Fear of the Female in Vintage Horror Fiction
The horror fiction of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century includes many writers who remain Best-in-Genre and whose influence is ongoing, but the fear-of-the-female trope which features so prominently in their work merits further analysis. Let’s examine a selection from the classics by way of example: Le Fanu’s Carmilla (featuring the first lesbian vampire), Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter, and Poe’s Morella and Ligeia.
There are different elements to consider. First, the protagonist’s search for an idealised romantic love. Each story employs the concept of a ‘soulmate’, seeing it as an archetype that can be deceptive and slightly sinister. It is an adolescent view of love, based more on fantasy than reality, leading too often to obsession – something that permeates all Poe’s work. The youth in Annabel Lee, fixated on his dead sweetheart, is a disturbing figure. The love-beyond-death idea is carried further into the darker realm with Morella, who reincarnates as her own child, and Ligeia, who takes over the body of her lover’s next wife. We have here the dichotomy of perfect love and romantic obsession: the two overlap, and that overlap forms the charm that snared male writers. There are no comfortable marriages here, no dull everyday relationships; lovers die young, return from death, or live on in solitary melancholy. Happy-ever-after is a compromise these writers never make.
Then there is the fear/fascination factor with women’s sexuality. These men may have encountered the female orgasm – it is echoed in the death-spasms of various heroines – but they’d never heard of the clit. The gender-gulf was huge, and women’s pleasure lurked somewhere in its depths, mysterious and just out of reach. Hawthorne’s Beatrice is a beautiful girl with a loving heart, imbued with poison from her father’s experiments: her very touch is death. The hero gives her the antidote, and it kills her. It’s tempting to box clever with this, seeing it as a Victorian allegory for the fatality of sex. But here it is Giovanni who falls short, when he accuses her of deliberately seeking to contaminate him – at this point, Hawthorne exposes the shallowness of his hero. And in many such stories, the allure of the sexual female – the vampire or lamia – is often juxtaposed with the lethal weakness of men. Poe both despises that weakness and wallows in it; Hawthorne deplores it; Le Fanu weeps for it. The weakness of man and the seduction of woman are united in an evil coalition.
Behind all this are the limitations of a society where the ideal of womanhood was always Eve and the deviant was always Lilith. The good-girl Eves are generally blonde, blue-eyed, and – we infer – slightly insipid; the Liliths are often raven-haired, with black eyes of mysterious depth and unnaturally white skin. Eve represents virtue; Lilith represents sex. Thus Lilith is almost a radical figure: a product of male fantasy, but also an attempt to create something beyond the conventional woman, to drown in the gender-gulf, if not to bridge it. Because ultimately, Carmilla/Morella/Beatrice is always the poisoned flower, the fatal temptation. These characters are strong, intelligent, innocent yet knowing, powerful but finally ineffectual. They invariably end up dead, not just because the writers have a naturally tragic bent, but because the sexual woman was a phenomenon beyond their reach. Forbidden fruit.
These stories delve into the shadows of Victorian morality while still subscribing to it. The female archetypes are viewed, inevitably, through the lens of their time, but the tragedy is not theirs alone. What we glimpse here is the frustration and desperation of those men whose desire for a more complete woman could only find expression as horror.
Men still fear and desire her, often in equal measure – but women want to be her. In today’s narrative, we are allowed to say so.