What’s next for the lowly werewolf?

Horror, like anything else, has its trends. Vampires have gone mainstream thanks to Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer; zombies are the new vampires, if 28 Days Later and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are any indication; and ghosts, while they haven’t made waves since movies such as  The Sixth Sense and The Others more than ten years ago, are the only spooky creatures that people actually still believe in. Where, then, does that leave werewolves?

An American Werewolf in London

They’ve been normalized somewhat in paranormal fiction. And they show up in concert with vampires in books such as the Twilight series or in TV shows such as True Blood, but to me they often seem as if they’re playing second fiddle to the bloodthirsty main monster. But while there have been some modern classics in movies such as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Ginger Snaps, and in books such as David Wellington’s Frostbite and and Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, I’m not sure the werewolf as a monster has evolved in a way that keeps scaring us.

That is, not the literal turn-into-a-wolfman-by-moonlight version, adopted by Hollywood and perpetrated ad nauseum. We’ve seen that, watched The Munsters, been wowed by ever-improving special effects, and still we’re not scared.  The concept of uncontrollable bodily change has been picked up in pop culture by the Hulk, and the notion that some people may be secretly more than human is in fact, a basic tenet of all superhero stories.

And certainly, we’ve seen werewolves serve as a pointed metaphor for life transformation.  Puberty is an obvious one, and has been done many times in such movies as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and the Michael J. Fox vehicle, Teen Wolf (as well as the recent series based on it). More recently, the werewolves-as-boys-to-men cliché has been challenged, such as in the movie Ginger Snaps (girl-into-woman) and in novels such as Catherine Lundoff’s Silver Moon, in which lycanthropy is presented as a metaphor for menopause.

But are these monster meant to terrify us? With the recent exception of Dog Soldiers, in which British soldiers are hunted down in the wilds of Scotland by a pack of werewolves, not really. When werewolves show up in movies at all these days, they are usually taking part in some intra-monster feud as in the Underworld series, the Twilight adaptations, or in the unwatchable Van Helsing.

I think it’s because we’ve replaced werewolves with a new monster that speaks to the same fears.

What always scared people about werewolves, at least in traditional folklore, was rooted in a belief that anyone could potentially become savage, bestial, and cannibalistic.  Some of the most disturbing tales of medieval werewolves involved the abduction and murder of children, and even to a 19th-century-observer such as Sabine Baring-Gould, the tropes of werewolf tales began to look more like chronicles of mental illness.

Which is what really frightens us these days: that someone who looks otherwise normal could suddenly transform into a vicious monster.  The tropes are played out ad nauseum in thrillers and cop shows, and the endless variations on serial killers and torturers.  What is Hannibal Lecter but the respected intellectual-become-monster? (A similar theme was seen in Silver Bullet, the movie based on Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, in which a trusted, respected community leader is revealed as the monster.)

Every week, the dogged team of special agents in Criminal Minds hunts down the various human monsters perpetrating savagery on innocent people. I’ve argued elsewhere that this fits the template for the Beowulf story, but Beowulf’s foe, the cannibalistic Grendel, stokes the same fears of the human/monster hybrid fears that werewolves have also played to.

This connection between the werewolf and modern-day killers such as Richard Ramirez, the infamous “Night Stalker,” is explicitly made by Brad Stieger in the introduction to The Werewolf Book: an Encyclopedia of Shapeshifting Beings.

So I think we have replaced the werewolf in its the traditional role with a new kind of human monster, one that is believeable to modern audiences. (And, perhaps, given the frequent misunderstanding of mental illness today, plays to a similar ignorance as the fears of the ravening, insatiable wolf did in an earlier age’s misunderstanding of basic predator-prey ecology).

What do you think?  Has the werewolf as we know it had its day? Or is there room for resurgence of this fascinating beast in the imagination of the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Some interesting theories posed by the folks at Cinema Knife Fight.

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15 thoughts on “What’s next for the lowly werewolf?

