To understand Carmilla, a popular 2014 Canadian web series based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1871 vampire novella of the same name (I’m going to exclusively discuss the initial 2014 season herein), we have to talk briefly about two other wildly popular Internet series.
The first of these is the most obvious. A 2012-2013 web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries retold Pride and Prejudice via a series of faux-vlogs (that is to say, YouTube-hosted video diaries). LBD got write-ups in major papers, niche awards, a huge and dedicated viewership, and two sequels (Welcome to Sanditon and Emma Approved). In making use of a classic text, and in the way it goes about doing that, Carmilla clearly capitalizes on a format LBD developed, beta-tested, and popularized. Come for the classic title you've some interest in, affection for, or vague memory of, stay for the unfolding dramedy. The way Carmilla handles the question of why someone would, often at great risk to themselves of one kind or another (and not quite the forms of personal risk a real vlogger exposes him or herself to), sit in the same chair every day and convey information about their lives via vlog to anyone who cares to watch, making sure never to have "important conversations that can't be easily recapped" far from the computer, owes a lot to LBD.
The second series that Carmilla owes a lot to is Welcome to Night Vale, the insanely popular podcast about a Lovecraftian town in the American desert. WTNV’s familiar brand of comedic eldritch weirdness is apparently also par for the course at Silas University, the fictional school the Carmilla cast attends. Carmilla 's use of the Welcome to Night Vale "random, cheery quotidian horror-comedy" mode has probably earned it a lot of fans. However the novella’s plot warps around the introduced material. Carmilla isn’t really the story you might expect, so much as it’s a kind of déjà-vu bigger adventure narrative, complete with a grand sub-Buffy climax to its first series. The normalcy of the weird is slightly funny, but makes the weirdness in the story being told seem unremarkable, difficult to become emotionally invested in. Carmilla also puts itself in a tight spot, opening itself up to comparison with Welcome to Night Vale, which nails its vibe and perhaps even has the market cornered.
Carmilla is, in and of itself, pretty damn popular at the moment. Within five months of its release, it had garnered 7.5 million views.  Its heavily female cast, queer relationships, general watchability, sufficiently interesting arc plot, and sufficiently comedic comedy have ensured that Tumblr loves it. Though due to the curious way Tumblr works, its fame exists only in bubbles and pockets—there are places it’s everybody's fav, and adjacent spheres that haven't heard of it. Last year Carmilla was also one of the most popular Yuletide (i.e., small) fandoms. With a second season and attrition having led to the production of more content, Carmilla’s too big a fandom to qualify for Yuletide this year.
Don't get me wrong—I was happy to watch Carmilla while doing dishes. But I can't quite muster love for it. The burden of formula lies too heavily on it.
Carmilla is less technically clever at conveying its plot material than LBD (though a friend who watches more vlogs than I do finds both series unsatisfying, because she sees them as strangely poor invocations of vlogs’ visual language). LBD used re-enactments and alternative/supplementary video streams to navigate the technical challenges posed by the vlog format. Carmilla, meanwhile, seemingly under the impression that Lovecraft is always right, at one point stages an awkward and entirely pointless possession of our narrator so we don't have to see the Unspeakable Horror of the big bad for ourselves. Carmilla crams action sequences that have no particular business being in this dorm room through the door of said room, because it can't think of how else to circumvent the stationary-camera, no-budget issue. Carmilla is also perhaps too anxious about whether people will be interested in its horror plot if they can’t see the action themselves. Rest assured, Carmilla, people liked the craaaaawling 1960s BBC adaptation of M.R. James's "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." People are difficult to put off.
Another major problem with Carmilla is that we run into something of an Edward Cullen, Eternal High School Student situation. Carmilla the immortal vampire has been in university for oh, decades now. She doesn't need to establish relationships of trust with women to accomplish her goals, really, and yet she does so, and does so via going to school, Because Plot. You could say Because Her Personal Issues, and even make a strong case for that, but I think that would be a fannish reading that wants the text to succeed and supplements it rather than a frank handling of the material we're actually given.
Now, I personally would probably rather plunge a stake through my heart than be a uni freshman again, and it is my firm belief that people who romanticize "the people they were in college" do not work within a five-mile radius of a university. There is nothing like the proximity of actual freshmen to remind you that you were not “totally cool” or “totally untroubled” as one. So why is Carmilla apparently going through the motions (per the Buffy musical)? Are vampires immune to getting sick to death of freshers’ drama and sitting through 101s? Does drinking blood do that? Where can I get some blood? Asking for a friend . . .
