I did many embarrassing things in my teen years, but none may be more cringeworthy than the fact that I used to watch remakes before originals. I know — I’m a disappointment. Teenage me was exactly the kind of person that slick Americanized remakes were made for. And this is how I first came across Matt Reeves’s 2011 film Let Me In. I was aware at the time that this was not the first version of this tale of love and friendship between a young boy, Owen, and a centuries-old adolescent vampire girl, Abby, but I had loved Reeve’s other monster movie Cloverfield, so I ignored the fact there was supposedly a better version of it lying out there. And the result was good. Nothing truly exciting, but it was a well shot vampire tale that I enjoyed and quickly forgot.
It would be almost five years later, during a Taco Bell-fueled late-night horror movie marathon with my brother that I finally saw Let the Right One In, the original 2008 Swedish film. On first glance, the two movies are remarkably similar. If anything, outside of some slick cinematography, Reeves’s take maybe adheres a bit too close to the source material to justify that it needed to exist in the first place. That is with one big exception. During a particularly vulnerable moment between boy and vampire, Oskar and Eli this time around, Eli disrobes and reveals a snaking castration scar across their pubis. Where the American version of this story featured what was clearly a heterosexual relationship between a boy and cisgender vampire, Let the Right One In is inescapably queer. And what struck me, being a closeted trans girl with lots of gender feelings rumbling around in her head, was just how intentionally fluid and undefined Eli’s gender is. Castration, of course, does not negate male identity, but Eli seems to comfortably shirk their masculinity. While they do insist to Oskar that they aren’t a girl, Eli spends most of the film dressed as one and letting the world think of them as one. In some ways, this helps them in their hunts for human prey, but it’s hard to watch their interactions with Oskar and the other characters and not see that Eli exists outside a gender binary.
In a way, we see Eli in conversation with one of the longest running themes in vampiric narratives. While it certainly didn’t invent the vampire, Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel Dracula undeniably defined much of our contemporary understanding both for its title character but also for all his blood-sucking ilk. While it is perhaps better known for its many adaptations and the tropes it inspired in future takes on the character, Dracula is a novel bursting with anxiety about gender and sexuality. This manifests both in its discomfort with the monstrous women who shirk Victorian gender roles but also in the homoerotic acts of seduction carried out by its title character. Stoker, by many scholars believed to be a closeted gay man, makes Dracula, both novel and character, a personification of these fears both of the enforcement of gender roles and also the consequences of shirking them.
“When I first reencountered Dracula in grad school, after I had moved through my feelings of revulsion and anger about the text, I started really thinking about the role of femininity in these characters that Bram Stoker wrote,” says poet Chase Berggrun. Berggrun, a trans woman, is the author of Red, a book of erasure poetry that uses the text of Stoker’s novel to reclaim and refocus its women characters. “What is perhaps most terrifying about the vampire to Stoker is that it doesn’t conform,” Beggrun says.
This extends not only to Dracula’s portrayal but also the women of the novel, primarily Lucy and Mina who offend through their sexuality and competency. Berggrun’s Red responds with: “Women all their lives are interrupted considered hysterical / summoned to make children for the strong and manly / and for his sake must smile and not speak / Now this man I began to think a weak fool.”
The vampire as a manifestation of gender panic is thankfully a trope that has faded over the century-plus since Dracula terrified the hell out of Victorian England, but the queer themes present in this ever-popular species of monster remain and, if anything, are becoming more prominent as trans storytellers are given their chance to play with the vampire canon. And this comes in both the reclamation of harmful tropes but also in the manifestation and redirection of that gendered anxiety.
It’s not hard to see the connection that trans readers and storytellers can find in vampire media. Vampires are beings that exist outside a binary of life and death, and their status as creatures of the night and underground certainly feels familiar for people who have so often been forced to live in societies margins. Even the transformative nature of vampirism feels intertwined with transness. The bargain of a temporary death for a former closeted self in exchange for an eternal life as a hotter, stronger, and more powerful version feels all the more tempting. Hell, there’s a reason why the term “deadname” is so common among the community.
Berggrun points to how writing Red not only helped her to challenge the misogynist themes of Dracula but also helped her come to terms with her own identity as a trans woman: “In like the weirdest, most uncomfortable way, I have Stoker to thank for moving me in a particular way. Because I was writing this book while I was sort of figuring out and learning to define and understand my own womanhood. Part of that was sort of [rebelling] against this really oppressive and saltifying version of what it means to be a woman and realizing that whatever woman I was to become was never going to fit into these kinds of boxes and learning how to really exalt in the possibilities of that.”
