Deadly Daughter of Darkness

The vampire lurks in the pages of Gothic literature: ominous, stealthily stalking through night mists on moors and among castle ruins in feudal European lands. The mythos of the vampire is one of the most enduring of all folk legends, and it remains a wildly popular icon in both subculture and the mainstream.  Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula, created in 1897 in the novel named for the character, is perhaps the best known of all vampires.

There is another, and in some ways, more insidious and sinister vampire that preceded Dracula by a quarter of a century, though.  Created by Irish Gothic horror author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, what is interesting about this prototypical literary vampire concerns sex – Le Fanu’s undead night stalker is a stunning, mesmeric teenage girl named Carmilla.


sleeping victim Bertha Rheinfeldt, General Spielsdorf, and Carmilla (1872 engraving)Credit: public domain
Magyars & the Oupire
The ancestral lands of most Gothic novel settings are almost always Eastern European, a culture historically shaped and steeped in folklore, peasant superstitions, and irrational beliefs about the natural world.

The vampire is one such creation.  Although the concept of an undead, blood-thirsty predator dates to antiquity, the word itself originated with a barbarian group from the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountain region of Russia (west of the Caspian Sea).  These people, the Magyars, marauded and finally settled in the central European plains in the mid 9th century. 

Also in the area, similarly swathed in peasant folklore and superstitions, were nomadic groups from the Asian steppes and northern India.  These were “Rom”, in their parlance a term that simply meant “the People”.  To Eastern Europeans they became known as “Gypsies” (because of the erroneous belief they had originated in Egypt).  These strangers migrated slowly into the central European mystic lands, bringing their own supernatural tales with them, and adapting others.  By the 14th century this group was established alongside the Magyars and other smaller groups in what became Hungary and Rumania, the birthplace of the vampire in popular culture.

The oupire was originally an undead person or ghost whose sole source of nourishment was young children.  The oupire later evolved into the more complex organism of the cultic vampire with many superhuman characteristics (transmutation into animals, great physical strength, hypnotic powers), and weaknesses (sunlight destroys it, as does a stake through the heart or cutting off its head). 

To these people isolated in the comforting hills and forested folds of Hungary, the oupire was a real entity that could take lives and against which one took measures of protection: wearing garlic or crucifixes of silver. 

Carmilla’s Creator
To Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a writer of some note in the mid 19th century, Carmilla the vampiress as envisioned by him was classically steeped in the lore of the Rom and Magyars of Hungary.

Le Fanu, born in 1814 in Dublin, Ireland, became the foremost ghost-story writer of his day.  He came from a literate family – a grandmother was a playwright as was a great-uncle.  One of hisJoseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)Credit: public domain nieces would become a successful novelist.  This family of letters moved frequently as Le Fanu’s father, Thomas, was a minister, and went where he was needed.  They were almost always financially strapped, though Thomas often pretended to be more moneyed that he was.  He died heavily in debt, leaving his sons very little but an extensive library (which they had to sell) as an inheritance. 

Joseph had taught himself much from Thomas’ personal library, and combined with the tutoring he’d received as a child, was able to attend law school.  In 1839, he was called to the bar, but the year before he had started writing for a magazine.  He never practiced law, and gave it up completely as a vocation in favor of journalism. 

Le Fanu married in 1844, and dabbled in politics.  He also continued to write his macabre, supernaturally based stories.  After 1856, his wife became increasingly neurotic and hysterical, and she finally succumbed in the wake of a “hysterical attack” in April 1858. Le Fanu was sufficiently agonized by her death that he wrote no fiction for the next three years. 

He wrote novels and short-story collections, and it is in one of these collections of tales that a novella appeared within the context of a larger narrative about an occult investigator named Doctor Hesselius.  In a Glass Darkly, published in 1872, featured five short stories of horror and mystery.  Among this group was an enduring icon, Carmilla.

Countess before Carmilla
Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory is perhaps best known historically as the “Blood Countess” or “The Bloody Lady of Cachtice”.  She was born into Hungarian nobility in 1560. 

Elizabeth, born of privilege, was educated, speaking Latin, Greek, and German.  In 1875 at the age of 14 she was married (in a politically arranged pairing) to Ferenc Nádasdy.  He was of moneyedCountess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614)Credit: public domain and landed gentry.  Their wedding was attended by 4500 people.  Ferenc’s wedding gift to her was a castle in a remote pocket of the Little (White) Carpathian Mountains in what became the Czech Republic near the town of modern Trencín.  This fairy-tale land of castles and ruins was the ideal breeding ground for vampiric legends – the Magyar and Rom influence was everywhere in the lore.

