The phrase “lesbian vampire” might be one of the most titillating combinations of words in the English language. She is a character that endures in horror film today, most recently making an appearance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. The trope whose roots lie in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, the story of a strange female visitor who seduces a young woman. Eventually, the male characters defeat her and rescue the female narrator from Carmilla’s clutches. Carmilla is the basis for most lesbian vampire-centric films because it represents the “essence of homosexuality as a predatory weakness,” as explored by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet. The character of the lesbian vampire is lonely, selfish, and perverse. She is a seductress free of male control, luring innocent women away from natural heterosexuality. She is both a pornographic object who serves as a proxy for men’s desire, and a caricature of the male gaze; a demon who can only find happiness in poorly imitating male sexuality. Yet as a symbol, she resonates with queer women in their search for a smidgen of representation.
An early adaptation of the Carmilla story is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). On this film’s heels came the controversial Universal Studios production, Dracula’s Daughter (1936). The movie is a combination of both the Dracula and Carmilla story, following Goth butch Countess Zeleska on her lonely quest for female blood. Marketing for the film exploited the lesbian undertones of the story and was much derided by the Production Code Administration for that reason.
With the release of the 1957 Blood of Dracula, the lesbian vampire enjoyed a renewed presence in exploitation films. Carmilla resurfaced as a character in French director Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). Carmilla is obsessed with her friend, but her lust is not returned. Unrequited love is a constant in the lesbian vampire film, demonstrated yet again in the 1964 Italian-French horror film Castle of Blood starring Barbra Steele. Elisabeth Blackwood (Steele) is a ghost who haunts the Blackwood Castle. She is pursued mercilessly by fellow ghost Julia, but longs for the embrace of a young Edgar Allen Poe, who is spending the night at the castle on a dare.
While used for titillation, the sexual potential of the lesbian vampire was fully exploited in Jean Rollin’s The Rape of the Vampire (1968). The arrival of the 1970s saw a burst of lesbian vampire films, the most notable being the Karnstein Trilogy produced by Hammer Films. The trilogy included The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). The films riff off the Carmilla story, creating their own mythology surrounding the noble, Austrian vampire Karnstein family. Each film in the trilogy relies on the corruption of an innocent girl by a vampiric, lesbian entity. Carmilla appears again in the 1972 Spanish horror film, The Blood Splattered Bride.
In 1971, Stephanie Rothman reworked the Carmilla story in The Velvet Vampire, one of the only lesbian vampire films directed by a woman. This film was influenced by the success of the 1970 Belgian horror film directed by Harry Kumel, Daughters of Darkness. The film utilizes the story of Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious female serial killer who reportedly drank and bathed in the blood of her handmaidens. The Bathory story is frequently used in subsequent lesbian vampire films such as Countess Dracula (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Immoral Tales (1974), and the more recent movies Eternal (2004), and Night Fangs (2005). These films implicitly equate lesbianism with a notorious female serial killer, reinforcing the stereotype of the perverse, dangerous homosexual predator. And yet, the allure of these characters is undeniable. Daphne Seyrig is iconic and beautiful as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness, and probably served as a strong figure to look toward for young queer women exposed to these films during the 70s and beyond.
The lesbian vampire is not always alone, though her story usually ends that way. Though typically accompanied by a love slave, sometimes the female vampires act as a duo or group, terrorizing/seducing couples together. This can be seen in such films as The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), Vampyres (1974), Fascination (1979), the previously mentioned Night Fangs, and We Are The Night (2010). These servants of Satan are almost always defeated by a male hero, harkening back to Carmilla. Although, Susan Sarandon does kill the desperately deadly Catherine Deneuve in perhaps one of the most iconic vampire movies, Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). These films can never end with the vampire finding love; the only reason she exists is to prey on/play with heterosexual male fears.
The most complex portrayals of the lesbian vampire occur in films from the 1990s. Nadja (1994) (produced by David Lynch) reimagines Carmilla/Dracula’s daughter as a hip, New York socialite. The Addiction (1995) starring Lilli Taylor is a metaphor for closeted lesbianism as well as substance abuse. French film Irma Vep (1996) is a kind of movie within a movie, following actress Maggie Cheung (who plays herself) as she stars in a remake of the 1915 serial Les Vampires, the line between reality and film becoming indistinguishable. Recently, lesbian vampire films have reverted back to old tropes such as in The Moth Diaries (2011) and in The Neon Demon. The lesbian vampire continues to serve as a stand-in for the male gaze.