Author(s) Sheridan Le Fanu
Country Ireland
Language English
Genre(s) Gothic
Publication date 1872

Carmilla is a Gothic novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. First published in 1872, it tells the story of a young woman's susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire named Carmilla. Carmilla predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25 years, and has been adapted many times for cinema.

Illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872



Carmilla was first published in the magazine The Dark Blue in 1872,[1] and then in the author's collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly the same year.

There were two original illustrators for the story, both of which appeared in the magazine but which do not appear in modern printings of the book. The two illustrators, David Henry Friston and Michael Fitzgerald, show some inconsistencies in their depiction of the characters, and as such some confusion has arisen in identifying the pictures as part of a continuous plot.

Plot summary

The story is presented by Le Fanu as part of the casebook of Dr Hesselius, whose departures from medical orthodoxy rank him as the first occult doctor in literature.[2] The story is narrated by Laura, one of the two main protagonists of the tale.

Laura begins her tale by relating her childhood in a "picturesque and solitary" castle in the midst of an extensive forest in Styria where she lives with her father, a wealthy English widower, retired from the Austrian Service. When she is six years old, Laura has a vision of a beautiful visitor in her bedchamber. She later claims to have been bitten on the chest, although no wounds are found on her.

12 years later, Laura and her father are admiring the sunset in front of the castle when her father tells her of a letter he received earlier from his friend General Spielsdorf. The General was supposed to bring his niece, Bertha Rheinfeldt, to visit the two, but the niece suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. The General ambiguously concludes that he will discuss the circumstances in detail when they meet later.

Laura is saddened by the loss of a potential friend, and longs for a companion. A carriage accident outside Laura's home unexpectedly brings a girl of Laura's age into the family's care. Her name is Carmilla. Both girls instantly recognize the other from the 'dream' they both had when they were young.

Carmilla appears injured after her carriage accident, but her mysterious mother informs Laura's father that her journey is urgent and cannot be delayed. She arranges to leave her daughter with Laura and her father until she can return in three months. Before she leaves she sternly notes that her daughter will not disclose any information whatsoever about her family, past, or herself and that Carmilla is of sound mind. Laura comments that this information seems needless to say, and her father laughs it off.

Carmilla and Laura grow to be very close friends, but occasionally Carmilla's mood abruptly changes. She sometimes makes unsettling romantic advances towards Laura. Carmilla refuses to tell anything about herself or her background, despite questioning from Laura. Her secrecy isn't the only mysterious thing about her. Carmilla sleeps much of the day, and seems to sleepwalk at night. When a funeral procession passes by the two girls and Laura begins singing a hymn, Carmilla bursts out in rage and scolds Laura for singing a Christian song. When a shipment of family heirloom restored portraits arrives at the castle, Laura finds one of her ancestors, "Mircalla, Countess Karnstein", dated 1698. The portrait resembles Carmilla exactly, down to the mole on her neck.

During Carmilla's stay, Laura has nightmares of a fiendish cat-like beast entering her room at night and biting her on the chest. The beast then takes the form of a female figure and disappears through the door without opening it. Laura's health declines and her father has a doctor examine her. He speaks privately with her father and only asks that Laura never be left unattended.

Her father then sets out with Laura in a carriage for the ruined village of Karnstein. They leave a message behind asking Carmilla and one of the governesses entreated to follow after once the perpetually late-sleeping Carmilla wakes up. En route to Karnstein, Laura and her father encounter General Spielsdorf. He tells them his own ghastly story.

Spielsdorf and his niece had met a young woman named Millarca and her enigmatic mother at a costume ball. The General's niece was immediately taken with Millarca. The mother convinced the General that she was an old friend of his and asked that Millarca be allowed to stay with them for three weeks while she attended to a secret matter of great importance.

Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue, January 1872

The General's niece fell mysteriously ill and suffered exactly the same symptoms as Laura. After consulting with a priestly doctor who he had specially ordered, the General came to the realization that his niece was being visited by a vampire. He hid in a closet with a sword and waited until seeing a fiendish cat-like creature stalk around his niece's bedroom and bite her on the neck. He then leapt from his hiding place and attacked the beast, which took the form of Millarca. She fled through the locked door, unharmed. The General's niece died immediately afterward.