Six children were produced between 1585 and about 1597 (the second and third died in infancy).  Elizabeth’s husband was a military officer and engaged in the skirmishing of petty feudal lords of his day.  Nádasdy also fought against the Ottomans on behalf of Hungary, as did an earlier Hungarian nobleman, Vlad Dracula. [Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476) ruled a principality in Hungary in the range of the Transylvanian Alps.]  Unlike Vlad (who was a sadistic psychopath, but not a vampire) Nádasdy was a proper military man, repelling the Turkish invaders and the ongoing threat of Islam.  In 1604, Elizabeth’s husband died aged 47, allegedly of wounds received in battle. The pair had been married for 29 years. 

Something was perceived amiss with this slight noblewoman.  A local Lutheran minister in 1602 (while her husband was still living) began lodging complaints with authorities about strange goings on at Elizabeth’s castle.  Her husband was away at war most of the time, and this minister reported things both heretical and sacrilegious happening. The atrocities he detailed were not believed when he leveled these allegations (from 1602 to 1604); it wasn’t until 1610 that Hungarian authorities decided to look into his claims (eight years after he first brought them). 

The strange case of The Blood Countess began to unfold over a period beginning in March 1610.  More than 300 witnesses to the allegations were interviewed by two notaries between 1610 and 1611.  Priests, noblemen, and the peasantry, anyone who had any contact with Elizabeth, were interrogated. 

The allegations were sensational and bizarre.  According to the Lutheran minister, Elizabeth and four maidservants were systematically murdering young women, usually other servants in her castle.  Then, according to the rumors, Elizabeth was washing, bathing, or drinking their blood as a youth tonic (in 1604 she would have been 44, on the cusp of matronly by the day’s standards).  The case took on a life of its own (in the same way the Salem Witch Trial hysteria in the late 17th century tore apart Salem Village in Massachusetts Bay Colony). Testimony claimed her earliest victims for blood sources were the adolescent girls of local peasants (17 villages surrounded her castle, and all of them were under her rule at the time).  Most victims were allegedly lured to her castle with offers of work as maidservants. 

Elizabeth ran a finishing school for girls in her castle as well – as one of the few educated women in the area her tutelage was desired by the local gentry for their daughters.  It was claimed she began killing those young women as well to feast on, or bathe in, their blood. Finally, there were claims of outright kidnappings of local girls to feed her bloodlust.

The hearings were absurd in the way that all spectrally driven, rumor-based hearings are.  Elizabeth was frankly tried without evidence.  All testimony was hearsay.  Tortures in which she allegedly delighted included beating the girls (to soften their flesh, though no charges of cannibalism were raised), she burned them with pokers and open flames, mutilated them with sharp instruments, and starved them.

Claims of seeing traces of torture on dead bodies in the area of her main castle (in graveyards and others in unmarked areas) were raised. She was accused of killing girls on her other land holdings as well.  History cannot clearly put a number on the victims – dependent upon source Elizabeth was responsible for anywhere from 35 up to more than 650 deaths of young women and children.

Beyond the main defendants, Elizabeth and her maidservants, several other people were charged in the case as procuresses, those seeking and (either by force or deception) bringing girls to Elizabeth.

Two of her alleged accomplices, before their executions, reportedly gave death figures of either 36 or 37 girls killed. Personnel in the castle claimed between 100 and 200 bodies had been hauled away from the scene.  The magic number of 650 was rumored to have been reported in a book based on Elizabeth’s diary scribbling.  This is the one for which she is claimed as the most prolific serial killer of all time. No written diaries of hers were ever found, if they ever existed as claimed, but she did leave behind 32 handwritten letters now archived, none of which mention murder.

