Histories of Horror: Vampirella

Welcome to Histories of Horror, a column in which we will be diving into the origins and inspirations behind some of your favourite horror creatures, characters, and more, from the infamous to the more obscure. Join us as we examine the roots and themes that have helped these stories and characters evolve from the humblest beginnings to becoming, in many cases, cornerstones of pop culture.

Vampires have a long, long history of success in comics. Blade’s cinematic legacy alone goes back over twenty years and the character was introduced in the pages of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula over two decades before that. This year will see the cinematic debut of Morbius, a vampire anti-hero and occasional enemy of Spider-Man, who first made his appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #101 in October of 1971. But I think, without question, even after three Blade movies and a TV series, the most iconic comic book vampire is unquestionably Vampirella, and I’d imagine she’ll always remain as such. With only one barely remembered, low-budget movie under her belt, Vampirella has persisted in pop culture, thanks largely to an immediately recognizable look, and the fact that she has remained in print for over fifty years. She is the ultimate comic book vampire, but more than that, she’s the ultimate vampire femme fatale, and that’s a trope that goes back over a century in fiction, and much longer than that in folklore.

The concept of the seductive female vampire has been around as long as there have been stories about vampires, literally. One of the earliest traceable vampire stories is the Hebrew legend of Lilith, first wife of Adam. Stories about Lilith can be really hard to piece together, and are often contradictory, as they were developed by different people at different times, with much of the mythology being refined much later, in the middle ages. But the basic concept is that Lilith was carved from the same clay as Adam, rather than being created from Adam’s rib, as in the story of Eve. While the circumstances differ from tale to tale, Lilith left the Garden of Eden after refusing to become subservient to him, and became a vampire/succubus/witch/demon, depending on region, characterized as a horrible monster who fed on children and babies in particular. Lilith is one of the earliest wrongly vilified women in the whole tradition of global storytelling: a woman who only wanted she and her husband to be on equal footing, asked for the bare minimum of equality, and was literally demonized for it.

The fictional tradition of the female vampire extends far beyond that, though. One of the most seminal vampire stories of all time, J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, remains the most important of them. In addition to being one of the best vampire stories ever told, Carmilla also has the distinction of being one of the earliest lesbian vampire stories ever. It centers on a lonely girl named Laura, longing for a friend, who finds herself caring for a beautiful, mysterious, sick girl named Carmilla, who of course turns out to be a vampire. While Carmilla is horrifically killed like any classical monster at the end, her relationship with Laura is genuine and sweet. She is not an altogether evil character, if she could even be classified as evil at all. Carmilla’s appearance, her pale skin and long dark hair, is also of note, as it would define so many prominent female vampires to follow.  Carmilla’s legacy is huge. The novella has spawned numerous adaptations, influenced dozens of other movies, and had a massive influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in particular, to the point that he originally planned to set the novel in Styria, where Carmilla took place. 

While Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire, is obviously male, he’s outnumbered by vampires in that book who are women. After settling into the castle, Jonathan Harker’s first encounter is with Dracula’s brides—sometimes just referred to as the three sisters—who entrance him with their beauty, nearly biting him before being interrupted by the Count, and proceed to devour a human child while Harker is forced to watch. Harker, in the scene, is notably repulsed by how attracted he is to them. After Dracula flees for London, he leaves Harker to the brides to feed off of, throwing him away and leaving him to be devoured in the castle once he no longer has any use for him, but Harker escapes. After Dracula arrives in London, the middle section of the book revolves around the attempts and ultimate failure to save Lucy Westenra from her mysterious illness. Having been bitten by Dracula, Lucy returns as a vampire, and the men who loved her are forced to drive a stake through her heart to save her soul. When they encounter Lucy in her vampiric state, she nearly seduces Arthur, and the same sort of “grotesque beauty” is described as had been described for the brides, which honestly makes sense for a man as repressed as Stoker. Like Carmilla before her, Lucy is a pale, spectral figure with long, dark hair. 

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Hammer Films really doubled down on giving vampire women the spotlight. The first sequel to Horror of Dracula did not even feature the Count himself, shifting the focus toward the women with 1960’s Brides of Dracula. They tackled loose adaptations of Carmilla with the Karnstein trilogy, beginning with The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and also including Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Before all of that, though, there was an even more important figure in the legacy of the female vampire and especially the legacy of Vampirella: Vampira. One of the first and best horror hostesses, Vampira is unique in that she remains an iconic genre staple while also being somewhat lost to time. In 1953, actress Maila Nurmi attended the Bal Caribe Masquerade dressed as Morticia Addams. She caught the attention of producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who wanted her to host horror movies on the local Los Angeles TV station KABC-TV. Nurmi’s husband, Dean Richter, came up with the name Vampira, and from there, Nurmi’s alter-ego and The Vampira Show were born. The series began in 1954, with Nurmi introducing various horror movies and poking fun at them with a dry sense of humor. Despite her popularity, the show only lasted at KABC until 1955, at which point Nurmi took it to KHJ-TV. She reprised the role of Vampira for the infamous 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, albeit without a single line of dialogue. Despite the character’s iconic status, by 1962, Nurmi was making a living installing linoleum flooring. 

