Carmilla’s Sisters – Female Vampires in Literature, Film and Popular Culture
Nearly thirty years after the publication of Nina Auerbach’s seminal study Our Vampires, Ourselves, we felt the 150th anniversary of J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla provided an opportunity to revisit vampire fictions centred on female figures – as yet a largely unchartered territory. Despite a few pages devoted to Carmilla and queer vampires – in The Vampire Book by Gordon J. Melton, 1999, Le miroir obscur. Histoire du cinéma des vampires, by Stéphane du Mesnildot, 2013, or the catalogue of the 2019 exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française –, the centrality of Dracula and male vampires still remains prevalent in critical literature.
Yet, contrary to a received notion, female vampires abound in literature, film, television series, comics, as an unsettling presence that undermines the majestic supremacy of the vampire count, thus perhaps testifying to the latter’s “obsolescence” (to borrow Robin Wood’s formula).
With its multiple film adaptations, Le Fanu’s text still challenges readers in many ways, contemporary readers being sensitive to LGBTQI+ issues and to the aftermath of the #MeToo wave. The historical Countess Báthory also haunts literary and filmic memories, and calls for still other questions, as a power figure that already inspired Bram Stoker himself in Dracula’s Guest, the first chapter of Dracula, later suppressed by the author.
The vampire-woman is omnipresent in art cinema (Les lèvres rouges, Harry Kümel, 1971; Leonor, Juan Luis Bunuel, 1975), blockbusters (the Underworld franchise), European classics (Hammer films, Roger Vadim), Hollywood classics (Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow, 1987). In a recent study on gender in vampire films, Claude-Georges Guilbert – commenting on the prevalence of women writers in vampire literature – claimed that the female vampire embodies the « future » of the genre. Will participants in this conference prove him right?
The organizing committee will welcome all propositions about female vampires in literature, cinema, comics, with particular attention to those addressing the following issues:
¤ The female vampire figure, between exploitation and empowerment. From Carmilla onwards, female vampires have fulfilled apparently conflicting functions. They are often young, eroticised vampires, and they announce all manner of transgression. In the same movement, they are often at the centre of narratives, they initiate action and are autonomous and admired characters, worshiped by devoted fans – one can think of Vampirella in Warren comics or Lady Dimitrescu in the Resident Evil Village video game. How do authors and publics negotiate this tension? Does this amount to reading the texts against the grain or is this reading actually inscribed in the cultural objects themselves?
¤ Isolated figure or serial type. Dracurella and the several other daughters of Dracula suggest that many female can be seen in terms of variants of a dominant male type – as an instance of the minimal differentiation that defines the culture industries. Do serial types actually predominate over isolated figures? Is there a way to measure this? Can the female vampire exist independently from this logic of derivation?
¤ The female vampire and gender stability. Even more so than her male counterpart, the female vampire is characterised by sexual ambiguity. Oversexualised, often hyperfeminised, she is nevertheless also a creature who seduces, penetrates, rarely without violence. The lesbian romance of Carmilla – but also the ambiguous fascination exerted by the historical figure of Countess Élisabeth Báthory – once more offers a prototype of this subversion of gendered roles. How does this uncertainty manifest itself in the texts or in their reception? Is the female vampire necessarily queer?
¤ Global figure v. local figures. Along the 20th century, the English-speaking cultural industries have largely colonised the visual imaginations of fantasy and horror. How does the female vampire feature in this tension between a globalised culture and local variations with their specific traditions? What are the histories and media specificities? Should we view the female vampire as a figure of the glocal?
¤ The Carmilla hypothesis. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella haunts every question addressed in this call for papers. We will then welcome propositions examining the specific place of Carmilla in the emergence of the figure of the female vampire, through the circulation of the original text but also through the elaboration of an “adaptation network” (Kate Newell). Could we map out the apparitions of the female vampire in popular culture? How would Carmilla feature in that space?
¤ The figural approach: imagining the female vampire. Female vampires and related figures (harpies, sirens, sphinges, animal-women) : genesis and transformations of such figures in the pictorial tradition since the XIXth century (Munch, Khnopff, Mossa, Philip Burne-Jones), circulation of forms. Variants and typologies in literature from John Keats (Lamia) and Rudyard Kipling (“A Fool There Was”) to Tanith Lee (Sabella or the Blood Stone, 1980), Anne Rice (Pandora, 1998) and Octavia E. Butler (Fledgling, 2005) – through Paul Féval (La Vampire, 1856).
Communication proposals (about 200 words, along with a brief biographical note) should be sent to Jean-François Baillon (Jean-Francois.Baillon@u-bordeaux-montaigne.fr) and Nicolas Labarre (email@example.com) by March 31, 2022.
Mélanie Boissonneau (Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle) – Marjolaine Boutet (Université de Picardie Jules Verne) – David Roche (Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3) –– Yann Calvet (Université de Caen) – Matt Jones (De Montfort University, UK) –– Hélène Frazik (Université de Caen) – Jean-François Baillon (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) – Nicolas Labarre (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) - Dr Matt Melia (Kingston University London, UK)