Lizzie Bennet Diaries did some quite clever meta stuff with importing the source text's preoccupation with reputation and presentation into the present. It was concerned with the thematic underpinnings of the novel, as well as the novel's plot, and characters. The title-shift felt natural for the vlogging format. Carmilla is not particularly interested in the characters, plot or themes of its source text. It's not interested in the exploration of what friendship is, its dangers and limits, and queer possibilities—all themes that Nina Auerbach's seminal Our Vampires, Ourselves describes as characteristic of the pre-Dracula English-language vampire narrative (Polidori, etc.). The title Carmilla becomes something of a misnomer, Carmilla being neither the protagonist nor the key matter of the plot.
According to story editor/co-creator Ellen Simpson, quoted in a cheery AfterEllen piece:
We decided pretty early on that we didn’t want the story follow the original’s intent of being a cautionary tale of female sexuality. Laura’s shift from a victim to a young woman with her own agency came from this as well. We wanted to present a girl who had a great deal of self-confidence, but who maybe didn’t understand the world as well as she thought she does.
Maybe the problem is that the program is born of a weak-sauce understanding of the source text? If you’re reading Carmilla as "a cautionary tale of female sexuality" . . . shit, son, sorry, you’re doing it wrong. I would need a review in and of itself to unpack how this is pretty unfair to the original Laura as a character, the book’s eroticism and its context, etc. Even as a glib statement, no. Incorrect.
In fact, Carmilla the show is pretty damn bad at the things that made Carmilla the book good. (Ultimately I’m not sure they needed to relate this program to the book at all, but calling it something else wouldn’t make the series better.) It's difficult to do "creepy horror invading and profaning the mundane" when everything's a wackyweird comedy/thriller. It's also difficult to do the escalating, serious intimacy that makes the original novella an interesting lesbian text when you're playing "Loathing" from Wicked at an obnoxious volume as you write this Odd Couple roommates relationship between Carmilla and our protagonist Laura. Oddly, despite being more blatantly queer, Carmilla is far less successful than the original novella at evoking anything erotic or romantic. As a queer woman, I find the way queerness operates in Carmilla unsatisfying and awkward.
The fan wiki informs me that the character LaFontaine is trans, and while it's no doubt good for a show to have an interesting trans character (I quite like LaFontaine), I don't remember this ever coming up in the first season of the program itself, when I started seeing this statement being made? Maybe it’s in the series’ promotional/additional-materials Tumblrs somewhere? Maybe it blossomed later, after the S1 finale, in the content I haven’t seen? I interpreted LaFontaine's desire to no longer be known as "Susan" as a young person’s desire to redefine their identity, common to most people that age. I'm slightly uncomfortable with giving Carmilla props for trans-inclusiveness for something I don't even remember it having done. That was hella subtle, if it happened, and why are we censoring ourselves into oblivion . . . on the Internet? Is it harsh of me to maintain this "no Pottermoreing, in the text or it didn't happen, the author is dead" attitude when I'll allow alternative-commentary vlog streams for LBD? It's debatable, but if I didn't think I was basically right, and that the nature of the additional content is different in these cases, and that that matters, I probably wouldn't have said it. Again, further developments in Carmilla Series 2 (and beyond) may of course have changed the shape of this question.
I know identity politics are in flux and that in certain contexts queerness is increasingly unremarkable, but I'd still expect a young woman entering uni and developing a crush on another young woman to wonder if the person she had a crush on might herself be queer. I wouldn’t just make assumptions (in part because sometimes that isn’t an emotionally or physically safe thing to do). (And why is Laura almost dating her TA; what's up with that? So shady and potentially unethical!) Yet orientation and identification never came up as questions in Carmilla.
Again, I feel the original story’s quite interesting romance plot has become something less convincing and less satisfying with this adaptation, due to both the show’s decision to sacrifice the novel's claustrophobic intimacy between Laura and Carmilla and to the change of setting. The very things that make Carmilla the show work less well than Carmilla the book as horror also make the show work less well than the book as romance. Why are these people into each other? What is that like? What do their present and future together look like, why are they right for each other above others? Where's the excitement that makes the relationship a ship and the kiss-finale a triumph?
When LBD alluded to media fandom, a roommate of mine accused the makers of cynically playing to their audience. Given that some of LBD's creators are involved in fandom in various ways, I think that's a bit harsh, but I do acknowledge that the program may have been trying to create a "just like you" commonality between its characters and its fannish early-adopters. However, I thought this was gracefully, realistically accomplished.