Alex DiFrancesco performs a similar act of reclamation in their short story “The Pure,” which appears in the collection Transmutation. “The Pure” depicts a romance between a runaway trans man and a trans woman vampire who takes him under her wing. Here, DiFrancesco’s characters view the transformation from human into vampire as an extension of their own gender transition and a way to further express their personal identity. The titular Pure refers to a force of conservative propaganda and mistruth, which in this instance lumps vampires and the queer community into similar enemies against a supposed safe and undiluted America. DiFrancesco was inspired by a real world alt-right Facebook meme depicting a clawed hand labeled “the LGBT” reaching out to attack at a white, straight family and wanted “The Pure” to give form to this monstrous view of the queer population supposedly threatening the bastions of right wing values. In this case, that means that vampires are a haven for displaced queer people and a means to fight back against the forces of transphobic hate.
We see a similar move in the 2019 indie horror comedy Bit. Starring Nicole Maines of Supergirl fame, Bit follows an all women group of vampires who feed on the bad men of the world. Maines’s Laurel becomes the team’s newest recruit, which not only lets her thrill in the battle against patriarchal evil but also offers her a sisterhood with other, mostly queer, outcasts. To Laurel, a trans girl and recent high school graduate, there’s a certain fulfillment in how naturally her fellow vampires accept her as a woman and a fellow member in their crusade. Laurel’s difficult transition during her teens also allows her to have a blasé acceptance of the revelation that vampires do in fact exist. “My life’s already been kinda like a horror movie, well most of it,” she quips. She even does battle with an evil male vampire who is a not so subtle stand in for Dracula. And while Bit may muddy its message a bit at the end, it’s all the same a fun rebuttal to Stoker’s anxieties and a delightful trans power fantasy — especially for one written by a cis man.
In contrast, Morgan Thomas’s short story “Transit” uses vampirism as a window into themes of misgendering, dysphoria, and dysmorphia. While no living vampires appear in Thomas’s piece, Blue, the story’s nonbinary narrator, is mistaken for one by a stranger during a long-distance bus ride. Blue, having just left a treatment house for girls with eating disorders, plays along with this case of mistaken identity to refuse an offer of a shared snack and also almost as resignation, knowing that this woman with her emo-band haircut is going to insist that they are a vampire no matter what.
According to Thomas, one of the major themes of “Transit” is “the sort of ridiculousness of looking at someone and thinking that you know something about their internal identity and sense of self.” In this sense, Blue is misread as a vampire in the same way they are misread by the world at large as a girl and not nonbinary. “The light misgendering that happens to me still is such a fabric of society in a way that I don’t think is often commented upon or recognized in day to day life and [“Transit”] felt like a way to access that experience,” Thomas says. Similarly, Blue, like Thomas during their own grappling with gender, is more confident in admitting what they are not rather than what they are. In this case, Blue knows for sure that they are not a vampire, even if their gender identity is something they haven’t quite figured out.
There are also more complicated and murky pairings of trans identity and vampirism. Isaac Fellman’s novel Dead Collections follows Sol, a trans man vampire archivist, and his attempts to balance work, a new relationship, and the logistics of living with long term vampirism. What’s unique about the world Fellman creates in his novel is how known but also unknown vampirism is within the rest of society. It’s a known affliction, but the world isn’t built to accommodate bodies that cannot enter sunlight. When Sol runs afoul of his job for hiding from the sun in the archives during daytime, his employer expresses sympathy but not practical solutions. Where Dead Collections is less clear is how the reader is supposed to view vampirism in tandem with Sol’s literal on-the-page trans identity. It offers a symbolic reading that doesn’t always connect with the totality of Sol’s character.
KM Szpara’s horror novelette Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time succeeds a little bit more readily in this regard. Like Dead Collections, Szpara’s story also follows a trans man vampire in a world where vampirism is a publicly known and regulated health condition but instead uses its protagonist’s transformation as an explicit commentary on the medical establishment’s almost willful ignorance of trans healthcare and how self-administered medicine is, for many, a necessity.
Part of the joy of vampire mythology is just how flexible but also iconic a subgenre it can be. Despite what some nerd boy whining about Robert Pattinson’s bedazzled skin might have you think, vampires are a more fluid and versatile monster than we may give them credit for. They have strict rules — until they don’t. They are monstrous until we want to screw them. They are evil until we want to them to be heroic. They are sad until we want to fix them. Vampires do whatever the storyteller needs them to do, whether that be horror, action, comedy, or romance. Sometimes we have masterpieces, and sometimes we have Morbius. Cisgender writers have had well over a century to play with Dracula and his ilk, but given the queerness that’s so essential to the genre, it feels only right that we hand the bloody mic to trans storytellers. Reclamation and empowerment are rightfully at the forefront, but I can’t wait until we start mining the genre for more. I want trans Vampire Diaries where a blandly attractive trans girl must compete for the attention of a rogueish trans masc vampire and his do-gooder enby sibling. I want big gothic mansions filled with pissy and petty tranpire roommates. I want a trans vampire hunter who kills cisgender vampires. I want to see the genuinely unnerving and body-churning horror that I know only trans writers really get. I want something me and my brother can watch while chowing down on way too many Crunchwrap Supremes.
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.