  1. I can’t believe you put Anne Rice and Meyer in the same sentence. Sigh.

    The only scene I remember from Dog Soldiers: the guys guts being crammed back in his abdominal cavity and said cavity being superglued shut. I gagged and laughed at the same time. Haha!

    • I wasn’t comparing writing ability or literary merit — obvs Anne Rice wins on both. :)

      As for Dog Soldiers — funny, that’s the most memorable scene for me, too: that, and the dog trying to get at all those yummy guts. Yeek!

  2. First off Ginger Snaps (#1) and American Werewolf in London (#1 again) were very worthy Were films. Beyond that, the British version of Being Human did a decent job of giving our lycan friends a boost (though they did mix him in with a Vamp and a Ghost), then the follow-up series made it a laughing stock with the ooey-gooey love crap. As to Twilight and that ill-begotten Anthony Hopkins abomination, I can’t even go there without shuddering. If you are into Japanese anime, there are a few decent Were anime’s, but other than that, I say they haven’t gotten their fair, or ferociously appropriate accolades. Excuse me, even though I only thought Twilight, I still need to go wipe my tongue clean… ;}

    • I agree on AWiL and GS being great films, and werewolf classics — but I think they’re more noteworthy for their tweaks on the legend. AWiL demolished many movie clichés about how the werewolf transforms — it’s all seen, in full light, not hidden — and dispensed completely with the bipedal Wolf-Man idea. And Ginger Snaps inverted the notion of lycanthrope-as-male-puberty metaphor brilliantly.
      I think my point is (if I have one) that the werewolf as mere wild beast doesn’t scare us the way it did people in more agrarian times, when there wasn’t the reassurance of civilization all around you as there is in modern cities. (AWiL made a striking counterpoint to this in the famous scene in the Tube — even in the city, you’re not safe from the beast.) That’s why I think the trend has been toward crazed, serial killers and the like — they are the new wolves among the sheep.

  3. Wonderful insight as always, and my students reading BEOWULF next semester will be treated to this analysis as well, if that’s all right. I don’t have an answer for your question, although I can completely see your point about the transformation of the human monster from a literal beast to a figurative one.

    One of the things which has always fascinated me about Grendel is that he represents both literal and figurative danger to the Danes. He is an actual monster coming into the mead-hall to wreck shop and feast upon slumbering warriors, but he also signifies the potential for evil. He is an outcast, a pariah tormented to the point of rampage every night by the Danes’ singing about his cursed ancestor Cain. In a culture where lineage is all-important, the shame drives him to murder. So then the Danes begin sleeping away from the mead-hall, avoiding the center of the community. The danger of Grendel then evolves into the potential for the Danes to become outcasts themselves.

    Kit Whitfield wrote an article in the Folkroots section of the June 2006 edition of REALMS OF FANTASY magazine (which I desperately wish was still around!) entitled “The literary werewolf is something of an orphan.” Have you read it? Excellent stuff. (And I don’t have a photographic memory; I have the article in my archives here at my desk!) It put the choice (intentional or not) to have Stephenie Meyer’s werewolves be Native Americans into a very interesting and respectable perspective, I thought.

    • I used to love Realms of Fantasy! I haven’t read that article — I will see if I can turn it up.
      One thing that I have been mulling over is the treatment of werewolves in different traditions. I liked that in Nordic cultures, the wolf has positive and negative figures (Odin’s wolves Geri and Freki; on the other hand, Fenrir), and that the notion of transforming into a bear, or taking on animalistic qualities as in a berkerker rage, is more normalized. I’m still looking at how First Nations cultures treat the wolf — but if I can make a broad generalization, it seems the cultures that fear the wolf most have their roots in herding and animal husbandry, and those that are OK with wolves or attribute them places of honour have hunter/nomadic roots.
      But this doesn’t respond to your assertion about Grendel, whcih I think, in your reading, exposes what was horrific about the werewolf in AWiL (and Ginger Snaps) — the monstrosity stems from the person’s body, it’s not something they can ever escape, leading to despair and fatalism.