Elizabeth may very well have been a sexual sadist who derived satisfaction from torturing and killing young women.  The truth, though, is the truth can never be known.  The Knights Templar was wiped out at the behest of France’s King Phillip in the early 14th century; he owed them an enormous, and unpayable, debt.  Similarly, Elizabeth may have been accused of atrocities stemming from her political and religious beliefs, and for her creditor status to Hungary’s King Matthias.  The Hapsburg Family, consolidating power politically in central Europe, were Catholic, and wished their expanding empire to be as well.  Elizabeth was a Protestant.  Conflicts over religious ideology raged; as a member of the aristocracy Elizabeth’s Protestantism in the face of Hapsburg Catholicism was very visible.  King Matthias also owed her a huge sum of money.

All four of her female presumed partners-in-crime were convicted.  Three of them were sentenced to death.  Before being burned at the stake, two of them had their fingers pulled off with hot pincers.  A third was deemed less culpable than the first two and was mercifully beheaded before consignment to the flames. The fourth convict was merely sentenced to life imprisonment because it was felt she had been bullied into cooperating by the other women.

Elizabeth herself was never tried for her alleged crimes, although King Matthias had called immediately for her execution.  An adviser said such an act would undermine the nobility’s standing, and would also result in the forfeiture of Elizabeth’s significant land holdings to the Crown (leaving her noble family without a good name or property).  Instead, she was sentenced, without trial, to house arrest.   The king’s debt to her was declared void as well.

The term “house arrest” sounds benign. [And it certainly was for Galileo, convicted of heresy in 1633.  He retired to his Florence, Italy, home, received visitors, painted, conducted experiments, etc., until his death of natural causes in 1642.]  Elizabeth’s fate was far crueller.  House arrest for her meant bricking her up (“immuring”) inside her castle with an access portal for food and necessities.  She was placed in this situation in 1610 even before the other four servants’ trials had been completed.  No human contact was granted.  Her keepers were not allowed to speak to her or to have any physical contact with her. She managed to survive in this gulag for about four years.  She was discovered dead on August 21, 1614; several untouched plates of food led to the conclusion she had died at least a couple of days earlier, but the exact date is unknown. She was 54 years old.

In 1765, the court testimony first became public, and was printed for mass distribution in 1817.  Despite the fact none of this testimony records any mentions of her taking bloodbaths, it is that particular quirk that stuck in the public’s mind, and left the world with the reputation of “The Blood Countess”, keeping her youth with continual washings and baths in virgins’ blood.

And her image is partly revived in Le Fanu’s cult novella of 1872.


"Carmilla" (Italian editon cover)
Carmilla Comes to “Life”
The novella Carmilla is written as a narrative discovered in a manuscript by a third-party. The story is compelling, and Le Fanu’s writing is spare, leaving much to the imagination, except for a few things: Carmilla’s overt eroticism, her animal sexuality, and her physical beauty.

The year of the story’s narrative is not specified but by inference must be at least 1848.  The setting is Austria (which ruled over Hungary in an alliance called Austria-Hungary under the Hapsburgs in the mid 19th century).  The complete story is about 28,000 words long.  Le Fanu’s tale thrives on vagaries.  The real heroine of Carmilla is an 18- or 19-year-old girl named Laura.  The reader does not learn her name until slightly more than halfway through the novella – although the narrative is told from her perspective, her name only appears four more times afterward. 

Laura describes herself as of English descent but living in Austria’s Styrian area (southeast corner, centered on the town of Graz).  Her father is a wealthy English widower who has retired from the Austrian civil service, probably as a diplomat or attaché.

This small family of two lives in a sprawling and remote manor many miles from the nearest village or neighbor.  Within three miles of their rural home (called a schloss) are the ruins of an old castle formerly owned by a family named Karnstein who failed to thrive decades before. 

Their nearest live neighbors are a retired soldier named General Spielsdorf who lives with his niece, a girl of about Laura’s age named Bertha Rheinfeldt. The old General took her in and, as he was childless and a widower himself, he treats Bertha as he would a daughter.  Laura’s life buried deep in the castle in the forest depends heavily upon outside visitors for entertainment and diversion.  General Spielsdorf had planned for his “daughter” Bertha to come stay for an extended visit with Laura, and she was looking forward to it.

Laura and her father habitually stroll the grounds of the schloss – there is a footbridge spanning a small stream and a road that runs to the village about fifteen miles away.  One particular summer evening, they are out for a walk on the castle grounds, when her father mentions the girl Bertha will not be visiting.  He said he’d received a letter that day from the General where he learned Bertha had died of a mysterious illness, gradually wasting away over a period of about six weeks.  Laura is devastated, not only because of the disappointment, but because of the death of her friend.

