The Bloodless Horror of Carmilla

by Angela Drennen

The “Address to the Public” by the editor of the Dark Blue magazine on February 1st, 1872 acknowledges that to appeal to a general public: “It follows, therefore, that a magazine of this nature should contain articles on both sides of every question—for surely there are two sides to every question.”[1] Perhaps he is speaking politically here, but this issue of “two sides” explains how the magazine can appear to be respectable in its expensive illustrations and ties to Oxford university, yet also contain controversial, erotic material that went against Victorian norms for modesty. One of these controversial tales is Carmilla, which contains not only the horrifying story of a vampire preying on young maidens but homoerotic tones that suggest Carmilla wants more than just blood. Carmilla also has “two sides”; though Carmilla at first appears like a beautiful, modest girl, there is a hidden lust for blood that is almost as terrifying as if there were vivid depictions of Carmilla draining the blood of her victims. Even without blood, Carmilla is a figure that is both the fair maiden and a mature, lustful woman, whose vampirism turns her lust into a shocking threat to maidenly innocent that is both masculine and feminine, making it frightening to Victorian expectations.[2]

We can get a sense for Dark Blue’s presentation of two sides in a poem aptly titled “Two Pictures.” Two stanzas long, the poem describes to readers the image of a “fair angel” kneeling and praying in contrast with a mature woman with “voluptuous gloom” and “full breasts.” The second stanza goes as far as to be downright erotic: “Hot Love too real mocks that proud cold smile, / And the frail vestures quiveringly declare / We be but lightly clasped—her shuddering frame / Struggles and pants for ruinous repose.”[3] It is hard to deny the picture this paints in contrast with the woman in the first stanza, who is even compared to Christ; however, there is something hidden behind this saintly image: “Heaven’s gold still tangled with bleak earth’s allay / Wild passion shadowed on ethereal calm, / And sorrow trembling with speechless joy.”[4] Just as the fifth line mentions a “dark shrine beneath,” under the image of this “angel” is a woman who also seems to be taking part in some form of pleasure. Both stanzas end in their own climax, so to speak, though one woman is calm and composed in joy and the other is shuddering and panting. We therefore get two sides to eroticism, which gives readers the expected image of a fair maiden who does not actively seek lustful acts to a woman who revels in it. Carmilla paints a similar picture of modesty and hidden lust, though it is complicated by her vampirism.

An obvious comparison with the two women in “Two Pictures” is Carmilla and Laura, who represent a dark and light or perpetrator and victim, yet Carmilla herself can present these two images with two sides to her character. For example, this illustration shows Carmilla as a modest figure:


Illustration from Dark Blue[5]

Carmilla is actually more covered up than Laura and her expression is sullen and does not betray any emotion; she is the image of modesty. This outward appearance is what allows her to first appear as the beautiful victim among “Ugly hang-dog looking fellows” and seduce the family into taking her into their home in the first place.[6] Even when Laura first recognizes Carmilla’s face as the one that “visited [her] in [her] childhood at night,” her horror is soon erased, as she remarks, “She was certainly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen and the unpleasant remembrance of the face presented in my early dream had lost the effect of the first unexpected recognition.”[7] When Carmilla confesses that she was also shocked at recognizing Laura’s face, they laugh together about their “momentary horrors,” and Carmilla is able to hide behind the portrayal as victim yet again by making herself seem vulnerable like Laura.[8] But underneath this feminine vulnerability is a vampire waiting to prey upon Laura. Even in this first illustration, we see the mask start to crack, as Carmilla has to suppress a fit as a funeral procession sings a religious hymn, but Carmilla soon begins to reveal her true nature to Laura: “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.”[9] Here Carmilla sheds her modest exterior and speaks to Laura almost as a lover or woman experienced in love, in an emotional and physical sense of the word. In the later illustration of Carmilla, she is depicted as covered in blood:


Illustration from Dark Blue.[10]

Her outer appearance now holds her true intentions: a lust for blood. What is interesting to note is that the reader does not see the blood; what we see is actually a highly feminine and sexualized image of Carmilla with a womanly silhouette and sheer outer gown. It is an intimate moment where Carmilla reveals her true nature—vampiric and otherwise—and sheds her innocent exterior but only to Laura. The blood she shows Laura represents the fearful reminder of loss of innocence as a woman matures in love, just as Carmilla tells Laura “Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood,”[11] reminding her of her lustful intent and threat to her innocence, something that innocent young maidens were expected to fear.

