Bedfellows of the Worm: The Early History of Female Vampires

The vampire has a long history, cropping up in various forms over the course of millennia in many cultures across the world from the Philippine Manananggal to the Ukrainian Upir. This article though isn’t attempting to map all these manifestations. Rather, it’s looking at literary vampires—deliberately fictional constructs who prowl the pages of their novels with bloodthirsty aplomb and arose in British and German traditions in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries. Contrary to all too popular belief, they weren’t all brooding white dudes of the straight and faintly aristocratic variety. Many of the first Gothic vampires were women. Allow me to introduce you.

 

Carmilla

‘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’

Carmilla is the perhaps the most famous female vampire although, as we will see, not the first. She has become something of a lesbian icon, particularly in modern reworkings like the Carmilla web-series. The original story, though, had a more equivocal depiction of the sapphic vampire than later versions. Penned by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872, it centres on the mysterious Carmilla, Countess of Karnstein, who arrives on Laura and her father’s doorstep after a carriage accident. Laura and Carmilla’s friendship quickly gets intense. Strange things start occurring, including some disturbing dreams featuring giant cats and Carmilla in a blood-stained nightgown. It’s all very sapphic and there’s an air of tragedy and real longing. Ultimately, of course, Carmilla is revealed to be a blood-sucking fiend who is staked, beheaded and burnt in a climactic scene which makes it clearly exactly what ladies stepping outside the clear lines of acceptable social behaviour can expect. There’s a clear punitive return to heterosexual norms and an attached suggestion of a voyeuristic use of the sapphic figure, but there’s also a touch of sympathy and an idea of the queer vampire as a monstrous tragedy. In order to understand this peculiar mix of attitudes, we need to explore Carmilla’s place in a wider British vampiric tradition and particularly the theology which underlies it.

 

Oneiza

“Still art thou living, wretch?”
In hollow tones she cried to Thalaba,
“And must I nightly leave my grave
To tell thee, still in vain,
God has abandoned thee?”

The first published literary vampire in Britain was a Muslim woman, Oneiza, in Thomas Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Heavily annotated with the reports and histories of the vampire, the long narrative poem ties itself both to these understandings of the vampire and their underlying theological basis.

British folklore has no vampire tradition as such but it does have a history of walking corpses that gives us a hint about the theological framework that the vampire just slid right into. William of Newburgh recounted four such stories in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c. 1198). Each one (the ‘Berwick vampire’, the ‘Buckinghamshire vampire’, the ‘Hounds Priest’ and the ‘Ghost of Anantis’) tells the story of an unholy man who plagued the local populace after death. Most importantly, these men, we are told, were all ‘strangers to God’s grace’. An embodied living death was the wage of their particular sins.

The theology behind this is all to do with the Christian idea of the ‘flesh’ and the ‘spirit’: a foundational Christian concept which has been the subject of over 2000 years of theological debate. In a very basic form: the ‘flesh’ is the old corrupted self: all of our weaknesses, frailties and sins. It’s our mortal part—the bit that’s subject to death and to corruption. The spirit is the redeemed self and is indivisible from the immortal, immaterial part that shares its essence with God. Body/flesh aren’t synonymous terms but because of that pesky Adam and the fact that we ‘inherit’ his sin (according to the doctrine of ‘Original Sin’) our bodies are indelibly corrupted by the flesh: a fact evident in their decay and corruption. In order for our souls to truly live and enter eternal life, these human, corruptible, corrupted bodies need to be put off. In other paradoxical words, we need to die to live. We’ll be getting shiny new resurrection bodies: ‘For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality’ (1 Corinthians 15:53). The undead, resurrected vampiric body isn’t it though. They’re dead women walking, souls trapped inside corrupt shells, damned by their inability to die.

This idea of eternal embodiment as a form of damnation is the root of vampire theology. Many reviews of vampire history look at the Arnold Paul case, which appeared in The London Magazine in 1732, as pivotal in bringing the idea of the vampire to England. In the account we learn that Paul had been infected in life by a Turk. His fool-proof cure for infection—eating the man’s grave dirt—failed to save him from a vampiric afterlife of hunting down friends and family. The theological framework is more implicit here than explicit. That theology, however, is the core of a less frequently referenced but equally influential earlier account: Paul Ricault’s State of the Greek and Armenian Churches’ (1679).

