The Lady is a Vamp (the female “vampire” archetype in mainstream and the counterculture)

“A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them” — Florenz Ziegfeld

The silent movie credited with the “vamp” connection. Really, it was much older.

My vamp(ire) novel, “Revenant: Blood Justice,” is prowling the earth! Check the horror page on this site or my Facebook author page for purchase info and for regular updates on all my different types of work. I’m pretty eclectic, so keep checking and you might find something you like.

To celebrate Revenant, I thought I would post about the vamp in history.

The female vampire as an unnatural, predatory monster was a trope developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She represented the fears of a patriarchal culture (inhabited by both men and women) who believed the “new woman” was a very real threat to the very fiber of virtuous and well-functioning society. This vamp clawed her way into the mass consciousness in the years before all women in the US and UK got the vote. At this key point of culture change, it is no wonder that the women behind it were figuratively (and sometimes literally) equated with monsters.

The first reference to this type of vamp is in the 1897 poem, “The Vampire,” by Rudyard Kipling. Suffice to say, old Rudy had some issues. He never used the word vampire except in the title. But his portrayal of what moderns might think of as a “gold-digger” used the imagery of a soul-sucking, insatiable monster to great effect. One example as he commiserates with similarly victimized men is:

The fool was stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I !)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died
(Even as you and I !)

Here she is—the uncaring beast (not like a man in intellect or morality) who will suck you dry if you give her an invitation. His readers carried on developing the vampire metaphor. When silent screen siren Theda Bara starred in the film, “A Fool there Was,” based on Rudy’s poem, the full-on vamp was born. Well, perhaps re-born. My current page image is a still photo from publicity for that film. The rapacious vamp will use her man until there is nothing left but brittle bone.

Theda Bara publicity shot.

Kipling’s tale of woe about a woman daring to have a relationship on her own terms became a type of anthem for the insecure patriarchs who were so distressed to see their privilege being gnawed away at by these rapacious jazz-age feminists and their sharp little teeth. By the era of the “flapper” women were going to college, working, gaining access to birth control, making nontraditional sexual choices, and about to get the vote. No wonder the vamp sprang out of the culture’s closet, right then. But, we’ll get to the “out of the closet” part, later. Right now, we’re still on hetero-normative.

There are lots of colorful terms for the young women of the generation in question. Molls, flappers, and vamps are some of the most colorful. While rebellious girls embraced all of these labels to a certain extent, they also had real social consequences – sometimes being used to give them a bad reputation that held these women back from attaining goals in education, work, or even domesticity (being accepted into a “good family”). The vamp was a particularly dangerous archetype to have hung around your neck, in those days.

Jetta Goudal vamping it up

Vamps were meant to be predatory, insatiable women who could not be trusted with men’s virtue, or even their physical health. Certainly, they weren’t wife and mother material. The predatory nature of vamps was two-pronged.

The vamp was a gold-digger and home-wrecker who ruined good men. Conversely, she was an unnatural, deviant type of female, who might prey upon and destroy otherwise innocent and virtuous young girls. In this way, the vamp as a tool of patriarchy was deployed to attack the many feminist leaders who, whether due to actual sexual identity or simple practicality, eschewed traditional marriage and created various sorts of partnerships with one another (other women).

We’ll start with the first one, since she’s the most commonly referenced. This is the hetero-normative vamp, who in modern times is actually admired. In a way, she has been harnessed by our current generational brand of patriarchy. She is sassy, sensuous, and doesn’t mind making herself a sexual object while she’s at it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? This neutralizes her threat. Marilyn Monroe is a slightly retro but still valid version. Also Anna Nicole Smith. Their common, tragic ending suggests that this patriarchy-endorsed version of vamp may not be as enviable as she first appears.

1929: Louise Brooks in The Canary Murder Case.

One prominent example of the vintage vamp that remains to us comes from a 1919 article in a New York magazine called, “The Evening World.” In their March 27 edition, they praise the moral endeavors of a judge in Newark, NJ to combat the monstrous vamp. They report that this magistrate

“…has appealed to the Director of Public Safety for the creation of a ‘Vampire’s Gallery.’ By stern public posting of naughty eyes that will not behave, of hair that is too golden, of cheeks that are too pink, the Magistrate hopes to rid his town of the flirtie girlies and make that part of the world safe for domesticity.”

Personally, I’m trying to picture the wall of shame that local girls were presumably posted to if they looked too attractive to this dink and his friends. Were the pics at the post office next to mug shots of bank robbers and pedophiles? Or were those types of ne’er-do-wells not yet deemed a public safety issue? I’m also wondering if the photos were entirely punitive, or if they actually had a pre-Craigslist vibe. It’s super-creepy, in either case.

