Art

What’s in a bite? Annie Rose Malamet on Queer Horror.

Annie Rose Malamet

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Illustration by Gabriella Santiago-Vancak.

In Whitley Strieber’s 1981 horror novel The Hunger, ancient vampiress Miriam Blaylock contemplates how she will seduce her newest fixation—a young, gifted physician by the name of Sarah Roberts. Miriam reflects on the zeitgeist of each historical era she’s witnessed during hundreds of years of quiet observation, lurking in the shadows of human life; the Roman Empire was the age of excess, while Medieval Europe was the age of religious fervor. 1980s New York City, she concludes, is the age of the lie. Miriam is the ’80s equivalent of Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska in the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter, which caused a bit of a stir for its sapphic connotations. But, the lesbian vampire is hardly a surprise; from her sexual deviancy to her desire to penetrate the flesh of—and literally “eat”—another woman, the lesbian subtext of this monster is rich, indeed.

In keeping with the tradition of lonely female vampires skulking on the fringe of modern urban sprawl, Miriam is both free from mainstream heterosexist conventions and tormented by her otherness. In this way, the single, city-dwelling lesbian vampire becomes a metaphor for queer existential agony. Using her insight into the social landscape of the decade, Miriam decides that she will win the brilliant gerontology doctor with deception. She will convince Sarah that her “gift” of immortality is the answer to all of Sarah’s unconfirmed hypotheses about the nature of human aging—the answer even to the reason for living at all.

As a queer woman who struggles with suicidal ideation, these characters continue to resonate with me and many others like me. To those who do not fantasize about ending their lives, the desire to die might seem at odds with a lust for vampiric immortality; but, the idea of immortality itself is inherently queer, in that it challenges the western hetero-patriarchal concepts of life and death. Without the typical expectations placed on women’s purpose—to marry and to have children—what would a life that never ends look like? Women might be able to explore different identities, sexualities and ways of existing in the world that are not predicated on a linear, patriarchal timeline of fertility. Perhaps, I would experience something akin to freedom. Maybe I would no longer want to hit the eject button on a life dictated by what a capitalist patriarchy demands from my body, my existence.

Of course, anyone familiar with Tony Scott’s 1983 adaptation of The Hunger knows that the immortality Miriam bestows on the objects of her affection is not without its downsides: while Miriam will never age, her lovers will eventually decay until they are nothing but consciousness trapped in a corpse body. And, like most lesbian vampires depicted in film, Miriam is casually cruel, codependent and narcissistic. Countess Nadine Carody (played by Soledad Miranda) for example, in Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), awakens the suppressed sexuality of her female victims with her emancipating bite. However, the bite also causes the women to become obsessed with her, crazed and tormented by their unfulfilled lust.

Countess Nadine and many other lesbian vampires are loosely based on Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a notorious, 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman who supposedly sexually abused, tortured and murdered hundreds of young female servants, even bathing in the blood of virgins in a deranged attempt to remain young forever. The most famous example of such a character appears in Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971). Played by Delphine Seyrig (who also starred in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman), an immortal Countess Báthory stalks present-day Europe in search of female victims. The story is a commentary on European gentility and fascism—the villains of the past persist, despite the illusions of modern governance—as well as an exploration of sapphic revenge and abusive relationships. Victim du jour Valerie, who is physically abused by her husband Stefan, falls into the arms of Countess Báthory, who is not much better. And, although by the end of the film she is alone and seemingly free after the Countess dies in a fatal car wreck, she takes on the personality of her late abuser, her own identity obliterated in the process. Toxic obsession manifested as physical torment and the erasure of identity can be read as a metaphor for codependency and the effects of narcissism on the emotionally abused.

