On the Medusa, Vampires, and the Fear of the Female Body


Discussion of Blood and Gender-Based Violence

I recently read Natalie Haynes’ incredible new novel, Stone Blind: Medusa’s Story (which I highly recommend), and that got me thinking about female monsters – and menstruating women. The Medusa is an ambiguous figure: both fascinating and repulsive, aggressive and victimised. While we all know her power to turn men who looked at her into stone, few people know her story. Medusa was a beautiful Gorgon who, when visiting Athena’s temple, was raped by the sea god Poseidon. The goddess’ rage at having her temple defiled was directed at Medusa rather than her attacker (there’s plenty of victim-blaming in Greek myths, unfortunately), and so she turned Medusa into a monster with hair made of phallic snakes, who could petrify men who dared look at her.

Why is this important? Well, Athena was a central part of a matriarchal cult in Athens before society’s gradual shift to patriarchy. There was also a powerful ancient myth that menstruating women could turn men into stone through their looks. See where I’m going with this? Medusa’s transformation not only symbolises a cultural and societal change, but it also hints at the dangers of breaking menstrual taboos. Not to mention the demonisation of menstruation.

But let’s back up a bit. Menstrual blood has long been associated with reproduction – periods were the flowers without which no fruit could be born. Medusa’s blood also had creative properties: both the flying horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor sprung forth after Perseus decapitated her. But menstrual blood could equally be destructive. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century CE how

‘Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, […] the bright surface of mirrors in which it is merely reflected is dimmed, […] and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.’

In Leviticus, there were stark prohibitions around sex with menstruating women, as it would produce monstrous children. Much of this negative Judeo-Christian view of menstruation persisted through the centuries and appeared in popular myths. At the height of the witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, witches symbolised the corruption of religion through perverse femininity: they were said to drink communion wine made with menstrual blood in their demonic rituals.

But what does that have to do with vampires? Gothic literature is usually bloody, often involving young women’s bodies being violated or murdered. But where does this blood really come from? Vampirism is often a metaphor for menstrual taboos. Menstruation is connected to the lunar calendar, usually composed of 28 days, like many people’s menstrual cycle. Medusa’s image could only be made harmless if reflected in a mirror – a symbolical moon-like object. And vampires don’t cast any reflections in mirrors. Still not convinced? Let’s look at the most famous book about vampires, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). This is how Lucy is described, after having been turned into a vampire herself:

‘… the eyes seemed to throw out sparks of hell-fire, the brows were wrinkled as though the folds of the flesh were coils of Medusa’s snakes […] If ever a face meant death – if looks could kill – we saw it at that moment’.

‘… the eyes seemed to throw out sparks of hell-fire, the brows were wrinkled as though the folds of the flesh were coils of Medusa’s snakes […] If ever a face meant death – if looks could kill – we saw it at that moment’.

Lucy is clearly inspired by the Medusa, with blood dripping from her fangs (echoing the fear of the vagina dentata, which could castrate men with its teeth). She is vanquished when her fiancé Arthur penetrates her body with a phallic stake – male virility triumphing over the fear of castration by female voracious sexuality. He also chops her head off, following Perseus’ example. Lucy is then restored to pre-menstrual purity. She returns to her innocent state, as becoming a vampire suggested becoming sexually mature or active. Both Lucy and Mina are menstrual monsters in Dracula, with Mina going so far as calling her bloody body ‘unclean’, echoing ancient fears of polluted, contaminating menstrual blood.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote how ‘the little girl, not yet in puberty, carries no menace, she is under no taboo […] But on the day she can reproduce, woman becomes impure; and rigorous taboos surround the menstruating female’. These taboos can be both protective and oppressive to those who menstruate. For psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, they stemmed from the repression of an attraction to menstruating women, while for Bruno Bettelheim, menstruation was a source of male envy over the procreative powers of the female body.

Why is menstruation so important, though? I tend to agree with the philosopher Julia Kristeva, who in her famous book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection wrote that what unsettles us and provokes horror is the abject. By abjection, she means the threat of the breakdown of a crucial distinction. This is the difference between self and other, subject and object. Horror is caused by something that doesn’t respect boundaries or rules, something that threatens our understanding of reality and embodies liminal, in-between spaces. Think of vampires, existing between life and death. In the case of menstruation, menstrual blood symbolically marks a sexual divide, separating men from (potential) mothers. This is gendered blood, dangerous and threatening, repulsive yet fascinating. It reminds us of death, yet also marks feminine creative power. (You can watch an incredible breakdown of Kristeva’s thinking here if you’re interested.)

Vampires are figures of abjection, unnatural beings who seduce and repulse us. Their bodies defy rules and order. In the Victorian age, that’s precisely how hysterical women were described, too. Hysteria was connected to menstrual disorders, with contemporary doctors describing hysterics as ‘vampires wo sucked the life of healthy people around them’. The menstrual and the hysterical bodies were intimately linked. French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, who ‘treated’ hysterics in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, famously performed exorcisms on his patients in the 1880s, who were sometimes called his ‘vampires’. (This is a fascinating topic in itself – I promise to write more about it some other time!)

If in vampire stories there is a fetishization of menstrual blood, there are also ‘dis-ordered’ bodies, ‘unnatural’ people who need to be controlled and contained. Vampires – and older myths such as the Medusa – can subvert patriarchal, heteronormative order. Dracula is not a tale of female vampirism such as Carmilla (one of my favourite stories ever!), but of female vampirization by men, in a project to control and contain the female body and its dangerous sexuality. Bleeding women have long been viewed as both sacred and profane, divine and degraded, with menstrual myths being deeply imbedded in misogyny. Still, menstruation signals the potential for life and creation, and it’s significant that, where gender is concerned, both vampires and Medusa combine sex drive and death drive; a warning against the dangers of female sexuality tinged with a hint of envy of female creative power.


Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (London: Thames & Hudson, 1955)

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (London: Heinemann, 1940-63). (Originally written in 77 CE.)

Freud Sigmund, Civilisation and Its Discontents (London: Hogarth, 1975). (Originally published in 1930.)

Further Reading:

Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, edited by Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb (Berkeley: California University Press, 1988).

Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith  (London: Macmillan, 1998).

Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993).

The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, edited by Janice Delaney et al. (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1988).

Menstruation: A Cultural History, edited by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

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