  4. To me, that’s not what werewolves are about anymore. To be scary, you can’t see them as an external monster, but a thing that happens TO YOU.

    That’s why I like how the UK series (And to a lesser extent, the US series) Being Human handled werewolves in the first two seasons. They were people with a disease, and expressed their grief in rage, ultimately infecting others. This is an idea that can happen to any of us, it’s just harder to express this in a story that’s supposed to be jump-out-and-scare-you, but I think that’s a lot more of what AWIL was trying to do. This horror was happening to this kid’s body, along with the whole idea of being alone in a foreign country The disease parallel can show its self again, because when I’m sick and afraid, I know the only place I want to be is at home.

    Just my opinion, there’s a lot left for our furry friends.

    • I think there is too, particularly since you’ve fit on another primal fear that werewolves embody — fear of our own bodies. I think this is why they’ve often served as metaphors for puberty (and in the book mentioned in the post, for menopause).
      I haven’t seen Being Human but I’ve heard good things about it. I will look for that!
      The jump-out-and-scare-you werewolf may also just have too much competition, since we’ve seen similar monster scares in movies from Aliens to slasher flicks to psycho-of-the-week.
      Part of what always seemed frightening about werewolves too was their relative invisibility — they could be anyone, and were not immediately obvious (eg. zombies) or restricted from moving about during daylight (eg. vampires).

  5. Lycanthropy is scary because it’s an affliction that literally controls the afflicted character’s life. They have to figure out how to live with it, or find the courage to do what David Kessler couldn’t do for himself in that phone booth. Any story in which that tension is missing (any time the werewolf character is “cool with it”, for instance) immediately becomes dull dull dull. When I read about (or see a film about) a werewolf, I want to be terrified and fascinated at the same time, not fed “superhero / villain with some rules about silver” pablum.

    • Yes, it’s a wholly different dynamic. I think the unique position that werewolves could occupy (and traditionally have in modern stories) is the dual horror of what the werewolf does to other people, and what being culpable for the werewolf’s actions does to the werewolf’s psyche.
      The more I think about it, the more I feel that’s what a character like the Hulk did to superhero comics — it took the transformation and sudden acquisition of power (standard fare for superhero character origins) and made it permanently monstrous.

  6. Bestial rape and murder.

    Having an overwhelmingly powerful creature violate you and eat you as you are fully aware of it happening, without any ability to fight back. That is the original fear werewolves held in human minds.

    Now, interestingly enough they have become somewhat fetishized sexual icons, along with Vampires. They have moved from the horrible to the desirable.

    Which is better? Ask a werewolf 😉

    • I’d say it was likely just being eaten, way back when — when there was no artificial light, and people didn’t stray far from the fire after dark. But in a civilized, urban context, that’s a bit of a stretch, so the monster has changed.

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  8. The point you make about the werewolf being replaced as a believable human monster is accurate, especially from the youth culture point of view. Now a day on TV shows like Teen Wolf and the Vampire Diaries, the werewolf isn’t being portrayed as a merciless monster, but as a human dealing with a loss of control, which I think many people can relate to. The depiction of the werewolf is venturing from the monster to something more human and even at times as a heroic figure. I think the werewolf’s M.O. as a beast could resurge, but I don’t know if people would want it to. I myself like to see the supposed-to-be beast overcome the bestial urges and become the hero.

    • Hm — I wonder, then, what those “bestial urges” might be symbolic of, in a modern context? Might the werewolf’s power be exhilarating for the lycanthrope, so that indulging it is akin to having an addiction?
      I wonder whether werewolves as monsters must predominantly be about that fight for self-control. This isn’t the case in a lot of urban fantasy fiction, I’ve noticed, such as in books by Rhiannon Held, Kat Kruger or Douglas Smith.

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