Setting aside the moral descent and ascent of Alucard in the Hellsing manga series and internal dilemmas of Father Abel in the sci-fi horror manga Trinity Blood, most popular vampire imaginings today often fail to delve into the psychological and spiritual world of the vampire, choosing instead to focus on the human drama or the physical effects that vampirism brings. Within Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, we have a fascinating exploration of the gothic feminine, revealing the Freudian juxtaposition within the definition of heimlich – through the mirroring of Laura and Carmilla. Laura, representing the revealed of heimlich, presents us with a visual of pale beauty, youth, vitality, purity, sexual innocence, and yet, also questioning within a space that feels constricted and isolated. On the other hand, Carmilla, representing the concealed of heimlich, offers a different version: dark beauty and youth, yes, but also parasitical behavior, worldly wisdom, obsession, and manipulation. These two representations feed off (literally, in one case) of each other, learning from each other and, in the end, battling for dominance.
On the one hand, we have Laura, who I would argue, represents the Victorian ideal of womanhood and femininity, particularly at the turn of the century, where women within the middle and upper classes were skilled and knowledgeable, yet restricted in their ability bring their knowledge to bear on the public sphere. Laura is described as being “a beautiful young lady with golden hair and large blue eyes” (Le Fanu, 26), and, being only nineteen (7), is filled with youthful vitality from the outset. Having stated that her interactions with the outside world is limited to trips to see friends, or friends coming to see her, Laura’s response to the carriage accident and rescue of Carmilla is more one of excitement than worry as she is looking forward to a chance to socialize (23-24). Yet, her response to Carmilla’s obsession shows how Laura’s life has been incredibly sheltered. As she recalls, “It was like the ardor of a lover, it embarrassed me” (32). At the same time, Laura has an inner strength and intuition which is alerted from the beginning: “I was filled with wonder that my father did not seem to perceive the change, and also unspeakably curious to learn what it could be that she was speaking” (19). This combination of curiosity and perceptiveness allows Laura to push at the boundaries of Carmilla’s identity on a variety of occasions, often describing her responses to Carmilla as a combination of attraction and repulsion (25, 27, 31-2, 35). Eventually, however, Laura loses her power to Carmilla, which outlines the feminine as (at least, initially) weak and in need of networks and supports in order to survive and carry on.
Carmilla, on the other hand, represents Victorian anxieties surrounding femininity, particularly when empowered. As women began to gain more education (recall Darcy’s requirements cited to Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), the figure of femininity began to increase in scope and skill. Carmilla, a mirror image to Laura, is dark-haired and dark eyed (28-9), and, it is revealed, is quite old though maintaining a youthful appearance. Carmilla’s portrait is dated 1698, which suggests that by the time Carmilla meets Laura, she is around two hundred years old. Therefore, unlike Laura, Carmilla has a sense of maturity and worldliness, being able to move in a variety of circles (73), achieve a chameleon-esque social identity (77), and speak with knowledge on a variety of subjects. Spielsdorf narrates that “Millarca became very intimate with us, and amused us with lively descriptions and stories of most of the great people whom we saw upon the terrace. I liked her more and more every minute. Her gossip, without being ill-natured, was extremely diverting to me, who had been so long out of the great world. I thought what life she would give to our sometimes lonely evenings at home” (79). With her knowledge of the world and the skillful use of charm, Carmilla is able to choose and pursue her prey. This brings us to the darker side of Carmilla, as she proceeds to kill quite a lot of people in this short story, beginning with Spielsdorf’s daughter, continuing with a stock of lower class women, and finally ending with Laura herself. Listening to Spielsdorf’s account, Laura is struck by the similarity in the symptoms between herself and the General’s daughter, particularly regarding how energy is lost: “the flow of an icy stream against her breast” and piercing large needles (82). Through Carmilla’s vampiric nature (and activities), we can find an exploration of Victorian anxiety around the parasitical, the obsessive, and the manipulative as seen within femininity. Carmilla’s statement, “Love will have its sacrifices”, underlines the parasitical nature of Carmilla’s affections (47). These affections in turn become obsessive with repeated statements of affection and a desire to be close (31, 43, 46-7). Using a form of hypnotic suggestion, Carmilla appears to take advantage of Laura, first as a child, where
Carmilla subverts maternal expectations (9), and later when she literally soothes Laura into a trance with a lullaby (31). Futhremore, as Laura descends, Carmilla draws even closer. Laura recalls: “Carmilla became more devoted to me than ever, and her strange paroxysms of languid adoration more frequent. She used to gloat on me with increasing ardor the more my strength and spirits waned” (53). As a result of her predations, Carmilla blossomed even more quiet, to the point where Laura narrates, “Her beauty was, I think, enhanced by the graceful langour that was peculiar to her. I think my father was silently contrasting her looks with mine, for he said: “I wish my poor Laura was looking more like herself”” (60).
Ultimately, Carmilla is overcome though able to show her true powers (91) before being revealed. In her revelation comes her demise (95-6). In revealing the hidden, there is shock (and pain), but ultimately power over the dark aspects of heimlich. Yet, with the ending of Carmilla as well as an explication of her backstory (99-100), Sheridan Le Fanu allows us to question if Carmilla – and the dark side of heimlich – is truly ever gone.
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla”. Project Gutenberg. Date Accessed: April 4, 2018. < http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10007>