When they arrive at Karnstein the General asks a nearby woodsman where he can find the tomb of Mircalla Karnstein. The woodsman relates that the tomb was relocated long ago, by the hero who vanquished the vampires that haunted the region.

While the General and Laura are left alone in the ruined chapel, Carmilla appears. The General and Carmilla both fly into a rage upon seeing each other and the General attacks her with an axe. Carmilla flees and the General explains to Laura that Carmilla is also Millarca, both anagrams for the original name of the vampire Countess Mircalla Karnstein.

The party is then joined by Baron Vordenburg, the descendant of the hero who rid the area of vampires long ago. Vordenburg is an authority on vampires and has discovered that his ancestor was romantically involved with the Countess Karnstein, before she died and became one of the undead. Using his forefather's notes he locates the hidden tomb of Carmilla. An Imperial Commission is then summoned who exhume and destroy the body of the vampire on behalf of the ruling Habsburg Monarchy, within whose domains Styria is situated.

Afterwards, Laura's father takes her on a year-long vacation to recover from the trauma and regain her health.


As with Dracula, critics have looked for the sources used in the writing of the text. Matthew Gibson has shown that LeFanu used Dom Augustin Calmet's Treatise on Vampires and Revenants, translated into English in 1850 as The Phantom World, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-wolves (1863), and his account of Elizabeth Bathory, Coleridge's Christabel, and Captain Basil Hall's Schloss Hainfeld; or a Winter in Lower Styria (London and Edinburgh, 1836). Hall's account provides much of the Styrian background and in particular a model for both Carmilla and Laura in the figure of Jane Anne Cranstoun, Countess Purgstall.[3][4]


Carmilla, the title character, is the original prototype for a legion of female and lesbian vampires. Though Le Fanu portrays his vampire's sexuality with the circumspection that one would expect for his time, it is evident that lesbian attraction is the main dynamic between Carmilla and the narrator of the story:

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever". ("Carmilla", Chapter 4).

Carmilla selected exclusively female victims, though only became emotionally involved with a few. Carmilla had nocturnal habits, but was not confined to the darkness. She had unearthly beauty and was able to change her form and to pass through solid walls. Her animal alter ego was a monstrous black cat, not a large dog as in Dracula. She did, however, sleep in a coffin.

Some critics, among them William Veeder, suggest that Carmilla, notably in its outlandish use of narrative frames, was an important influence on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Although Carmilla is a lesser known and far shorter Gothic vampire story than the generally-considered master work of that genre, Dracula, the latter is heavily influenced by Le Fanu's short story.

In the earliest manuscript of Dracula, dated 8 March 1890, the castle is set in Styria, although the setting was changed to Transylvania six days later. Stoker's posthumously published short story "Dracula's Guest", known as the deleted first chapter to Dracula, shows a more obvious and intact debt to "Carmilla": Both stories are told in the first person. Dracula expands on the idea of a first person account by creating a series of journal entries and logs of different persons and creating a plausible background story for them having been compiled. Stoker also indulges the air of mystery further than Le Fanu by allowing the characters to solve the enigma of the vampire along with the reader.

The descriptions of Carmilla and the character of Lucy in Dracula are similar, and have become archetypes for the appearance of the waif-like victims and seducers in vampire stories as being tall, slender, languid, and with large eyes, full lips and soft voices. Both women also sleepwalk.

Stoker's Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is a direct parallel to Le Fanu's vampire expert Baron Vordenburg: both characters used to investigate and catalyse actions in opposition to the vampire, and symbolically represent knowledge of the unknown and stability of mind in the onslaught of chaos and death.[5]

