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Tag Archives: J. Sheridan Le Fanu

The paper was recently presented at the 2012 conference of the Popular/American Culture Association in the South. It was presented in the context of vampiric variations which included looking at vampires in both The X-Files and Tanz der Vampire, a German musical based on The Fearless Vampire Killers. 


As J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla comes to an end, Laura the heroine of the piece leaves us with the knowledge that the vampire Carmilla still haunts her “memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend [Laura] saw in the ruined church”. The audience leaves the tale with little doubt that Carmilla has permenantly affected Laura both physically and mentally. Likewise, Le Fanu’s introduction of Carmilla into the Victorian cultural milieu establishes a foundational lesbian vampire archetype that transcends the novella and continues to inform figures in pop culture even 140 years after its inception. While this character is not always named Carmilla, the repeated insertions of this figure into later novels, movies, television programs, etc. illuminate the cultural significance of Le Fanu’s Countess. Nevertheless, as these Carmilla—esque figures are born into newer eras, the revisions to the original archetype exemplifies the effects modern audiences and their sensibilities have on the evolution of such a figure and how it is integrated into popular culture as a whole.

In Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and their television adaptation HBO’s True Blood, the readership and viewership of the 21st century are presented with two contemporary examples of this revised Carmilla figure in both representations of the lesbian vampire Pam. Throughout Pam’s intermittent appearances within the novels and the first four seasons of the series, she is shown to be a hyper-feminine lesbian vampire, echoing the Carmilla model, yet this base characterization may be the only tangible commonality between them and their literary ancestor. This is mainly due to the revisionary choices Harris and True Blood perform to update their respective versions of the archetypal figure. As Carmilla finds herself translated and revised into Harris’s Pam, True Blood reconfigures and reworks Harris’s romance / mystery character for an adult television audience that expects sex, blood, and violence. Through an examination of the revisions that take place from Carmilla to Harris’s Pam and then True Blood’s characterwith the audience for each particular iteration in mind, the significance of the revisions demonstrates how this lesbian vampire figure remains culturally relevant and continues to haunt our collective imagination.

Within the novella, Le Fanu characterizes Carmilla and informs the archetype through her liminal positions as a lesbian in the Victorian era and as a vampire who willingly subverts herself into a position of hyper-femininity. Throughout the tale, Carmilla exists as a lesbian bewitching and feeding on young women to sate her physical need for blood but additionally to experience orgasmic, sexually charged moments wherein she dominates and penetrates her female companions. Although her lesbianism is problematic because Victorians did not conceive of a sexual act beyond penile penetration, her non-heteronormal “other” status permeates the text like Nina Auerbach contends in Our Vampires Ourselves as a “romantic friendship. . . a physical, psychic union [between women that] the experts of the next century would label ‘homosexual’”. Furthermore, Carmilla hides her lesbian tendencies and vampirism behind an image of super femininity to appear innocuous but additionally to have easy access to her food supply. Most of the time, she appears to be the fainting ingénue; however, she is ultimately revealed to be a monster of female sexuality, authority, and power that must have “a sharp stake driven through [her] heart” and “her head struck off” to destroy her non-ideal version of femininity, which keeps her from infecting young women (and potentially men) with her vampirism and dangerous sexuality.

Building on this base structure of the lesbian, ultra fem vampire, Charlaine Harris revises the Carmilla figure into her own authoritative and agentive character Pam Ravenscroft. Harris does this by positioning Pam within liminal spaces similar to those of Le Fanu’s character. However, the specific details of the Carmilla archetype are reworked for Harris’s 21st century readers of romance and mystery. By doing this, Pam functions as a palatable update to the archetype while become a fully realized contemporary character as well.

Similar to Carmilla manipulating others with her appearance, Pam’s ultra-fem image cloaks her threat level as a powerful vampire. When Pam is not working at the vampire bar Fangtasia where she wears a mandated black costume, she “dress[es], as always, in sort of a middle-class anonymous clothes. . .[like] a pair of winter white knit pants and a blue sweater. . .[with] Her blond hair. . .shining, straight and loose, down her back”. This subdued, innocuous image becomes further enhanced because Pam is only nineteen years old when she is turned and “look[s] like Alice in Wonderland with fangs”. Further still, Sookie and the others in the novel continually reference the pastels she wears and allow that Pam “look[s] like a vampire cast in an episode of Leave it to Beaver,” thus highlighting the suburban housewife look she espouses. By playing up her conservative ultra-fem appearance, Pam occupies a space within the novels that allows her to be underestimated by those around her, thereby giving her an edge against mortals and immortals alike when she does assert herself in an argumentative or physical way.

