by Mr Madelynne Ellis
Blame the ancient Egyptians. They invented cosmetics. Without them, you might all have natural, healthy complexions, unspoilt by foundation, and your eyes would be open and clear, enhanced only by what nature gave you. But where’s the fun in that?
More specifically, blame Cleopatra, one of history’s greatest vamps and serial monogamists (and a legendary fellatrix, according to some accounts). Having married her own brothers, Caesar and then Mark Anthony, as well as notched up an alleged 1000 lovers, she’s left an indelible mark on history and inspired a legion of goth chicks and neo-pagan priestesses. But her legend wouldn’t have endured without a few very special women.
The first official vamp was the silent screen goddess Theda Bara. It was her nickname, and the studio encouraged the image of spooky seductress for all it was worth. If a woman is called a vamp, it’s a comparison to her, the lover and destroyer of men. Unsurprisingly her most famous role was as Cleopatra, although sadly only still images remain. In interviews she alluded to mysticism and witchcraft, and became a powerful archetype of dark female sexuality. Her studio hinted that her name was an anagram of “Arab Death”, but the truth was a little more mundane. Born Theodosia Goodman, she’d never even been to Egypt. But like all vamps, the fantasy overshadows the reality.
A more recently famous Cleopatra, with a similar appetite for husbands if not fellatio, came in the form of Elizabeth Taylor. And boy did she look fine in eyeliner. I should admit at this point that I’ve got a thing for eyeliner and mascara, the darker the better. I can’t tell you how it started – maybe Dusty Springfield had something to do with it, or some inadvertent youthful exposure to seventies porn.
I can tell you how it developed. Heavy eye make-up carries certain, ah, spooky connotations, which is why I offered to write about it. Halloween (or Samhain) should celebrate and address all those dark aspects of the human psyche – movie monsters or half-remembered pagan myths, it’s all the same. And every aspiring vamp should know that make-up can bring out the goddess in you. Anyway, back to the story… by the fifties the iconography of the vamp had been reabsorbed by horror in the form of Vampira,
and given a comic twist by both Morticia Addams and Lily Munster. Throughout the seventies, Hammer wasn’t the only studio to realise that sex and horror go together very well. Barbara Steele starred in a string of Italian horror movies, and mesmerised audiences with her anime eyes.
So what the hell was so sexy about them? What makes so many men sit up and beg at the idea of a little necrophilia? The vampire was already well established as an erotic figure. If sex is a meaningful exchange of bodily fluids that creates life, then the vampire is an exchange of bodily fluids that negates life, or creates anti-life. No wonder it become such a staple of the gothic movement. I always preferred Le Fanu’s earlier Carmilla to Dracula, but maybe that’s a guy thing.
Maybe we need to analyse this. You may love or hate Sigmund Freud, but remember he gave you the word libido, and a whole language of sexuality. He proposed that there’s an opposite force to the life instinct, a death instinct called thanatos. Simply put, humans seek the simplicity and negation of death, or unbeing. AKA Nirvana. We like the idea of it so much that we personify it as various caped, cowled and skeletal figures. Or if you’re a poet drunk on laudanum, you sexualise it.
“Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold :
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Then along came Siouxsie, and everything changed… With the invention of punk and later goth, everyone could look like a vampire or a witch, and Theda Bara’s legacy became public domain. Heavy eye shadow became a manifesto, or statement of intent – one way or another, I’ll suck you dry. You know you want it.
I’m out of time, and there’s still so much to cover. Any suggestions for other archetypal vamps/femmes fatale? Ever vamped it up yourself? What was the effect?
“and I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose that I plucked from between my thighs…”
Angela Carter, The Lady of the House of Love