Carmilla reaches out in the same way but . . . more awkwardly. When the aforementioned AfterEllen piece says "FYI, the Carmilla fandom has nicknamed itself Creampuffs. Also, the Carmilla team is totally on board with its ships and actively engages with fans, and showcases their fan art," I wonder where the line between being an engaged PR team and using, appropriating, and monetizing your fandom lies? Some fans and/or fanstudies people really dig when creators and marketing apparatuses engage with fandom. Such entwinements can go very wrong, however, and be usurious, and I don’t think it’s ever safe to forget the power relationships involved. For every Orlando Jones there’s—you know, I had a name here, but it has been literal decades and I’m still justifiably afraid of that wank, so no. Just trust me that buddy-buddy closeness between production and fandom can turn rancid, and that when it does it looks a little like the end of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, where someone reminds the "part of the (rich, Tory) family" protagonist that he isn’t, actually, he’s their weird, useful little gay pet, right up until he’s no longer useful or cute. And this closeness is always, to my thinking, a bit—unnecessary, and sort of runs counter to the transformative rather than enunciative work of fandom. I appreciate respect from a creative team, but fear crossing the streams.
Laura owns some Doctor Who memorabilia and "likes English stuff." Is this a reference to how the novel version of Laura has an English father? Laura doesn't seem in other ways particularly interested or steeped in fannish concerns, cultural references, etc. Yet Carmilla teases Laura about reading “Snape/Ron slash.” Now . . . is this set ten years ago? Because that was never a big pairing, really, and the last time any Snapewives roamed the Astral Plane, I was in college. I think they’re largely extinct now, like buffalo. Admittedly, it could be a dated vampire joke, but either way, why doesn't Laura then attempt to blow the dust off Carmilla and gently, loudly ask her if she's read any good zines lately? Kids these days are snorting up Teen Wolf RPF and god knows what. "Get off my lawn with your reblogs, Laura!" Carmilla will hiss, and this meh exchange will be more convincing coupley bickering than the entire first series managed.
So Carmilla doesn't know what the kids are reading, and she's—not very capable in general. One Heroic Act aside, she's a bit emotionally weak (and here you could say "PTSD" and I’d say "is this problem Doylist, or Watsonian? Is Carmilla weak because the character is traumatized, or underpowered because the narrative doesn’t know what to do with her and is a bit sloppy?"). Carmilla’s vampire powers and battle-readiness ain't all that, and she's a damn annoying roommate. Is this that het romcom thing where a hot girl's supposed to love a schmuck just ’cause? Or the thing where the male romantic lead's dickish personality or past bad decisions don't matter because he's chaaanged? No to a lesbian version of that, thanks. I'm interested in the question of the extent to which a heroic sacrifice (one which, by the way, the narrative is ultimately unwilling to commit to) can redeem someone who's done terrible things, including getting past lovers killed—but Carmilla doesn't seem to be.
I don't need or want a second season of this show. And still it comes, inexorably, even though it feels like this story's come to its natural end. Maybe Carmilla will surprise me and develop into something else, or come into its own, and maybe I will surprise myself by bothering to watch series two someday, but perfectly plotted Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 1 it isn't.
We’ve already learned a terrible lesson about the utter bullshit women, especially queer women, will watch in order to see people anything like themselves having problems anything like their problems on television. That lesson was called The L Word, and Carmilla is for damn sure nothing like that bad. ("Thus Spoke Sarah Schuster" indeed.) Carmilla is, in fact, fine, pleasant and, in a way, something I'd like to see a lot more of.
But here we are, as the existence of the Worldcon panel "The Daughters of Buffy" indicated, long after the close of that flawed but remarkable and important program, and what effective inheritors to Buffy’s title can we see? Who is taking that work and pushing it forward? Where can we find decent female characters and/or decent queer relationships in our visual media (don’t say Korra, it’s crap and you know it’s crap and I refuse to enter into the Carmillaesque desperate mass hallucination that it is not crap)? Carmilla is, I think, as popular as it is because it effectively, if perhaps a touch cynically, markets to its demographics. It shows how big a potential audience there is for a program that’s like Carmilla, but actually very good. While we wait for someone to take our money and compensate for the lacunae in mass-media with the sort of fannish production that makes proud mountains out of tripe like Stargate: Atlantis and Once Upon a Time, read Carmilla the novella. It’s quick and more interesting, and Librivox has a free audiobook version.
- "The first season of Carmilla, which also appeared on VervegirlTV, generated 17 million minutes of watch time and picked up 7.5 million views on YouTube since its launch in August 2014, according to information provided by Smokebomb and shift2. More than 39,000 unique users engaged with the series in some way through Facebook and Twitter. Of those users, 83% were female, with almost two-thirds falling into the 18 to 24 demographic."
Strategy Online, "Kotex’s vampy web series Carmilla goes to season two," December 10th, 2014, http://strategyonline.ca/2014/12/10/vampy-web-series-carmilla-goes-to-season-two/#ixzz3NzD3qrYr
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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