“Cockeyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, cheap jokes, and dirty dialogue are not wanted. Decent people don’t like this sort of stuff, and it is our job to see to it that they get none of it.” The words of American film censor Joseph Breen reverberated through Hollywood, changing the cinematic landscape for decades. Established in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) enforced by Breen was given the power to approve films prior to release. They created strict guidelines as to what they considered moral and immoral behavior. Chief among the code’s list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls,” and henceforth banned in films, was “any inference of sex perversion.” In Horror Film: An Introduction, author Rick Worland remarks that “Hollywood has a long history of equating homosexuality with criminality, perversion, and morose self-destruction.” However, Hollywood’s new standards did not achieve what they set out to do. Homosexuals were not erased from the screen, they just became harder to identify and were given a new identity. In an article for The Gay & Lesbian Review, Elizabeth Erwin perfectly explains what happened to homosexuals on-screen post-1934:
“Homosexuality itself had to be ‘coded’ in such a way that any depiction could be read on the surface as a heterosexual narrative. Just enough homosexual signifiers were included in the subtext to allow audiences open to a gay reading to be rewarded with a wink of understanding, while those looking for a heterosexual reading were blissfully ignorant.”
The way in which homosexual characters were transformed reflected society’s view of “otherness” as some kind of monstrosity. Female sexuality was seen as something monstrous by the male gaze and why the villain in many noir films is a woman—the one who drives the male lead to his end. Homosexuals, likewise, were also depicted as villains. Take Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, for example. “Films used a lesbian subtext to heighten the suspense of their narratives by casting these characters as victims of their own perversions,” Erwin explains. Mrs. Danvers’ love for the deceased Rebecca drives her to her own death, and so too do the many other villains born out of the Hays Code era. One of which, in particular, is the female vampire who, as Erwin puts it, is “victimized by a nameless disease”: a thirst for blood that can be read as an allegory for homosexuality.
When most think of lesbian vampire movies, they think of the explosion of the sub-genre of horror in the 1970s with films like Daughters of Darkness and the works of directors like Jean Rollin and Jesús Franco. For many years, this was the only lesbian content you could find, and they were highly sexualized as they catered to a male audience. Lesbian romances were seen as doomed and these films are often criticized due to their demonization of lesbians and the violence they perpetuate in their narratives. These films also rely heavily on two of queer media’s most harmful tropes: the predatory lesbian trope and the bury your gays trope. Vampirism itself can be viewed as predatory by the seduction of the young and the powerless, and it comes as no surprise that lesbians took vampiric form in force in the ’60s and ’70s with the rise of second-wave feminism and gay liberation. Female sexuality was a threat and a monstrosity, so why not have men watch a woman kill another? And naturally, the monster almost always dies in the end.
Lesbian vampire films are cited as being inspired by two primary sources. The first is the much-mythologized biography of Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th-century Hungarian countess who is said to have tortured and killed over 650 young women and girls and, according to legend, bathed in their blood to preserve her youth. Her biography, influence, and depiction can be seen in dozens of books, plays, films, television shows, and more, and she was one of the influences for the novel that kick-started lesbian vampire literature. Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by over 20 years, Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu is an erotic novella that tells the story of a vampire countess named Carmilla. The novel is told in the first person and is a young woman’s account of her romance with the titular vampire. Written by a man, it sets the precedent that would linger for over a century in the depiction of lesbian vampires: seductive and objectified to please the male viewer, with a destructive nature that is heterosexist and used as a plea for young women to rethink their same-sex desire.
Although originally anti-lesbian and misogynistic, many of these films can be reinterpreted with a modern lens to reveal impactful relevancy and an image of powerful resilience. None more so than the first lesbian vampire film, Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter. According to The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema author Jeffrey Weinstock, the 1936 film has garnered much scrutiny from film critics who have analyzed homosexual history in cinema. This is of no surprise, as it is perhaps the first example of the predatory lesbian trope on film. ("Save the women of London from Dracula's Daughter!" the original tagline reads.) Countess Marya Zaleska (played by Gloria Holden) is seen preying upon a young, vulnerable woman twice in the film.
Marya is an artist and pays the desperate Lili to pose for her. The vampire tells her victim to remove her blouse for a bust portrait. Lili slowly pulls down her straps, standing in front of a fire with her bare back facing the countess. The camera lingers on Marya as she looks upon Lili’s exposed body. Lili screams. In the second scene, the countess hovers above a sleeping Janet. She leans in closer and closer, her mouth agape slightly. “The longest kiss never filmed,” this scene was once called by academic Ellis Hanson. She’s slow in her seduction of her female victims, in contrast to her male victims, which she discards with little interaction. Marya shows arousal and lingers her gaze upon women. It’s not the only coded signifier of her homosexuality, however. The other is much more complex and one that many homosexuals suffer from.