This Jersey magistrate (apparently quite a player, given his tons of insight) describes vampires as women who bleach their hair, wear lots of make-up, and go out on dates while using false names.

Not to be outdone, the author of the article doubles down when she (yes, she—remember the patriarchy always exploits the voices of its female adherents) suggests that the judge has only touched upon “the crudest exponent of the ancient art of [female] preying.” Using the queens in a deck of playing cards as a structure, she describes the really dangerous vamps and their vile motivations. Apparently:

The heart vamp works for love

The diamond vamp works for riches

The spade vamp works for success

The club vamp works for revenge

You can see in the illustration to the article that the vamp is a flapper, holding a tiny man the way King Kong held his lady, strewing playing cards in the wake of her serpentine tail.

What say you? These women dared to try and attain their own goals in relation to financial security, professional success, emotional fulfillment and basic self-defense? Witchcraft! Necromancy! Someone get the holy water and stake their uppity asses back into the dirt where they belong!

By referencing the magistrate and making the vamp a “public safety issue,” this article is very clear about the reasons folks comfortable in the patriarchal, base-line culture saw certain women as literally dangerous.

But what about the girl-on-girl vamp? Interestingly, she seems to have reawakened in the hallowed halls of the Academy—no doubt due to extreme patriarchal angst over women achieving educational goals and the advancements that came with them. These women were seen as literally monstrous in large part because they were seeking achievements that were not dependent on domestic deference to a man (father, brother, husband, or son).

Since virtually all female secondary education was held in sex-segregated (all girl) environments, the whole situation left an open invitation to equate their lifestyles directly with what we now call lesbianism. But in that time, they were referencing the most twisted and inauthentic stereotypes of women loving women—framing it as deviance, mental illness, and outright metaphysical evil. But, they weren’t entirely working from fiction. They were also lashing out against a very real phenomenon at work in the feminism of the times. I mean the phenomenon of female partnerships.

Women building lives with other women during the era of suffrage (roughly 1848 to 1928 in the US and UK) is a phenomenon dealt with extensively by author Lillian Faderman. She takes great care to note that there was a broad spectrum of relationship types. Some were totally “safety in numbers,” utilitarian types of partnerships. Some were the emotionally fulfilling “romantic friendships,” or “sisterhoods,” which were not sexual. And some were exactly what we would think of when we reference lesbian relationships today—up to and including a full partnership sharing resources, maybe raising kids, and generally having an emotional and sexual union. But, as with any marginalized group, they “all looked the same” to the mainstream culture and its masters.

Here are a few examples of the literary, lesbian-feminist vamp. One of the most classic examples is the 1915 book, “Regiment of Women,” written by Englishwoman Winifred Ashton under the pen-name of Clemence Dane. Note the militarized language which parallels the militant suffrage movement in Britain during this time.

In “Regiment of Women,” the predatory female teacher at the girls’ school is named Clare Hartill (heart-ill). She chews up and spits out the innocent girls in her charge, in every possible way. The writing is very sexually charged, and the vampirism is on an emotional (if not sexual) level more than a sanguinary one.

Another English novel in a similar vein (pardon, I couldn’t resist) is “White Ladies,” written in 1935 by Francis Brett Young. By this time the Brits had full suffrage, but the social unease is still apparent. Perhaps what women were doing with their newly legislated independence was freaking Francis out.

In this novel, the girls at the school are fed upon on a sanguinary level (their blood is actually consumed) by their evil teacher, Miss Cash. Note the connotation that a “career girl” like Miss Cash (who earns her own money) is necessarily suspect.

Not all the lesbian vampires were teachers. In Dorothy Sayers’ 1927 story, “Unnatural Death,” the villain is a predatory nurse. And not all these ladies are subtle. In Dorothy Baker’s “Trio” (1943), the vampire teacher drugs and imprisons her hapless female students.

You see how this goes. Women stepping out of the domestic, maternal zone are selfish, unnatural, over-sexed, greedy, and literally monsters. Parents have to guard their naive female children, lest they fall under the dreaded feminist thrall.

It seems, however, that all these monster tropes have a sociological arc. What begins as a cautionary tale becomes kind of exciting, and then down-right cool. Then, under the right cultural circumstances, it may swing back toward the cautionary again.

Note how the vampire resurrected as a desirable icon of powerful and charismatic personality. These creatures are often even portrayed as heroes. The LGBTQ vampire, for example, became admirable as a sexual and cultural outsider.

cavorting girl-on-girl vamps from The Vampire Lovers (1970)

In every case, the vamp shows us the ways in which classic horror creatures reflect human struggles and human nature. Like any good horror protagonist, we can only hope to survive by being adaptive learners. Good luck out there!




(PS: learn more about the REAL vampire thing from Enid in Revenant: Blood Justice at Black Rose Writing, Barnes & Noble, or Kindle).