115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith

Nadia Saleh, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This paper focuses on the Showtime series, Penny Dreadful, and its main character, Vanessa Ives, who is predestined to be the new Mother of Evil and the bride of either Dracula or Lucifer, who will use her as a means to start the Apocalypse and end humanity.


In this paper, I argue that Vanessa Ives, the protagonist of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, is used as an example of the search for freedom in a society that does not celebrate female sexuality or choice, and the double-bind that women find themselves in between proper behavior (good) and freedom (evil). In the series, Vanessa is predestined to be the new Mother of Evil, bride to either Lucifer or Dracula, and the cause of the Apocalypse. Because of her Catholic upbringing, the strict attentions of the men around her, and her own notions of good and evil, Vanessa struggles against this identity as the new Lilith throughout the series. Her sexuality is strictly policed, lest it accidentally set off a demonic possession or the Apocalypse.

This policing of her sexuality stems from the conception of female deities or demi-gods being responsible for causing the annihilation of humanity, the so-called “chosen ministers of evil”. All of them are female, because there was “something thought unholy [sic] in the erotic power they held over men” (“Memento Mori”). Female sexuality, unconstrained by societal norms and proper behavior, could be so powerful that it could cause the Apocalypse, simply because of the sexual power they held over men. It was Lilith’s demand for sexual equality that robbed Adam of his wife, and caused a proliferation of demons on earth. Lilith and her history appear often throughout the series, especially when Vanessa makes what can be called the “Lilith choice”: freedom, or a return to her confined garden. Dracula, portrayed as seductive and enticing in every other media he appears in, uses simple language to convince Vanessa: “I don't want to make you good, I don't want to make you normal. I don't need you to be anything but who you truly are” (“Ebb Tide”). And thus begins the Apocalypse, started by the sexual power of a single woman, a reflection of the subconscious fears of patriarchal society.

The air in London, where Penny Dreadful is set, becomes “a very pestilence to mankind” (“Blade of Grass”).  In this context, pestilence has something of a generative quality, as if Vanessa herself spawned the disease that rids the world of humanity. It follows the Lilith myth of the ever-generative mother; as Lilith sets her demonic children on the world, Vanessa spreads an epidemic to kill mankind. This pestilence is ended by Ethan Chandler, Vanessa’s love interest, who takes up the mantle of Lupus Dei, the Wolf of God. His role places a strictly male, Christian warrior into play who will eventually triumph for the glory of God. His mercy killing of Vanessa ends the Apocalypse; God, masculinity, and proper society have triumphed in getting rid of the transgressive female sexuality that threatened their boundaries. As much as the series allowed for Vanessa to be strong and independent and an equally fierce warrior as her male counterparts, in the end she is the sacrificial lamb. Feminine evil must be killed off, or the world will end.

Topic Area: