Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Lady Vamps?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula set the tone for generations of female vampires to follow. Dracula may be sinister and evil, sauve and debonair, creepy and overbearing, but it’s his brides who create a particular spectre of terror. They are the realisation of all that is feared about women, with predatory appetites and an unabashed sexuality, a theme that comes up through the course of the novel as Dracula’s victim Lucy becomes increasingly sexualised through her exposure to vampirism, with swollen lips and hot eyes. She is not, the book tells readers, strong enough to resist, like Mina.

In Dracula, human victims became figures of pity, until they start to turn, at which point they became frightening and evil. Lucy is frightening because her sexuality is ‘out of control,’ just as with Dracula’s brides. Vampire mythology creates a world where, for the most part, female vampires fall into a very narrow range of roles, and they haven’t progressed much further beyond the pages of Dracula.

There is something, vampire mythology tells its consumers, terrifying about women with appetites. Female vampires are depicted as cold and ruthless, traits not readily associated with women in societies that think of them as tender and nurturing. Their literally cutthroat tactics are supposed to be repulsive not simply because vampires are figures of terror and horror, but because these are not things that women should be doing. Female vampires are, at their core, not nice, whether they are Dracula’s brides or Pam licking her lips at the thought of violence on True Blood.

These appetites are not just for violence and blood, although these things certainly play roles. The hunger of female vampires is supposed to be especially terrifying, a reminder that women are not supposed to express literal appetites. Women should be small and dainty, shouldn’t take pleasure in food. Certainly shouldn’t seek out foods they enjoy and eat as much as they want. Female vampires ‘gorge’ and have ‘expressions of satiety’ and enter states of bliss as they consume, a defiance of socialised gender roles that is designed to terrify viewers and readers. Women. Who eat.

This is also about sexuality; the female vampire is a highly sexualised creature in a way that the male is not. While male vampires are regarded as sexual, it’s considered a sort of natural extension of their male birthright in many myths and legends. Of course men would evolve into creatures with unstoppable sexual appetites, where lust becomes entangled with violence and hunger. For women, though, it’s evidence of corruption and wrongness, of being fallen. Female vampires are the Liliths and the Jezebels, who embrace their evil and inhabit it and become that which the consumer fears most: women who are not afraid of sexuality, women who are sexually aggressive.

Numerically speaking, depictions of female vampires are lower than those of males. True Blood brings viewers Eric and Bill, revolving around the star that is Sookie and competing for her, and then there’s Pam. A similar dynamic plays out in The Vampire Diaries or, for that matter, Buffy, where male vampires take the lead and occupy key roles to surround the human female character. On Buffy, Drusilla and Darla are cold and ruthless and creepy and are also depicted, at their cores, as crazed, which integrates another aspect of the characterisation of female vampires.

There’s a long history of pathologising female sexuality, of believing that women who are sexual are mentally ill, or of claiming to believe that in order to trap women in institutions and other dangerous situations. Women were believed to have ‘hysteria’ and ‘wandering wombs’ and these diagnoses were used to explain why some women defied social and cultural roles and dared to enjoy sexuality, to be sexual. It stands to reason that female vampires would also become an embodiment of these stereotypes, that to make their sexuality more palatable to viewers they would be made not just twisted and evil, but also crazy—a distinction lost on some consumers, who seem to believe that mental illness is a metaphor for evil.

Drusilla, viewers are told, has been driven mad by the predation of Angelus, an innocent woman corrupted by a male vampire. Once she’s turned, however, she becomes as vicious and cruel as the creature who turned her. She becomes an embodiment of evil herself, one who lacks all internal controls and the ability to regulate herself. Angelus has created a monster, but he’s also created a sexually aware and voracious woman. Funny how these things become entangled with female vampires in a way they do not with male vampires. Interesting how sexuality becomes an expression and iteration of monstrosity when women are involved.

Creators of pop culture seem curiously reticent to put a female vampire in a leading role. This goes beyond the general fear of female leads and into something deeper; many vampire series, after all, feature human female leads, and play deeply upon very old stories in their characterisation. Humans are innocent, corrupted and changed by their experiences, although there is a certain clean and sanitary nature to the modern male vampire. He isn’t a figure of evil, and has instead found morality and rightness, working for good and becoming a human ally against the other vampires, the bad ones, the ones who are truly evil.

But the female vampire is still difficult for creators to work with, because she is so charged and laden with legends. She cannot be made into a vampire version of the Nice Guy™ because there is no precedent for this. Female vampires are a metaphor for something far more frightening than bloodsucking monsters; they are female sexuality, they are independent women, they are freethinkers, they are women who eat and take pleasure in it and feel no shame, they are women who exist on the same level as men, who are equals, and this is too terrifying for many creators to explore in their work.