dead girl theory II: the undead woman

The Neon Demon is the September issue of Dead Girl films. Nicholas Winding Refn took Marc Jacobs' NO MATTE SURFACES imperative to heart: even the darkest of darks glimmer in this film, the coy reflectiveness of pitch-black magazine pages. To watch it is to thumb deliriously, jealously, suicidally through a catalogue of unattainable intensities. Beauty is terror and terror pursues beauty, wants to eat beauty, wants to climb inside it. It's everything a vampire film should be.

Elle Fanning in the opening shot of The Neon Demon (2016) {x
Jesse, Elle Fanning's character, is a Dead Girl before we ever see her live, and in her youth and beauty and indefinable somethingness that glamours all Hollywood, she is a familiar kind of vampire: the defanged, sparkly vampires of Twilight. The film pumps with her power, but it's the power of a teenage girl who's had to figure out how to survive, and she's still just sixteen and alone in an eat-you-alive city. She doesn't know that prowling around her are real vampires, or humans who really want to be vampires (or are they the same thing?) with cyborg faces and forever-diets and the constant ebb of ageing in their ears like funeral music. These vampires are necrophilic and cannibalistic in their worship of the Dead Girl: a make-up artist mortician who has sex with a corpse after applying a perfect deathmask of make-up; models who consume Jesse's blood to make them young and pretty again.

Everybody wants to be a vampire before they get too old. The human partner grows desperate and bitter as their body fails them and their vampire remains immaculate. True Blood's Hugo, tired of waiting, betrays his vampire lover and her friends to the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun, while his lover explains that she finds his ageing "curious. Like a science project." Bella Swan has nightmares about growing old and is "always begging to be a vampire without delay". In an episode of Angel, an actress who lies about her age spikes the eponymous character's drink in the hope that he'll loosen up and turn her. Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown features teen vampire groupies who vlog their way to vamp-town:

For women, vampirism means being a Dead Girl forever: suspended in the perfection of girlhood, never falling into the traps of age and maternal life and human exhaustion. The undead woman is breaking the rules without breaking them; making her escape by embodying  and subverting  the patriarchy's ultimate ideal. She will be young and sexy and enchanting forever, as long as her corpse stays moving and talking. She's a Dead Girl with agency, able not only to refuse an autopsy, but to rise newly-fanged and tear out the coroner's throat. She's the spectre of the woman who couldn't be killed. Catherine Nicholas' Can I Live? says of Kim Kardashian, "Kim solved the impossible problem. She is the kind of woman who is supposed to die, (doesn't she seem like a good candidate for a sensational murder?), but she lives." The undead woman is Lady Lazarus, queen of death-defiance, living always in spite of.

Blood and Roses (1960)

But undead women don't always live. Just as vampires are not just vampires, immortality is not just immortality. Since Carmilla, vampire women have been a little freer to love other women than their human counterparts. But perhaps the reason for this relaxation of rules is that the queer vampire does not ultimately challenge heterosexuality. The common narrative is of an otherwise heterosexual woman unwillingly brought under the power of the vampire, casting her in the role of predatory lesbian and nullifying any possibility of legitimate love. At once monstrous and sexy, the vampires of films like Vampyros Lesbos titillate while reaffirming the immorality and unnaturalness of queerness, and ultimately end with a stake through the heart. Queer vampire women, it turns out, die about as easily and as often as queer human women on TV. True Blood incurred real-life wrath when it dispatched Tara Thornton off-screen and without mourning after seven seasons. That Tara was the series' only black queer woman is notable: immortality, like mortality, seems to be an unequal playing field, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the most ancient and famous of vampires is a wealthy European aristocrat.

Despite this, it is hard not to feel the sense of triumph in vampiric survival. Nina Auerbach wrote that "vampires are neither inhuman nor nonhuman nor all-too-human; they are simply more alive than they should be." Embodying any kind of female monstrosity  whether it be ageing, queerness, disability; any deviation from the perfect glassy-eyed girl in the pages of Vogue  carries with it the persistent sense that one shouldn't exist. The space between life and death, the shadowland in which vampires live, is a space of survival that screams of wrongness. It's the space that is occupied when you should have died so many times but you're still, inexplicably, here, refusing to go quietly. Undeadness is still a state of subversion, even if it doesn't last forever.