The werewolf is a unique archetype in male-dominated literature and cinema of Europe and North America. For years, it was a dynamically changing character until the advent of the women’s rights movement of the latter 20th Century. Today, the character has gained a resurgence in popularity thanks in part to the teen and young adult book and cinema markets harkening back to 1960s-era werewolf allegory in storylines. Ironically, this same allegorical reference of the 1960s is what the feminists of that era were trying to stop – making the archetypes evolution over the years all that more intriguing. But, before we talk about werewolves of today, we should take a step back to werewolves of the past.
In December of 2011, I was fortunate enough to interview Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University-England. Professor Hutton is a well published author, popular documentary star, and one of the world’s foremost experts on pre-Christian history and mythology in the Old World. According to Professor Hutton, “Witches and werewolves were both figures which explained the unusual and inexplicable. Blaming another human being for casting an evil spell on them helped people to come to terms with uncanny misfortune, and provided them with an apparent means of retaliation instead of helplessness. Believing that an evil human could transform into a wolf explained why rogue wolves could suddenly attack people, while normal wolves did not. Both recognised the fundamental truth that there is no true wickedness of intent in nature: evil is a human trait. In the early modern period, both beliefs got
demonised, so that witches and werewolves were believed by the authorities to have gained their unusual powers by making a pact with Satan.” Ironically, Professor Hutton also noted that our treatment and views of werewolves have changed significantly over the years thanks in part to censorship. As he puts it, “It’s worth noting that the victims of most folk monsters have been children, which is not just a means of scaring youngsters and getting them to behave, because the people executed as witches and werewolves were charged primarily with child murder. That struck at one of humanity’s greatest fears, of losing one’s offspring. Because it is so great, it is generally kept off the screen.”
For a significant amount of time, with the adoption of the Christian faith, the werewolf no longer became a real creature in the lives of mankind. Instead, the stories became something of myth and folklore and the stories were told as such – rather than as real life concerns. Later, it became more fictional with some harkening to long “dead” religions of the past. Here, the archetype changed significantly and became an allegorical reference to religious paradigm changes in order to keep the status quo. As Professor Hutton asserts, “Religion is only safe if it is ‘dead’, fictional, or relegated to the level of folklore or superstition. Not only is Christianity sacrosanct in itself, but a prejudice in favour of its cultural trappings, as well as its faith, is built into monster tradition: crosses are effective against vampires, and evil supernatural forces are still sometimes associated with or activated by ancient pagan religions (c.f., George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino fighting vampires in a nightclub constructed on a former Aztec pyramid). Whole horror genres, such as the novels of Stephen King, are pure Christian epics.”
In 1886, the Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, introduced a new paradigm to the werewolf archetype with his novella titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Stevenson was intrigued with personality changes as it related to “good” and “evil” in storylines, his treatment of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde set the stage for a new way of revisiting the age old werewolf archetype through culture-specific allegory. You see, by this time in history, the Victorian Era had already reached its climax and was beginning to grow stale. By this time authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were developing diametrically opposed storylines where the heroes were Victorian gentlemen, who essentially were emotional eunuchs, and the villains were representative of previously held notions of male aggression, rationale, and other stereotypes. Stevenson, however, made both the victim and the villain one-in-the-same by employing the use of science to be the catalyst in a growing social war between what it meant to be man in Victorian society and the natural tendencies of a man that Victorian society shunned.
As the Jekyll and Hyde paradigm later spun off to be representative of allegory between science and religion, the 1930s issued in a new era of censorship with the Hollywood Production Code specifically banning issues of sexual innuendo, horror, and gore as it related to children and the portrayal of young women and girls. By the 1950s, literature such as the Seduction of the Innocent led to the Senate holding a special subcommittee on juvenile delinquency which looked not only at cinematic works but also books, magazines, and comics – which children represented a large user group of. This led the comic book industry to voluntarily institute the Comic Magazine Association of America which later produced the Comics Code Authority. This CCA brand was a way of assuring vendors that the comic met the standards of the CMAA which noted that public servants should always be respectfully used as characters, good should always triumph over evil, and other “positive” assertions deemed to be conducive to good children’s literature. However, within the CMAA rules, there was a specific ban to anything referring to werewolves or wolf-men because it was deemed allegorical to male pubescence. For this reason, the Incredible Hulk story brought back into play the Jekyll and Hyde paradigm with Dr. Banner being comparative to Jekyll and the Hulk being comparative to Hyde. While the paradigm shift of the archetype of a werewolf was changed to meet the CCA approval standards, the authors of the Incredible Hulk carefully kept the allegory of male pubescence intact to garner a tremendous following to this very day with the Hulk’s rage, violence-filled life, physicality, and social ineptitude ringing eerily familiar with teenage boys and young adult males in America.
