Society's image of the vampire, in Literature, as well as stage/screen performances, continues to be dominated by names such as
Lord Ruthven, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, et al...
ALL MALES! The image evoked in the majority of cases, at the mention of the word 'vampire', is that of a male vampire who frequently preys on the young, innocent and unwitting, female ìngenue. Unfortunately, this picture has tended to obscure the role of females in the creation of vampire myth, as well as overshadowing those who helped shape contemporary understanding of vampirism.
In most cultures, the oldest vampire figures were females. They included the Greek lamiai
, the Malaysian langsuyar
, and the Jewish Lilith
, among others. Each of these vampire figures points to the origin of vampirism as a myth, explaining problems of childbirth. The story of the langsuyar
, for example, told of a woman who bore a stillborn child. Distraught and angry upon learning of the child's death, she flew into the trees and from that time forward became the plague of pregnant women and their children. Magical means were devised to protect mothers giving birth, and their newborns, from the bloodsucking langsuyar
. Along the same line, before evolving
Each of the three, however, did evolve in slightly different ways. At one point,each took on the characteristics of a young "vamp", the beautiful female stranger, from a foreign land, who seduced the unwary young man looking for a mate. The most famous account of the lamiai
was told by Philostratus in "The Life Of Apollonius."
In the story, one of Apollonius's students, Menippus, was about to marry a wealthy young woman; she turned out to be a vampire who would have sucked the life out of him. He was saved by the wise Apollonius. Other similar, female vampires included the loogaroo, sukuyan, and asema ~~ all vampires operating in the Caribbean area. They lived incognito in a community, living a seemingly "normal" life during the day and operating as a vampire at night. Even their husbands did not know they were vampires.
As the vampire legends became more death-related, i.e., associated with the death of a loved one, rather than simply to problems of childbirth or the problems of errant young men,the female vampire partially gave to the male. Many vampirelike creatures, who also happen to be female, were prominent in the lore of polytheistic cultures. Kali
, the dark goddess of India, was such a figure, as were the witch/vampires in West Africa. In many cu;tures, the vampires might be of either sex.
Closely related to the female vampire, of course, were figures such as incubus / succubus,
and the mara.
Neither of these entities was a vampire, but each behaved in ways reminiscent of vampires...attacking male victims in the night and leaving the victim distraught and exhausted in the morning.
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The creation of the modern vampire depended in large part upon the nineteenth century's appropriation of information on two historical personages:
Vlad the Impaler,
the real Dracula and Elizabeth Bathory,
a seventeenth century Hungarian countess. Bathory's career became well known in the 1720's when an early account was published just as Europe was experiencing one of its periodic waves of vampire hysteria. An acount in English appeared in 1865 in Sabine Baring-Gould's
The Book Of Werewolves
. Bathory became famous for draining the blood of servant girls and bathing in it. She labored under the belief that this would keep her skin healthy and youthful. Bathory's career seems to have directly influenced Bram Stoker in the creation of Dracula
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Vampires entered the Literary arena at the end of the eighteenth century. Almost all of the first literary vampires were women, beginning with the unnamed woman remembered simply as "The Bride of Corinth," the title character in the 1797 poem by Goethe. In the original story from ancient Greece, upon which Goethe based his poem, the woman's name was Philinnon. She had died a virgin and returned to taste the joys of her budding sexuality before leaving this life altogether. A woman was also, what is now believed, to have been the first vampire in English literature...Geraldine, the villain in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Christabel", written in the latter days of the 1790's. A contemporary of Coleridge, Robert Southey's hero Thalaba killed the vampire inhabiting the body of his deceased bride, Oneiza.
