'Carmilla' and Dracula's legacy

Web series review

Following an excellent post by Miranda Butler on the web series 'Carmilla' on YouTube, I thought it would make an excellent addition to my blog series on Dracula's legacy.

The web series was followed up with a film, but this post just covers the web series up until the start of series 3 (when this post was originally written).

*Spoiler alerts below*

'Carmilla' draws on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novel of the same name, which is sometimes termed the first vampire story in English (oddly forgetting stories such as Polidori's The Vampyre and Le Fanu's own Spalatro).

The writers and producers have gone to a good deal of effort to infuse the series with some of the atmosphere of Le Fanu's novel, incuding setting the series in Austria at Silas University (a reference to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas), beginning the narrative with tales of young women appearing to waste away of their own accord, and introducing other characters derived from the original narrative, such as LaFontaine and Baron Vordenberg, supposedly descended from a vampire hunter killed by Carmilla.

However, the series performs a classic twist on the tale, familiar from vampire narratives such as Interview with the Vampire and Buffy: the vampire-turned-good. So, Carmilla joins forces with a set of rebellious students against the evil Dean of the university (her "mother", it transpires), in season 1, and then against the Board of Directors (headed by first Carmilla's "sister", and then an arch nemesis of hers). The series takes some care with identifying the challenges that these relationships, some centuries old, pose for the otherwise simple narrative of "love conquers".

But this is a series about how vampire stories mutate to inhabit new media environments, so...

'Carmilla' is immediately identifiable as an 'update' on vampire TV series as a YouTube series of varying length (between 3 and about 17 minutes) that presents itself as a vlog/video journalism project by the main character, Laura. The static nature of the web camera that Laura uses means that the show is able to convey quite viscerally the invasion of Carmilla into Laura's dorm room after her roommate goes missing. The format also has the same feel as several of Le Fanu's supernatural novels, which depend on short and dramatic chapters. The YouTube series format thus offers certain features that would be missing from a more traditional TV series format, such as that of Buffy.

That format has a further advantage, in that it frees the series from any requirement to represent any of the things it discusses, such as the giant anglerfish trapped in a hole in the ground. This means that the series can treat its supernatural setting lightly. Relying purely on casual descriptions amongst characters who all share the same experience of such things, the episodes invite us to participate as though we are any other student in that shared environment (which we supposedly are).

The idea of the webcam as always on, and capturing more than is intended, is also used well in the series. It becomes clear that even this apparently transparent mode of communication is subject to interference, and the invasion of Laura's video feed becomes a parallel for the invasion of one of the character's bodies (I will say little more in the hope of at least avoiding some spoilers!).

On the other hand, there are some old tropes and missed opportunities in 'Carmilla's medial landscape. As in Buffy, 'Carmilla' seems to find the connection between the vampire—an old danger—and old media unavoidable. There are repeated returns to the Library (including a long-term occupation of it) and old books aplenty throughout the three series. Although digital media has become the norm on this twenty-first-century campus, like any other, the physical, textual archive itself seems irreplacable, and the characters often take significant personal risks to consult it.

The show does attempt to update the notion of the Library, which is of a supernatural ilk, with the character of JP, a student of Silas University from hundreds of years ago who, in a freak accident, had his consciousness merged with the Library itself. JP is—for a short time—a character almost like Iron Man's J.A.R.V.I.S., a human(ish) consciousness constructed from various technologies. For the most part, while in this form, he is reflected as an overlay on-screen and speaks through Laura's computer. However, perhaps in part because the show wanted to take on shades of that other Gothic classic, Frankenstein, this fascinating intermedial character is done away with in favour of reincarnating JP in a vampire's body.

In many ways the show is very successful at postively reflecting different identities, but it misses a trick here. A lot more could have been made of JP as a cyborg/artificial intelligence (neither definition is quite right... discuss!). The show had the potential to make some fascinating suggestions about the nature of identity via JP, such as when LaFontaine makes a 'back-up' that is used to reincarnate JP after the Dean destroys the original flashdrive (to which he had been transferred shortly before the disappearance of the library). Mind uploading is a weird and wonderful area, and the question of whether JP remains JP, either in 'back-up' or in a vampire body is one that could have been explored with some interesting results.

In the third series so far, there are flickers of these possibilities. JP remains in a chained vampire body but also appears to be able to operate digitally. The suggestion is, then, that JP's digital, medial existence has not been erased by reincarnation. Rather, that distributed existence appears to reflect the nature of consciousness. JP's absorption into the library has liberated his consciousness and turned it into sheer information in a way that cannot be reanchored. I really hope that the rest of third series gives this notion—and the relationship between JP and LaFontaine—a little more space to grow.