Suddenly, a carriage comes careering round a bend in their road, and upsets when it strikes a protruding tree root.  The coachmen, whom the father later describes as ill-begotten and mean looking (lower class), aid in righting the coach.  A matronly, but elegantly dressed woman emerges from the wreckage. Without much in the way of introduction, she hustles Laura’s father aside for a quick and private conversation. She tells the father she must hasten away on a very urgent matter, the details of which she cannot divulge, and her daughter is traveling with her.  The daughter, according to this woman, is recovering from an illness, and since the mother cannot stop in her flight, she fears her daughter is not strong enough to continue their journey.

She then asks Laura’s father is he would consent to care for her daughter at his schloss for about three months, after which time she would fetch her.  He agrees to this proposal, but then later questions why he acted so rashly. However, as he had agreed, the girl is removed from the carriage and installed in her own room in the schloss.

Before the woman leaves, she tells all listening that her daughter will not divulge where she is from, what their family name is, or to where her mother is going.  She is instructed to rebuff all personal questioning on those matters, and will not reveal anything personal about the family.  The mother regains the carriage, and it thunders away; as it leaves, Laura notices a third person, an older and malevolent looking black crone wearing a turban sitting in the carriage.

When Laura was six she had what she thought was a nightmare in which a beautiful woman came to her in her room.  This ethereal creature climbed into her bed, held her close, and let her doze.  Then, Laura felt a sharp pricking in her chest, awakened with a yelp, and the strange woman disappeared under her bed.  This newly arrived girl looks exactly like the specter of the woman who’d visited Laura in her dream 12 years before.  As soon as she is able, Laura manages to speak with the strange teenager, and learns only that her name is Carmilla.  She refuses to speak of anything more.

The new arrival is taller than average.  She is also beautiful, exceptionally and sensually magnetic:

“She was slender, and wonderfully graceful.  Except that her movements were languid--very languid--indeed, there was nothing in her appearance to indicate an invalid. Her complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed; her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful, I never saw hair so magnificently thick and long when it was down about her shoulders; I have often placed my hands under it, and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft and, in color, a rich, very dark brown, with something of gold.  I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it.”

Carmilla insists upon having the luxury of locking her room from the inside during her visit, and she also begs their indulgence in allowing her to rise for the day anytime she wishes.  Laura finds their guest is rarely active before noon, eats very little, and is reticent in conversations.

The guest takes many amorous liberties with Laura, who is strangely drawn to her.  She pets and kisses Laura, frequently and without invitation which the girl finds both disturbing and quietly thrilling.  When so embraced by Carmilla, Laura feels almost under a hypnotic spell, repulsed yet unable to resist but feebly. Carmilla’s obvious sexual interest in her leads Laura to fantasize that the beautiful Carmilla is really a young man in disguise who has found his way to her.

Carmilla’s strangeness aside, the two girls are fast friends.  One day a hunchbacked peddler arrives for a twice-yearly visit to sell at the schloss. The man’s traveling companion is a hound that refuses to cross the small bridge onto the schloss grounds; instead, it sits down and begins howling.

Laura and Carmilla hale the hunchback from an open window of the schloss.  He approaches and tells of his wares:

“Will your ladyships be pleased to buy an amulet against the oupire, which is going like the wolf, I hear, through these woods,” he said dropping his hat on the pavement. “They are dying of it right and left and here is a charm that never fails; only pinned to the pillow, and you may laugh in his face.”

The “charms” are slips of vellum with cabalistic ciphers and diagrams written on them.  Carmilla and Laura both agree to buy these against the oupire.  The hunchback, examining Carmilla from the ground below her window, mentions he also has tools which can fix the one long, sharp tooth he sees she has. Carmilla, offended by his comments on her dentition, backs away from the window.  The peddler then leaves, taking his howling dog with him.

Life in the schloss goes on as normal with the exception of having Carmilla as a guest.  The father had sent several old oil paintings out for restoration and cleaning, some of which had hung in the manor for a century or more.  When the paintings come back, one in particular is clearly viewed for the first time having been covered with decades of grime. Laura mentions her dead mother was of an old Hungarian family, and the portrait is of one of her relations.  The portrait is of a young woman and all present remark upon the exact likeness to Carmilla in this painting: “right down the mole on her throat”.  The portrait bears the date “1698 A.D.”.

