Yesterday was H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday, and in honor of that, I thought I’d take today to discuss the “monsters” part of my tagline (“Aliens, Atlantis, Monsters, and More!”) and think a little bit about horror. In my book Knowing Fear (2008), I described the way the horror genre had historically reflected societal concerns over science and knowledge. But in the wake of the Twilight franchise, a resurrection of the Gothic mode of pseudo-horror has largely dispensed with epistemology as a concern in favor of dressing up romance in the borrowed trappings of horror. The purpose isn’t to scare or to touch the sublime, but rather to explore gender issues.
The primary difference between classic horror and its more recent offshoot is that the new pseudo-horror takes the monster for its hero, or at least its romantic lead, rendering the monster no longer a monster but a supernatural hero equivalent to a hero or god of myth. All of this is a long way around saying that Teen Wolf had its summer finale on Monday, and it made me think about the overwhelming obsession modern Gothic werewolf stories have with the perceived crisis of masculinity. But let’s start with the vampires.
True Blood had its finale on Sunday, and like Twilight and its imitators, the show has essentially disposed of the horrific aspect of vampires and has made them into gods—in the case of Bill Compton absorbing the powers of the prehistoric demigoddess Lilith, literally so. At any rate, the Gothic mode of vampire storytelling gives humans not just immortality but superpowers, and the heroes of the story (as opposed, of course, to the general issue vampires within the stories) become characters hardly different from Apollo or Zeus in Greek myth. Like the gods of old, they romance human women (for the heroic vampires are almost always male), live decadent lives of luxury and wealth, and exercise dominion over nature.
Even the bloodlust of the vampires, their one weakness, recalls the way ancient peoples envisioned their gods as parasites subsisting on the sacrifices their subjects made. Consider Utnapishtim’s sacrifice right after the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, when the gods, who live off their human worshipers, were starving:
The gods smelt the savour;
That humans become substitute gods in such stories by taking on the guise of the vampire tells us only that we find it harder to approach the sublime through awe than through terror. The vampire-god is the mirror image of the “ancient astronaut.” The ancient astronaut revives the literal meaning of religious texts but lacks the supernatural power of the gods; the fictional vampire-god becomes a supernaturally powerful object of desire, with lust substituted for worship. It’s hard not to see a parallel between the crazed Twilight fans lusting after Edward Cullen and the women weeping for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14-15), the beautiful youth who died and was resurrected and became a god.
The werewolf, in modern times, has taken on similar properties of the demigod. We’re a long way from Lon Chaney’s frightened beast-man or even the American Werewolf in London. In the Gothic mode, the werewolf is less the primal beast threatening the civilized order (as was traditional) and more like the guardian wolves who served Apollo under his title Lyceus, the wolf-god, and Leto, his werewolf goddess mother; or the militarized guardian wolves of the Norse Valhalla or of the Roman war god Mars. Far from being a soul-destroying curse as in earlier stories, recent Gothic werewolves—despite their feints toward the curse of the wolf—are empowered by their supernatural status, become protectors of their communities, etc. We see this, of course, with the pseudo-werewolves of Twilight, who are explicitly protectors, and in Teen Wolf, too.
But in remaking the wolf in the image of a guardian, modern werewolf storytellers have become nearly obsessed with assigning to the werewolf issues related to traditional male power dynamics—especially the tired concept of the “alpha.” Teen Wolf is perhaps the most extreme example of this trend, with virtually every wolf character scheming or plotting to become an “alpha,” retain the status, or upgrade to the highest level (!) of alpha. Despite the show’s few feints toward female werewolves, by and large this is a masculine affair, with the male wolves posturing and competing for power and status within a pack hierarchy based, essentially, on traditional patriarchal ideas. The women on the show are pretty much irrelevant the show’s major theme, a consideration of how to be a man and how men relate to one another in a world where traditionally masculine traits—aggression, protectiveness, and tribal loyalty—are at odds with the dysfunctional systems of modern society. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only other functional institutions portrayed on the show are also overwhelmingly male and also share the same traits as a wolf pack: male sports teams and law enforcement. You could excise nearly all the women from Teen Wolf without seriously impacting the story.
One could argue, I suppose, that this is all based on real wolves, but that isn’t the case. The sheer number of male alpha werewolves as heroes of the werewolf Gothic discounts that. But so too does the fact that the “alpha” werewolf concept derives not from folklore—with its traditional lone, rogue wolf motif—or from early fiction. It is left over from old Victorian studies of unrelated wolves in confined spaces. They fought for status in a way that wolves in the wild, who live in family groups, do not usually do. This old, flawed research dominates werewolf mythology today.
I wish I knew exactly when the “alpha” concept appears in werewolf literature, but I’m not familiar enough with all of it to know for sure. The earliest reference I can find is in a 1989 Time-Life book on supernatural Transformations by Jim Hicks, in which he describes what he considered to be the traits of real wolves reflected in lycanthropy: “a strong, aggressive male serving as leader, or alpha male,” along with his mate, the alpha female, each ruling others of their respective genders. By 1995, Clyde Cadwell’s Werewolf Storytellers Handbook lays out alpha and beta wolf dynamics as a given for writing werewolf stories, though a Google Books search doesn’t turn up any alpha wolves in pre-1995 literature. That’s not to say there weren’t any, but I can’t find one. In Rebecca Flanders’ Wolf in Waiting (1995), a romance, there is an early reference to an alpha male as “responsible for defending, sheltering and providing.” That same year alpha werewolves infected the work of Laurell K. Hamilton, who apparently found alpha males worthy complements to her strong female heroine, vampire hunter Anita Blake. A few other references occur around this time, but it is really after 2000, in the wake of the Anita Blake novels and the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris (the basis for True Blood) that we see the overwhelming number of alpha wolves, wolf packs, and the intense focus on the social dynamics of (mostly male) wolves as they romance (mostly human) women. If I had to guess, I would say that Hamilton was responsible for popularizing the concept, which now spreads across thousands of novels and many, many movies and TV shows.
I suppose it’s a backhanded compliment to women that today they are now presumed to be possessed of such autonomy and power that Gothic writers must promote men to demigods in order to reproduce the traditional Gothic story of the powerful man who saves the fragile damsel through his love. It’s better, I guess, than tying the women up and spanking them as in the Twilight derivative Fifty Shades of Grey.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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