For centuries now, vampires have served as vessels to explore human fear and desire, often touching on sexuality, a topic considered too taboo to otherwise depict. These bloodsucking, humanoid creatures have had audiences in a trance long before Netflix released “First Kill,” a supernatural teen drama based on showrunner V.E. Schwab’s short story of the same name.
“First Kill” follows Juliette (Sarah Catherine Hook), a teenage vampire, as she falls in love with her new high school classmate, Calliope (Imani Lewis), who comes from a family of trained monster hunters. The girls navigate their feelings for one another while also grappling with their respective identities as a vampire and a monster hunter and their families’ resulting expectations of them. It’s essentially “Romeo and Juliet,” if the star-crossed lovers from Verona had been a lesbian vampire and monster hunter couple with iPhones. The parallels to “Romeo and Juliet” do not go unacknowledged as the characters frequently reference Shakespeare and the girls spend the night at their school’s “Romeo and Juliet” set when they run away.
The series suffers from all the staples of a teen drama: expositional voiceover, melodramatic music cues, and obvious dialogue lacking in subtlety. The low budget doesn’t do it any favors either with frequent distracting CGI and special effects. However, these elements, combined with a message of acceptance, create a memorable and campy show that offers a more modern, feminist take on the age-old lesbian vampire trope.
Vampires have been associated with lesbians in literature as early as 1872. At that time, Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic novella, “Carmilla” featured a young woman being seduced by a female vampire. A lesbian vampire then appeared onscreen for the first time in the 1936 film, “Dracula’s Daughter.” Because this film was released during the Hays Code era, Countess Zaleska could only be subtly hinted or “coded” as lesbian. In this film, as well as in many vampire films that followed, homosexuality is demonized by depicting lesbianism as an antagonistic force that must be destroyed. Like the femme fatale figure in film noir, lesbian vampires illustrated men’s growing fear of female independence and the notion that women could survive without men.
The lesbian vampire trope continued into horror films of the 1970s where thin, pale, and feminine vampires would seduce beautiful and innocent young women. These sensual scenes were designed to appeal to male fantasy, trapping the lesbian vampire in the male gaze. By the end of these stories, the lesbian vampire would be killed, often by the male protagonist, enforcing patriarchal and heterosexual ideals in society.
Juliette and Calliope’s romance in “First Kill” subverts this trope. Not only are the two girls both romantically interested in each other, but they are also hunting each other. This diminishes the past lesbian vampire interpretation that lesbians prey upon and seduce innocent women, effectively stopping the trope from being used for homophobia. Plus, because Juliette is a legacy vampire, she can’t be killed with a stake like lesbian vampires of the past who were merely used to teach women a lesson about the dangers of homosexuality. This protection shields Juliette from the “bury your gays” trope in which queer characters are killed more often than straight characters and treated as if they are disposable.
The series does not cater to straight male audiences the way past lesbian vampire stories did either. Juliette is not a tall, sensual, temptress. She’s an awkward teenage girl who has no idea what she’s doing and is still figuring herself out. The girls share intimate moments together, but their bodies are never overly sexualized in a way that feels exploitative.
Also worth noting is that the series doesn’t fall into the usual queer love story territory about coming out or facing homophobia. As the show’s creator, V.E. Schwab, lamented in an interview with the A.V. Club, “You can have a queer love story, but it better be about coming out. Straight characters don’t get reduced to their identity in a narrative, and it seems like the only time certain people get to take up space is [with] their identity.” Schwab challenges this in “First Kill” where Juliette and Calliope’s families don’t oppose their relationship because they are both girls but instead because of their vampire and monster hunter identities.
Still, the show embraces the queer vampire allegory and uses it to tackle self-acceptance, prejudice, and standing up for what’s right even if that means going against familial and societal norms. Juliette’s fear of telling her family she doesn’t like being a vampire mirrors that of a teen scared to come out to their conservative family. The group of moms protesting against monsters in their children’s school is reminiscent of parents’ fears of homosexuality and how it might somehow rub off on their own children. Calliope’s parents even make her go through a “severing” ritual to destroy the hold that Juliette has on her which undoubtedly references gay conversion therapy.
“First Kill” may be a flawed and corny teen drama, but it boldly aims to reinvent the harmful lesbian vampire trope. All the while, it challenges the clichés of queer love stories and comments on the battle of love versus hate in our society.
“First Kill” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Emily Ince