The Vamp is as evil as she is beautiful. A cousin of the femme fatale, she emerged from a pre-code era when antagonists didn’t need sympathetic backstories to give them some humanity. Her desire for money, or power, is insatiable, and makes her one of culture’s most alluring villains. But very rarely does the vamp win, and quite often she’s balanced out by another, less vivacious female character. The fact that The Vamp has obtained power from her beauty is at the core of why she is such a villain. The Vamp embodies exaggerated versions of all the things women are told they can’t be, and eventually, she’s punished for it.
The Vamp is as evil as she is beautiful. An even more heartless cousin of the femme fatale, she’s one of culture’s most alluring villains. So what defines the Vamp onscreen? She’s gorgeous and the vamp’s looks are her greatest weapon. Her targets are usually men, and she uses beauty and sexuality to ensnare them. As alluring as she appears on the outside, inside she’s monstrous–and totally cold-blooded Vamp is ruthless and lacking feeling without any hope of changing or any satisfying explanation of why she’s like this. Her desire for money or power might be insatiable, but any such rational motive seems secondary to a primal drive to destroy and inflict suffering. The vamp is often portrayed as animalistic and almost supernatural. She originates in depictions of female vampires who literally drain the life from their victims. And even when she’s not actually non-human, she still retains an otherworldly, dark-magic aura.
At the core of her villainy is the fact that The Vamp has obtained power from her beauty–because that power preys on the primal, base instincts of men, reminding them of how vulnerable they can be. Very rarely does the vamp win, and she’s frequently bested by a more righteous, less vivacious female character, subtly playing into the madonna / whore split
Here’s our take on The Vamp, how she embodies exaggerated versions of all the things women are told they can’t be, and how, eventually, she’s punished for it.
“You wouldn’t kill me. You’d miss me.”
- The World is Not Enough
CHAPTER ONE: How The Vamp Weaponizes Sexuality (And Emasculates Mankind)
The Vamp’s greatest weapon is her sexuality. She embodies society’s view of women who embrace sex as a threat to the established order—and the fear around her rests on the sense that there’s something inherently emasculating about a sexually empowered woman. In Cruel Intentions, Kathryn Merteuil dangles her sexuality over Sebastian as a way to control him
and she does the same with Ronald, pitting him and Sebastian against each other, which ultimately is what leads to Sebastian’s death. While we’ve argued before that Kathryn can be viewed as a kind of anti-heroine who exposes society’s double standards for women, the film itself endorses a far more conservative message in its “happy ending” of Kathryn’s humiliating downfall, while the saintly Annette rides off into the sunset.
The vamp’s sexuality is equated with power–specifically, power over men. In 2021’s Nightmare Alley, psychiatrist Lilith Ritter’s power is immediately visible in her office, which is filled with audio recordings of the deepest, darkest secrets of the people she sees. Initially, it seems like Bradley Cooper’s Stanton has the power in their dynamic. He’s on the up, gaining money, stature and influence through his medium-psychic act. And when he meets Lilith, he treats her as a sex object, and tries to convince her to do what he wants. But ultimately, it’s revealed he has no power over her. All along Lilith has been conning him, recording their analysis session to eventually blackmail him, costing him everything.
It’s this emasculating effect The Vamp has that makes her such a go-to villain for heroic male characters. In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Dr. Elsa has a real hold on Indy. Even in their very first interaction, he symbolically gives himself over to her. This is a character we’re not used to seeing as vulnerable, but confronted with The Vamp, he is. And the fact that she’s revealed as a Nazi makes explicit this link between overt sexuality and evil. Similarly in The World Is Not Enough, Elektra’s beauty and sexuality almost act as a disguise for her villainy, and for a long time this works on Bond, another character we’re used to seeing as almost superhuman. So The Vamp’s importance is in showing that these men’s desire is their Achilles’ heel, and something they need to keep in control.
While these Vamps are very much human, they relate back to the trope’s more supernatural, vampiric origins. Though they typically don’t not drink blood, these characters’ sexual appetites overpower those of the men, destroying their masculinity in the process.
CHAPTER TWO: THE HISTORY OF A MONSTER WOMAN
So, who was the original Vamp? Theda Bara was a fixture of the early days of silent cinema, starring in films like A Fool There Was and The Devil’s Daughter, and is widely thought of to be the first Vamp character.
“She is the nameless vampire, a thoroughly sexual woman who uses her erotic appeal as the reaper uses his scythe.”
- The Woman with Hungry Eyes
This image was also deliberately built into Theda Bara’s offscreen reputation. Promotional photos showed her posing with skeletons, and a story was concocted that she was born in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx—when in reality she was a Jewish woman from Cincinnati. She was even told by the studio that she could only go out at night, and had to wear veils in public. All this helped cement the character of The Vamp in the public imagination, blurring the line between fact and fiction and suggesting that this monster was more real—and more of a threat—than people would like to believe.
