Livia Arndal Woods // Consider Bram Stoker’s Lucy in her vampiric form: she holds a small child “strenuously to her breast.” Once the virginal victim of nocturnal bedroom attacks, Lucy is now a sexualized threat striking a monstrously maternal pose. The child is not Lucy’s baby but her meal. Nonetheless, this gothic scene is suggestive of the traumatic transformation of maternity. Though Lucy’s body – responding to violation – has given birth not to a child but to a monstrous iteration of itself, Dracula expresses more general anxieties about women’s reproductive potential. These are anxieties that haunt vampire narratives from the 19th century to our own.
Here, I gloss this pattern with brief readings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 “Christabel,” J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, and Stephanie Meyer’s 2008 conclusion to the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. As Nina Auerbach has argued in Our Vampires, Ourselves (a play, of course, on the title of the women’s health classic Our Bodies, Ourselves), the stories we tell about vampires express fears and desires that shift over time and space. Though much attention has been paid to the ways in which vampire narratives tend to express anxieties about violation, sexuality, and futurity, I want to focus in on the particular relevance of female vampire narratives to anxieties about women’s reproductive bodies. Of course vampires figure fears about “non-normative” reproduction (think of Stephen Arata’s influential argument about Dracula and fears of miscegenation, for example). But vampires, especially female vampires, also figure insistent fears about “normative” maternity. These are fears concerned with the ways in which sexuality can mark women’s bodies and silence women’s voices and, despite significant cultural shifts in how we articulate and manage pregnancy and childbirth over the past 200+ years, these are fears that persist.
Coleridge’s “Christabel” – read in conversation with vampire narratives in general and Carmilla in particular since at least A.H. Nethercot’s 1949 article “Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Lefanu’s ‘Carmilla’” – positions the mysterious and supernatural Geraldine in vampiric relationship to the titular heroine and her family. The motherless Christabel, drawn in the dead of night to the forest outside the gates of her medieval castle home, encounters Geraldine in seeming crisis. Geraldine relates a sexualized trauma (“Five warriors seized me yestermorn/Me, even me, a maid forlorn:/They choked my cries with force and fright…”) that seems to have marked itself on her reproductive body (“’In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell…This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow”). Her kidnapping/rape transforms Geraldine’s breasts into the site of monstrous power, the source not of life-giving milk but of Christabel’s spiritual starvation. The spell in her “bosom” becomes “lord of [Christabel’s utterance],” stopping up her ability to speak out as Geraldine usurps her dead mother’s and her own place in her elderly father’s affections.
As Nethercot, Auerbach, and others have noted, Le Fanu’s Carmilla echoes much of “Christabel’s” plot in more explicitly vampiric terms. Here, too, we have elderly fathers and dead mothers, the breast is the site of vampiric control, and victims are entranced and silenced by vampire danger. Furthermore, as the threat Geraldine poses seems linked to sexualized trauma, so too does that of the vampire Carmilla: “I was all but assassinated in my bed,” she explains to her victim, Laura, “’wounded here,’ she touched her breast, ‘and never was the same since.’
The implicit anxieties about the ways sexuality can permanently mark women’s bodies and the location of that anxiety at an archetypical site of maternity in “Christabel” and Carmilla is expressed in an explicit conflagration of vampiric pregnancy, childbirth, and transformation in Meyer’s Breaking Dawn. Bella Cullen (née Swan), married to her vampire lover Edward, has been having what we must understand to be no-way-around-it, rough, inter-species, newlywed sex with her husband. Unbeknownst to either of them, human-vampire sex can make a baby, albeit a half-monster baby that grows at an unprecedented rate and probably wants to “chew [its] way out of [its] own mother.” Bella experiences an accelerated pregnancy in which she is battered from the inside by a fetus whose kicks break her ribs. Labor is triggered by the fetus’s surge toward a cup of “dark red blood spilling out onto the pale fabric” of a living room carpet. Bella passes out, never to regain full consciousness during her labor or even what remains of her human life. She gives birth to her half-vampire child and is, herself, reborn as a vampire all in the space of one extended, drugged, partially-conscious state that silences her as Christabel and Laura were silenced by vampiric spells: “I hadn’t guessed,” Bella says, “that the morphine would have this effect – that it would pin me down and gag me.”
Despite increasing cultural willingness to see and name women’s reproductive bodies and despite unprecedented advances in reproductive technology that have made it much less likely that privileged western women will die or suffer serious physical damage in childbirth, the fear of losing one’s body and voice to maternity seems heightened rather than diminished in Meyer’s 21st century deployment of these tropes familiar to female vampire narratives. Of course, the source of the silencing – though not of the physical changes themselves – has shifted from the wounds of female trauma to the powers of medical intervention. And that’s another post for another day…