The woman in the portrait is a countess from the nearby ruined Karnstein castle named Mircalla Karnstein.  Carmilla claims a family resemblance as they Carmilla (seated) & Laura in funeral scene from "Carmilla" (1872)Credit: Michael Fitzgerald, public domainwere distant relatives of hers as well.  Laura is drawn to the portrait’s beauty and asks to have it for her room.

Carmilla’s health seems to wax and wane with her having spells of weakness followed by relative vigor.  One day, she and Laura were out walking near the schloss road when a peasant funeral procession passes by.  Carmilla behaves strangely as the peasants sing a hymn, and her face darkens with both anger and anguish.  Laura sings along with the song unconsciously, and Carmilla shrieks for Laura to stop tormenting her with the hymn.  Laura overlooks Carmilla’s histrionics as part of her undiagnosed “condition” as mentioned by the noble woman who left her behind.

Local girls continued to succumb to a strange wasting illness. Laura herself begins having nocturnal visitations and nightmares that leave her confused and weakened.  In one vision, she sees Carmilla standing at the foot of her bed wearing a nightgown soaked in blood.  In another, she awakens to see a large black cat, like a panther, at the foot of her bed.  It morphs into the human shape of Carmilla and disappears from the room. She is left feeling drained and in a languorous state of weakened laziness, not unpleasant. After some time elapses, her father notes her drawn demeanor and sends for a local doctor to check on Laura.  The doctor talks to her, then talks to the father.  He asks finally if she hasCarmilla at the SchlossCredit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, © 2012 a mark or bruise on her throat.  Laura affirms she has a small blue spot on her neck, the size of a fingertip. The doctor examines it and then speaks to Laura’s father in private.

Later, the father sends for Laura and her two governesses.  They are going on a picnic to the Karnstein castle ruins, presumably to brighten Laura’s spirits. Carmilla, who has not yet stirred from her room, is to follow in a separate carriage at a slightly later time with another governess. Laura and her father meet General Spielsdorf on the road.  He rides with them to the castle ruins and tells them of his “daughter” Bertha’s recent death.

The General began by saying he met an older noble woman at a masked ball several months before.  She would not take off her mask or give her name, but claimed she knew him and provided enough references to make him believe they had met.  The noble woman’s daughter had cozied up to Bertha at the ball.  Later, as the ball wound down toward daylight, the matron told the General she had to leave suddenly on a trip – would he mind watching her daughter for three weeks or so?  He agreed, and took the girl home.  Out of her mask, he saw the woman’s daughter was very beautiful and about the same age as his Bertha.  The girls were steadfast almost immediately.  The stranger’s name was Millarca, and while she was no bother, she insisted on locking herself in her room nightly, and not rising until late in the day. She was also suspected of sometimes not being in her room at night as servants reported seeing her in the morning mists on the grounds.

Bertha began wasting away, however, and reported strange dreams.  She said a beast appeared sometimes at the foot of her bed, and occasionally she felt a pleasant sensation that “resembled the flow of an icy stream against her breast”.  Sometimes she felt needle-sharp pains at the base of her throat.  Two different doctors examined her; one concluded she was under a supernatural influence. 

A night soon after, the General stood watch with a sword in his daughter’s room.  Bertha slept; a black shape, looking like a large jungle cat, appeared at the foot of her bed.  The cat transformed into the beautiful houseguest, Millarca.  The General lunged at her with his sword, she dissolved through a doorway, and he never saw her again.  Bertha died the next day, and the General spent the next few months looking for Millarca to no avail.

The party arrives at the Karnstein ruins.  After much discussion and consultation with three other people (a cleric, a woodsman, and a vampire hunter) they discover the secret of the abandoned village and Karnstein Castle.  The village around the castle had been plagued decades before by the oupire and was abandoned.  The Countess of Karnstein, a young woman named Mircalla, suddenly died in 1698 of a wasting illness.

