Lesbian Vampires In Books And Films
Lesbian vampires in books and films need to be stripped of cliches so they can fulfil their own needs, not those of the objectifying reader.
Question: What do you think of when you hear the words ‘LGBT vampire’? A temptress in a gloomy Gothic manor? The Buffy theme tune? That at-best-dubious poster on your brother’s wall?
Lesbian vampires need some new PR. They have a seriously problematic image. It’s just not fair, really. Their gay counterparts have been brooding in the gloomy candle-lit spotlight for years, thanks mainly to Anne Rice and Poppy Z Brite. Anne Rice’s dark, decadent and androgynous band of long-haired, full-lipped male vampires – Lestat, Louis, Nicky, Armand, Marius, etc.- set the world on fire with their frock-coated philosophizing, blood-thirsty battles and incestuous (and often incessant) desire for one another. At one point, there’s enough of them roaming around to form their own fanged football team.
And this wine-soaked blood-drenched debauchery can also be seen in Brite’s classic work, Lost Souls, except that wine is swapped for green chartreuse and debauchery is swapped for full-on, no-holds-barred LGBT sex between best friends, father and son, vampire and mortal, vampire and victim. It drips with excess, blood, brains and rock n’ roll.
Yet where are the LGBT vampires, I hear you ask? Well, the road for them has been hard – they’ve had to manoeuvre around Lestat first – but now they’re in pop culture, they’re hard to ignore.
Just consider this: Catherine Deneuve played LGBT vampire in the film The Hunger, starring alongside the androgynous Space Man himself, Mr. David Bowie.
In Buffy (and Buffy made it as Mookychick’s feminist icon of the week), the character Tara turned out to be LGBT half-demon (not a vampire, but supernatural enough to qualify for this article.) Tara then fell for Willow, a shy misfit and budding witch, and she ended up staying on the show for an impressive 47 episodes. Yep, I looked that up on Wikipedia.
Tara and Willow may not have been actual vampires, but they certainly fit neatly into the genre of supernatural romance, and were a key part of Buffy’s ragtag rebellious vampire community. The romance between Tara and Willow – let’s just call them ‘Tarillow’ – was heralded as a milestone in the late Nineties, and was so popular it even spawned its own comic.
But it doesn’t stop there. 2008 saw the release of the ultra-violent film Bathory, recounting the life of Erzebet Bathory, notorious mass murderer and rumoured vampire with LGBT inclinations. The trail of carnage she left behind was enough to make Nosferatu run and cry for his mummy.
In the same year, the woefully gender prejudiced film Lesbian Vampire Killers (yep, real title) was released. A so-called ‘horror comedy’, even its official trailer contained scenes of scantily clad women being decapitated and various homophobic insults being bandied about to happy-clappy rock n’ roll music. In the film, the LGBT vampire ‘queen’ was even called Carmilla – named after a cult Gothic novel by Sheridan LeFanu in which a predatory female vampire (Carmilla v. 1.0) seduces a young girl.
Thankfully, the film was panned by critics, but the fact remains the same: LGBT vampires have been slowly creeping out of the shadows, but not always into a positive or empowering light.
Lesbian Vampires are often played down to a provocative fantasy. But whose?
On one side of the coin, LGBT vampires are nothing more than a provocative carnal fantasy. The LGBT vampire exists within a slick silo of glamour, sex, artifice and yet more sex. She is usually portrayed as either a Gothic beauty with a bad past and a penchant for long lacy white dresses, or a leather-clad rock chick with a bad attitude and a penchant for motorbikes. Yawn. The LGBT vampire is arguably often seen through a narrow male gaze, (my apologies to any male feminist readers out there)- that wants nothing more than to act out a fantasy on and through her body.
Even that body itself is problematic – fangs can be seen phallic, and when coupled with stakes, crucifixes, daggers and bodily fluids such as blood etc. there are so many phallic and sexual signifiers swirling about female vampires that they seem to become sexless. They ended up stranded in a limbo land of male/ female, powerful/powerless – or, as I like to think of it, a little town in the USA called Forks, where vampire boys glitter and young girls swoon.
Rarely is anything profound revealed about the gay girl vampire’s own sexuality or femininity unless it is enacted out under that same male gaze, i.e with a man involved, or as part of some fantasy scene. The allure of the LGBT/vampire fantasy is so strong it’s even resulted in its own genre of erotica.
Yet for all the restriction culture references, bad girl innuendo and whipsmart attitude, we as readers and viewers rarely get to experience any ‘real’ relationships behind the slinky leather-and-lace veneer. Unlike ‘Tarillow’, who we see argue, flirt, laugh and love in all their kooky glory, LGBT vampires are, on the whole, a facade – easily killed off, written off or driven into madness. Need an example?
