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Human society craves the Other – an enemy, a stranger, or a scapegoat, against which every individual can define themselves. Any appearance, behaviour or desire which deviates from the culturally accepted norm is considered monstrous, and as a consequence, is avoided or shunned. As a genre, vampiric horror frequently emerges during times of cultural crisis. It serves as a social pacifier, a tool to help negotiate communal anxieties by working through them in a displaced form.
Author Fred Botting (Gothic, 1996) suggests that since the Middle Ages, the fear of vampires originated as fears of the Plague, thought to have emerged from the East. A vampire’s principal companions and alternative forms – rats, wolves and bats etc. – were all associated with this affliction. The vampire was seen principally as a disease-bearing foreigner, thus combining overt racism and the fear of illness and death in one. The 18th century aesthetic of morality and monstrosity added to this further with the spectre of homosexuality. Decadence, corruption and forbidden love; all sins to be avoided.
Ever since their creation, vampires have been associated with sex and deviancy. They are the Monstrous Other and their existence is terrifying and corrupt. By their very undead nature, vampires go against the supposed laws of God and goodness. They embody both physical monster and unclean desires. As any deviation from the expected norm is considered scary, homosexuality has also long been equated with the Monstrous Other. Those who oppose it often cite it as exhibiting “unnatural urges and behaviour” and that it “goes against God.”
Vampires embody homosexual behaviour primarily in the way they engage in sexual practices without the consequence of reproduction. Their bodily form can shift and become fluid, and all expected physical boundaries can be transgressed, with this fluidity applying to traditional gender norms as well. Lesbian vampires were considered an even greater danger to society. Female-to-female desire was seen as destructive to both natural laws and as a threat to the patriarchal order. L. Andrew Cooper, writing in Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture (2010) suggests that by penetrating the flesh with her fangs, the lesbian vampire emulates the insertion of the phallus, and thus claims masculine power for herself. This subversion of and deviation from patriarchal norms saw such vampires become monstrous “Femme Fatales.”
Legends around vampires have existed for millennia, with many different cultures having their own stories of blood-drinking entities and spirits. While the gothic novel found its heyday in the late 18th century, the cinematic medium has depicted vampires for just shy of a century, beginning with the 1922 release of Nosferatu. Max Schreck donned prosthetics and heavy makeup to play Count Orlok, emphasising the vampire’s monstrous appearance. Yet it didn’t take long before vampires became desirable. Bela Lugosi’s early portrayal of Count Dracula (1931) was unfailingly charming and often sexy, although his victims were always beautiful women. Any queer vampirism was kept to a sub
Between 1934 and 1968, all Hollywood projects were required to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, a set of rules intended to prohibit the making of any movies that might corrupt the general audience. While not explicitly banned, the Hays Code made sure that any instances of homosexuality or queerness were effectively erased. When they did exist, their sexual preference was usually only vaguely alluded to, or they were depicted as villains.
Horror films were one of the few genres unafraid to explore and expose a queer presence in cinema. While many creators used queerness as a trope – the monstrous and predatory queer being unfortunately very common – there was some sense of victory that the queer was at least becoming visible. Movies such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Rebecca (1940) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) certainly included queer characters, even if this was not made explicit or celebrated.
Vampire movies went even further by equating queerness with sexual liberation. In Dracula’s Daughter (1936) the central character, although desperate to cure her vampiric tendencies, seduces both men and women in order to drink their blood. Blood and Roses (1960) – an updated adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic novella, Carmilla – was a precursor to the many out-and-proud lesbian vampire movies that would arrive a decade later. Unrequited love sends the unhappy Carmilla to her vampiric ancestor’s tomb where she also becomes a vampire, to then kill and feed on other women.
