Autumn Johnson: A Comparison of Power Dynamics Among Vampires

Vampires typically have heightened strength and abilities. The vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight have super speed, many others, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, have been shown to have tremendous strength, add in a plethora of telepathic, shapeshifting, or heightened sense related skills, just to name a few; but how has this power been distributed over the years? Do some vampires have different attributes than others? Through studying vampire literature, I have seen several vampires of different backgrounds, races, and genders. Each one has had a variety of characteristics that help them stand out against the others which, in turn, crafts the power each vampire holds. I am interested in the comparison between these levels of power and how they are demonstrated and dispersed among each vampire based on their characteristics.

A continuous theme used within many vampire stories, is the desire of power that male vampires are trying to attain over others, particularly their female victims. This is seen as early as one of the first documented vampire stories, John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” In this story, the vampire Lord Ruthven uses his mysterious European charm to seduce several women, one of which is the sister of his traveling companion, Aubrey. Ruthven uses his seduction as a way to gain power, as it increases with each woman he entices and then kills. He also holds an additional power over Aubrey through an oath, restricting him from ever talking about his death, which Aubrey had personally witnessed one year prior. This promise held heavily over Aubrey when learning of his sister’s relationship with Ruthven; “…he bade her swear that she would never wed this monster, for he— But he could not advance– it seemed as if that voice again bade him remember his oath– he turned suddenly around, thinking Lord Ruthven was near him but saw no one” (Polidori 29). This fear gives Ruthven an even greater sense of power, as it affects others even when he is not present. Aubrey finds himself feeling helpless with the remembrance of his oath, as he must hide his reason for anger and perplexity from his family or risk consequences at the hand of Lord Ruthven. However, male power among vampires can and has become far more complex than this.

I mentioned previously that there is a desire in male vampires to seduce and take command of their female victims; but this develops just as much from fear as it does from a thirst for dominance. While many of the vampire stories we know and love today are full of beautiful, porcelain-skinned, brooding men, the original literature described them very much as grotesque monsters. This dichotomy sheds light on how gothic horror literature has changed over the years . Kristina Deroucher argues that  how societal fears and pursuits are reflected in  modern vampires. They are represented as sexually desirable and their immortality allows them the capacity to accumulate wealth, which exemplifies itself as a threat to the modern European man. “The growth of capitalism and influx of immigrants into England produced fears that white women might willingly choose a powerful, wealthy, and exotic (non-white) sexual partner thereby polluting pure Anglo bloodlines” (Deroucher 46). Vampires, thus, were written as looking gruesome, pale, and empty, perhaps as a way to show how absurd attraction to these creatures could be. Even Lord Ruthven was not exempt from this treatment, as he was described as being inexplicably enticing to many partygoers. Some initial descriptors are, “Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye” and “In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, […] many of the female hunters of notoriety attempted to win his attentions” (Polidori 14-15). There are of course many other examples of this sexualization of these undead creatures throughout centuries of vampire literature, even turning into self-loathing as seen by Twilight’s Edward Cullen. However, this attempt at ostracizing and detracting from the desire of these men backfired, as modern vampires have become quite the sensation, making their way into many adolescent fantasies.

But there is another form of power among male vampires that is sought, one that seeks a greater purpose. The Prince in Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s The Black Vampyre (1819), presents himself as a leader from the moment he is introduced. He has characteristic vampiric charm, which captivates Euphemia, the lady of the house, instantly. However, he also has another goal in mind. The Prince is mentioned at the beginning of the story to have brought a group of enslaved people with him. Later on, he is seen speaking to this same group along with a company of vampires and strives towards unanimity between them as he inspires a desire within them for freedom in Haiti. The Prince advances and attempts to lead this assembly to take power for themselves within a society that despises them. While he eventually fails, he still holds that desire to continue a legacy and live through it with those who are similar to him. His power here though, is not lost with his attempt. Vampires have rich histories from their decades or even centuries spent past the time of their initial death, keeping their story current helps to keep themselves tethered to their reality. “It is this persistence of memory that confers immortality, after all, along with the expansion and enrichment of the self that would be one of the perks of being immortal” (Hallab 47). In addition, the Prince knows that together his people would be stronger, more resilient, and that their stories combined would keep their history going even when their bodies gave out. The power here lies in what is told and the lineage that he passes down; the true immortality of the Prince lies in his story.

The last type of power I would like to talk about is that which is granted to female vampires, and perhaps the lack thereof. The first story I read that demonstrated this female power was in Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Carmilla has a sense of innocence about her that makes her enticing, similarly to how male vampires had before her. However, Carmilla focuses more on creating a bond with the narrator, Laura, and furthers her sense of wonderment and fear through their alleged dream-bonding. She uses her connection with Laura to make her believe that they have a special bond and controls their relationship to progress rapidly, so Laura trusts her. As time passes, they only become more reliant on each other, with Laura viewing Carmilla as a lover and Carmilla using Laura as sustenance. Through this dynamic, Amanda Hobson argues, Carmilla is represented  as a sexual creature, similar to her male counterparts, although her sexualization is based less around violence and more around beauty and charm as her means of destruction (Hobson 12). “The vampire seductress,” Hobson adds, “fills our imaginations as she embodies contradicting ideals of femininity, such as fragility, strength, beauty, and power” (9). The female vampire juxtaposes power and monstrosity, as well as sexuality, in a more nuanced way than the men, because of how women are viewed in literature to begin with– generally as innocent flowers or as conniving minxes. Additionally, Carmilla’s power is combated by demonizing her through her sexuality. Carmilla contains an obvious lesbian love story, but at the time of publication lesbian desire was taboo. This story perpetuated ideas of portraying lesbians only as monsters or as ailing girls who were either crazy or dying. Much like the seductive men were also portrayed as monstrous and grotesque to show that exotic or mysterious isn’t better in their eyes, these women had their monstrosity tied to their queerness to push the notion that queerness was wrong and evil. Regardless of how it’s viewed, female vampires’ power weighs in the balance of their sexuality.             Overall, these stories helped me to see how complex power among vampires can really be. Each vampire I wrote about had a different motive, and yes, although they all had a thirst to quench, their reasons varied for who they victimized, why, and how they went about their attacks. Lord Ruthven sought power through status and hanging authority or consequence over people’s heads. The Prince sought legacy and continuation, for himself and others to ensure immortality. Carmilla sought out the chase and built connections with her victims before draining them. I like that each one is a villain in the basic sense that they care first about themselves, but each has a sense of personableness and charm that makes them hard to hate. I guess that adds to their power in a way, as they still jump off the page to enthrall and mystify their reader.

Works Cited

D’Arcy, Uriah Derick. The Black Vampyre, ed. Duncan Faherty and Ed White Just Teach One, no. 15 (2019).

Deroucher, Kristina. “Men That Suck: Gender Anxieties and the Evolution of Vampire Men,” in Gender in the Vampire Narrative, ed. Amanda Hobson and U. Melissa Anyiwo. 45-60. Brill, 2016.

Hallab, Mary Y. Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture. State University of New York Press, 2010.

Hobson, Amanda. “Dark Seductress: The Hypersexualization of the Female Vampire” in Hobson and Anyiwo, 9-28.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla. Project Gutenberg, 2003.

Polidori, John William. The Vampyre. Arizona State University, 2010.

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