Carmilla, Vamp Willow, and Lesbian Vamps
“What else was the vampire besides sex and horror?” – David Skal, The Monster Show, (2001 edition)
The vampire is an expression of sexual anxieties, blurring the lines between fear and desire. Consequently, the vampire bite is often read as a metaphor for penetrative sex, and as many vampire mythoi involve hypnosis or glamouring of victims, the vampire bite is also often read as a metaphor for rape. (Hypnosis and glamour = non consensual). Rape occurs regardless of gender or sexuality, and reading the vampire bite as only a pentrative rape metaphor assumes that vampire fiction is a strictly masculine genre without alternative interpretations. So, let’s explore — what alternative texts and interpretations are there for reading the female vampire?
First though, a little history lesson. History is important.
Lesbian Vamps: Carmilla
Though Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often the starting point for the vampire in Western literature, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla preceded Stoker’s novel by 26 years. Published in 1871, Carmilla is narrated by Laura, the teenage protagonist. One day, a strange guest named Carmilla shows up at Laura’s home. The two girls instantly bond, and it quickly becomes clear (and is written as such, no close reading needed) that Carmilla is attracted to Laura. Once Laura and her father realize Carmilla is a vampire, Baron Vordenburg, a vampire expert, is invited into the mix and the hunt for Carmilla begins. Eventually, the tomb of Carmilla is discovered, and her body exhumed and destroyed.
Sound familiar, eh? Some of the earliest manuscripts of Dracula actually reference the same setting (Styria) as Carmilla. Baron Vordenburg and Van Helsing are the same type of characters as are Carmilla and Lucy and Laura and Mina. Dracula however is significantly longer than Carmilla which is more a novella. Oh, and Dracula centers on male characters, and Dracula himself can be read as a hetero male seducing and stealing away the female humans from the other hetero male humans — who are temporarily rendered impotent next to the power and seduction of Dracula’s multiple phalluses: his actual dick and his pointy fangs. That is until Van Helsing and crew get their own metaphorical penises (a stake). Thus, Dracula is your typical dick swinging patriarchal story where female characters serve the purpose of advancing the character development and kinships of the male characters. So it comes as no surprise that Dracula becomes the raison d’etre for vampire fiction in the patriarchal Western canon, and Carmilla is relegated to cult status.
As a cult text, Carmilla doesn’t disappear. After all, the text still offers the alternatives we so often search for outside of the limitations of more “realistic” genres and texts. Like the male vampire, the lesbian vampire seduces the pure, lily white woman to not only a sexual awakening, but often a lesbian sexual awakening. She is a cautionary tale (a fear), but also a way to explore forbidden desires. This is what gothic, horror, and fantasy texts offer us — a cultural space for exploring identities and alternatives that we otherwise may be afraid to explore. Thus, Carmilla has continued to serve as an inspiration for numerous cultural texts from the first film adaption in 1932 to a current webseries.
“Bored Now”: Vamp Willow/Dark Willow/Queer Willow
In Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS), an alternate reality is created when Cordelia wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale (“The Wish,” 3×9). In this reality, Willow and Xander are vampires. Willow appears bedecked in leather pants, a leather corset, and some appalling lime green eyeshadow. Vamp Willow is all sex as opposed to the often desexualized good girl that is Human Willow. Vamp Willow is seductive and quite literally vamps to everyone and everything. She takes sexual pleasure in torturing her victims and enjoys inflicting pain on a chained Angel.
Vamp Willow is fairly consistent with representations of vampires as expressions of “deviant” sexuality. Vampires are overtly sexual, connoting (however, erroneously) BDSM, queerness, and other representations of sexuality beyond hetero missionary vanilla sex.
Vamp Willow returns in “Dopplegangland” (3×16) when a spell goes awry. After wrecking some havoc, Vamp Willow finds herself in the library with Human Willow. Vamp Willow says to Human Willow:
“We could become quite a team if you come around to my way of thinking.”
In this scenario, Vamp Willow is trying to convince Human Willow to join her as a vampire, but the metaphor for sexual orientation is overt. She then proceeds to lick a very freaked out Human Willow. Next, Human Willow manages to tranquilize Vamp Willow. While the Scoobies are restraining Vamp Willow, Human Willow says in reference to Vamp Willow:
“I think I’m kinda gay.”
“Willow, just remember a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was,” Buffy responds.
“Well, actually,” Angel starts to butt in, but on second thought, thinks better of it, “that’s a good point,” he finishes.
This is important because not only does it foreshadow Willow’s eventual same-sex relationships and shift in identity to being “gay now” (“Triangle,” 5×11), but further Human Willow’s use of the “I” indicates a lack of clear distinction between Vamp Willow and Human Willow. Angel’s response confirms this especially when we consider the context of the show where vampires are frequently shown to be capable of love and similarly human feelings (e.g. Spike and Drusilla).
Further, we as the audience are not encouraged to condemn Vamp Willow because of Human Willow’s identification with her. This identification prevents Willow and the Scoobies from killing Vamp Willow. Instead they choose to send her back to her alternative reality (where she is promptly staked). Additionally, there’s a certain gratification in seeing Willow act out even as Vamp Willow. Since the beginning of the series, Willow has frequently expressed her frustration with feeling trapped in a good girl role.