This fear of lust was in opinions about women, sexuality, and marriage, as we can see from a doctor’s note to young men on what to expect of women on their wedding night: “[The bride] is not deficient in sexuality and amativeness; but her mind and habits have been so pure and free from lust, that there has never been anything to produce an excitement of the sexual passions. She may be indifferent regarding intercourse, and she may look upon it with horror.” Similarly, “It will be quite a shock to feminine modesty when she, a pure-minded maiden, shall be called upon to lie down in the same bed with a man. It will seem repulsive at first.”[12] Part of Carmilla’s vampirism is a seduction of the young maiden Laura, an attempt to create a bond that brings similar feelings of horror and repulsion: “I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her,’ but there was also something of repulsion.”[13] Because the “pure” maiden is so innocent, she is repulsed by the lustful vampire that tries to seduce her, an act that would introduce her to things she is not familiar with (nor should she be familiar with). Laura experiences the same repulsion later on after Carmilla has kissed her cheek and embraced her: “In these mysterious moods I did not like her . . . I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, but also of abhorrence.”[14] Carmilla is tempting Laura like a lover, but this repulses Laura because this betrays the image of the innocent and victim-like Carmilla and replaces it with the masculine role of lover, raising Victorian anxieties about the expected role women should play. The repulsion comes from the fact that Carmilla is no longer the “angel” yet she is also not entirely the woman with “voluptuous gloom.” Her vampirism turns the mature woman into someone who does not just seek pleasure but sustenance through blood, making her aggressive and masculine: “was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old story books of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade.”[15] Laura sees the fact that Carmilla has a guise about her, appearing one way yet exposing herself as a “boyish lover” in moments of passion that induce a repulsion and horror in a similar manner of a woman on her wedding night due to the threat to innocence but also the fact that the “husband” is played by a woman—a new role that brings about feelings in Laura she does not understand.

The deceptive role Carmilla takes on is imbued in her very nature as a vampire. She seduces Laura into a false sense of security with her feminine vulnerability: “If you were less pretty I think I should be afraid of you,”[16] doing so in order to serve her lust for blood. Even though Laura’s response involves repulsion, she admits, “the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.”[17] Carmilla is able to put on the mask of a fair maiden and charm Laura despite her sometimes masculine lover-like behavior. This role also works to her benefit when Laura’s father seeks to naturally and scientifically explain the odd occurrences surrounding Carmilla. When they are trying to find out how Carmilla left her room when it was still locked, she sits back demurely while he explains what happened. She plays dumb and hides behind the fact that her mother told Laura’s father that she is unable to reveal her background, something he respects so as not to offend Carmilla. Carmilla is able to remain a charming and innocent figure, at least for Laura’s father, because he is able to explain her supernatural state as something natural. However, unlike the “fair angel” in “Two Pictures,” she is unable to obtain “speechless joy” because this charming mask is not one she continues to keep up, especially in the presence of Laura; likewise, she does not achieve the same end of the second stanza of the poem as a mature woman because what is hidden beneath her angel image is actually a more masculine, vampiric character. She can never fully be intimate with Laura because she exists between the role of feminine modesty and masculine sexuality, which is frightening to Laura because it does not make sense to a young Victorian woman who understands the role of a woman as either this angel or a woman experienced in love.

Carmilla is the tale of a vampire preying on young girls, but there is surprisingly little blood throughout the story and in her “attacks.” However, Carmilla was just as terrifying for Victorian readers in what she represents in terms of a loss of maidenly innocence. Even when she attacks her victims, she is not in the scene and the fact that it is taken as a dream makes it seem like she was not the perpetrator: “I was awakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly.”[18] Laura is frightened by the surprising attack in the intimate space of her bedroom, not the idea that a monster is draining her blood. It is a betrayal of the feminine image that reminds us of the male act of penetration and the fact that Carmilla is taking blood adds to the act of taking innocence. This is the same fear she feels in the presence of Carmilla, who outwardly is modest and innocent except when she exposes her passion that is turned masculine through vampirism. When Laura sees a vision of Carmilla by her bed “bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood,” she responds by screaming and was “possessed with the one idea that Carmilla was being murdered.”[19] Even when Carmilla presents herself in her true form raised from her coffin, she herself is not what frightens Laura. Laura is more frightened in the earlier visions and interactions of Carmilla without blood because of Carmilla’s masculine role and the threat to her innocence. She is also frightened by this role that she does not understand in a woman who can appear feminine and innocent yet actually be like a lover who desires to be “one with her” and to take her blood. This role is ultimately haunting in the effect on Laura’s sexuality: “to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.”[20] It is the bloodless horror of the unexpected sexual figure Carmilla portrays that no doubt haunted Victorian readers, as Carmilla’s vampirism adds masculine and homoerotic tones to her image as both a fair maiden and lustful woman, something that would be feared because it was not yet understood.

