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.
8/21/2013 09:13:09 am
A welcome break from the usual slog through Crazytown, Jason. Horror and I have been the best of friends since picking up Stephen King's "It" at twelve years old and discovering Lovecraft a few years later. Like all good friends one must watch wither and die, though, I've wept for the loss of identity our monstrous pals have gone through in recent times.
8/21/2013 09:22:48 am
I think there is a Frankenstein remake or two being produced actually, so it might not be a long wait.
8/21/2013 09:40:03 am
I take it you haven't seen "Warm Bodies," the recent zombie romance movie. In a post-apocalyptic world the daughter of a political leader of the humans (i.e. a princess) wanders outside the fortified city (i.e. a castle) where she encounters evil zombies and is rescued by the good and handsome boy zombie who becomes human through her fairy princess super love.
8/21/2013 11:12:12 am
I'm waiting for the musical adaptation of "The Thing".
8/21/2013 04:36:57 pm
I..I.. I...I don't under... ah... I don't want to live on this planet anymore.
8/22/2013 12:31:05 am
I haven't, thankfully. I saw a trailer or two and decided it was in my best interest not to. It did cross my mind in writing the comment, though, since the zombiesploitation of recent years is about as close as we've come to a Frankenstein archetype.
8/21/2013 10:02:14 am
This whole post just makes me think that more people need to read "Julie of the Wolves" and its sequels, "Julie" and "Julie's Wolf Pack."
8/21/2013 01:50:26 pm
Frankenstein's Monster (Boris) had a big impact on the way I slept as a child...with my arms tucked in at the sides, lest an arm would fall down during sleep and be grabbed. Years later, one dark late afternoon found me driving a truck in then-West Germany, taking a shortcut, and I came upon a little village called Frankenstein. Creepy. I don't like horror, preferring comedy. I've heard that fear is of the devil.
1/26/2014 11:06:06 am
There is a small town in central Missouri called Frankenstein, in an area (near Jefferson City, the state capitol) that was settled mostly by German Catholics in the 19th century. The general store has a painting of a cartoonish Frankenstein's monster holding two bags of groceries, so they have no problem with the name.
8/21/2013 05:11:26 pm
Teen Wolf: Werewolves, Social Dynamics, and Gender Issues.
8/22/2013 06:20:27 am
Absolutely superb movie. I saw it as a kid in the theatre, and although some of the stories confused me, it did, nevertheless, mix in just enough horror to thrill the senses. It was only years later, as an adult, that I truly appreciated how much of a classic this film was. Highbrow, humorous and completely one-of-a-kind.
8/22/2013 06:50:59 am
Glad you like it.I re-watched it recently. The Werewolves transformation scenes are pretty lame by today`s standards,but the movie still projects an eerie sensation.
8/21/2013 08:12:24 pm
One of the better werewolf books out there (I thought) was "Blood Trail" by Tanya Huff. She wrote a series about Vicki Nelson, a private detective having Henry Fitzroy, a vampire, for a partner. It was adapted into a slightly above mediocre TV show (Canadian I think).
8/21/2013 09:58:39 pm
I was just recently turned on to this blog by my sister and I must say, great stuff all around. I particularly enjoyed this particular article and had a few comments.
8/23/2013 09:45:16 am
Personally, I like my monsters old school.
8/27/2013 08:01:26 am
I suppose it's worth noting that White Wolf's more recent invention, Exalted, takes the werewolf's newly acquired "demigod" status a step further, with the Lunars actually being granted superpowers by the moon goddess.
1/26/2014 11:31:21 am
My understanding is that traditionally, werewolves were shape-shifting sorcerers who deliberately changed into wolves to ... well, whatever is is that a wolf does better than a man. The idea of the werewolf as the innocent victim of a curse, or of lycanthropy as a kind of rabies transmitted by bites, started with the old studio horror movies (the same as the vampire as a romantic figure rather than, as has been pointed out, closer to what we now would call a zombie). In some folklore, a man who was a werewolf in life became a vampire in death - or so I've heard, I'm not sure where that idea comes from. Hey, doesn't that qualify me to be an expert on vampires, werewolves, and zombies for the History Channel?
1/26/2014 11:52:39 am
It depends on where you start the werewolf theme. In Greek myth, lycanthropy was Lycaon's punishment for murder, and Greek ritual featured lycanthropy as a rite of passage to manhood, something scholars believe derives from Proto-Indo-European culture. The Satyricon also contains an early werewolf story of spontaneous change. The modern werewolf, however, is associated with witchcraft and the witch hunts of early modern Europe. Many scholars think it evolved from a Christian diabolizing of old pagan shamanic wolf rituals.
8/25/2013 06:25:38 am
"Everyone carries around his own Monsters." - Richard Pryor.
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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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