In an undergraduate classroom, even one full of English majors, it can be hard for nineteenth-century literature to turn heads. “Achingly dull” or “overly wordy” are typical responses to the Victorians. Despite its place in our cultural imagination, Dracula doesn’t incite average readers to clamour for Bram Stoker’s foundational novel. But by the time Dracula’s three sultry vamp ladies crawl suggestively down Jonathan Harker in bed, who is insensate with fear and “languorous ecstasy,” students realise this isn’t some stuffy sermon on middle-class morality they’re dealing with. The assumed Victorian prudishness doesn’t fly, but catapults out the nearest window. This isn’t what they were expecting. Certainly not from 1897. But why not?
Vampires have embodied cultural anxieties about widespread shifts in gender presentation and female sexuality in popular media since the nineteenth century. Before Dracula, works like the penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire and the lesbian novella Carmilla figured the vampire as a monstrous predator of women. Vampire fiction’s exploration of transgressive sexualities continues today from the Pulitzer Prize finalist literary fiction of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove to the CW’s easily digestible brand of network teen drama, The Vampire Diaries. On the whole, if not deliberating on illicit relations between men and women, vampire media seems far more inclined to highlight queer desire between women than between men. Rehashings of Dracula often hone in on Mina and Lucy’s relationship. In a deleted scene from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) the two kiss during a rainstorm; the short-lived NBC series also depicted a kiss between Lucy and another woman after Mina rejects her; Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which plays fast and loose with popular Victorian monster fiction, foregrounded protagonist Vanessa Ives’s devoted struggle to recover an abducted Mina Harker. Even the continued popularity of Carmilla saw a web series adaptation on YouTube.
But vampire media has also quietly sustained the possibility of desire between men for over a century. Dracula, the foundation from which nearly all subsequent depictions of vampires have emerged, frets over its homoeroticism: as scholar Christopher Craft noted in 1984, the fear Dracula will penetrate the Crew of Light and they will then “belong” to him is maintained throughout the novel. When Dracula rescues Harker from the three female vampires at his castle, he does so not out of the goodness of his heart but to save Harker for himself. He rounds on them, furious: “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? … This man belongs to me!” In this comparison of himself to the women, Dracula effectively but subtly positions himself as the rightful instigator in Harker’s seduction. This scene, however, can only ever be imagined; the sole vampires we see in Harker’s bed are the women. Speculations on Bram Stoker’s sexuality notwithstanding, homosexuality in Dracula is a desire that cannot, or will not, be explicitly sated.
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Although the long debate over Dracula as a reactionary novel highlights its xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of reverse colonisation, there is something suspicious about how the text luxuriates in the very expressions it condemns. Sure, the Crew of Light hunts down vamp-Lucy, but it also reads as a thinly veiled sex scene in which her fiancé plunges a stake into her gushing heart. The metaphorical sex act rectifies Lucy’s vampiric wantonness, returning her to the proper “sweetness and purity” of Victorian womanhood. If Dracula wants to police female sexuality – and it does – it nevertheless revels in its tantalising possibility before reifying the status quo. It is the reason that Dracula’s anticlimactic, nondescript death at the end of the novel flounders. Stoker, perhaps recognising the phallic nature of the stake, interrupts his novel’s prescribed rules of vampire killing to avoid the potential homoeroticism. A man, in the world of Dracula, cannot stake another man.
Once aware of the trend in vampire fiction to circumvent desire between men, it is easy to detect it across mediums and periods. Like Dracula, popular contemporary vampire flicks such as The Lost Boys (1987) mediates that desire through the body of a woman. Just as Dracula drinks the blood of men through a woman’s veins, so too must the film’s central vampire David (Kiefer Sutherland) and the human Michael (Jason Patric) traffic their desire through their shared female partner Star (Jami Gertz) whom David uses as a lure to draw Michael into his circle. “How far are you willing to go, Michael?” he asks, clearly hinting at more than just a game of motorcycle chicken.
Set in the hypnotically glam 1980s of Santa Carla, California, the background context of the AIDS epidemic is never too far away: the fear of shared blood and becoming “just like David” draws Michael closer to the heteronormative safety of his relationship with Star. Yet, the fluidness of sexuality simmers under the surface of The Lost Boys. Certainly, the homosocial bonding amongst the vampires and the outlying presence of the not-yet-vampire Star suggests vampirism in The Lost Boys is a male alliance. Michael’s stilted romance with Star mitigates the obvious chemistry between him and David; the borderline obsessive friendship-cum-rivalry remains the film’s central tension until Michael fatally impales David on taxidermy antlers – this pseudo staking between men occurs precisely ninety years after Bram Stoker forswore it.
Even Interview with the Vampire (1994), perhaps the most directly homoerotic vampire text in popular media, exemplifies the unease of directly portraying queer desire between men. Adapted from Anne Rice’s 1976 novel of the same name, Louis (Brad Pitt) details his relationship with Lestat (Tom Cruise) and his ethical crisis over his vampirism.
Significantly, the film’s explicit framework of blood drinking as sex comes the closest to demonstrating that desire when Lestat bites Louis and transforms him into a vampire. It later allows them to engage in a shared eroticism through the bodies of their female victims but precludes depicting such intimacy between the two again. Despite their queer family structure, in which Louis and Lestat perform a dual parental role of the child vampire Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), both the film and book are ultimately reluctant to name the desire that dominates the men’s relationship. The relationship itself is likewise figured as the catalyst for Louis’s moral decay, and so he must flee while Lestat either consistently entices his return (“You’ve come home to me, then?”) or outright hounds him. Yet, the film represents significant progress in its demonstration of emotional dependency and (amorphous) attraction between men. “The more you tried [to refuse me],” Lestat tells Louis in the penultimate scene, “the more I wanted you.”
Inexpressible desire continues to permeate vampire media. As readers and viewers, we are drawn to vampires because they allow us to think through the anxieties and desires that society will not voice. This particular reticence to articulate male homoeroticism suggests the enduring transgressive nature of queerness. Across horror and the gothic, explicitly queer storylines sluggishly begin to emerge. It is time that male desire come out of the coffin and, if not into the light, into the dark.
Marisa Mercurio is a PhD student at Michigan State University. Find her on Twitter @marmercurio.