[1] John C. Freund, “Address to the Public,” in Dark Blue c. 1, v. 2 (1871-1872): iii, iv.

[2] A review on one of LeFanu’s other works makes mention of Carmilla, saying “Carmilla is a tale that every parent should make haste not to place in the hands of the young. Neither Poe nor Richepin ever invented anything more horrible than the dusky, undulating nocturnal shape of her who was a fair woman by daylight and an insatiate fiend at night. “The Purcell Papers,” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, 802.

[3] John C. Collins, “Two Pictures,” stanza 2, lines 22-5.

[4] Ibid., stanza 1, lines 23-5.

[5] Dark Blue, c. 1, v. 2, (1871-1872): 597.

[6] Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Carmilla, 21.

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Dark Blue, c. 1, v. 2, (1871-1872): 705.

[11] Ibid., 45.

[12] Therese Oneill, “The Riddle of the Vagina, and Other Victorian Attempts to Understand Women,” LitHub.

[13] LeFanu, Carmilla, 25.

[14] Ibid., 29.

[15] Ibid., 30.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 25.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Ibid., 52-3.

[20] Ibid., 96.


Freund, John C. “Address to the Public.” Dark Blue c. 1, v. 2 (1871-1872): iii-v.

LeFanu, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla, edited by Kathleen Costello-Sullivan.
New York: Syracuse University Press, 2013.

Oneill, Therese. “The Riddle of the Vagina, and Other Victorian Attempts to
Understand Women.” LitHub. October 27, 2016.

“The Purcell Papers.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art 49, no. 1286 (Jun 19, 1880): 802-803.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. M. Sheldon says:

    The story of Red Riding Hood oddly comes to mind as I read your essay, Angela. You aptly remark on the role of Carmilla’s “mask of a fair maiden,” which allows her to charm Laura. Prior to Disney’s toning down of fairy tales, such stories used fear to teach young children how to behave. Folklore scholars call the Little Red Riding Hood origin story “Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 333,” and Dr. D.L. Ashliman’s online compilation of them shows the violence and fear used to frighten youth around the world into culturally appropriate behavior. {}

    LeFanu’s story, as you describe it here, seems to have a similar style. The sexual double-standard that leaves Laura so innocent that she is easy prey to Carmilla’s physical and blood lust sends the message that the socio-cultural expectations of young maidens leaves them prey to those who can mask their lustful intents. Carmilla, like the wolf who so masterfully tricks Little Red, almost succeeds at fatally seducing Laura. The General, like the huntsman in the fairytale, figures things out and saves Laura. In the Grimm’s and Perrault’s versions, there is a similar bloodless quality, although it is in the text. {The Italy/Australia “Little Red Hat” is very gory, in contrast.} Carmilla as a story, of course, adds layers of additional anxieties by blending in the vampire motif and making the wolf into a sexualized woman. In doing so, LeFanu challenges readers to really examine the various issues that arise from leaving young women sexually ignorant.

    While my first readings of the novel did not call to mind the notions of women’s rights, viewing the story within the fairytale genre does. If society removed the sexual double-standard that the doctor’s note so boldly lays out for a male readership, then women wouldn’t be prey to masked, lusty wolves, be they vampires, male or female, or hetero- or homosexuals. Although LeFanu does not address any of the Woman Question issues regarding work and legal rights, he does present a subtle case for protecting young women sexually through knowledge rather than ignorance. Reading his supernatural tale through the lens of fairytale archetypes reveals a more feminist message than I perhaps gave LeFanu credit for initially.


  2. Andrea Stewart says:

    Angie, I really like your exploration of the two different sides of Carmilla—an innocent, maidenly façade and her supernatural, immoral (and immortal) nature. Reading your posting made me realize that this idea of a woman hiding her darker, true self beneath a harmless seeming exterior is a bigger trend than I first realized as it made me think of the similarities between Carmilla and Madam Sara. Both women hide an older, darker, more malevolent nature behind the false face of youth and innocence they present to the world to gain their victim’s (in both cases vulnerable young women—Laura and Bertha vs. Beatrice, Antonia, Violet, etc.) trust. Of course there are obvious differences, such as the fact that Carmilla is a vampire and Madam Sara is not—or at least Meade doesn’t insinuate such. But both women present an outer face of youthful innocence which tricks those around them into giving Carmilla and Madam Sara their trust, and most importantly, their bodies. Both Carmilla and Madam Sara use that trust to prey on the bodies of the young maidens for their respective sustenance, whether that be physical or financial.

    Carmilla of course literally needs the body of Laura (and other young women) to sustain her basic needs of life, and through a presentation of her falsely innocent mask she builds the trust of her victim and seduces her way into a physical intimacy with Laura that ultimately frightens and repulses both Le Fanu’s fictional character and his real audience—“I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her,’ but there was also something of repulsion” (13)—even as it is almost irresistibly compelling.