When subjected to society’s negative perceptions, intolerance, and stigmas of homosexuality, a gay person may turn that negativity inward, resulting in internalized homophobia. Lesbian vampire movies demonstrate the heterosexist society of the viewer, and Dracula’s Daughter is a film about a woman trying to rid herself of her homosexuality in the guise of her father’s vampiric curse. At the beginning of the film, Marya burns her father Dracula’s body, having died in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. To her, this symbolizes freedom from her curse. “I can live a normal life now, think normal things, even play normal music” (a jab at vampires’ love of the organ). However, her thirst for blood—her homosexuality—is not a part of her identity she can choose to get rid of. Throughout Dracula's Daughter, we see Marya struggle with what she sees as an infliction, so desperately wanting release. She must hide from society, sneak around at night, and lurk in darkened corners from prying eyes as many same-sex lovers still have to do. Her evil impulses are encouraged by her tall, sinister manservant, Sandor. Marya promises Sandor eternal life and implies eternal love. There’s a tug and pull between them, as Marya wants to focus her mind away from what she believes is a darkness inside her, but Sandor pulls her back. Some, like author Harry M. Benshoff in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, have interpreted their relationship as a “lavender marriage”: two homosexuals in a relationship in order to hide in plain sight.
But Marya also forms a relationship with another man. She seeks the aid of Dr. Jeffrey Garth, who she believes can cure her of her “horrible impulses.” She begs him to save her soul, but of course, he cannot. One can look at this in an offensive light, as the film portraying homosexuality as a mental illness—and for its time period, perhaps it is—or you can look at it as a struggle of acceptance. “There’s nothing ahead for me but horror,” and so she shows a desire for Garth, intending to turn him into a vampire to be her everlasting companion, seemingly an attempt to suppress her homosexual desires. Perhaps her feelings for Garth are genuine, but until the very end, she’s determined to rid the part of herself that makes her both the villain and the victim of her own story in any way she can.
This internalized homophobia is common and many LGBTQIA+ people deny their sexuality in order to fit in and/or avoid abuse and violence in a world that continues to struggle with comprehending that there is something outside heteronormativity. Marya’s story ends much like any horror film: the person defined as a monster is killed. The villain dies in most narratives, it’s commonplace, and a result that often comes with celebration. But as Marya’s vampirism is an allegory for homosexuality, it is perhaps one of the first films to show the bury your gays trope—a trope which says that death is an expected consequence of choosing a life of “perversion.”
Violence against LGBTQIA+ people is still rampant. One day after protests began for George Floyd, a Black transgender man named Tony McDade was shot and killed by Tallahassee Police. Since then, we have also seen the murders of many Black trans women, including Merci Mack, Brayla Stone, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Shaki Peters, Bree Black, and Tete Gulley. But they are not the only ones. There have been murders of at least 22 transgender or gender non-conforming Americans so far this year. The “gay purges” in Chechnya; the suicide of Sarah Hegazi, who was arrested and tortured for standing up against homophobia in Egypt; the re-election of President Andrzej Duda and his anti-gay platform in Poland. In a heteronormative world, those deemed “the Other” are ostracized and persecuted. They are afraid and angry of the violence they face, but despite all the discrimination, they continue to fight for their rights. The bury your gays trope says that each death equates to heterosexuality always ruling the day, but that is a foolish belief that ignores the resilience of the Other. All of this made me re-examine the ending of Dracula’s Daughter.
When Marya’s death comes, it does not feel like a death at all. Perhaps it is a reach, but hear me out: it is untraditional and lacks the old rules of vampire lore. There is no wooden stake, no blessed bullet, no decapitation or burning for good measure afterward. She is shot with an arrow. The seven (?!) male writers who worked on the script seemed to have taken no cues from literature or even films before it. The characters conclude she’s dead, leaving her laying on her back, eyes wide open, the final shot lingering on her face. Unlike the death of Dracula, the death of his daughter lacks any finality. To me, a wink of understanding to the gay viewer feels present as a result. What this conclusion springs to mind is a powerful observation by Weinstock:
“...if the cinema has taught us anything at all about vampires, it is that vampires in all their queer glory are impossible to kill completely. The repressed always returns and no matter how dead the vampire looks, he or she will be back in the sequel.”
Dracula’s Daughter has always been a significant title in the lesbian film library, but despite its criticisms, it hits differently under the current climate and with the deep reflections of the last months. The quote above could be rewritten to say: “If history has taught us anything, if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that LGBTQIA+ people in all their queer glory are impossible to kill completely. They are a fighting breed and it is a fight that continues.” Pride is celebrated fiercely, but every day many members of the community face adversity and cruelty. As Micah Bazant writes, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” A phrase echoed like an anthem in this latest movement.