In popular culture


  • Danish director Carl Dreyer loosely adapted Carmilla for his 1932 film Vampyr but deleted any references to lesbian sexuality.[6] The credits of the original film say that the film is based on In A Glass Darkly. This collection contains five tales, one of which is "Carmilla". Actually the film draws its central character, Allan Gray, from Le Fanu's Dr. Hesselius; and the scene in which Gray is buried alive is drawn from "The Room in the Dragon Volant".
  • French director Roger Vadim's Et mourir de plaisir (literally And to die of pleasure, but actually shown in England as Blood and Roses, 1960) is based on Carmilla and is considered one of the greatest of the vampire genre. The Vadim film thoroughly explores the lesbian implications behind Carmilla's selection of victims, and boasts cinematography by Claude Renoir. The film's lesbian eroticism was however significantly cut for its US release.
  • A more-or-less faithful adaptation starring Christopher Lee was produced in Italy in 1964 under the title La cripta e l'incubo (Crypt of the Vampire in English).
  • The British Hammer Film Productions also produced a fairly faithful adaptation of "Carmilla" titled The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt in the lead role and Madeline Smith as her victim/lover. It is the first installment of the Karnstein Trilogy.
  • In 1990, Gabrielle Beaumont created a film adaptation for a horror anthology television series Nightmare Classics titled "Carmilla", which is one of the more faithful adaptations of the story, though the setting was transported to post-Civil War Deep South of the United States. It starred Meg Tilly as Carmilla and Ione Skye as a lonely Southern girl whom Carmilla seduces.
  • Carmilla is featured as the main antagonist in the 2009 movie Lesbian Vampire Killers, a comedy starring Paul McGann and James Corden.
  • The novel is mentioned and referenced by some of the other characters in the 2011 movie The Moth Diaries; Carmilla also seems to have inspired the main antagonist Ernessa, played by Lily Cole.
  • According to director Dennis Gansel his film Wir Sind Die Nacht is his personal take on Carmilla. During a character's vampire transformation she watches a documentary about lions, hinting towards a scene in the novella.


  • The character of Dr. Hesselius is featured in a Mutual Broadcasting Network radio drama entitled "The Shadow People", an episode from The Hall of Fantasy series (1946–1947, 1949–1952, 1952, 1953). The episode casts Dr. Hesselius as an occult sleuth and aired on September 5, 1952.
  • On November 20, 1981, the CBC Radio series Nightfall aired an adaptation of Carmilla written by Graham Pomeroy and John Douglas.


  • Cradle of Filth, a popular British extreme metal band, has produced an album called Dusk... and Her Embrace inspired by "Carmilla", and have also recorded an instrumental track titled "Carmilla's Masque". The lyric: "Portrait of the Dead Countess" in the track "A Gothic Romance" could be in reference to the portrait found in the novel of the Countess Mircalla. There is also a track on the accompanying EP Vempire or Dark Faerytales in Phallustein titled "Queen Of Winter Throned" which contains the lyrics: "Iniquitous/I share Carmilla's mask/A gaunt mephitic voyeur/On the black side of the glass". Lead singer Dani Filth has often cited Sheridan Le Fanu as an inspiration to his lyrics.
  • Theatres des Vampires, an Italian extreme gothic metal band has produced a video single called "Carmilla" for its album Moonlight Waltz
  • Prior to her first record deal, British singer-songwriter Kate Bush recorded at least thirty officially-unreleased but much-bootlegged demos of original material, circa 1972. One of these, "Surrender into the Roses" (also known as "Carmilla" and "Coming Up") was inspired by the tale.
  • Two Witches, a Finnish Gothic rock band, created a song in the early 1990s called "Mircalla", inspired by the novel.
  • A chamber opera version of Carmilla appeared in 1970 (Carmilla: A Vampire Tale, music by Ben Johnston, script by Wilford Leach). Seated on a sofa, Laura and Carmilla recount the story retrospectively in song.
  • Carmilla, a musical theater adaptation by Allan Jaffe and Deborah Atherton circa 1995.
  • The 1980s band LaHost's track on the 1985 EMI compilation album 'Fire in Harmony' was 'Blood and Roses' - the lyrics of which are loosely based on the Roger Corman film version of Carmilla.
  • The songs "A Very Strange Agony" and "To Die Only Once" of the Spanish symphonic metal band Döxa were inspired by "Carmilla".
  • Briton Rites first album, For Mircalla was inspired by the short story.


  • The novel Carmilla: The Return, written in 1999 by Kyle Marffin, begins in 19th century Austria but follows Carmilla's life into 1990s Michigan.
  • A vampire named Baron Karnstein appears in Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. Carmilla herself is mentioned several times as a former (until her death at the hands of vampire hunters) friend of the book's vampire heroine Geneviève. Some short stories set in the Anno Dracula universe have also included Carmilla.
  • The story of Carmilla is illustrated using old antique etchings by Tiffini Elektra X in the book In This House: A Collection of Altered Art Imagery and Collage Techniques.
  • The story "Carmilla" was included in Pam Keesey's collection of lesbian vampire stories, Daughters of Darkness (1993).


