- [TV] You may know Dracula, (upbeat music) but did you know the first vampires were women?
(ominous music) (tense music) Spooky!
(upbeat music) - I would identify the vampire tradition as completely being informed by an ancient female monster called the Lamiae or Lamia.
The Lamiae encapsulates a type of supernatural, seductive woman who prays sexually on men and abducts children as well, often to eat them.
- [TV] Oh my!
The female vampire character has historically embraced sexuality and challenged the patriarchy, even when these topics were taboo.
- The vampire figure has always been a very potent symbol for sexual marginalization.
So I think that carries over very nicely into these lesbian vampire films, because there is already this cultural understanding that the vampire is the sexual other.
- [TV] So, what makes female vampires so subversive?
And how does this translate to the genre of lesbian vampire films?
Let's get a historian's take on the female vampire.
(thunder rumbling) - People usually think of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" as the eponymous vampire text, but actually "Carmilla", published in 1872, (suave mysterious music) predates the publication of Dracula by about 26 years.
- In "Carmilla", we have a young, virginal character who's also the narrator of the story named Laura.
One day, she meets the Carmilla of her dreams, after a carriage accident and it becomes very apparent that Carmilla is actually a shapeshifting beautiful vampire.
Carmilla makes multiple advances on Laura throughout the text that suggests that she has some kind of same-sex desire for Laura that goes beyond friendship.
The way these vampire characters were used in the 19th century, particularly by the earliest Gothic authors, was to address sexuality as a whole.
So when you have these Gothic authors writing in a very patriarchal-heavy society, anytime a woman is showing sexual desire blatantly on the page, she's inherently challenging those sort of institutions and becomes other, becomes monstrous.
And because she's not fulfilling heteronormative desire, becomes queer.
(tense music) - There are a lot of films based on the "Carmilla" story.
There's one from 1936 called "Dracula's Daughter."
"Dracula's Daughter" is (mysterious music) about this Countess, named Countess Zaleska, and she feels cursed with her vampirism and very much longs to be cured from it.
- I ask you here tonight because I need your help.
- As a psychiatrist?
- She's kind of the first representation we get of this suffering, existential vampire character, that really does not want to be a vampire, which is very much associated with queerness.
- Something that reaches out from beyond the grave and fills me with horrible impulses.
- What this film tells us about how queerness was interpreted in the 1930s was that it was an affliction.
At the time, people very much believed it could be cured through modern, Freudian psychiatry.
So, the character of the psychiatrist, actually very much represents this institutional violence that was happening in queer life at the time.
- [TV] Hmm.
How did the film world address queerness in the 1930s?
- The Hayes Code is a code (upbeat music) of conduct that gets implemented in the early 1930s that is basically a rubric for what you can and cannot show.
For example, you can't have kisses that are longer than a certain amount of seconds.
Of course, no sex scenes.
You can't show immoral conduct and if you do show immoral conduct, the person conducting themselves that way has to die.
So, "Dracula's Daughter", at the end of the film, Countess Zaleska is killed, partly because of the Hayes Code.
(upbeat music) - Once the Hayes Code was dropped by the American film industry, there was this revival of showing all the things on screen that people couldn't before.
So, there was more violence, more gore, more sexuality that was portrayed on screen.
- In the 1970s with exploitation films, we get a lot of films that exploit sex between women as a point of excitement for the viewer and the figure of the lesbian vampire gets used over and over again in these films.
"Daughters of Darkness" is a fascinating film from this period.
Number one, because it's stars, Delphine Seyrig, who is very much known as this feminist figure.
(speaking in French) (ethereal music) It's significant that outspoken feminist, Delphine Seyrig stars in this film, because there's actually a very feminist message in the film.
(intriguing music) There is this very abusive husband that we see sexually assaulting and beating his wife, and Countess Bathory sort of comes in and in one point monologues to Valerie, her victim dujour about how men enslave women and you need to break free from it.
This movie is unique in that it is explicitly anti the male characters, whereas usually the men are the heroes of the story.
- Because these exploitation vampire films were arising at the same times (upbeat music) of a lot of the civil rights movements, both for non-white individuals and for women, that we see a lot of that tension reflected in the vampire stories of the period.
And of course, anytime we don't understand something, we like to make it monstrous.
- [TV] So, what does the genre of female vampire film look like today?
- Moving into the 1990s, (intriguing music) we get this new brand of like mainstream feminism, kind of girl power coming out of the riot grrrl movement of the time.
Shows like "Buffy", which bring these feminist sensibilities to the masses and also has these queer characters later in the show.
- I think that in today's female vampires, we see a continuation of the longer tradition of female vampires coming from the Gothic literature of the early 19th century, in that they're often women who may have been put in unfortunate circumstances and now are seizing autonomy and power from their un-deadness.
- [TV] These modern empowered vampires can be seen in "Jennifer's Body", "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night", "True Blood", and "First Kill."
- My personal hope for the lesbian vampire genre is I want queer women to be able to make films that are just as perverted and sleazy and filled with sex and violence as men have been allowed to make.
- Female vampires are about agency in a lot of ways and I think that that's a very productive thread that we've carried on for centuries at this point.
(mellow music) - [TV] Thank you, Dr. Z for joining us from PBS "Monstrum".
Make sure to check out Monstrum's channel to learn more about blood sucking creatures and undead monsters.
And while you're at it, go visit our friends at PBS Terra and check out their two new shows, "Far Out" and "Why Am I Like This?"
Which talk about the future of science and the quirky things that make us uniquely, us.
Links and details in the description below.