However, after Goethe, Coleridge and Southey, vampire literature (be it poetry, fiction or drama) was dominated for three-quarters of a century by Lord Ruthven, the aristocratic Byronic vampire who preyed upon unsuspecting women. Introduced by John Polidori in 1819, Lord Ruthven appeared in a host of French plays and was the basis of the mid-century British penny dreadful, Varney the Vampire
The absolute dominance in things vampyric, by males, was relieved occasionally by short story writers. In 1836, for example, French writer Theophile Gautier penned a story variously called in English "Clarimonde" or "The Beautiful Vampire." In 1848, Alexandre Dumas wrote of "The Pale Lady." Then, in 1872 Sheridan LeFanu finished his novella of the 200 year-old "Carmilla", destined to become the most popular female vampire ever. Carmilla, like her male counterparts, tended to prey upon young women who were the same age as she was when she became a vampire, though the story begins with her attack upon a prepubescent Laura, the story's narrator. For many yaers the female vampire would be largely confined to short fiction, t./images/hough some, such as Anne Crawford's "A Mystery of the Campagna," (1887), would become classic tales.
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While female vampires occasionally appeared in vampire stories and novels, it was the movies that offered the female vampire her due. An older female vampire arose in Vampyr
, Carl Theodor Dreyer's famous silent vampire feature. The female vampire would first be the star of a movie in Dracula's Daughter
(1936), the first sequel to Bela Lugosi's Dracula
(1931). Early in the story, Countess Marya Zaleska (portrayed by Gloria Holden) stole the body of her father, which she burned. She was quite different from her father, however, in that she was searching for a cure for her vampyric state. In the meantime, she was unable to control her blood lust. By the time she realized she could not be cured, she had fallen in love with Dr. Jeffrey Garth, a former pupil of Dracula's killer, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. She lured him to Dracula's Castle in Transylvania, where she planned to make him her vampire companion for all eternity. Her plans were thwarted by her jealous servant, who attempted to kill Garth. In the process of protecting him, the countess was dispatched by a wooden arrow which penetrated her heart.
Interestingly enough, the female vampire made her next appearance in a series of films produced in Malaysia, beginning in 1956. Maria Menado starred as a woman made beautiful by magic. She married and was soon confronted with potential disaster when her husband was bitten by a snake. She sucked the posion out of her husband, but in the process, was transformed into a vampire. She, in turn, attempted to vampirize her daughter, but was killed before she could accomplish her goal. Menado's Pontianak
was followed by Dendam Pontianak
(1957), in which Menado returned from the grave to seek vengence upon her killers. Her death at the end of the second feature proved inconclusisve, so she returned a second time in Sumpah Pontianak
(1958) and a third time in Pontianak Kembali
(1963). These films, seen by few in the West prior to their recent release in the United States on video, had little effect upon the developing image of the vampire in Hollywood.
While Menado was gaining stardom in the Orient, Italian filmmaker Mario Bava discovered an intriguing woman who would become a legend in horror movies, Barbara Steele. Her introduction to an emerging generation of horror fans was a 1960 movie, The Mask of Satan (La Meschera del Demonio,
released on video as Black Sunday
. Steele played Princess Ada, a seventeenth-century witch who had been killed by the placement of a mask on her face. The inside of the mask was covered with spikes. Brought back to life by a drop of blood, she terrorized the community in an attempt to assume the role of Katia, her double, who was involved in her revival.
At the same time as Bava's work in Italy, French director Roger Vadim sought a film to display the talents of his wife, Annette Stroyberg. He discovered the perfect role in a cinematic adaptation of "Carmilla", Et Mourir de Plaisir
(released in the United States as Blood and Roses
. Stroyberg played Carmilla who, in this version,attacked her cousin Georgia (Elsa Martinelli) and was in the end impaled on a fence post.
Through the rest of the 1960's, female vampires were few in numbers and primarily appeared in brief supporting roles as the victims of the male star or as members of a group of otherwise anonymous vampires (especially evident in many mexican vampire features).
Of the several stories featuring female vampires that did make it to the screen, Roger Corman's Queen of Blood
was possibly the most memorable because it was one of the early science fiction vampire films. Florence Marly played the alien picked up on Mars by an expedition from Earth. On the way home she attacked the crew. Other women who made it into vampire roles during the decade included Beth Porter (The Naked Witch
, 1961); Joan Stapleton (The Devil's Mistress
, 1966); Rossanna Ortiz (Draculita
, 1969); and Gina Romand (La Venganza de las Mujeres Vampiro
, 1969), all very forgettable motion pictures. They would be followed however, by a group of the best female vampires films ever made.
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