The General was convinced the tomb of the long-dead Countess Karnstein would end his search for what killed his foster daughter Bertha.  Just as the party approaches the area in the ruins where the tomb might be, Carmilla and the other governess arrive.  The General bristles at the sight of Carmilla – he immediately identifies her as “Millarca”, the oupire who killed his daughter.  Carmilla shrieks at the recognition, struggles with the ax-wielding General, and fades into a wall of the ruins.  The company decides to call for Inquisitors (local authorities) to help deal with the matter, and the next day, the group returns with the authorities.  They dig through the stonework to find Carmilla has sought refuse in her crypt, that of the dead countess Mircalla Karnstein.  She lies in a sarcophagus that has several inches of blood in it.  Her eyes are open and she is breathing.  A stake is driven through her heart, her head is chopped off, and both her head and body are burned.  In a pastiche to the execution of Jeanne d’Arc, Carmilla’s ashes are scattered into a nearby river. 

Le Fanu’s Language
The story of Carmilla carried many surprising elements for its day.  Adults understood the euphemisms of “languor” and “pleasant sensation as of standing in an icy river”.  The female orgasm was not a mystery to Victorians—they may not have talked about it openly, but they knew what it was (as is evidenced in the writings of the purely prurient My Secret Life among other works from that era). 

The Victorian adult reader also would have clearly recognized the sensation of “afterglow” in Laura’s descriptions of feeling pleasantly drowsed, lazy, and weak, but not uncomfortably so. Le Fanu made certain scenes subtly erotic without resorting to pornography.  He also left much to the imagination.  His writing is spare – he set the mood of the schloss locale, but then left it for the reader to conjure the sense of isolation and foreboding surrounding the environs (by including old Gothic ruins, and an abandoned village).

Carmilla’s amorous attentions to Laura are certainly same-sex, but not in the same sense of homosexuality.  The lesbian overtones stem from two things: young women sometimes develop “crushes” on other young women as they mature, and women are more easily subdued as victims.  It is easier for a female vampire to attack a female victim for the same reason male vampires would – in general, women are physically weaker.  Hence, there is no true lesbianism here, just the expedience of pursuing weaker prey.  Many, however, find it lurid to read such intent into the relationship between Laura and Carmilla.

Carmilla’s vampire characteristics may not be familiar with the modern reader, and Le Fanu’s ascribed traits make her even more sadistic and sinister than the “normal” vampire. In the parlance of today’s vampire lore, Carmilla is a “day walker”: a vampire unaffected by sunlight as is commonly believed in the lore.  She goes for walks with Laura outdoors during daylight hours, she is free to roam the grounds during the day, and she is unaffected by the light.  This means she is free to hunt and kill at well, a far greater threat than a night stalker.

In common with most vampire traditions, Carmilla has a seductive, hypnotic power over her victims.  Le Fanu describes Laura’s irritation at Carmilla’s affections, but she seems almost in a trance-like state, unable to willfully resist her.  Likewise, vampires have the ability to influence decision-making; Laura’s father, when prevailed upon by the strange noble woman to care for her daughter, impulsively says yes and then, as if clearing his head afterward, wonders why he was so quick to agree (Le Fanu leaves the reader to conclude the noble woman is likewise an oupire and exerted her mesmeric influence over Laura’s father.  The same happened to the General when she approached him to care for “Millarca”).

The vampire bat was first seen by Europeans in the 16th century, and was named for the vampire of legend.  The bat uses razor-sharp teeth to break the surface of a prey animal’s skin, and then lapsCarmilla (interpretation) the blood from the wound.  An anti-clotting agent in its saliva keeps the blood flowing.  After the bat leaves this animal, the wound begins to heal.  Another bat may come along and re-open the same wound for the sake of convenience for a meal.

Carmilla, like more obscure vampires in legend, is of the “one-tooth” variety.  Le Fanu makes it clear that in the ancient portrait of Countess Mircalla Karnstein, she has a mole on her throat, the same as Carmilla does (the reader must conclude Carmilla fell victim herself to an oupire in the past).  Similarly, Laura has a single, blue-black mark on her throat as well, coincident with Carmilla’s nocturnal visitation. Finally, the reader is told of but one overly obvious and sharp tooth when the hunchback peddler offers to file it down for Carmilla.