About a year ago, I started reflecting on my obsession with lesbian vampires after ending a toxic, codependent relationship of my own. I was disturbed by my apparent willingness to become a corpse-like shell—the result of being in a relationship with someone who constantly drained me psychologically dry. I realized that while I was growing up, I felt ugly and unlovable most of the time, a perspective that was reinforced often by my peers. I could not imagine a reality where I was adored by another woman. The lesbian vampire came to represent my ultimate fantasy: a woman who desired me so much that she needed to make me hers, forever. Obsession became analogous to love, abuse to romance. But, to martyr myself by identifying solely as the victim in my relationships is a symptom of my own narcissism. On the surface, codependency can look like one person disregarding their needs in service to another. We drain our emotional resources, our finances, our sanity—all to supposedly “help” the person we are codependent with. This impulse is not as selfless as it looks. After all, what is more narcissistic than believing that you alone know or possess what’s best for someone, that you are the only one who can “fix” another human being?

If my ex-girlfriends played the part of Countess Báthory, then I was guilty of becoming a kind of Carmilla. Published in 1872, Carmilla is a gothic novella written by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that predates Dracula by 25 years. It tells the story of an isolated young girl who is seduced by a mysterious vampiress, the titular Carmilla. The character, like Countess Báthory, has been reappropriated frequently, the truest retelling being Emily Harris’s exciting 2019 adaptation, which debuted in the US at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival this past October. But, the “Carmilla” I most identify with appears in the 1970 Hammer Film production The Vampire Lovers. Played by the legendary Ingrid Pitt, Carmilla goes from house to house, girl to girl, becoming fixated on each and every woman who gives her the attention she craves. I see myself in this Carmilla, as I have often experienced unhealthy, obsessive relationships with both friends and lovers. I have ached for the validation of others as much as I have also craved their rejection. Romantic failure validates my image of myself as unworthy of a connection that isn’t unrequited. I have wanted to stalk the streets at night for blood, and I have wanted to be stalked, to be forced to give in to my desires. I have found comfort in playing the part of the monster as well as of the victim. I have felt that if I “turned” another person in the way that I was, then at least there would be someone to witness, and to share, my pain and my pleasure. Much like the vampire’s bite, I too have passed down pain that I inherited.

The cheesecake elements of ’70s lesbian vampire films (Hammer productions in particular) have been analyzed at length, as have their use of the notorious homophobic trope of the “predatory lesbian.” But, when I first watched these films, my own erotic desires were at the forefront of my consciousness. The connections between ostracized sexuality and my addiction to obliterating myself reveal more than men’s use of the lesbian character as a proxy for their own appetites. There’s more than the lust of the male gaze on display in these films, and the continued interest in historically “problematic” imagery is more than a queer scavenger hunt for representation. After all, there are now also more explicit portrayals of queer relationships on screen than ever before. So why do we keep returning to these films, which are more interested in homoerotic undertone than they are in any commentary on “queerness” as an identity? I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I find coded subtext more exciting than the rainbow capitalism of token representation.

Coded subtext also need not be relegated to the realm of the less enlightened past. Some lesbian vampire films actually employ it in ways that are illuminating rather than shadowy. In The Addiction (1995), directed by Abel Ferrara, Lili Taylor stars as an introverted philosophy graduate student at NYU who is stalked and attacked by a female vampire, on a dark street late at night. Now turned, Kathleen (Taylor) must satisfy the nightly cravings for human blood that have begun to consume her. The gritty New York setting and the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography position the film as an exploration of loneliness and longing. “Self-revelation is the annihilation of self,” says Kathleen: “Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material.” The dependency, the “addiction,” is literally to blood and figuratively to human connection (particularly of the sapphic variety), and the film trusts the viewer to recognize this analogy on their own.

Yearning itself is an integral part of the sexual experience. I am drawn to mirrors that reflect what lust feels like to me: dark, forbidden and illicit. That’s half the fun. My sexual desires are a deeply important part of my identity. No amount of pride has abated the sense of my own “sexual inversion” as being perverse. And, if the social media trend of meme-able lesbian yearning is any indication, I am not alone. We are still very much afraid of our own wants and needs. This push and pull between desire and fear is present in the less politically queer lesbian vampires of the past, and it is part of what makes them so erotic and exciting. In her painful, yet soothing bite, we discover all that we had bottled up inside of us. Isn’t it ecstasy? Isn’t it terrifying?