  • In 1991, Aircel Comics published a six-issue black and white miniseries of Carmilla by Steven Jones and John Ross. It was based on the story by Sheridan Le Fanu and billed as "The Erotic Horror Classic of Female Vampirism". The first issue was printed in February 1991. The first three issues were an adaptation of the original story, while the latter three were a sequel set in the 1930s.[7][8]
  • Carmilla. Nuestra Señora de los Vampiros is a black and white one-shot published in 1999 by Spanish comic publisher Dude Comics based on the story by Sheridan Le Fanu, but with a modern twist. In present day, Carmilla saves a girl named Laura from being raped and later gives her Le Fanu's book to read to explain her past. Laura finally becomes Carmilla's companion. Based on a script by Roy Thomas, the comic had two artists with radically different graphic styles: Rafa Fonteriz draw the present day part, while Isaac M. del Rivero draw the part based on Le Fanu's book.
  • Graphic Classics, vol. 14: Gothic Classics (2007) contains an adaptation of Carmilla, illustrated by Lisa K. Weber and adapted by Rod Lott.[9]
  • The webcomic Romanian Gothique features a vampire countess named "Camilla",[10] who is also a lesbian.
  • Carmilla (a lesbian vampire) is the leading character of most of the Italian comics by Francesca Paolucci (published in Italy by EF Edizioni).
  • In the first story arc of Dynamite Entertainment's revamp of Vampirella, a villainous vampire named Le Fanu inhabits the basement of a Seattle nightclub named Carmilla.


  • In the anime Hellsing, a succubus who claims to be the sister of Integra Hellsing makes an appearance. She goes by the name of Laura, and Integra asks her if she is the vampire Carmilla. When Alucard confronts her, she takes on a catlike appearance before she attacks him. In the end, Alucard kills her with only one bullet, in a matter of one second.
  • In Glass Mask (episode 29 of the anime and volume 17 of the manga), Ayumi Himekawa played Carmilla in a stage adaptation of the novella.

Video games

  • In the video game Lunar Knights, a character named Sheridan has a maid named Carmilla. The banker in the game is also named Laura.
  • In six of the Castlevania games; Circle of the Moon, Rondo of Blood, its PSP remake Dracula X Chronicles, Simon's Quest, Judgment, and Lords of Shadow; there is a female vampire named Camilla.

References in other media

  • The Doctor Who serial State of Decay features a vampire named Camilla who in a brief but explicit moment finds much to 'admire' in the Doctor's female travelling companion Romana who finds she has to turn away from the vampire's intense gaze.
  • There is a Japanese lesbians' magazine named after Carmilla, as Carmilla "draws hetero women into the world of love between women".[11]
  • In HBO TV series True Blood, Season 2- Episodes 5 and 6, a hotel in Dallas Texas has been built for Vampires called "Hotel Carmilla." They have heavy shaded rooms and provide room service of human "snacks" (with blood type and sexuality) for their vampire clientele.

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal
  • Homosexuality in speculative fiction


  1. ^ The story ran in in three issues of 1872: January (p. 592-606), February (p. 701-714) and March (p. 59-78).
  2. ^ Dr Martin Hesselius
  3. ^ Gibson, Matthew. Jane Cranstoun, Countess Purgstall: A Possible Inspiration for Le Fanu's “CARMILLA” in Le Fanu Studies, November 2007, ISSN 1932-9598
  4. ^ Gibson, Matthew (2006). Dracula and the Eastern Question: British and French Vampire Narratives of the Nineteenth-century Near East, ISBN 1-4039-9477-3 & ISBN 1-4039-9477-3
  5. ^ "Le Fanu, J.S." in Jack Sullivan (ed) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural: 260
  6. ^ Grant, Barry Keith; Sharrett, Christopher (2004). Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Scarecrow Press. p. 73. ISBN 0-8108-5013-3. 
  7. ^ Steven Philip Jones Previous Credits in comics
  8. ^ The Grand Comics Database Team: Carmilla (1991 Series)
  9. ^ Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume Fourteen
  10. ^ Romanian Gothique strip #13
  11. ^ Celebrating Lesbian Sexuality: An Interview with Inoue Meimy, Editor of Japanese Lesbian Erotic Lifestyle Magazine Carmilla

Other sources

External links

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