Friday, 14 June 2013

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?

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).