This weekend MTV’s surprisingly good Teen Wolf returns for a second season, and watching the preview advertisement blather on about “alphas” and “hunters” made me realize just how much has changed about Gothic monsters over the past half century or so.
Thinking back to Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man (1941) it’s almost quaint the way old fashioned werewolf stories found the ultimate horror in the transformation from man to animal, and the attendant loss of control and the veneer of civilization that entailed. By contrast, today the locus of horror is no longer in the transformation itself; indeed aside from the minor inconvenience of turning into a wolf along with the lunar cycle, lycanthropy is more often than not treated as a sort of Gothic analogy to being a superhero. In Teen Wolf, for example, being a werewolf seems mostly to involve becoming strong and good at sports. (Similarly, for all its hand-wringing The Vampire Diaries suggests vampirism is super-heroism on a liquid died.)
Instead, the locus of horror has shifted from the werewolf to the society in which the wolf lives. Here is where all that talk about “alphas” comes into play. The earliest werewolves were isolated fellows, but today’s stylish werewolf has to have a “pack,” whether this is a literal tribe as in Twilight (yes, I know, not technically werewolves…), a replacement family as on Teen Wolf, or a social club like on True Blood. Even the relatively traditional werewolves of The Vampire Diaries still end up involved in family feuds and supernatural social groups. And of course the “pack” has to have a leader, the “alpha,” which in turn means that a depressing amount of time in werewolf stories is devoted to young males competing to become the “alpha” wolf.
But real wolves don’t live like that. They don’t form grab-bag assortments of young males struggling to establish dominion and dominance hierarchies. The very notion of a competition to establish the alpha male is a relic of Victorian science, when unrelated wolves were dumped into artificial enclosures and observed to see what would happen. In the wild, wolves live in family groups defined by a mated pair and their children.
This has been known for a century now, so the persistence of the lie about wolves in werewolf mythology must have a deeper resonance to sustain itself against facts. Not all of it can be explained by the requirements of televised drama. The emergence of the trope about the young werewolf fighting to become pack alpha is relatively recent yet surprisingly widespread. It seems to reflect modern anxieties about the role of men in a rapidly changing society. The young werewolf fights against, often literally, the patriarchy, attempting to either (a) escape from or (b) replace the father-figure alpha male and thus either (a) defeat or (b) reinforce the traditional social organization defined by male dominance and strict hierarchy. On both versions of Being Human, werewolves have to literally kill the wolf who turned them in order to "escape" the curse, and on both shows this figure was an older man--part of a chain of werewolves stretching from man to man back and back. (Female werewolves are of secondary concern on these shows, the accidental creation of incautious males and therefore supernaturally subordinate to them.) The werewolf pack, therefore, is a Gothic distortion of the old-fashioned form of social organization that has been in decline for most of the decades of werewolf fiction.
The Gothic has always been good at making disturbing social trends horrific. For example, vampires, traditionally disgusting peasant monsters, became sophisticated aristocrats at the same time that real aristocratic power was on the decline in post-Napoleonic nineteenth-century Europe. Whether consciously or not, the recent explosion of “alphas” and “packs” among werewolves seems to reflect a widespread anxiety over changes in social organization and structure, especially as they affect men. The residual power of traditional male dominance lives on, undead, among the supernatural wolves, just as the broken power of titled aristocracy lives a shadowy existence among fiction’s various vampire kingdoms, authorities, hierarchies, etc.
All of which, I suppose, is a long-winded way of saying that if I never hear a werewolf talk about the “alpha” again, it will be too soon.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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