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Carmilla: An Introduction

From Novella to Queer-Positive Phenomenon

Photo taken and edited by me.

On August 19, 2014, a little webseries called Carmilla, based on the 1872 novella of the same name by J Sheridan Le Fanu dropped on Vervegirl’s (later rebranded as Kinda TV) YouTube channel, and, to put it simply, it exploded. There’s been three 36-episode seasons, a ten episode prequel season, a short series of in-character podcasts that go with season three, a full length movie, official in-character Twitter and Tumblr accounts for Laura, Carmilla, LaFontaine, and Silas University, and now there’s a prime time show in development at Shaftsbury, and a novelization of season one is set to release in April of next year. It's won several awards along with the two leading actresses, Elise Bauman (Laura) and Natasha Negovanlis (Carmilla) each receiving the Canadian Screen Award for Audience Choice.

The novella was originally a cautionary tale of female sexuality that ended in Carmilla’s beheading, but the webseries turned that on its head and told a truly beautiful and deeply relatable story about two girls who fall in love and fight gods and vampires together along with their gaggle of misfit friends.

This story is whimsical and fantastical, and incredibly intricate and complicated for such bite-sized content. It deals with different themes like discovering yourself and how those around you adjust to that, found family, the ugly yet essential parts of character growth and development, how having a black and white view of the world is dangerous and how those who grow and grow together always come out stronger in the end. It's heavily rooted in Sumerian mythology—a portion of our world's history that is much less touched upon than Greek, Roman or Norse mythology. And also it's gay. It’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen. It's campy and low budget, but that’s part of the charm. It’s part of the comfort that it brings. Yeah it’s not perfect, yeah you can see a mic pack occasionally, but this is one of those stories that feels like a warm blanket, and it makes an effort to make everyone feel welcome.

Watching the impact of this webseries on the queer community over the last four, nearly five years has been a sight to behold.

I first found Carmilla shortly after season one had ended, right after the Christmas Special had aired. I was almost nineteen and very newly out after spending a decade in the denial section of the closet. I’d only come to terms with being gay maybe two months prior—after having a couple nervous breakdowns about it—and while I was finally pretty at peace with it, it wasn’t normalized in my head yet. Rationally I knew it was perfectly fine and healthy, but I was still looking for something that didn’t make it feel… different. That seems to be something a lot of LGBT people struggle with. Just finding something that makes the lightbulb go off, or flips the switch in your head, and just makes you feel normal in a world that is violently trying to tell you that you’re different.

In this department, I was very lucky in my upbringing. I have a cousin who is gay and married her wife when I was little, and an aunt (that cousin’s mother) who was in a relationship with a woman for many years. My parents are very open minded, and never told me that being gay was wrong. While I understand that I am exceedingly lucky because that is far more than a lot of people get (even though it really should just be the bare minimum) it sort of only... lays the groundwork for rationally knowing it's okay. It's like understanding something in theory but not in practice. Which is huge in and of itself, but there's a real peace that comes with seeing something on screen or in a book that reflects what you’re feeling. Knowing that something is good, healthy, and okay doesn’t automatically get rid of the awful feelings inside, or the feeling of not belonging, or the fear, but being exposed to something that reflects what you’re feeling does.

The first time I watched season one of Carmilla, I was stuck at home in a snow storm on January 19, 2015, and bored out of my skull. I’d seen the odd post about the series circulating on Tumblr, so my curiosity got the better of me and I binged the whole thing. I was sort of… awestruck by the end of it. I was very tired and the whole thing kind of blurred together, but the spark of inspiration hit me. I remember writing a quick Tumblr post about finally watching it and wanting to write fanfic for it, but that I’d have to watch it again to really process it.

Carmilla, and by extension the Carmilla fandom, immediately became an integral part of my development as a lesbian, and sort of spearheaded my introduction to and education of all things queer. Before Carmilla, I had no idea what nonbinary was as a gender identity. Hell, I had no idea what gender identity was. Abstractly I knew that people could get gender reassignment surgery, but I didn’t put two and two together that being transgender was actually a thing. In short, I was very ignorant and unaware of anything outside the bubble of gay, lesbian, and bisexual, so suddenly getting this door thrown wide open was enlightening and fascinating.

Carmilla had a profound effect on a dear friend of mine that I met through the fandom as well. Her and I were on the phone the other day with another mutual friend in the fandom, and as we were talking about the show and what it's done for us, she brought up an incredibly interesting perspective. This friend of mine is a trans woman, and she said that seeing how Carmilla dressed in season three (comfortable and casual in cargo pants, vests and denim—bottom line, not patriarchal hyper-femininity but still comfortable in her feminine identity) was the lightbulb that helped her realize her identity. She’d had thoughts about it before, but was in kind of this murky grey area with it because she didn’t identify with the patriarchal hyper-femininity that trans women are often expected to present as in order to be considered a woman (A standard that is a load of horse shit really, but nonetheless a major problem still.) but also never felt comfortable in the typical masculine behavior and presentation that was expected of her. She simply likes jeans, flannels, and teeshirts, and has more of a punk/jock vibe. Before watching Carmilla be comfortable and feminine in those kinds of clothes, she felt that she didn’t fit in the box of a trans woman, so apparently that option wasn’t available. Carmilla flipped that switch for her.

Carmilla has been an incredible creative inspiration for both me, and countless others in the fandom. It opened a door for me in terms of my art—I’d been stagnant for a long time, but studying references from the show and the actors’ incredibly expressive performances, as well as studying the art others in the fandom were producing taught me a lot of things that I’d been lacking. In terms of writing, before Carmilla, I hadn’t written in many years. A string of subpar ideas (because I was young and inexperienced and that’s just what happens when you write when you’re in middle and high school) had soured me on following that path despite considering it while I was still in school. The first thing I wanted to do after watching the series was write a fanfic for it. Reading other fics from many different authors in the fandom opened me up to new writing styles and techniques, and now something that felt like an old pipe dream years ago has a chance of becoming an actual career.

But I digress.

The point I’m trying to get to here is that, while it's not perfect, Carmilla has been an undeniable force of good and happiness and acceptance in so many people's lives, and damn it, I miss it. It’s not gone or over by any means, but I miss digging into the episodes and finding new ideas, meanings, and themes in them.

I miss the discussions that would happen after episodes, the meta posts, the speculation, the character and plot analysis.

So I decided to do it all over again.

With these articles (blog posts? Essays?) I plan on digging deep into each episode and the corresponding posts and tweets on the characters' social media accounts to dig into themes and character/plot analysis and development, character relationships, the role of props and clothing, as well as discussing some popular headcanons like 80s punk! Carmilla, Hogwarts houses, and what the hell ever happened to Laura’s mom. (That particular article will be 100 percent speculation, FYI.)

So if you miss our broody gay vampire and our tiny gay Laura, come with me and relive the series!

As a note, these articles aren’t going to be spoiler free—my analysis is going to be taking the series as a whole into consideration, so if you haven’t seen the series yet and you’re curious about it, hop on over to Kinda TV on YouTube to watch the series for free!

(As I’m writing this, a double rainbow just showed up overhead.)

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Carmilla: An Introduction
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