Syd Morgan: “I’m Taking Him Down With Me”: Heroine Transformations in Carmilla, Varney the Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Vampire Diaries

When reading Victorian vampire literature, I was enthralled by the perspectives of the heroines present in the texts. I sought to think of their given narratives from their perspectives, and wondered at how the heroines transformed throughout the texts. As characters, they begin and end in very different places. I attest this framework of thinking to the very modern heroine-focused vampire stories that I grew up reading and watching, some of the most impactful being The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Vampire Diaries follows main character Elena Gilbert, as she navigates life in Mystic Falls, which happens to include vampires, witches, and werewolves. Buffy the Vampire Slayer centers around a teen vampire slayer, Buffy Summers, as she is repeatedly tasked to save Sunnydale, and the world, from vampires and demons. These heroines stuck out the most to me growing up, and have interesting comparative avenues to explore when paired with Victorian vampire literature such as Carmilla and Varney the Vampire.

When comparing these four pieces, I argue that the modern vampire heroines Elena Gilbert and Buffy Summers have much more agency and control over their story and arc, but in their transformations, are still forced to deal with, and occasionally bend to, patriarchal systems and institutions in a similar way to those experienced by Laura in Carmilla and Flora in Varney the Vampire. There are numerous resources surrounding these four pieces, but I build most heavily off of the work of scholars Lin Young, Rhonda Nicol, and Susan Owen. In her essay “Curating the Vampire Queer (Un)Natural Histories in Carmilla”, Lin Young first explores the structures and ideologies of the Victorian museum in what she coins “the museum gaze”. She argues that this gaze is forced on the characters Carmilla and Laura in Carmilla, and that Carmilla transgressesagainst being categorized throughout the novel. Young comes to the conclusion that theuncategorizability explored in the story is where the horror of Carmilla originates for Victorian audiences. In her article “‘You Were Such A Good Girl When You Were Human’ Gender andSubversion in The Vampire Diaries.”, Rhonda Nicol analyzes the character arc of Caroline Forbes, the relationship between Katherine and Elena, and the Stefan/Elena/Damon love triangle to show that The Vampire Diaries is a feminist commentary on finding identity and confronting one’s mistakes. Finally, Susan Owen argues that Buffy the Vampire Slayer functions as a postmodern feminist commentary and metanarrative. She argues that the show is extremely self aware, and can therefore tackle social issues in the form of a campy, comic-book-inspired show.

To begin, a major way in which the heroine arcs in Carmilla and Varney differ from the heroine arcs in The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the heroine’s agency in the narrative. In Varney, things primarily happen to Flora, Flora does not inspire anything to happen. She is attacked, saved by the intervention of her father and brothers, and is told to rest while others worry about the vampire, which she does. There is a similar pattern with Laura in Carmilla. Carmilla, as a character, happens to Laura. She comes into Laura’s life very suddenly, and gradually preys on her. Laura becomes the object of Carmilla’s obsession, which is the driving force in the narrative, and Laura doesn’t play any role in stopping her demise–it is the men around her that overcome Carmilla. Laura’s role in the entire affair is circumstantial, and the same things could have happened to any young woman just the way it happened to Laura, which is explored in the story, as Laura is not Carmilla’s first victim. The transformations Laura and Flora undergo are spurred by a vampire, and remedied by a man, displaying their lack of agency in what happens to them.

Narrative agency is changed drastically through the characters Elena Gilbert and Buffy Summers in The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but not as simply as modern views towards women would imply. In The Vampire Diaries, Elena has agency through the relationship arc between her and Stefan. They are on-again off-again throughout the first season, and Elena makes many decisions regarding her relationships with the large cast of characters. However, this agency does not extend to the larger plot, as she is a defenseless human set against various bad vampires. Ultimately, Elena is still saved time and again by her male vampire love interests, Stefan and Damon Salvatore. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is a role-model for characters with narrative agency. She is the force that drives the story arcs forward, and she is in control of her vampire-fighting destiny and is labeled as “the chosen one”(“Welcome to Hellmouth”). She is the picture of control throughout the series, continuously saving the day and preventing the apocalypse. Though there is a large differentiation between these four heroine depictions, three of the four of them give the narrative agency over to the men in the story. Buffy is the outlier in this scenario, but she still faces patriarchal stereotypes and limitations through her community on the show.

Another large difference that can be explored between Varney and Carmilla, and The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the people present as they move through their vampire experiences. Flora and Laura are surrounded by older, authoritative patriarchal figures. For Flora, it is her brothers, her father, and Marchdale. For Laura, it is her father, the General, and the doctor. They both experience their character arcs without a female confidant or any sense of community. In the modern TV shows, however, Elena and Buffy are surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends that include both men and women. Elena confides in Bonnie, Caroline, and Matt, where Buffy leads “the Scooby Gang” made up of Willow, Xander, Cordelia, and Giles. Even with this sense of community and inclusion of close-female-non-vampire ties, Elena and Buffy still play into the teen drama angst and conform to patriarchal ideals through their respective love triangles. As discussed by Susan Owen, Buffy obsesses over Angel to Willow while being chased by Xander, playing into the boy-obsessed teen girl stereotype (Owen 28). Elena does something similar to this in agonizing over her and Stefan’s relationship, and eventually her and Damon’s, over the course of the first season. In these cases, the modern vampire heroine still faces harmful stereotypes, and is not given the chance to move through her life without the presence of a brooding male love interest. So even while Buffy and Elena may have powerful female relationships and community, as opposed to social isolation, they still fall into modern traps of teen girl stereotypes.