Ricaut describes vampire beliefs in the Greek Orthodox Church in which vampires are understood as ‘heretics’, who have been excommunicated and whose bodies, therefore, cannot decay. These claims were, to some extent, part of a turf war with Catholics. The Greek Orthodox Church vaunted the force of their priests’ excommunicative powers and answered the Catholic Church’s connection of the incorruptible body to sainthood with the suggestion that incorrupt bodies were demon inhabited damned ones, separated from the True Church, death and God. There’s a distinct connection of the vampire narrative here not only with embodied damnation but also with the monstrous religious other. The continued relevance of this understanding of the vampire in the British imaginary is suggested by an 1823 article ‘On Vampyrism’ in the New Monthly Magazine, which points to ‘Greek priests’ and their ‘system of excommunication’ as ‘the real source of vampire superstition’.

Thalaba the Destroyer quotes from a range of vampire sources in the attached notes, including Don Augustin Calmet, a Catholic theologian, whose Dissertation on the Apparition of Angels, Demons and Spirits, and on Revenants and Vampires (1746) referenced these beliefs heavily. Like another early vampire poem, Byron’s The Giaour, the vampiric episode is a small part of a much longer poem set in a predominantly Muslim world. In The Giaour the connection to religious othering is made very clear with vampirism appearing as a curse cast by a Muslim fisherman against the titular Christian. In Thalaba the link is less immediately obvious.

Thalaba is a Muslim boy on a quest to defeat demons and sorcery. As many critics before have noted, the Islamic context is not an attempt to depict a realistic Islamic world or theology but rather an exoticised orientalist depiction of a putatively Muslim, but functionally Protestant, hero. Oneiza is the woman with which our hero falls in love but disaster awaits. She dies. Heartbroken, Thalaba visits her grave only to find her body reanimated and inhabited by a demon who makes a particular point of telling him that ‘God has abandoned thee!’ She must be defeated for him to continue his quest—not only her but the demon of doubt which inhabits her, a metaphorical representation of her own role in holding back his quest both in life and death. Once she’s stabbed through her heart dramatically by her father’s spear, both she and Thalaba are set free as the demon of disbelief, and theological perversity, is defeated.

 

Brunhilda

‘It is not I who have murdered them;—I was obliged to pamper myself with warm youthful blood, in order that I might satisfy thy furious desires—thou art the murderer!’

Oneiza was the first female vampire in the British tradition but the Germans were ahead once again (just). Poems such as Goethe’s ‘Bride of Corinth’ (1797) offered vampiric or quasi-vampiric anti-heroines but perhaps the most notable female vampire was Brunhilda, the demonic bride of Walter in Ernst Raupach’s ‘Wake not the Dead’ (1800). It’s the first vampire short story and once again the headliner is a woman. The idea of the vampire as the cursed undead, taken out of the natural cycle of life and death, and completely given over to ‘the flesh’ couldn’t be clearer: Brunhilda is brought back from the dead by her husband Walter (who conveniently ignores the existence of his second wife) and dedicates herself to only two things—drinking the blood of anyone young and tasty that stumbles across her path and non-stop sexscapades with the seemingly indefatigable Walter.

Brunhilda is undeniably monstrous both in life and death: capricious, cruel and demanding. It isn’t her own desires, however, that turn her into a vampire. It’s Walter’s. Walter spends the entire text pretending that nothing is his fault but, you’ll be glad to hear, he gets devoured by a snake lady in the end so all’s well that ends well. Not until he’s had a thorough dressing-down from Brunhilda herself, however, who has absolutely no time for his whining.

‘Why dost thou make mouths at me like a puppet? Thou who hadst the courage to love the dead—to take into thy bed, one who had been sleeping in the grave, the bed-fellow of the worm—who hast clasped in thy lustful arms, the the corruption of the tomb—dost thou, unhallowed as thou art, now raise this hideous cry for the sacrifice of a few lives?’.

‘Wake not the Dead’ mirrors the orthodox theological conception of the vampire—a victory of sin and the flesh and vampirism as a form of embodied damnation—but simultaneously critiques the world that makes Brunhilda what she becomes. While Brunhilda is condemned, it is not the monstrous female as sexual deviant who is principally under fire but rather the man whose intemperate desires won’t even let a woman die in peace.

 

Geraldine

Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden’s side!—
And in her arms the maid she took,
And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say:
‘In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;

Perhaps the second most famous female vampire poem after Carmilla is Samuel Taylor Coleridege’s ‘Christabel’ and its decidedly sapphic protagonist, Geraldine. The poem underlines a part of the vampiric tale which we haven’t discussed yet—the infectious nature of the vampiric curse. This infectious nature of the vampiric curse is indivisible both from the theological resonances of the vampire and from Geraldine’s coded queerness. To understand what’s going on, we need to take another quick theology break and have a look at contemporary theologies of the queer.