Though Carmilla uses her appearance to feed on women, this is not necessary for Pam due to the advent of synthetic blood; therefore, her conscious choice of embracing this conservative ultra-fem style exposes Pam’s agency in light of many modern vampiric iterations. Directly opposing the modern Goth vampire wearing blacks and reds or showing cleavage in diaphanous gowns, Pam’s middle-class modern style and vintage chic clothing, all in pastels, emphasize her femininity and make her appear “ethereally lovely, with a kind of edge”. By wearing vintage clothing and conservative attire, Pam deliberately distinguishes herself from many other vampires and exemplifies her individuality. Even when fighting a war against a group of werewolf witches, Pam upholds her feminine ethos by entering battle wearing a “pale pink sweater and darker pink slacks,” which shows that she will not compromise her sense of self in the worst of situations. Although this ultra-fem appearance might seem binding or debilitating to some modern feminists like Auerbach who contends that vampires “promised protection against a destiny of girdles, spike heels, and approval” for her, Pam uses her wardrobe and feminine demeanor as a symbol of power to fight witches, kill vampires, and perform other feats of strength. And thus, she becomes a symbol of female empowerment that Carmilla can never be.

Though Pam blends in with humanity relatively well, the disdain this empowered female vampire exhibits for humans reflects the scorn that Carmilla has for those individuals of the lower classes. Early on in the novels, Pam’s dislike of those she feels beneath her is obvious as she punishes a “lovelorn young man. . .[who] crawl[s] across the floor and kiss[es her] boot” by pointedly kicking him away from her. Her treatment for the inferior humans continues throughout the first few novels until she strikes a friendly relationship with Sookie, the protagonist of the Mysteries, and her brother Jason. Despite this amiability, however, Pam quickly shows that “If it came to a choice between upholding vamp interests and being [Sookie’s] buddy” she is definitely going to take sides against her human acquaintances. Furthermore, her willingness to kill them to protect her maker proves that she values vampires over humans. Here, much like Auerbach says of Carmilla, Pam shows that she truly “loves only those she understands,” and other vampires are what she knows. Pam respects and upholds her vampiric relations because she is connected to vampires in a way that she cannot be with her human friends, which echoes a similar tone to Carmilla’s not “troubl[ing her] head about peasants”. Pam’s relationship with humanity appears quite comparable to Carmilla’s, yet instead of class elitism, Pam endorses a superiority of species that places vampires above the humans, which serves to distance her from Carmilla.

Although Pam values vampires over humans, the strong bond she forms with Sookie becomes an important factor that differentiates her from Carmilla because Pam’s relationship with Sookie moves beyond one of predator and prey. Late in the series, Pam develops a friendship with Sookie, one with give and take from both parties without fearing the other’s intentions. Pam illustrates her friendliness by opening herself up to Sookie and showing her that she has a “sense of humor, not something vampires were noted for”. Moreover, Pam eventually feels comfortable enough with Sookie that she shares the details of her turning and tells Sookie that she “actually like[s] it, being a vampire”. As a result of their intermittent camaraderie, Pam comes to accept Sookie as her “favorite breather” and accepts her as an equal rather than a useless human. By establishing this friendship with Sookie, Pam moves beyond Carmilla’s predatory nature and exposes that she can be more than a blight on humanity. As Laurence A. Rickels contends in a lecture on Carmilla, “Carmilla’s secrecy is what angers Laura” because Laura only knows Carmilla’s name and a vague idea of where she is from; ultimately, this secrecy is what gets Carmilla killed. Thereby, Pam’s abilities to make friends and reveal herself to them help her become the ultimate survivor of sorts, but perhaps more importantly, this facet of Pam’s characterization revises this Other into a more personable and normative figure, the housewife next door instead of a monster feeding on its purported friends.

The final way in which Pam echoes Carmilla involves her lesbianism, but her lesbian status is complicated within the context of the modern world. Early on, Pam gives hints of her sexuality when she informs Sookie of what happened to her after the maenad’s attack: “‘Your shirt was so ragged we had to tear it off,’ Pam said smiling openly. ‘We took turns holding you on our laps. You were much admired. Bill was furious’”. While Pam makes light of saving Sookie’s life, she additionally reveals part of her lesbian nature by smiling at the thought of undressing Sookie. Moreover, even though this small detail could be potentially ambiguous, her “briefly dat[ing] Amelia Broadway” (Sookie’s temporary roommate), “tak[ing] a human female [Miriam] as a lover,” and flirting with other females throughout the series move her away from this uncertainty and concretely situate her within the lesbian sphere. Pam becomes the lesbian figure that Carmilla is not allowed to be. Pam can fall in love with anyone she pleases and chooses women, unlike Carmilla who can be “in love with no one, and never shall…unless it should be” her current female obession. Therefore, Pam represents a liberated, non-monstrous form of lesbianism within the modern world where female-female attraction is recognized as existent and no longer considered taboo by many.