The character of Vampira had an obvious, somewhat controversial, influence on later horror hostess Elvira. Long before that, though, she provided the major influence for a sanguine queen of the comics page: Vampirella. Making her debut in Vampirella #1 in September of 1969, Vampirella was the brainchild of Forrest J. Ackerman and artist Trina Robbins. Ackerman was a legendary figure in the horror and science fiction world, known as one of the most avid and enthusiastic collectors in genre history as well as for his seminal magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Vampirella was published by Warren, publisher of horror anthology magazines such as Creepy and Eerie. Initially, as penned by Ackerman, Vampirella was not that different from those other magazines. It, too, was an anthology, in which Vampirella herself appeared largely as a hostess to introduce various stories. At first, she was a parody of horror hosts, hence her over-stylized appearance and attitude. The initial set up was basically akin to Freddy’s Nightmares, a show in which Freddy would sometimes be the centerpiece of the action and sometimes just a spectator, introducing and commenting on the events. It wasn’t until Vampirella #8 in 1970 that writer and editor Archie Goodwin cemented Vampi as the book’s leading character, abandoning the horror host concept to instead develop the character’s ongoing story.

As a character, Vampirella was immediately recognizable—and remains so—for being scantily clad. Obviously, a vampire in a sling bikini with blood on her lips and a bat on her shoulder was designed to cater to a young male demographic that these magazines always sought, but there is a great deal more to the character than that. Vampirella honors the tradition of the femme fatale vampire that dates back to Carmilla if not all the way back to Lilith, while at the same time having her own, wildly different mythology from any traditional vampire story. Vampirella is, first and foremost, an alien. In the original continuity, she hails from the planet Drakulon, where blood flows like water. When the blood supply runs out and her people, the Vampiri, are threatened with extinction, Vampirella flees to Earth in hopes of finding a way to save her kind, while also battling Earth’s off-shoots of her own race. Later, this origin was scrapped for a more obvious take, with Vampirella being revealed to be the daughter of Lilith, and that she had been brainwashed into thinking she was from Drakulon by her evil siblings. Thankfully, other stories have returned to her kookier, more inspired origin. Vampirella’s powers are also of note. She has the bloodlust typical of all vampires, and while she shares most vampiric strengths, she has none of their weaknesses, such as sunlight or garlic. These traits are certainly worth noting, as they would later define the character of Blade.

Vampirella’s pansexuality is also extremely worth taking into account, as she also embodies a long tradition of queer themes in vampire fiction, whether the writer intended them or not. In Carmilla’s case, it’s obvious, though not exactly great representation as Laura is “saved” from her relationship at the end and Carmilla is destroyed. Then there are the many readings of the relationship between Lucy and Mina in Dracula, which succeed despite Stoker’s attempts to keep the character virtuous and stale and monogamous and heterosexual and pure, despite Lucy’s occasional intimacy with Mina and constant appraisal of polyamory. At first glance, Vampirella looks as if she’s simply catering to the male gaze, and any relationships she might have or sexual agency she might display are simply catering to the adolescent male fan base. And to be fair, that’s often the case. But that’s because in later years, Vampirella has so often been drawn by men, when, as mentioned, her entire visual design was created by feminist artist Trina Robbins. Writer Sara Century penned a terrific history of Vampirella’s sex-positivity and pansexuality, which you can read here.

In the 1970s, Hammer Films was trying to figure out a way to modernize its vampire pictures in movies like Dracula AD 1972. In 1975, Hammer acquired the film rights to the comic because the company needed a success that was pre-sold to an American audience, as they were in a dire financial situation at the time. In 1977, they put out a trade ad, even before the release of Superman: The Movie, promising Vampirella was on the way. The role of Vampirella was first offered to Caroline Munro, who would have been an absolutely perfect choice, but turned it down due to problems with the script. Valerie Leon also turned it down. The part eventually went to Barbara Leigh. Meanwhile, legendary director of Twins of Evil, The Legend of Hell House and The Watcher in the Woods, John Hough, was signed to direct. Hammer icon Peter Cushing was also cast as Pendragon. Even after the movie fell through, Barbara Leigh was hired to do publicity events in costume, in hopes it would rekindle enough interest to get the movie back up off the ground.

Eventually, a film was released in 1996, to little fanfare. A small, million dollar production, Vampirella starred Mortal Kombat’s Talisa Soto and was helmed by Chopping Mall and Return of Swamp Thing (among dozens of others) director Jim Wynorski, and was written by Pumpkinhead co-writer Gary Gerani. While short on spectacle, the film is relatively faithful to the character’s bonkers comic book origin, and not without its charms. The movie also starred Roger Daltrey, legendary singer of The Who as the villain, Vlad Tepish. Wynorski has often cited Vampirella as the one movie he regrets making. True to form, his main issue was with the casting of Talisa Soto, insisting she was not buxom enough for the role.

It’s frustrating, given our current comic book dominated culture, that Vampirella has never been given another shot at the screen, though there have been no shortage of announcements over time, all of which have gone nowhere. But even the character’s comic book legacy should be bigger than it is. For a character so immediately recognizable, she has never had one definitive run, let alone a definitive origin. While current publisher Dynamite has clearly shown faith in the character, and some of the crossovers of recent years have been a blast, it still feels like Vampirella is always stuck just outside the spotlight. Then again, as a vampire, maybe that’s simply where she’s most comfortable.

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