trading on the unsettling imagery of Kirsten Dunst growing up and getting wise when the men around her didn’t want her to. Claudia becomes keenly observant and bitter about her forced girlhood, killing the man who kept her in girls’ dresses, and claiming his partner as her lover in a scene staged as near-religious iconography, designed to raise questions about the sexual expectations placed on women in a man’s world. (It’s the same monstrous-girl taboo that became the linchpin of the moody, understated Let the Right One In.) However, in an age of debate about sex positivity and its portrayals in popular culture, Jordan himself returned to the unerotic identity in Byzantium, in which Gemma Arterton’s sexuality-as-performance in skintight dresses and thick eyeliner are shot with such asexual detachment, they take on the the wildlife-documentary dread of an insect luring a meal.
Feminism has become so powerfully entwined with the pop-culture image of the woman vampire that it’s possible to remove the signifiers of vampirism and maintain a perfectly recognizable vampire narrative. Park Chan-wook followed up Thirst (in which a female vampire is ruthless beyond death) with the Connecticut Gothic masterpiece Stoker. The pitch-black comedy centers on the uncanny, incestuous, uncomfortably-erotic exchange of power between young India (played with exhausting alertness by Mia Wasikowska) and her sociopathic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who comes to town with a seductive fixation on India, just as the maternal figures in her life start mysteriously disappearing. India is initially seduced by his interest, but soon she discovers her real interest is in her own potential for destruction instead. (Even her primary sexual experience is masturbation—this is a young woman decisively realizing codependence doesn’t suit her.) In her triumphant moment, she eclipses her male influencer, accepts her appetite for death, and learns at last to protect the women of the family—all without a fang in sight.
The bloodless vampire is more the exception than the rule, of course. The genre still eagerly returns to some common signifiers, even after the pulp taboo has lost its thrill: the enigmatic calmness, the subtle effects on the natural world, the gleaming blood, the supernaturally pale skin. (There’s feminist subtext to be found in movies featuring vampires of color—Hollywood has doled out N’Bushe Wright’s Dr. Karen Jenson, whose vampiric limbo in Blade rallies her to the cause, Lucy Liu’s vengeful Sadie in the D-movie Rise: Blood Hunter, and more recently the Girl from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night—but largely, cinematic vampirism is still a white woman’s game.) 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive centers a quietly feminist vampire that embodies all these qualities: Eve (Tilda Swinton), a bohemian dilettante with the calm mien of long and unquestioned autonomy. Even her thirst is easily satisfied with bagged blood, with hunting as a last-ditch option; she’s a rare glimpse of the vampire with nothing left to rebel against.
It’s noteworthy, then, that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was also released in 2014. Its nameless vampire girl (Sheila Vand) is stranded in Iran’s mythical Bad City, a positively misandrist edge-of-the-wilderness town ringed by a ditch of men’s corpses. Within its cultural context, the Girl stalking the night and eliminating men who threaten women is such a feminist character that she doesn’t even need a name. Her very presence is vengeance against violent men (mistreating a woman—or suggesting the intent to—is a one-way ticket), and the vampire is just the form in which that social resentment has been most recognizably made flesh. Women still can’t safely walking home alone at night. The vampire-girl signals her supernatural nature simply by her fearlessness.
It’s striking to realize that the Girl and Eve would hardly recognize each other if they met. They’re two of Dracula’s daughters who have split markedly far from that matriarch of the family tree. The breadth of the trope visible between them feels like the fulfillment of Le Fanu’s haunting Carmilla conclusion: “…to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.” That’s the nature of any cinematic idea that so directly reflects its cultural climate. In these films, the changing nature of these vampires mirrors the promise that women will be what they must be to survive.