Thus Carmilla behaves much as the vampire bat.  Establishing her bleeding site, she simply reopens the old wound on an “as needed” basis (and this mark may have been put on Laura during her visitation by Carmilla when Laura was six). As for her recuperative place in her coffin bloodbath, Le Fanu may have gotten this element from the legend of Countess Báthory.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of Carmilla’s character is her almost Epicurean leaching of Laura’s life force over time.  This is an interesting twist on vampire lore.  There is a sadistic element to Carmilla’s slowly draining the life from these young women (Bertha, and untold others before her). Carmilla could kill and drain Laura or any victim immediately; instead, she insinuates herself intoCarmilla (Web art) her victims’ lives for many weeks or months.  The reader learns that other young women in the area are dying of a wasting disease after a few days – thus it is clear she can kill with haste.  This makes Carmilla closer to the incubus (a male spirit) that drains the life force from its victims (versus the succubus which is a female demon that sexually assaults men in their sleep).

Le Fanu, by giving the story out as a first person narrative from Laura’s perspective, deprives the reader of Carmilla’s first-person activities.  He does, however, drop multiple clues for the reader to figure out what Carmilla is.  Some are plainly and clumsily contrived (the old portrait that just happens to be delivered when Carmilla is in residence at the schloss).  Others are more subtle, such as Carmilla’s agitated reaction to the singing of a Christian hymn.  Confusion reigns, though, throwing the reader off track sometimes because Carmilla does not show all the “known” behaviors of the vampire.  She occasionally drinks tea and eats chocolates and regular food (though not much) with the family.  She is able to go out in daylight.  Her reflection is clear in a mirror (in one scene she is described standing before a vanity, looking in a mirror). 

Although his intent cannot be clearly known, there is one other very subtle clue Le Fanu throws in to lead the reader along, and that is with respect to Carmilla’s hair.  Le Fanu goes to great pains in describing how luxuriant, thick, and heavy her hair is.  Victorians believed that even after a person died his or her hair and nails continued to grow. This is a myth.  The truth is neither grows—the drying action of a corpse’s skin, as it dehydrates and desiccates, cause the scalp and skin to draw away from hair follicles and the nail bed.  Thus, it appears as if the hair has grown.  This little detail may have been intentionally put in by Le Fanu, as the educated of his day knew “growing” hair and nails were also signs of vampirism.

The final vampire trait left unresolved about Carmilla is her sleeping arrangements.  It is noted in the story that the vampire must return to its grave or casket for rest, but it is not told how often.  The reader may conclude Carmilla, on most nights, locks herself in her room, then leaves it and takes shelter in her crypt.  However, she obviously stays put many nights as well, and that may explain her languor and mood swings – when not in her crypt for extended periods she weakens.  Le Fanu left enough unanswered questions for a clear sequel to this story.  Who was the noble “mother” of Carmilla?  Was she, too, a vampire, or merely a facilitator and protector when Carmilla needed fresh victims?  What about the sinister looking black woman in the carriage?  Who was she? Unfortunately, the world will never know Le Fanu’s intent – he died in 1873 the year after Carmilla was published

Sub-Culture Carmilla
In Dracula, Bram Stoker (1847-1912) parallels people and places used in Carmilla, and it is obvious it was a contextual touchstone.  His original manuscript placed the action in Austria (the setting of Carmilla); his vampire hunter, Van Helsing, has a parallel with Le Fanu’s occult doctor, Hesselius, etc..  Stoker did not plagiarize Le Fanu; he merely used certain elements for inspiration.  The two stories are very different.
film vampiress (mid 1960s)Credit: Hammer Studios, England

This obscure vampire has been embraced by any number of sub-culture groups – Goth kids, Vampire kids, and others.  The allure of the female vampire was brought to the fore in Carmilla: she is beautiful, seductive, intelligent, and beguiling.  Many use Carmilla’s image as a secret code of sorts – if one knows who Carmilla is and can recognize her by name or image, that person "Carmilla" (live theater poster, Chicago)is a genuine lover of vampire lore and vampire culture.  Her seductress has featured many times under various names from early film, to the campy Hammer Studio vampire movies, to television’s Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Her image has been recast from the earliest plate engravings to last week’s Web art.  New fans discover her continually and then add their own spin to her iconography.  It is a living character with new life breathed into it constantly.

This is a brilliantly conceived icon, one not known to the masses.  She is evil, but melancholic (she speaks often of romantic love in a wistful way).  She is remote but alluring.  She is Carmilla, the sexy teenage vampire created by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu before Bram Stoker ever heard of Vlad the Impaler.


Vampiras (Web art)


Concrete Blond - Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)

Beautifully illustrated

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Vampire babes in the grindhouse mold!

starring cult fave Ingrid Pitt (1972)