In Carmilla, the uber-patriarchal, uber-masculine General Spielsdorf goes all Lizzie Borden on the offending Carmilla, in an effort to protect the human Laura from her sultry attentions. Carmilla flees, but her grave is discovered and her body destroyed, leaving Laura and the surrounding town free of any nasty gay-girl influences and cleansed of any sexual salaciousness. Peace – and patriarchy- is restored in one fell swoop of the of-course-phallic-axe. Laura’s homeland is as a result a lot safer and a whole lot more boring than before. Laura has to go on a year-long holiday just to recover from all the excitement.
It seems that the LGBT vampire is a rare breed, already in danger of becoming yet another stereotypical vampire cliché. (Along with ‘brooding’, ‘mysterious’, and of course, ‘glittery’.)
What about the gay girl vampire’s own sexuality and femininity?
When writing my own LGBT-themed vampire novel- The Breathing Ghosts – this is something I wanted to address. I wanted to juxtapose reality, and real, crucial issues for many young people with the mystical and the supernatural. I wanted to write for the misfit: the outsider, the loner, the emo kid in black eyeliner struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. I didn’t want to talk down to them. Instead, I wanted to let them know that they weren’t alone, and that it was, ultimately, okay to be yourself.
As a result, one LGBT vampire character – Violet Valvayne – is shy, socially awkward and sexually inexperienced, whilst another – Nerissa Naughton – is prone to bouts of rage, bitterness and loneliness (not all the names in my novel are alliterative, I assure you.) They are misfits, and yet they survive, adapt, and become stronger because of that.
Violet and Nerissa may have a common sexuality, but beneath that bond lie different vulnerabilities which ironically make them all the more humane – even in spite of their bloodthirsty nature. They both cry, make jokes, fight, rail against homophobic abuse and constantly redefine and reassert their right to be both vampire and LGBT, despite numerous odds.
A strong heart beats beneath the corsets and cliches?
And so the coin turns, to reveal an arguably more positive side, one that is rarely seen in Hollywood on mainstream TV or in literature. For – in my humble opinion – vampire women express an unusual femininity which is often suppressed under layers of cat suits, corsets and other alternativeist cliches.
As with female werewolves, LGBT vampires are tied to the moon and to blood – key totems of femaleness which have often been derided and repressed in patriarchal society. Even now, women’s menstrual cycles are hidden under a sediment of fancily-fragranced sanitary pads, washes, perfumes and deodorants advertised with swirly floral designs to indicate their ‘femaleness’, all the while implicitly degrading it. Yet female vampires’ lives revolve around seeking, ingesting and, crucially, accepting that same blood. (It is even said that mad bad Bathory used to take whole baths in virgins’ blood.)
We as young women are told to fear and reject the physical signs of ageing, whilst female vampires have to come to terms with a body that will never grow old.
In mainstream vampire literature, this is often seen as a blessing or as a happy ending, meaning that the once-mortal girl can be with her (mysterious/brooding/glittery) lover for all time. Yet in The Breathing Ghosts, things are not quite so clear cut. The vampire Violet Valvayne is certainly beautiful, but her beauty also forms the bars of her cage. She is forever trapped in the body of a sixteen year old, never growing, never developing.
Nerissa Naughton, too, has her own physical imperfections and eccentricites. Tall, spindly-legged and broken-nosed, she skulks around wearing dark Goth clothes that do nothing to disguise her even darker heart.
But these two kooks are far from passive or pitfiul. I wanted to spurn the convention of having LGBT figures who were ashamed or embarrassed of their sexuality, and instead prompted for strong characters who knew where their desires lay, and felt no qualms in pursuing them. Violet Valvayne may be vulnerable at first, but she soon learns to stand up for her beliefs and fight for those she loves. And Nerissa… well, Nerissa is very much a law unto herself.
It’s true that LGBT vampires have a problematic image. Sometimes they appear too entrenched in fantasy and frippery to be taken seriously. And yet, beneath that glossy veneer beats a strong, bloody heart. Both LGBT and gay vampires in fiction, on screen, and on the page and in culture can be daring and devastating. They can be game-changers, scene-stealers, rule-wreckers and ball-breakers. They can take risks, they can be the risk, they can own the night and reclaim the darkness.
Lesbian vampires can be all of these things, and much more. But first they need to rise up out of their coffins, and come out of the closet- unashamed, unapologetic, and ready to be the creators of their own deadly lives.
In Nerissa Naughton’s own words: “Look with your eyes and see! My heart beats! My lungs breathe! I am as alive as any of you.”