DRACULA’S DAUGHTER and Lesbian Erasure
“She’s under a spell that can be broken only by me…or death.”
When I was in kindergarten I got a girl sent to Catholic school because we kissed under the slide during recess. After our teacher notified our guardians, the girl’s parents stormed into the school, gripped their hands around her arm, and physically pulled my friend away from me. Their gasps pierced with hate and tongues spat venom with every word. My parents did their best to assure me that I had done nothing wrong, but I kept thinking there must have been something wrong with me because her parents weren’t just angry, they were scared. These “grown ups” as I had seen them, were scared of five-year-old me because of something their daughter and I had done together. These people were terrified of the power they believed I possessed because she had wanted to kiss me, and there’s “no way” their daughter would ever dream of doing such a thing.
I felt ashamed. I felt broken.
I felt like a monster.
In the 1930s, Universal Pictures set the standard for cinematic monsters and people like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine became icons. Horror fans all have their favorite Universal Monster, and much like a Dungeons and Dragons character class, a lot can be said about one’s personality based on who you choose as your favorite. The Universal Monsters are culturally omnipresent, and their excessive merchandising guarantees that the non-horror loving people in our lives will always have a go-to option when buying us gifts. Think of an item and there’s likely a version of it with the image of Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Gill Man, or The Bride slapped on the front. In the consumerism part of the world of Universal Monsters, they might as well be a monstrous little league team in a 90s sports movie–a total boy’s club and the token girl.
The Bride of Frankenstein, regardless of her legendary look and iconic hiss-scream, is barely in her own movie. She is brought to life, shrieks at the first man to approach her, and then the man is so unable to handle rejection, he kills them both. That joke would be a lot funnier if it isn’t something that happens in real life all the damn time, and it wouldn’t feel as concerning that the only female Universal Monster that gets merchandise is one that was told she belonged to a man and when she failed to obey, was told she belonged dead.
One year after the success of The Bride of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures tried their hand again with another femme facing monster movie sequel, Dracula’s Daughter. Unlike The Bride, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is a legitimate leading performance and the story of Dracula’s Daughter is her own.
Following the events of the first movie, Countess Marya returns upon receiving the news that her father, Count Dracula, is dead. The news is joyous for Marya who now believes that his death will also put an end to her curse of vampirism, allowing her to as she puts it, “live a normal life now, think normal things.” However, when she realizes that she remains a vampire even in his death, she seeks the help of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth in the hopes that he will be able to fix her. When he fails, she decides that her only course of action is to turn Dr. Garth and make him her companion in favor of her current manservant, Sandor.
Vampirism in this film is coded as queerness and nothing about it is subtle.
During a session with Dr. Garth, he confronts the Countess and says she’s “concealing the truth” about who she is. Marya retorts that the truth is “too ghastly.” Sure, hiding the ghastly truth under a vampire’s cloak is easy, but this film takes place in a time when queerness was seen as a mental illness and psychologists were frequently assigned to convert patients to heterosexuality. Is Marya referring to her vampirism? Or is she referring to the fact she frequently seduces women with hypnotic jewelry to undress before consuming them?
“Possibly there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your psychiatry, Mr. Garth.” – Countess Marya Zaleska
We frequently see the film through Marya’s eyes, and the camera hangs on Gloria Holden’s gaze whenever she targets a new woman. The man she kills is thrown away with complete disregard, but the women are adored and appreciated before the act. She loves women, she craves them, and knowing her yearning will ultimately bring upon their demise, she wants their final moments to be ones of beauty and desire.
The “normalcy” she thirsts for is not unlike the self-hating internalized homophobia that poisons the minds of so many queer people forced to grow up in a heterosexist and binary gendered society. Countess Zaleska is ashamed of her truth and desperately wants to be “cured,” knowing that continuing to live the life of a vampire was only going to end in the same manner as her father.
To be queer — err, vampiric — is to be killed for who you are.
The Countess asks Sandor “Look at me. What do you see in my eyes?” Sandor replies simply, “Death.” Deep down, he knows that Marya cannot see him the way she sees women, and he hates her for it.
I knew I was gay when I was a kindergartener, and spent the following two decades not unlike Countess Marya, knowing the truth but having to navigate a world that saw me as sick and dangerous for something I could not control. I had public facing “manserverants” like Sandor who graciously understood my compulsion to spend time with women. And much like Sandor, wished me great harm when it was realized that no amount of hiding was going to be able to change the truth about who I really am.
Fortunately, I am privileged enough to not have achieved the same fate as Countess Marya. When she finally got tired of fighting and embraced her truth, she was killed. The tone of the film treats her death not as a tragic ending, but what was expected for her decision to “choose” to live this way. Regardless of the film’s lens, Marya’s death is a tragedy. Had she been a good little vampire who fought her urges and denied the truth about who she was, she’d have been able to live forever with Sandor. But she didn’t, and she was punished for it.
I have Countess Marya Zaleska’s portrait tattooed on my arm as a reminder of not just the pain that comes with denying one’s true identity, but to keep alive a woman that has been forgotten in favor of a far more hetero and palatable canon, one that still punishes women for their autonomy.
BJ Colangelo is a recovering child beauty queen that fancies herself the lovechild of Chistopher Sarandon in FRIGHT NIGHT and Susan Sarandon in THE HUNGER. She writes about horror, wrestling, sex, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer all over the Internet. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony Colangelo.