Featured Minds: Nadia Saleh

Nadia is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara, majoring in English and specializing in Literature and the Mind.  In addition to completing coursework with a focus in this field, Nadia completed a senior thesis that draws on feminist and psychoanalytic theory, entitled “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality,” under the direction of Julie Carlson.  She has presented her research to faculty and fellow students through the Arnhold Program.

Tell us more about your senior thesis project.

I’ve always been an avid consumer of supernatural media (Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) but especially things that had to do with vampires, because they were the stories that interested me. Halfway through college I discovered Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film (1992) which became one of my favorite movies for both its use of costumes and its revamp of the original Dracula plot. So when I joined the Arnhold Program, I knew I wanted to write on vampirism, especially female vampirism. My favorite work I studied was probably “The Lady of the House of Love” simply because I love Angela Carter so much and the symbolism was so rich. I really had something to sink my teeth into with that short story.

What drew you to Literature and the Mind?

My interest in Literature and the Mind stemmed from an interest in psychoanalytics and a desire to understand how people’s minds worked. The first true Lit and Mind class I took was Professor Young’s Reading Jane Austen’s Mind, but I always count my first class as Professor Carlson’s 103B course. She later became my thesis advisor and an invaluable resource during my writing. She gave me my first taste of Victorianism, which is the period covered in my thesis.

Lit and Mind encompasses so many different facets of literary study, because, in my understanding, it focuses on the feedback loop between people and their surroundings, whether it’s other people, animals, nature, smells, sounds, inanimate objects. Lit and Mind is the microcosm of the human experience as an entity that reacts and moves with its environment.

Where do you believe this field is headed, or should be headed?  What are you interested in learning more about?

I’m not entirely sure where the field is at this point, but intersectionality is important in any kind of study. Examining the female mind, the transgender mind, the queer mind, the minority mind, these are all things that we should be looking at and seeking understanding of in this era.

What’s in store for you after graduation?

In November, I will be presenting at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in Honolulu, on a section of my thesis titled “The Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith” in a seminar called “Other Vampires.” I’m very excited to see how the other presenters and the audience will shape my understanding of my own work and the study of vampirism. There’s a kind of bloodlust in academia, a need to know and understand and consume. I sense that this thesis has not sated my own academic bloodlust and expect to be returning to this project in graduate school, with the addition of other female monsters.

Excerpts from the introduction to Nadia’s senior thesis, “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality”:

While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.

My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.

Jennie Harbour, "The Sleeping Beauty"

Image: Jennie Harbour, “Sleeping Beauty”

From Chapter 1, “Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator”:

The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature. So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?

[…]

[Angela Carter’s] “The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:

“Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).”

The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71). The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.