Thanks in part to the CCA, the werewolf would have been all but dead had it not been for cinema finally refusing to give in to censorship. During the 1950 and 1960s, werewolf based horror movies briefly grew in popularity as teenage boys sought refuge from their CCA-censored stories. These films re-asserted the allegory of the werewolf being synonymous with male aggression – especially male sexual aggression. However, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Jekyll and Hyde paradigm became the favored archetype manifestation used by writers as science played an ever-increasing role in American life.
In the early 1990s, L. J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries series of novels sought to make some changes in the allegory of both vampire and werewolf archetypes. While the paradigm changes were innovative, the timing of the books couldn’t be worse as the “emo” and “goth” sub-cultures of teen society was still in their infancy and highly stigmatized and rejected by a culture having issues that did not fit well into the werewolf allegory. Plus, the book series was one of many like-minded series that were nearly doomed to a lukewarm public reception thanks greatly to these very reasons.
Over a decade later, this all changed in 2005 with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of novels. While Ms. Meyer wrecked and made a travesty of the vampire archetype with her sparkly bastardized demons, she did considerable justice to the werewolf archetype by bringing the contemporary werewolf in line with pre-Christian held paradigms using conventional allegory. Like comics, Meyer focused her books on the young readers – namely pubescent teen girls. Why else would a 104 year old vampire boy look for a socially detached and emotionally traumatized young girl to be the love of his life? The only saving grace to her butchering the vampire archetype was with Jacob Black’s character. Jacob told the story of the visceral male aspect of teen relationships. He was hot, brash, hormone-raging, withdrawn, emotionally torn, and intensely physical – thus making prime allegory fodder for both print and the silver screen.
Playing off of the groundswell caused by Meyer’s Twilight series, a number of knock offs and “old players” sought to capitalize on the market change. Most notably was the CW Television Network, in 2009, bringing the Vampire Diaries to the television screen. Using 1990s predicated notions of L. J. Smith, werewolves still held the allegory of male pubescence but only with the darker side of the curse involving a “kill.” Moreover, the change that the “cursed” feels is excruciatingly painful – often referred to it as having ones bones broken multiple times.
Ultimately, this same notion is somewhat played up with the unrelated 2011-released television series Being Human. In both cases, a “kill” seems to be necessary for the curse to be activated even though the method of conveyance of the curse differs between Being Human‘s requiring a werewolf bite and Vampire Diaries‘ insistence that lycanthropy is congenital. Despite differences in contraction of the curse in the werewolf archetype, the paradigm shift in allegory may be more telling. As a culturalist, my research indicates that the popularity in the werewolf (as is told by both Being Human and the Vampire Diaries) may be allusive to the rise in incarceration rates of juveniles suffered during the 1990s early 2000s. Most of these arrests were founded on the DiIulio “Super Predator” myth that contended that pre-teen males were God-less and would rape and murder without remorse. Thus, this criminalization of the teenage male identity, by society, is most likely what we are now seeing with this allegory shift as young males act out on their actions and then are penalized physically and emotionally seeming by themselves, others, and even sometimes a God that is depicted as capricious at best.
However, speaking as a culturalist, probably the greatest innovation in contemporary werewolf allegory may be found in Stephanie Osborn’s book, El Vengador. Here, the archetype of the werewolf is morphed with that of the legendary Bigfoot mythos. In the story, the author uses the Romulus and Remus tale of Rome’s foundation – only told through Mesoamerican myth rather than Roman legend. Like with the tales of Rome, there were two brothers depicted in the El Vengador Mesoamerican version. Thanks to Christopher Columbus enslaving and abusing the indigenous populations, a curse was placed on one of the brothers. Instead of being like Remus and dying, this Mesoamerican deity became a vengeful creature who roams the Americas to this day fighting off the descendants of what was once European invaders. According to the story, the myths of the Chubacabra, the Bigfoot, the Stink Ape, and others is not a race of deities, or creatures, descended from one cursed person but rather all of these creatures are simply one entity that cannot be killed and that can travel vast distances by some unknown method of supposedly supernatural conveyance. The creature also does not attack people with Native American blood. Thus, the author explains how the Bigfoot and Stink Apes can seemingly vanish.
Most intriguingly with this story is that it not only changes the archetype to a new paradigm but that it also drastically changes the werewolf allegory from male pubescence and male-driven stereotypes to being allusive to allegorical implications that this werewolf paradigm is reflective of cultural battles where a minority (i.e., the Native Americans) is so violated by society that its value, legitimacy, and continued longevity are now called into question. With the growing trend of intermarrying of the races, the recent media coverage of cases like Baby Veronica, and the ever-growing number of children being raised in non-traditional family settings – this paradigm shift in allegory may prove to be long-standing in literary and cinematic works as minority groups seek to fight to keep their identities, cultural validity, and cultural recognition by society intact. Verily, it can be predicted that future incarnations of the werewolf archetype may indeed have nothing to do with male identity but rather the continued cultural viability and recognition of oppressed and stigmatized minority groups in a so-called “free society.”