At first, Human Willow experiences guilt over the actions of Vamp Willow and even feels she has to compensate for Vamp Willow’s deviance by being extra good and remaining a virgin for life. However, this is quickly negated when it is revealed that the jock that was coercing Willow into writing his school papers is terrified of Human Willow because of his brief encounter with Vamp Willow. He stops bullying Willow and writes the papers himself. Thus, the vampirism of Vamp Willow is the catalyst that begins to help liberate Human Willow from such binary identifications as good girl vs. bad girl, non-sexual vs. hypersexual, hetero vs. queer, human vs. monster. Throughout the series, Willow continually seeks to reconcile and integrate these binaries into a more complex personhood as seen in the emergence of Dark Willow.
After misogynist asshole and supervillain wannabe Warren murders Tara, Willow morphs into full blown Dark Willow (“Villians,” 6×20). Dark Willow like Vamp Willow is a monstrous representation of Human Willow and her darkest impulses, and their similarities are further highlighted when Dark Willow uses Vamp Willow’s key phrase “bored now” before using her magical powers to flay Warren alive. This scene is particularly difficult because it implicates the viewer in its own violence. It’s hard not to root for Willow murdering the villain that ended a relationship that Buffy fans still mourn, but we also know there will be consequences for Willow’s actions because Warren is a human.
However, Dark Willow doesn’t emerge out of thin air. Tara’s murder is what sends Willow over the edge after a season long arc where Willow increasingly uses her magic for questionable ends. In the first episode of Season 6, Willow resurrects Buffy from the dead with a spell that requires considerable skill. Willow is elated by her prowess, but others are concerned:
Giles: Having Buffy back in the world makes me feel … indescribably wonderful, but I wouldn’t congratulate you if you jumped off a cliff and happened to survive.
Willow: That’s not what I did, Giles.
Giles: You were lucky.
Willow: I wasn’t lucky. I was amazing. And how would you know? You weren’t even there.
Giles: If I had been, I’d have bloody well stopped you. The magicks you channeled are more ferocious and primal than anything you can hope to understand, and you are lucky to be alive, you rank, arrogant amateur!
Willow: You’re right. The magicks I used are very powerful. I’m very powerful. And maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to piss me off.
Giles is not the only one concerned though. Tara also finds Willow’s growing overconfidence troubling. During a scene at the Bronze, Tara and Willow are looking for Dawn. Willow suggests using inter-dimensional magic (as in reality-altering) just to find Dawn in a crowded building. This concerns Tara, and they fight over Willow’s increasing reliance on magic. Willow then uses a memory spell to make Tara forget their argument. Willow’s use of magic to manipulate Tara is particularly disturbing when we consider that at the end of Season 5, the hell god Glory used magic to drive Tara insane. Eventually, Tara gives Willow an ultimatum — stop using magic or their relationship is over.
At the same time, Buffy is experiencing depression because when Willow resurrected her, Buffy was pulled out of a heavenly dimension. Willow feels increasing guilt over the issue, and her relationship with Buffy suffers. In “Tabula Rasa” (6×8), Willow breaks her promise to Tara by using a memory spell again — this time on Buffy to make her forget about her experience in the heavenly dimension. The spell goes awry and all of the members of the Scooby Gang forget who they are which makes battling the forces of evil quite difficult. After their memories are recovered and they learn the cause of their amnesia, Tara packs her stuff and leaves.
In many ways, Willow’s controlling behaviors through supernatural talents parallel the vampire’s use of glamour. Both supernatural creatures use their supernatural talents to get what they want without regard to the consent of others. It is concerning that Willow’s increasing abuse of power emerges alongside her first lesbian relationship.
After Tara leaves, Willow descends into depression in a clumsy metaphor for drug addiction that results in the near death of Dawn. Willow eventually recovers and reunites with Tara — only for Willow, and the audience, to see Tara swiftly murdered by Warren. Many fans responded with ire over not only losing a beloved character, but also losing a desperately needed representation — a loving same-sex couple who were shown kissing, living together, and in other scenarios that did not stigmatize them. Additionally, there’s a long history in fictional texts of killing off transgressive characters so they become mere tokens for demonstrating cultural hipness via cultural transgression.
The line between Vamp Willow/Willow is increasingly blurred up until the emergence of Dark Willow who represents the culmination of these competing identities. Vamp Willow not only foreshadows Willow’s queerness, but also the full realization of Willow’s desires for power and control:
These two desires merge in Dark Willow who is out to seek vengeance for the murder of her lover. While these types of vendettas are common for hetero male characters, we rarely see them with female characters, particularly queer female characters — which again makes the murder of Warren by Willow particularly gratifying though not entirely comforting. Dark Willow represents a common moralistic trope for what happens to people when they get too much power and when that power is used towards the ends of vengeance and personal vendettas. It’s fulfilling to see this happen with a queer character, but also concerning that the darker aspects of Willow’s alter-ego emerge alongside her first lesbian relationship. Willow’s emergence as a queer character and relationship with Tara offers viewers a utopian alternative, but this is tempered with the fear and anxiety that surrounds Willow’s increasing power and sexual agency, and Vamp Willow lays the groundwork for this development.
And always remember, kids: