April 11, 2017
One of the earliest examples of vampire literature, Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, brilliantly explores the passionate, tenacious bond between the adolescent female narrator Laura and the seductive vampire Carmilla. In this novella Carmilla, also a young woman, appears as a mesmerizing doppelganger, the shapeshifting shadow side of Laura’s conflicted psyche. A femme fatale with lesbian proclivities, she is a manifestation of forbidden female desires as well as an embodiment of male misogynistic fears.
The first encounter Laura has with Carmilla takes the form of a childhood dream or visitation. This experience, evoking contradictory emotions of tenderness and terror, perhaps reflects a yearning for her mother, who died when Laura was an infant. Never knowing her mother’s caress, Laura has a feeling of being “delightfully soothed” by a mysterious, attractive young woman who visits her in the bedroom one night and gently lulls her back to sleep. However, this nocturnal reverie takes an unpleasant turn when Laura is awakened by “a sensation as if two needles ran into her breast very deep.” Alarmed at Laura’s cry, the haunting lady immediately disappears but returns many years later when a carriage accident causes the traumatized passenger, Carmilla, to be invited into Laura’s home as a long-term guest. Details of the so-called “accident” are as hazy as the moonlight-shimmering veil of mist that creeps with graceful and paradoxical “serenity” across the castle grounds soon before the carriage crash takes place. Laura, walking with her father and other caretakers on this “enchanted,” fateful night is in a sad, reflective mood, for she has learned that a young female guest she had looked forward to spending time with at the castle has passed away due to a sudden, life-draining illness. As if in response to Laura’s sorrow and disappointment regarding the death of her guest, the carriage crash brings a replacement guest, Carmilla, into Laura’s lonely life. When Carmilla’s mother explains to Laura’s father that she must leave for an urgent errand and needs someone to take care of Carmilla for several months, Laura eagerly begs her father to let Carmilla stay with them. Laura feels irresistibly drawn to Carmilla, sensing some connection that binds her to the beautiful young woman.
This connection, Laura discovers, has psychic and genetic aspects. Soon after Carmilla moves in as a long-term guest, Laura, realizing that Carmilla’s face is the same one she saw in her childhood vision, tells Carmilla her memory of that strange nocturnal encounter, and Carmilla confides that she had a similar dream involving Laura. The dreams described by the two women are mirror images of each other. In Laura’s vision, Carmilla is a young lady and Laura a child, whereas in Carmilla’s dream, Carmilla is the child and Laura the older girl. Carmilla declares their shared vision to be a sign that they were “destined” from childhood to be friends, and Laura agrees. However, despite her attraction to Carmilla, Laura feels a slight twinge of repulsion towards her psychic double, the shadow of a consuming, addictive allure. Later, Laura finds that she and Carmilla not only share the same vision; they may also be distantly related, for Laura’s mother, like Carmilla, is descended from the Karnsteins. This genetic connection emphasizes the relationship between Laura’s motherless yearnings and Carmilla’s first visitation as a sort of incestuous surrogate mother. Carmilla reflects Laura’s maternal yearnings and ambivalent feelings of desire. She is the sweetly caressing mother and the life-withering succubus, a memory of love and a pang of mourning.
Although LeFanu’s novella barely discusses the death of Laura’s mother, merely mentioning that she died when Laura was an infant and that, therefore, Laura found maternal affection in the form of her female caretakers, the spectre of the departed mother whom Laura cannot remember lingers like a ghost of unacknowledged grief. The vampire Carmilla, tied to Laura’s mother by bloodline, may be perceived as a malevolent aspect of Laura’s unexpressed, inchoate emotions of mourning for the mom she never knew, the haunting residue of sadness and anger that, though suppressed, may never completely fade. These emotions, associated also at times with survivor guilt, have been linked throughout history with a fear of the dead, a need to appease and put to rest the spirits of the deceased, in so doing acknowledging and making peace with one’s grief. Vampires and ghosts, the unappeased, restless dead, are manifestations of our ambivalence towards our deceased loved ones—the sorrow (and sometimes anger) experienced at their passing, the desire to be with them again, and the terror of dying.
As wandering, insatiable spirits, vampires, in particular, symbolize fatal love, a passion so intense and consuming that it brings death or a perpetual, damning eternity of yearning. Carmilla rapturously confides the destructiveness of her love (and perhaps love in general) when she tells Laura, “Love is always selfish; the more ardent, the more selfish.” Early in her visit as a guest, she even hints at her true nature when she says to Laura, “I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love. . . . You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Carmilla’s “rhapsody” of words and “soft kisses” evoke in Laura “a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable … mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.” “It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering,” Laura relates.
Enticed yet revulsed, Laura cannot resist Carmilla’s spell. Following another rapturous confession in which Carmilla alludes to being “assassinated” at a ball and declares that love demands “sacrifices,” “no sacrifice without blood,” Laura senses a frightening entity in her bedroom that evening.
Unlike the sweetly caressing female presence which visited her when Laura was a child, this time the nocturnal visitor takes the form of a large, black, “monstrous” catlike creature. As in the earlier encounter, Laura then feels “a stinging pain as if two large needles darted ” into her breast. Awakening “with a scream,” she dimly sees a “female figure” standing, motionless as a stone, at the foot of her bed before disappearing from the room. Carmilla, assuming feline form and then transforming back into a woman, has left her mark on Laura, claiming her beloved “sacrifice.”
Throughout the book Carmilla oscillates between occasional violent amatory urges and her usual listless melancholy. Often described as “languid,” lacking energy and vitality, she exhibits symptoms of neurasthenia, a common 19th century medical term for individuals experiencing depression, irritability, and fatigue. Although individuals of both sexes were diagnosed with neurasthenia, women with the same symptoms were often considered “hysterical,” and the treatments differed according to gender. This difference in approach regarding treatment reinforced misogynistic views towards women, suppressing their intellectual and creative drives to focus female attention on the domestic virtues of passivity and complacency. As Anne Stiles, discussing American views towards neurasthenia in the 19th century points out (“Go Rest, Young Man,” APA Monitor on Psychology, Jan. 2012, Vol 43, No. 1, p. 32, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/go-rest.aspx ), while men with neurasthenic symptoms were advised by doctors to partake in vigorous outdoor activities as a way of curing their nervous exhaustion, women were prescribed bed rest and told to avoid mental activities. Whereas the exercise and fresh air probably helped, at least in part, the male patients, the confinement, the seclusion, the lack of diversions no doubt exacerbated some of the women’s symptoms. Given no outlet for the mind or body to release tension, the women held captive could only find release in their imagination, and, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story about this type of experience, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” harrowingly depicts, this release can take the form of a demonically obsessive vision, a liberating psychosis. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the imaginary spectre, like “Johnny Panic,” represents the narrator’s means of maintaining her creative vitality and integrity while, like Carmilla, functioning as a sort of feral doppelganger.
Carmilla, however, unlike mortal women with symptoms of neurasthenia or psychosis, has no need for doctors or the advice of men. Her languor, taking place in the daytime, is associated with her vampiric need for darkness and blood. A morning slumber, as well as an infusion of blood, provides the only treatment she needs to restore her vigor. Despite demonstrating traditionally feminine qualities of weakness and fatigue during her daylight hours, Carmilla, in her fierce nocturnal aspect, becomes an aggressive, powerful predator capable of slaying men, as well as women, in her insatiable sanguinary urges.
At the end of the story, Carmilla, though destroyed in traditional vampire fashion (stake to the heart, decapitation,) remains an ineradicable presence in Laura’s memory. Appearing in visions of paradoxical intensity as a “playful, languid beautiful girl” and a “writhing fiend,” this creature of fascination and loathing still haunts Laura’s soul. She, like “Johnny Panic” and other dark entities of the imagination, lingers within the unlit, often acknowledged parts of the psyche, bringing chaos or liberation.