The twentieth century saw literally dozens of major adaptations of Bram Stoker‘s novel Dracula, from plays and musicals to radio productions, t.v. series, television adaptations and motion pictures. Yet that same period saw a dearth of Carmilla versions. LeFanu‘s classic in that period saw three radio versions, three major stage plays, three television adaptations (one of which sadly lost) and four films. The last aired in 1990. So it remained for twenty one years. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Until Wildclaw Theatre in Chicago in 2011 mounted a new Carmilla. First of many!
In just the last four years Carmilla has had a genuine renaissance! To my certain knowledge at least two other plays of the same work have also gone up since then (I wrote one of them). On top of that two new motion pictures have appeared–both very good, with name actors and creating a lot of stir. Curse of Styria with Stephen Rhea and Elinor Tomlinson got a distributor first but The Unwanted is still winding its way through film festivals. And yet another radio play from the British Isles (with David Warner).
And then there is the web series–a genuine hit by any standards, it has spawned many a Tumbler blog and fanfiction group with “Creampuffs” (as fans are known–the lesbian vampire equivalent of Trekkie) creating music videos, filming their reactions to episodes, devouring trivia, etc. Its second season is en route as these words are typed, scheduled to start airing in Spring of this very year.
So–what happened? Why this explosion of interest in less than four years? Nearly as many adaptations since 2011 as in the previous century! Not counting the new web comics, the re-writing of the original (adding werewolves and the like, linking the story directly to Dracula–a take a graphic novel did as well), and a new edition with extraordinary artwork.
What is going on?
Here’s one theory. Vampires function as a metaphor that resonate with an audience on some level. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer they became one of many hard, terrible things about the real world teens had to start to face. For Twilight they became pretty much an embodiment of human sin, with the conquest of same portrayed as a source of ultimate romantic desire. Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain brings us vampires as disease, corruption, chaos waiting to overwhelm us all. Dracula Untold sees undeath as a damnation, the price paid for absolute value. So what kinds of metaphors does LeFanu’s lesbian vampire embody?
Feminism could well make for a short, sweet answer. An exploration of the power of the feminine, how it is suppressed and distorted, how it lashes out like karma. Be warned–SPOILERS do most certainly follow! Consider the web series for example. Apart from the fact the only three male characters are (1) A nice idiot, (2) A sadistic liar, and (3) A digitalized nerd, all five of the female leads appear to be quite straight-forwardly gay. Whatever else Silas University may be, it seethes with assumptions about female empowerment. Even the villain is a woman, and while most of those ending up rescued are girls, they are saved by a cadre led and inspired by young women. The title character even saves the day at the end, giving a lie to her cynical claims of being only interested in survival. This Carmilla (as in most recent versions) clearly and genuinely loves our lead character, Laura.
For the record, that was the choice in my play version as well.
This makes for something quite consistent in most recent versions. Whereas Crypt of the Vampire or The Blood Spattered Bride shows a vampiress as predator first and foremost, Curse of Styria and The Unwanted see things differently. The “vampire hunters” we see as oppressors of women, fanatics as well as (in at least one case) a rapist. What power Laura may have over events becomes a focus. She’s no longer a passive victim, even in the relatively straightforward BBC radio play.
All of which makes for a comment about not only the story itself but our times. While bastions of male power react in ever-spiraling fury at changes in the world, some of us look to an 1872 novella for insight into what changing gender roles mean. Carmilla and its characters offer a way to explore something vivid and meaningful to our lives, especially in terms of women. Thus in that respect it serves much the same function as The Hunger Games.