To expand on this idea, there is a duality of vampiric influences seen in the communities of The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In both of these modern shows, the notion of the “good vampire” and the “bad vampire” is well established. What defines a “good vampire” is flexible in both shows, but relies on the idea that they do not needlessly kill or feed on humans. In The Vampire Diaries, the vampires featured even go back and forth between “good vampire” and “bad vampire”, and are not strictly defined by their history, as argued by Nicol in “‘You Were Such A Good Girl When You Were Human’ Gender and Subversion in The Vampire Diaries” (Nicol). In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these rules are much more rigid, with the only “good vampire” in season one being Angel, who is cursed with a soul and cannot feed on humans. In these two shows, both the “good vampire” and the “bad vampire” have heavy influence on the transformations of the heroine. The “bad vampire” acts as an outside influence, something that keeps the heroine in danger, only to be saved and supported by the “good vampire”, in these two cases the “good vampires” are the characters Stefan and Angel. Because of this, Elena and Buffy are kept in a place of relying on the help of these men and cannot fully explore their independence as heroines. This has a large impact on their respective transformations because as both series go on, they break out of this confine, as evidenced by Elena becoming a vampire and Buffy becoming a better, more selfless, vampire slayer.

This differs between the vampiric influences seen in Carmilla and Varney. Both of the vampires from these texts are strictly “bad vampires”, and are seen as depictions of evil. In Carmilla this happens through Carmilla’s transgressions against what is seen as normal and proper (Young 76). In Varney this happens through the vampire’s attack on Flora, who is a representation of all that is good and innocent, as denoted by her appearance as “a creature formed in all fashions of loveliness” with “long silken eyelashes” and “long hair” and skin “fairer than the spotless clothing of the bed” (Rymer Chapter 1). In these examples, the vampiric influence on the heroine’s respective transformations takes shape in a “bad vampire” preying upon the innocent, which changes their status into something darker and tainted. Regardless of their transformations, Flora and Laura are never allowed to break out of their patriarchal confines, as they are never allowed to be independent in their stories. This is opposed to Elena and Buffy’s experiences where “good vampires” and “bad vampires” have equal weight in their transformations, and they are able to function independent of the men in their stories.

The final way in which the heroines from Varney, Carmilla, The Vampire Diaries, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer compare is in the transformations themselves that each heroine undergoes. Flora and Laura begin their arcs as innocent young women who are then transgressed on and awoken to a different life, one where they fully acknowledge and are aware of evil. In Varney, this is evidenced by Flora’s turn from “a creature formed in all fashions of loveliness” to having a mind that “appears much disturbed” and suffering from “bodily weakness” as she suspects her attacker is a vampire (Rymer chapter 4). In Carmilla, Laura goes from a young woman desperate for a friend, to having a woman lover, to then falling ill because of it. In a similar way, Laura is awoken to a world where there are larger things to worry about than finding a companion. A world where there is evil and it can come from people you trust. For Laura, this is both Carmilla, who intended to kill her, and her father, who took away her only companion. For both characters, their naivety is eliminated.

A similar arc happens to both Elena and Buffy. Elena begins the series as an average highschool girl who just suffered a tragedy and ends the first season as someone that has loved and lost, and has been awoken to evil dealt by the hands of both “good vampires” (Stefan and Damon) and “bad vampires”. On the other hand, Buffy begins her series as “the chosen one” who refuses to participate in her destiny. She selfishly wants to be an average highschooler, and quit being a vampire slayer, but is pulled back into the fray by vampires and their dealings. Over the course of season one, she faces a host of different supernatural enemies, and by the end of the season, she has transformed into a selfless, and better, vampire slayer. A prime example of this occurs when she finds out that a prophecy foretells her dying at the hands of the Vampire Master. She responds with outrage and, once again, quits being a slayer. However, in a display of her transformed selflessness, she decides that if she’s going to die she’s going to “take him (the Vampire Master) down with me” and save the world from evil vampires (“Prophecy Girl”). Buffy faces her destiny, and briefly dies, but is saved by Xander and Angel, giving the message that Buffy would not have been able to save herself, and, with their help, then destroys the Vampire Master.

Ultimately, the character arcs present for the heroines in Carmilla and Varney rely heavily on the authoritative men surrounding them, where as the character arcs present for the heroines in The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer transpire not because of patriarchal trappings, but are still influenced by them. This can be seen through the elements of narrative agency as well as the types of community featured in each story. Carmilla and Varney, and The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer also differ in the types of vampiric influence and the character transformations that each heroine undergoes in the course of her story. However, one aspect is shared between all heroines. They all share a heavily nuanced awakening to evil that leaves them changed drastically, and makes for an extremely interesting, and oftentimes entertaining, story.

Works Cited

“Founders Day.” The Vampire Diaries: Season One, written by Brian Oh and Andrew Chambliss, directed by Marcos Siega, CW, 2010.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla. Project Gutenburg, 1872.

Nicol, Rhonda. “‘You Were Such A Good Girl When You Were Human’ Gender and Subversion in The Vampire Diaries.” Gender in the Vampire Narrative, edited by Amanda Hobson and Melissa Anyiwo, Rotterdam, 2016, 145-160,

Owen, A. Susan. “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 27, no. 2, 1999, 24–31,

“Prophecy Girl.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Joss Whedon, Paramount, 1997.

Rymer, James Malcolm. Varney the Vampire. Project Gutenburg, January 29, 2005, pp. chapters 1-4.

“Welcome to Hellmouth.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Charles Martin Smith, Paramount, 1997.

Young, Lin. “Curating the Vampire Queer (Un)Natural Histories in Carmilla.” The Vampire in Nineteenth Century Literature: Feasts of Blood, edited by Brooke Cameron and Lara Karpenko, Routledge, 2022, 63-77.

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