By the 1970’s, feminism was on the rise, and the empowered, lesbian vampire was a powerful symbol for marginalised groups – women and homosexuals alike. The 1960’s had ushered in a sexual revolution, and the Stonewall Riots gave LGBTQ characters the room to have a more explicit presence. The end of the Production Code also allowed Hollywood filmmakers greater freedom to tell the stories they really wanted to. Lesbian vampirism became a 20th century Exploitation trope, beginning with Hammer Films release of The Vampire Lovers (1970) which applauded queer, vampiric horror. The Belgian movie Daughters of Darkness (1971), Spanish Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Blood Spattered Bride (1972), and the British Daughters of Darkness (1974) ensured that queer vampires went international on the big screen. French director Jean Rollin built his career on this trope, releasing a succession of queer-friendly vampire pictures including: The Naked Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), and Lips of Blood (1975)
In the 1980’s, cult erotic-horror classic The Hunger (1983) gave visibility to an openly bisexual vampire. Catherine Deneuve stars as Miriam Blaylock with David Bowie as her companion, John. When John begins to age, Miriam seeks to replace him with the – at least initially – unwilling Sarah (Susan Sarandon), while John’s undead, mummified body grumbles pitifully in her attic. Fright Night (1985) introduced Chris Sarandon as the posh, gay (possibly bisexual) vampire Jerry Dandridge, and his obsessed young neighbour, Charley Brewster; while The Lost Boys (1987) played with physical androgyny and queer sexuality as lead vampire David asks the conflicted Michael, “How far are you willing to go?”
Many filmmakers also realised that vampiric horror was an ideal way of delivering subliminal messages concerning the dangers of sexual liberation, particularly during the 1980’s amid the threat of AIDS and HIV. While the characters are not explicitly queer, Near Dark (1987) plays with the themes of ‘infected’ and ‘clean’ blood, as well as clear racial and homosexual metaphors.
Many of the queer vampires of the ‘90’s and early 2000’s moved away from sex and passion to focus on relationships and family. Interview with the Vampire (1994) based on Anne Rice’s novel from 1976, saw Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Lestat and Louis, playing father-figures to the plague-ridden Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The movie explores their complicated – and frequently volatile – relationship over a number of centuries. The Dracula and Van Helsing families become inexorably intertwined in the vampiric arthouse-style movie, Nadja (1994) which updates the Dracula myth into modern New York. And Let the Right One In (2008) tells the story of Oskar, a bullied young boy, and his relationship with child vampire, Eli. While Eli’s gender is deliberately ambiguous, their relationship transcends this, with the two main characters shown to be both firm friends and romantically connected.
In more recent years, queer vampires seem to have become less popular in the movies. The Sisterhood (2004) is a teen horror B-movie about a vampire who corrupts a college sorority, while German horror film, We Are the Night (2010) focuses on an all-female vampire trio who are being investigated by the police. Unrequited same-sex love features as a motivational plot-point, while exploring the idea of a matriarchal society. However, where the big screen might be lacking, there is still plenty of queer representation in television (True Blood, The Originals, What We Do In The Shadows, BBC’s Dracula) on YouTube (queer, feminist Canadian vampire web series Carmilla) and in low-budget, independent Gaysploitation erotic-horror films (Vampire Boys and Bite Marks, both 2011).
Being queer might still be considered by some as the Monstrous Other, but it seems that gay vampires are no longer the shocking entity that they once were. The popularity of Ellen and Ru Paul’s Drag Race has integrated gay culture into the mainstream, and same-sex marriage is legal in twenty-eight countries around the world. Where horror aims to shock and subvert, homosexuality is no longer considered controversial enough.
Yet vampires remain popular regardless of their sexual preferences. Modern vampire stories in cinema and television often focus on their raw strength and immortality, rather than their sexual deviancy. They do not age nor die of natural causes. They can create others like them without a prolonged gestation period. They have increased speed, strength and healing ability, and are apparently immune to disease. Current events have shown us that a large percentage of the human species is woefully unprepared for catastrophic events – vampires show us an Other which we might secretly aspire to be. An impossible, evolutionary advantage, that might also be just a little bit queer.
By Tabatha Wood (she/they)
Tabatha Wood lives in New Zealand and writes weird, dark fiction and uplifting poetry. Despite her obsession with the strange and unusual, she considers herself mostly harmless, although she does take great delight in shocking people with her stories every chance she can get. A former English teacher and library manager, Tabatha’s first published books were non-fiction guides aimed at people working in education. She now teaches from home while writing in her spare time.