Consequently, Pam’s form of lesbianism is presented as more acceptable than Carmilla’s due to the monogamous nature of her relationships. In “Reading the Other,” Miriam Jones contends that “Le Fanu’s text through its use of unnatural sexuality as a marker of degeneration” intimidates the British Imperial order, and thereby, Carmilla poses a serious threat that could contaminate the good men and women of Victorian society. However, Pam does not fit this pattern of infectious or degenerative sexuality. Each time she has a significant relationship, she stays faithful to her partners until they are parted in some natural / organic way and thus shows that she is a one woman vampire. Further still, Pam’s desire “to make another vampire” of Miriam exemplifies her monogamy even more clearly, even to the point that she “plans to turn Miriam in secret” regardless of the punishment it might entail. While she is unable to sire her lover, Pam’s willingness to do so serves as a powerful indicator of her dedication to Miriam because this act would create an eternal commitment between them which could only be undone by the death of one or the other. Thus, Pam becomes a culturally acceptable lesbian / homosexual other because she is not the monstrous, philandering Carmilla trying to turn other women into a legion of vampiric lesbians; rather, Pam is with one women at a time and threatens no one in the process.

Though Harris’s Pam revises the Carmilla archetype into a more positive figure, HBO’s True Blood reconfigures the novels’ liminal figure to the small screen for an adult viewing audience that desires blood, sex, violence, and other taboos that the books’ fan base might find unsavory. Throughout the first four seasons, True Blood demonstrates that it values wit, domineering sexuality, and a vampiric family-first demeanor as the main features of their Pam over the more nuanced elements of Harris’s character. The transformation from Pam Ravenscroft to Pamela Swynford de Beaufort illuminates archetypal shifts, but ultimately, these shifts exhibit certain differences from Harris’s character that place TBP into Carmilla’s original liminal existence as much as they let her “out of the coffin”.

Perhaps, the most obvious deviation from Harris’s character involves TBP’s age and more mature physical appearance as embodied by Kristin Bauer van Straten. Upon first seeing her in the show, Bauer van Straten seems to be a good candidate for TBP because she is blond-haired and blue-eyed and delivers her lines with a sharp, dry wit. Nevertheless, in regards to Pam appearing nineteen years old, Bauer van Straten does not fit the bill, as she is forty-two when the series begins. Being personified by this older figure, TBP does not elicit the veneer of innocence found in Harris’s character; rather, Bauer van Straten gives the character a harder edge and makes her more intimidating. As the bouncer of Fangtasia and her maker’s enforcer, TBP exudes power and strength as much as she inspires fear and longing. She lets the human characters of the show know that she can and “will personally eat, fuck, and kill” them if they do not heed her demands. Through Bauer van Straten’s casting, TBP’s older age and harder appearance cause her to be more forceful and frightening than the nineteen year old could be without vamping out entirely.

Tangentially, the hyper-feminine appearance of Harris’s Pam is also compromised within the context of the show as TBP’s sexy work attire becomes valued over her casual, vintage look. During the first two seasons, the way that she is costumed attempts to emulate the novels’ dual presentations of her as both stereotypically vampiric in her bar apparel and as the conservative ultra-fem at all other times. This differentiation even continues to occur into third season but is quickly down played as TBP herself draws attention to her appearance: “I don’t know what it is about me that makes people think I want to hear their problems. Maybe I smile too much. Maybe I wear too much pink. But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to”. Here, she indicates that her way of dressing is what makes her appear weak and approachable in the eyes of humans. Furthermore, after this moment, TBP shows disdain for her signature apparel and does not wear the pastels or the vintage clothes in public view anymore. Conversely, she embraces the black and red leather and lace costumes of the clichéd, intimidating vampire she plays at Fangtasia. Hence, True Blood visually narrows TBP to be only stereotypically vampiric and leaves her softer, humanized self behind, reductively dealing with Harris’s Pam yet again for those views who want to see supposedly real vampires.