“The idea of the predatory female was in the air at the time. It was a time when women were spreading out into the real world, looking for the right to vote, looking to move into the workforce.”
- The Woman with Hungry Eyes
This persona was closely linked to the female vampire figure. And it’s interesting that while male vampires have sometimes been campier, older, more monstrous creatures holed up in gothic castles, female vampires have long been exclusively beautiful and seductive. Bara’s version of the Vamp emerged in the silent-era, where there was less pressure for a villain like her to necessarily be moralized or punished. But the Vamp also overlaps in some ways with the Femme Fatale, the sexy, dangerous female leading men to ruin, who saw her heyday in film noir of the 40s and 50s. Some of the cruelest fem but more often femme fatales do have some sympathetic or human moments. They tend to be in desperate situations, or have lived tragic lives that partially explain how they got this way.
They’re also typically executing a layered con. Whereas the femme fatale presents herself as a vulnerable victim in need of help, preying on a man’s desire to be heroic the Vamp doesn’t hide behind any such conservative or weak demeanor. She openly weaponizes her sexuality to the fullest extent, making men helpless in the process.
“We can play mommy and daddy.”
- Jennifer’s Body
To this day, the image of the youthful, sexy, alluring vampire has persisted. She may be pure evil, but with characters like Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body, or Miriam in The Hunger, their beauty and glamor make this future almost aspirational. The Vamp might also have links to the Gold Digger. Yet in her purest form, the Vamp seems to have a deep void inside that wants nothing but to cause devastation.
In addition to the vampire, the Vamp is associated with other deadly animals, especially insects and arachnids–like the praying mantis (whose females were famously known to devour their mates), and the deadly black widow. And there’s a religious precedent in the character of Lilith (not the Nightmare Alley vamp…although the name is probably not a coincidence). Lilith was Adam’s first wife in the Jewish text The Alphabet of Ben Sira, who rebelled at being made subservient to her husband, and is often depicted as a half woman, half snake creature. As Sara Century writes,
“many wicked women of history are based on Lilithian legend.”
And we can also see the influence of the alluring sirens of Greek mythology who tempted sailors like Odysseus with beautiful songs, trying to lure them to their deaths. Think of the mysterious woman in The Shining’s Room 237, who transforms from a seductive woman to a hideous, cackling monster after Jack begins kissing her. Or The Grand High Witch in The Witches, whose high glamor disguises a more terrifying reality. Of course, there’s American Horror Story’s Moira, the spirit of a housekeeper who appears in her true elderly form to women, but as a seductive, younger version of herself to men. And even depictions of The Devil herself, as in Liz Hurley’s spandex-clad satan in Bedazzled. The Vamp’s dual nature as both otherworldly and animalistic plays on the idea that women—particularly beautiful women—can’t be trusted.
CHAPTER THREE: THE MODERN VAMP-ROBOT - A MERCILESS MACHINE
Vampires and monsters may feel like the stuff of archaic myth and legend, but as society has developed these anxieties about heartless women, the vamp hashave taken on more modern and even futuristic imagery. The vamp trope has increasingly merged with the image of the evil A.I, reflecting our fears about artificial intelligence: See: Austin Powers’ fembots, or Ex Machina’s Ava. Where classic vamps have targeted masculinity, robot vamps can show a more general disregard for all humanity. In Westworld, Dolores Abernathy’s beauty at first helps code her as innocent and pure. She’s programmed to play the wide-eyed farmer’s daughter character, who chooses to see the goodness in the world. But as she becomes more self-aware, she rejects that persona and engages in countless murders and attacks on humankind. Dolores isn’t necessarily a pure vamp in that she does have some values and constructive goals; still, those values can be scary to the humans around her because they may be at odds with our interests, and again, we see the idea that a woman’s beauty disguises who they really are. Similarly in Humans, Niska’s beauty forced her into a life of subservience, placed in a brothel where she is continuously abused—much like Dolores, who is violated by the men who come through the park. The same trope is used in Netflix’s Better Than Us, with Arisa murdering the man who tries to sexually assault her. In a sense this is an evolution of the traditional vamp / male dynamic. It’s still male desire that’s being punished, but there’s more focus on how that desire can be ugly and violent, and so deserving of retribution. It’s not about showing these men as weak, but instead about showing them as being less than human, so this tension is introduced around what being human actually is.
“I want their world. The world they’ve denied us.”
Vamps have always been women who go against the expectations of what women are meant to be. They are sexual, not virginal; manipulative, not doting; and powerful, not subservient. Ultimately, they’re a manifestation of this particularly male fear that women will emasculate, castrate, and upend the patriarchal order. So the reason the trope survives and evolves is that this fear has never really gone away–it may even be more prevalent than ever.
“Am I powerful enough for you now Stan?”
- Nightmare Alley