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An Accursed Passion: Vampirism as a Metaphor for Homophobia in Carmilla

"File:Edvard Munch. Vampire II (Vampyr II). 1895-1902 (25049240206).jpg" by yakovlev.alexey from Moscow, Russia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

LGBTQ+ themes are nothing new to vampire stories. For LGBTQ+ Pride Month, I decided to write about J. Sheridan LeFanu’s novella, Carmilla, which is famous for its titular lesbian vampire character. Why am I so concerned with LGBTQ+ Pride Month? I haven’t written much about LGBTQ+ issues, but I felt that this year I absolutely needed to. I wasn’t sure if my specific identity within the LGBTQ+ spectrum was important to disclose. Then, I decided that perhaps I should just let readers know from what perspective the article is being written. Also, for personal reasons, I felt it was necessary to stand up and be counted. Writing about LGBTQ+ representation feels hypocritical if I am unwilling to disclose my identity. So, here it is: I fall under the B in LGBTQ+.

Being a 19th-century vampire story, Carmilla is far from a positive LGBTQ+ representation. The one thing it does illustrate is homophobia. Carmilla, a vampire who openly expresses romantic same-sex attraction, is deemed a monster. She slowly sucks the life out of and kills the young women who she desires. The only way to save the young protagonist in the story is to destroy Carmilla. For the most part, men are left out of the story unless it’s to trivialize the concerns of young women or to hunt down Carmilla and destroy her.

Carmilla is told from the perspective of Laura, a 19-year-old woman living in Austria, in a castle in the middle of nowhere. Laura describes her life as isolated and lonely. Her mother died when she was young, and now it’s just Laura, her father, and two governesses, Mademoiselle De Lafontaine and Madame Perrodon. They accept a visitor in the form of the mysterious and charming Carmilla and investigate her mysterious past.

Laura’s father receives a letter from their neighbor, General Speilsdorf, whose niece, Bertha, dies under mysterious circumstances. The General writes that he’s thankful that his daughter didn’t know the “nature of her illness” or the “accursed passion of the agent of all of this misery […] I devote my remaining days to tracking and extinguishing a monster. I am told I may hope to accomplish my righteous and merciful purpose.” [1]

A castle on the top of a hill.
“File:P1010270 Burghausen.jpg” by Jacquesverlaeken is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Keeping young women from having knowledge of anything at all in the story is clear. The men preserve the status quo, which Carmilla has challenged. Even when it is a matter of life and death, the General keeps Bertha from knowing anything, and Laura’s father does the same with her. After engaging in a long and serious discussion with a doctor behind closed doors, when Laura asks her father about it, he shrugs it off and tells her not to worry about it.

Carmilla is repulsed or avoids anything having to do with the church. Laura notes that anytime the family is having a prayer session, Carmilla avoids their company. She also had an adverse reaction to a funeral procession where hymns were being sung. A priest is consulted after Laura begins to get sick, and priests also accompany the men to Carmilla’s tomb to destroy her.

Carmilla even covers her ears. Religion represents society and patriarchy, and it repulses Carmilla. Religion and devotion to God are things that keep Carmilla away.

The story follows Carmilla’s courtship with Laura, who finds Carmilla both attractive and repulsive at the same time. When Carmilla openly expresses her feelings, Laura is instantly confused and admits to being angry at Carmilla. Many of the passages describe Laura’s combination of attraction and repulsion. Laura is naive and sheltered. Her world is limited, and romance for her is only between a man and a woman. 

Carmilla says, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.” [2]

The inside of a chapel.
“File:Bruges – Holy Blood church.jpg” by Diane is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Carmilla refers to “the irresistible law of my strength and weakness.” Carmilla is giving a contradictory view of her nature. She’s acknowledging her sexuality is part of her nature and therefore not unnatural. However, calling it a weakness at the same time is acknowledging society’s view of it. By giving into her natural same-sex attraction, she makes herself vulnerable to society’s negative view of homosexuality. She’s also taking a chance by openly expressing her romantic feelings to Laura, even in private.

In her recollection, Laura writes: “In these mysterious moods, I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.” [3]

Laura doesn’t express complete revulsion, indicating that she may feel the same way about Carmilla. Her ambiguous feelings are the natural result of growing up in a heteronormative society. From Laura’s perspective, love can only be between a man and a woman. Therefore, anything else is abnormal and wrong. Laura even questions Carmilla’s sanity. She deems her behavior masculine and even wonders if she may be a man in disguise.

Laura writes in her recollection: “Was she, notwithstanding her mother’s volunteered denial, subject to brief visitations of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old storybooks of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress.” [4]

A closeup of a red mood in a black night sky.
“File:Eclipse and Super blue blood moon 31.01.2018 DSCN9664.jpg” by Irvin calicut is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

“I could boast of no little attentions such as masculine gallantry delights to offer. Between these passionate moments there were long intervals of commonplace, of gaiety, of brooding melancholy, during which, except that I detected her eyes so full of melancholy fire, following me, at times I might have been as nothing to her. Except in these brief periods of mysterious excitement, her ways were girlish; and there was always a languor about her, quite incompatible with a masculine system in a state of health.” [5] 

They learn that Carmilla, or Countess Mircalla Karnstein, was the victim of a vampire. She was protected by a man who she had a close and intense romantic relationship with. He feared that she would be hunted down and hid her grave, which the protagonists eventually found. 

Carmilla’s previous association with a man before her transformation into a monster could be seen as another way of demonizing same-sex attraction. Before she was a vampire, she was a “normal” straight woman in a relationship with a man. She was acceptable and proper before her corruption by the vampire. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of bisexuality.

Carmilla’s, being deemed a monster and portrayed as a killer can be interpreted in many ways—demonizing homosexuality or pointing out society’s negative attitude towards it. Her behavior toward Laura isn’t cruel or evil in any way. She acts as if she’s infatuated with Laura, and Laura’s response is that of someone who experiences confusion because of the society she’s growing up in. 

Works cited

[1] LeFanu, J. Sheridan. Carmilla. The Echo Library: Teddington, Middlesex. (2006). pp. 7-8

[2]  LeFanu, pp. 18-19

[3]  LeFanu, pp. 18-19

[4]  LeFanu, pp. 18-19

[5]  LeFanu, pp. 18-19

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Written by MD Bastek

I'm just a being who writes about unusual things.

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