(Content Warning for period homophobia)

We’re used now to vampire narratives in which queer identities are celebrated: Anne Rice, Jewelle Gomez, the Carmilla web series, Poppy Z. Brite, K M Szpara… This is very much not the case with the earliest accounts. The queer-coded vampiric figures are quite literally the damned walking.. For a little guided tour of the theology of the queer we find evoked in vampiric depictions, we can look to Onania (first extant print—1724). If you don’t know the origin of the term ‘onanism’, it comes from Genesis 38: 7—9. Onan was ordered to get his dead brother’s wife pregnant, wasn’t feeling it, finished to the side and got struck by a bolt of lightning. A proportional response to the heinous crime of touching one’s own penis. Although a manual on masturbation doesn’t appear to have much to do with queer sexuality at first glance, we have to remember that in the 18th century there was a frequent conflation of different forms of ‘transgressive’ sexuality. Onania offers a narrow definition of acceptable sexual activity: the ‘carnal commerce of the two Sexes, for the Continuance of the Species’ and anything beyond that—be it taking oneself in hand, enjoying oneself with a friend of the same sex, or engaging in any sexual activity which might be described as even vaguely pleasurable—was explicitly denounced. The symptoms of this kind of sexual activity, as Onania tells us, are remarkably similar to the traits of vampiric victims: decline, loss of ‘vital fluids’, weakness, and eventually even death.

For the author of Onania, this isn’t simply a medical issue; it’s also a spiritual one. For him, the body is God’s temple and ‘whenever any give themselves over to Uncleanness, they cease to be the Temples of the Holy Spirit…because the spirit cannot dwell with pollution’. Anyone engaging in queer activities become abandoned to the flesh and, moreover, by not engaging in reproductive sex, they become unable to propagate ‘naturally’. Instead they recreate themselves by spreading a moral and spiritual infection with ‘a sin that perverts and extinguishes nature’. There’s a clear overlap here with the vampiric narrative of infection, which is particularly obvious in early Gothic texts, in which there isn’t a spread of vampiric infection through blood-drinking so much as a spreading moral infection, which takes over the lives of the victims and leaves them puppets to the vampiric will.

That’s exactly what we find in ‘Christabel’. The eponymous heroine finds a distressed Geraldine in the woods and brings her home and straight to her bedroom. Upon reaching her chamber, an increasingly sapphic scene unfolds. Christabel gets into bed, her mother’s spirit has a go at protecting her but gets sent away by Geraldine, and then Christabel decides that the best way to be a good host is to enact the role of peeping Tom.

That vain it were her lids to close;
So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did recline
To look at the lady Geraldine

She just so happens to catch the lady Geraldine undressing, revealing some hideous mark upon her person. What follows next is captured in the verse heading this section. Fighting some form of internal sorrow, Geraldine gets into bed, takes Christabel in her arms and magically enforces silence on her. A queer reading of this section is impossible to ignore—it’s a passage of sapphic longing, action and (self-)enforced silence: a metaphorical closeting. It’s also one of deep self-loathing on the part of Geraldine: ‘what a stricken look was hers’. Her ‘vampirism’ is unwilling, an entrapment in the ‘flesh’ from which she can no longer escape, doomed to be a source of vampiric, life-taking infection to those she both loves and, in her own view, defiles. I warned you it wasn’t queer-friendly. That is what re-writings are for, something we see in re-imaginings of Carmilla.

 

Carmilla Revisited

‘You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever’

To finish, we return to that most famous of female vampires—Carmilla. Hopefully this little journey through the history of female vampires has pulled out some of the threads we find coming to fruition in Carmilla. That mix of sympathy and voyeurism, the depiction of authentic longing, the representation of the sapphic female as monstrous yet tragic; these are all facets linked to the theological history of the vampire. The sapphic vampire represents the monstrosity of a transgressive female sexuality as a victory of the ‘flesh’ that condemns not only the vampire’s victim but the vampire themselves. Carmilla talks about ‘the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love.’ For these early female vampire works, it is the most tragic love of all—the love that condemns you and your beloved by its very existence.

The story of the female vampire doesn’t end there though and it will be re-written. The theological undertones of the vampiric figure will gradually be sloughed off. We now have a world where Carmilla can rewrite her past as she does in the Carmilla web series. She can leave behind a life where she dooms those she loved and is condemned by them in their turn and enter a future where she becomes the heroine of the story. Where queer love sets hearts free. Where old narratives are rejected and rewritten. You can’t keep a good vampire down.

 

Dr Sam is currently a Teaching Fellow at Leeds University in the Language Centre. They have a PhD in Theology and the Early British Gothic and run Romancing the Gothic online course (free and open to all, come find us!). They can be found in their leisure time reading, scarfing biscuits and watching Murder Ladies with swords flounce across the screen..

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