Thursday, January 28, 2021 12:01

Women in Horror – Theda Bara

As part of Women in Horror Month I could think of no better subject than the late, great Ms. Theda Bara…

Although Theda – born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio, 1885 – didn’t star exclusively in horror films (such as the distinction could be made at this early stage in film) she became well-known for playing the archetypal ‘vamp’ – a desirable femme fatale and a woman to be reckoned with as, amongst others, the famous wantons Salome (1918) and Cleopatra (1917) as well as a host of she-devils and sinners. Her chosen name is rumoured to be an anagram of ‘arab death’, which, if true, neatly conflates the blend of the exotic and the macabre which she was known for, and which publicity campaigns happily played upon during her film career.

Theda was, from the outset, sold to the public as a sexual being in her own right – never blithely awaiting approval or starving herself away to a husk, but using her sexuality as a weapon with which she wreaked havoc. In an era of ‘flapper girls’ and the commencement of the twentieth century’s obsession with fashionable female malnutrition, Theda stood out as a curvaceous, vivacious woman. Her costumes were equally daring: just 16 years after the death of Queen Victoria, Theda’s Cleopatra was flashing a scandalous amount of flesh (and the coming Hays Code would put paid to this level of display from the major studios for a generation!)

Sadly, most of Theda Bara’s work – like so many silent films – is now lost. A few seconds remain here and there, but one film has come down to us complete: A Fool There Was (1915). This film was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, which itself was based on ‘The Vampire’ (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones – a painting which shows a voracious young woman presiding over the lifeless body of her lover (below). Incidentally, this painting was exhibited in the year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first printed, and – although there is no suggestion of blood-drinking, Theda Bara’s film has been credited as the first ‘vampire’ film (and she is credited only as ‘the vampire’).

In A Fool There Was, Theda’s character uses her sexual allure to seduce and destroy a lawyer and family man. There is no purpose to what she does – her treatment of him is sheer personal entertainment (one of the most famous silent film title cards preserved for posterity must surely be Theda’s glib ‘kiss me, my fool!’) Not even the claims of his children, whom his deserted wife finally brings to him, can detach him from this villainess. In many ways, A Fool There Was anticipates much later films in its unstinting cruelty, but it is important to place it in context, where it demonstrates several anxieties about the changing role of women in the early twentieth century. Theda’s character is a woman of independent means; she can afford to travel unchaperoned and dresses in costly garments, and, whilst free of old constraints, she can still call on convention when she requires (such as when she plays vulnerable in order to persuade a porter to stop an old victim approaching her at the station). Most notably of all, it is her sexuality which rips and rends its way through polite society. Old ideas about female sexuality were dying hard during this period, as were old anxieties about the effects of sex upon men: as Dr. William Acton put it during the late Victorian period, ‘the danger [from] venereal excess’ was considered a genuine threat to male health and sanity. One can only wonder what Theda Bara’s emancipated vampire character demands of her lover, as he literally withers away…

This anxiety about the potential destructive power of female lust and ambition has stayed with us, and the threatening women which embody it have formed an important part of the modern horror genre. So, Theda Bara, the first screen vamp, I salute you!

2 Responses to “Women in Horror – Theda Bara”

  1. Susan says:

    Actually, it has been strongly suggested that the wife’s snub of “The Vampire” when they first meet is the catalyst for the whole film – that taking her husband is the Vamp’s revenge for that rudeness. There is more speculation that goes along with this – such as how racism might also be a part of it – e.g., the lawyer’s wife and all her friends are fair complected & hire only white servants, whereas The Vamp is very dark & hires Oriental & Black servants. It sounds subtle (or, perhaps, incomprehensible) to us, but I’m sure it was done deliberately in the film to send a very clear message.

  2. Miss K says:

    Possibly, although it does at least look as though The Vamp’s behaviour is habitual (i.e. the ‘elderly man’ – or is he? – who approaches her). As for racist subtexts, I think the critical culture of the past forty years has seen us become incredibly keen to see racism everywhere. Although Theda’s character has dark-coloured hair (along with the majority of Caucasians ever, in the world) she’s fair-skinned, for instance, and also Black/Oriental servants may not have meant anything in an age and milieu when Black/Oriental servants were commonplace, but in hindsight some critics determine to see this as fundamentally important. To me, so much as the film ‘sends a message’ it’s as much to do with female sexuality as race, but ultimately this was a piece of entertainment, so I far more enjoy seeing the film as such! Thanks for the comment. x

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