    Madam Sara also preys on the vulnerable, physical bodies of young women around her—but this time she uses their insecurities about physical appearance to her advantage in order to create a bond. Her bond is one which creates a sense of being beholden or an obligation to Madam Sara. Like Laura, their bodies are their weaknesses through which Madam Sara gains a hold over them. For example, Antonia in the story “The Blood-Red Cross” comes to Madam Sara to remove an unsightly mole from her body, and through her promise to successfully perform this procedure Madam Sara gains Antonia’s trust—“I love her very much….I trust her.” (145) And yet conversely when Antonia confronts Madam Sara after learning she has used that same operation for her own financial gain, her “face, neck, and arms were nearly as white as her dress, her dark eyes were much dilated,” (170) indicating her fear and repulsion of the so-called beautician. Madam Sara uses young women’s bodies (albeit in a different manner than Carmilla) in order to sustain her life(style).

    I believe that both of these dangerous, older, more experienced women really speak to Victorian anxieties about “the precarious social position of single women” and “sexuality” that Deborah Wynne mentions on page 3 of her text “The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Magazine.” Both women are unmarried and enjoy a certain amount of independence, and their potential influence on their younger victims into either following their lifestyle of expressed sexuality, as in the case of Carmilla and Laura (even worse as it is homosexuality), or into unlawful activity, as in Madam Sara and all of her younger female victims, again speaking to a “fear of criminality,” as again noted by Wynne.


  3. I really enjoy how you incorporated the images in your analysis. As you say in your title, it is a “bloodless horror” where illustrations leave readers to imagine what is not being revealed. It was also great to look at them up close in class because you got so much more detail in person. The progression of illustrations is interesting, as we get the first illustration that shows a very full-bodied shot of Carmilla. It is interesting, as you pointed out, that Carmilla is more covered up than Laura. Her appearance as such a normal, attractive woman do not track the suspicions of her acquaintances. However, it is clear to the reader that she is indeed untrustworthy and dangerous.

    As Carmilla’s identity as a vampire becomes more known, we see less of Carmilla’s face and more of her body as she seductively and mischievously approaches her victims in the night. The face of innocence is seen in these young women she preys on who are vulnerable and unassuming. As you point out in your analysis, “Laura is frightened by the surprising attack in the intimate space of her bedroom, not the idea that a monster is draining her blood.” This speaks to a betrayed intimacy, and the victim’s reaction is more important for the reader to see in the illustration than seeing the attacker. It shows the disruption of convention and innocence without totally revealing what the victim beholds.

    Your analysis of masculine and feminine roles is very well stated. As you mentioned, it speaks to the homoeroticism and role of Carmilla as the pursuer. I wonder if not showing her face in the latter illustrations and rather emphasizing her figure add to the reader’s imagination of the unholy acts — whether those acts are vampiric or indeed sexual. The reader does not witness the crime as much as it sees Carmilla’s victims. Overall, the illustrations appear to add to the suspense and emotional tone of the story.


  4. L. Assad says:

    I could comment on any of the wonderful parallels that you have drawn in this essay, Angie, but I think that one of the most intriguing parallels that you highlight is the connection between the illustrator’s omission of blood and the Victorian fear of lust. That quote from the Therese Oneill piece complements your argument perfectly and elucidates the societal views on sexuality surrounding texts like Carmilla. As a modern reader of Carmilla, I had a difficult time understanding Laura’s radically opposing feelings toward Carmilla (infatuation and repulsion), but your argument that her mixed emotions may have something to do with the Victorian expectations of women makes a great deal of sense. Your statements about Carmilla wearing a mask of a fair maiden made me think of Coleridge’s poem “Christabel.” “Christabel” is a poem about a young woman named Christabel who is seduced by another young woman named Geraldine. Geraldine gains Christabel and Christabel’s father’s trust by claiming to have been abducted by men on horseback. She, like Carmilla, understands the sympathetic power that the figure of the innocent victim has over others, particularly young women who can identify with them. Your conclusion that Carmilla represents a masculine threat is intriguing and is something that came to my mind while reading Carmilla as well. I was surprised that the descriptions of Carmilla’s attacks were so overtly sexual, because there has been such an apparent avoidance of sexuality in all of the Victorian texts I have read in my life. Your likening of Laura’s loss of blood to a loss of innocence echoes the ending of the book beautifully. By the end of the book, it is clear that Laura has been changed in a very deep way that she, herself, has trouble understanding. Or, as you suggest, she is possibly afraid to understand the changes she has undergone because she does not want to confront them.


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