Celebrating Halloween with “Carmilla,” blurring lines between the rational and the supernatural

Oct. 27, 2021, 7:49 p.m.

It has become an annual tradition of mine to read a work of fiction or nonfiction on supernatural themes during the Halloween season. My past picks have been “The Monk” by Matthew Gregory Lewis, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, “The Witch” by Ronald Hutton, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. After learning that the short story “Carmilla” by gothic master J. Sheridan LeFanu inspired Stoker’s “Dracula,” I immediately purchased the Oxford Classics edition and elected to read this almost-forgotten vampire tale of moral and psychological significance as the nights got longer and the weather turned cooler.

“Carmilla” was initially published in LeFanu’s 1872 short story collection “In a Glass Darkly.” The collection consists of five macabre tales that lie beyond the grasp of conventional rationality, forcing readers to take a leap of faith and suspend their standard judgment. 

In “Carmilla,” confessional narrator Laura lives with her father in a remote castle in the dense forests of Styria and becomes mesmerized by a mysterious guest, Carmilla, who happens to be a vampire. Like other works of Victorian Gothic fiction, “Carmilla” includes romantic imagery of haunted architectural ruins; depictions of wild nature; themes of illicit sexual enticements, illness and isolation; exploitation of folk beliefs and tensions between the familiar and the unfamiliar. People once thought the dead were summoned from their graves and haunted their neighboring villages, and nightmares bleed into the day. Like Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” the horror plot of “Carmilla” also relies heavily on ambiguity; LeFanu neither confirms nor denies the presence of demonic beings in Laura’s town and leaves us to wonder whether Laura’s eerie experiences are merely hallucinations. 

Even though “Carmilla” shares themes with gothic and earlier fiction, it also pushes the boundaries of the horror genre. First, the vampires of the early folktales are beastly, comical and foul-smelling primal predators. But in “Carmilla,” the vampire archetype is transformed into a beautiful aristocrat: a person who possesses all the elegance of high birth laced with sinister evil. Later, Stroker quite successfully incorporated this element into his own fiction, with Count Dracula as a libertine lordly vampire. The second interesting feature of “Carmilla” is that its vampire is a beautiful female who desires other young females. Vampires are generally presented in literature with a heightened sexual drive, but it is almost always heterosexual in nature. Instead, in “Carmilla,” the female vampire forms an intense homoromantic bond with her victim and hungers for her love and attention. Because of this theme of female lust, many scholars have additionally examined the ideas of repressed passion, homo-eroticism and patriarchal values embedded in this story.

“Carmilla” also distinguishes itself by leaning into science to validate its mythology. LeFanu’s short story collection begins with a prologue by a fictional English doctor who works for an eminent and learned German physician, Doctor Hesselius. The Englishman reveals that the stories in this collection are case studies assembled by the now-deceased German, who in some instances also added his notes and analysis to these peculiar incidents. One of the most interesting aspects of LeFanu’s work is his invocation of male scientists to legitimize the existence of the supernatural. Doctor Hesselius and others like him who appear throughout the text are not only men of science but also occult detectives, exploring new and previously unidentified realms. This addition made me think of 20th century German philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s argument that even in our scientific age, our thinking is still rooted in the magical and the mystical.

A footnote in my Oxford edition mentions that LeFanu took some characteristics of Carmilla’s vampirism from the English translation of “The Phantom World Or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, etc.” by Dom Augustine Calmet, a French Benedictine monk. Calmet’s two-volume treatise was published in 1751 and is a manual on investigating the occult. A new Cambridge Press edition states that Calmet wrote this work as a “scientific enquirer seeking to understand the truth behind stories of good and bad angels, vampires, witchcraft, possession by demons and the dead who come back to life.” I have enthusiastically added this book to my list of potential next Halloween reads.

Fyza Parviz Jazra is a Master's Candidate in Liberal Arts and writes for the Arts & Life section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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