The Hunger and the Lesbian Vampire Genre

Oct 23, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog

In partnership with Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, The Nickelodeon is proud to present Medusa’s Gaze, a three-part series exploring the feminine in horror film.

This series is conducted in collaboration with Unsweetened Magazine and Dr. Julia Elliott’s class, “Monstrous Mothers and Femme Fatales: Gender and Monstrosity in Horror Film.” Here, one of Dr. Elliot’s students, Abby Davies, discusses The Hunger.

Just Your Typical Sexploitation Film?

The Hunger, which came out in 1983 and falls under the “cult classic” category, has a huge following to this day. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the sexploitation genre grew and a market for lesbian vampire films arose, giving a role in film to a minority that was rarely portrayed. The Hunger follows these experimental motifs of sexploitation by containing some erotica and challenging the patriarchy with the lack of destruction of the last female vampire, but it also creates a more dynamic story.

Sexploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s used vampire sexuality as a way to question male authority and sexual norms. Second wave feminism and the sexual revolution were active at the time of these films’ popularity. Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Blood and Roses (1960) were two huge vampire-based movies that questioned the sexual status quo during this time. Blood and Roses featured full nudity, and both this film and Vampyros Lesbos play on the taboos of mid-century America.

Before these films, the novella Carmilla (1871) by Le Fanu began the exploration of the lesbian female vampire. Cinema featuring the idea of a lesbian vampire post-Carmilla often used stereotypes such as the idea that “lesbians are rich, decadent women who seduce the young and powerless” (Zimmerman). With its presentation of more complex lesbian vampires, Daughters of Darkness (1971) was a closer precursor to The Hunger. Elizabeth Bathory, the main character of the film, falls in love with Valerie, a young woman at a hotel. They have a relationship, but much like in The Hunger, their relationship is more than surface level. Though at first Elizabeth encourages Valerie to stay with Stefan in a not-so-loving relationship, later in the film she destroys him. The lesbian couple shows true love and is not depicted in only sexual ways. Daughters of Darkness was a stellar precursor to The Hunger. By the time The Hunger was released, the lesbian vampire genre had peaked, but David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve played out the genre in ways that are not solely stereotypical.

The relationship in the film between Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) and Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is more complex than an on-screen relationship depicted for mostly male visual pleasure. Although the film is directed by a male, Tony Scott, and contains a soft-focus sex scene that caters to the male gaze and male visual pleasure, the film contains more elements of the emotional sides of a relationship such as dependency and reliance than the sexploitation films that came before. Miriam relies on Sarah for more than a physical relationship: she is her companion, a light in the dark loneliness of forever. As the plot progresses and their relationship plays out, the sexploitation genre ties lose their grip on the film.

Casting David Bowie, a prominent bisexual figure, also brought aspects of the sexual revolution to the film that are not included in other pictures included in the sexploitation genre. Bowie’s persona, Ziggy Stardust, crosses gender borders and the dress and sexuality of Bowie goes against society’s heterosexual norm. The crossing of gender roles questions the typical “female” and “male” binary. Bowie embodies someone who does not adhere to what society believes a typical “man” should act like. Ziggy is often depicted dressed in brightly colored clothing with makeup on his face, two things which typically are not associated with male fashion.

The Hunger goes deeper. The movie is not just a look into the taboo, but it shows that we are all just looking for love, even if that love is dangerous. After Miriam’s boredom rises and she falls for a woman, her male lover begins to age. The film shows both John and Miriam Blaylock dying due to love when their significant others move on. This shows that love can be fatal, our attractions and dependencies on others can lead to our ultimate downfall. If others lose interest in us, then our whole world can come crashing down. When relationships end, sometimes our reliance on the other person can lead to a downfall of our own, portrayed in the Hunger quite literally as death. Love is dark. It is more than a physical relationship or emotional support for a time. Love can lead to our death.