With this idea of vampirism, TBP is additionally revised to value her father-daughter relationship with her maker Eric over the development of human friendships. Upon her first appearance, the evidence of her commodification of humans is obvious as she tells Sookie that she “never forgets a pretty face” and that Sookie is “in [her mental] vault”. From moment one, the audience knows that Pam does not really care for humanity and that they are commodities for her to use. TBP demonstrates this even more clearly when she offers Eric the advice of using Sookie as a bargaining chip to keep Russell Edgington from killing him. When she suggests this, she additionally admonishes that “We’ve lived through so much for so long. It can’t end this quickly,” showing her love for her father figure and indifference toward humanity. Later, the relatively emotionless Pam even cries tears of blood for Eric as she watches him burn in the sun and can do nothing to save him. Within the show, Pam’s affection for her vampiric father and commodification of the humans around her revise Harris’s character in such a way that she again becomes more intimidatingly vampiric. However, TBP upholds the strength of family unity over friendship and advocates an importance of familial relations that many viewers can and will appreciate greatly, even though it occurs within the framework of a show that values viscera and sex just as highly if not more so.

Finally, the most inane revision that True Blood makes of Harris’s character revolves around TBP’s pansexual and domineering nature as opposed to her downplayed, monogamous lesbianism. Though TBP is shown to be partial to females as sexual partners or blood donors, she additionally feeds upon and dominates several men throughout the course of the first four seasons, yet many of these men inevitably irritate her because of their over-exuberance during sexual acts and their overreaction to her penetrating them. For example, one man bothers her so much with his grunting and commanding her to bite harder that Pam stops feeding and tells him to “Dial it back Jethro. You’re starting to piss me off”. While True Blood is obviously changing Harris’s character in this way to conform to an idealized notion of the vampire as pansexual, this predilection for pansexuality additionally causes her to be inherently more domineering as a result. By wearing her leather and lace costumes as she feeds on or sleeps with both males and females, TBP becomes a living sexual fantasy and dominatrix of sorts, waiting to inflict pain on those individuals willing to let her beat, bite, or savage them. As a result of this pansexuality and domineering, TBP once again becomes more dangerous and imposing within the realm of the show and in the eyes of its audience, and thereby, the seemingly genteel young women in Le Fanu’s and Harris’s works are dismissed almost entirely.

Although all these revisions serve to make TBP more of a supposedly real vampire, she additionally serves as a foil for Bill Compton, the central vampire character of the television program. Elizabeth Nelson contends in her article “Abstinence vs. Indulgence: How the New Ethical Vampire Reflects Our Monstrous Appetites,” Vampire Bill represents an ethical vampire because he “has refused to prey on humans” and uses synthetic blood to “keep him alive, allowing him to live alongside the human community he cherishes”. Moreover, throughout most of the first four seasons, Bill sustains a monogamous relationship with Sookie and builds friendly relations with the humans that surround his home in Bon Temps. Due to his fastidiousness, he becomes an upstanding, vampiric citizen and a model for other mainstreaming vampires. Conversely, TBP serves as a counterpoint to Bill; she is the decadent vampire that Nelson claims pop culture is moving away from. Therefore, as a model of what audiences expect vampires to be, TBP exposes the underlying monster or Other that Bill is attempting to mask. TBP embraces her nature and revels in being a vampire, whereas Bill could potentially break character and attack like a caged animal that has been set free. By reading TBP alongside Bill as an equal but opposite vampiric figure, True Blood creates palpable tension between their supposedly good character and the morally ambiguous TBP which makes their audience uneasy, offsets Bill’s sterling character, and foreshadows the ultimate betrayal that occurs between he and Sookie (and perhaps he and the human race as well).

Ultimately, the chain of revisions from Carmilla to Harris’s Pam to TBP exposes the profound effect that Le Fanu’s character has truly had on vampire fiction from Carmilla’s inception in Victorian England until now, but moreover, this chain helps exemplify that Carmilla is a significant vampiric figure that is as worthy of study as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Furthermore, while similar tropes exist between all three iterations of the archetype, the differences expose what modern readers and viewers expect from their commoditized undead. Although these characters exist along a spectrum from secretive lesbian vampire to pansexual vampiric Dominatrix, all three versions exemplify feminine strength, agency, and authority in such a way that they are bound together against the more culturally dominate Dracula-like, male vampires. By maintaining this continuum of Carmillas and relying on revisionary relationships to empower a lineage of many more, contemporary audiences can rest assured that if they “from a reverie. . .have started, fancying [they] heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door,” it is probably one of her literary ancestors coming to penetrate and trouble their minds once more.



**I thank you for reading and hope that you enjoyed this stuff about vampires. It must be noted that plagiarism of this work is strictly prohibited. Additionally, the works cited page has been omitted to help avoid this temptation. I’m not saying that my ideas are super-fantastic, but I would like to receive appropriate credit for this. Also, a quick side note, if you found this your professor can too. Thanks all! :)