Eigen League of Monsters, Part-Two: Wolf-Man

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Horror, monsters, October Horror
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Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject.  Long story short:  in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.  Today, the Wolf-Man.

Now, I’m going to be clear here:  I love the Wolf-Man.  The Wolf-Man is basically my favorite monster, for reasons that I’m going to get to eventually YOU WILL HAVE TO WAIT.  First, I want to make a broader point about monster movies, and how the core narrative of Wolf-Man is actually importantly different from them.

Trapped in a PLACE with a THING

Important question: where are Wolf-Man's nards?

The basic structure of many, many monster movies — a structure that is pretty okay, and sometimes done to great effect, but is often just a lazy shorthand for monster movies — is this one:

Trapped in a PLACE with a THING, where a PLACE is anywhere that you can’t conveniently get away from, and the THING is something horrible that’s going to try and kill you.  These can all basically be anything, and the story plays out essentially the same way:  the people try to get out of the PLACE, while the THING picks them off one by one.

Alien was a movie like this, and it was good.  Predator was a movie like this, and it was also good.  Ostensibly, even Halloween is a movie like this — that the victim is “trapped” is essential, because there has to be some reason why they can’t just move across the country in order to escape the THING, but the kind of trapped you are is more variable.  You could be literally trapped, or you could be trapped by your need to protect somebody else, or you could be trapped because you just don’t have time to get to the car or something.  The point is that you can’t get away easily.

The thing is, though, that while it’s not a bad model, it’s also not a good model.  Basically every SyFy Channel original picture (Blood Monkey, Mansquito) is based on the same thing, because you can literally just use the same script that you used last time.  You take it, do a search and replace of “Predator” with “Basilisk” and “Jungle” with “Desert” and BAM!  New movie.

Now, it’s pretty easy to make a Wolf-Man movie on the Trapped in a PLACE with a THING model.  Wolf-Man is, obviously, a THING. Dog Soldiers is a movie like this, and it’s okay enough.  An American Werewolf in Paris is like this, obviously, so is, I think The Curse (which I will say more on, because that movie was fucking ridiculous), many of The Howlings were like this.  While you CAN do a movie like this, I don’t think there’s much of a point to it, because it relies on what I think of as being sort of secondary characteristics of the Wolf-Man.  His claws and teeth are obviously horrible, and his invincibility to everything except silver bullets makes the Wolf-Man pretty scary.  But really, not any scarier than any other monster.  The xenomorph has claws and teeth and regular bullets don’t hurt it, what’s the big deal?  EVERY MONSTER IS LIKE THAT.  You can make Vampires like that, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon like that.  Moreover, it gets you into the kind of lame power creep that leads to some Project Metalbeast bullshit.

Toughest Wolf-Man Possible

“Well, in the last movie we had a Wolf-Man, and that was pretty scary.  But people aren’t going to be scared of Wolf-Man anymore, what should we do this time?”

“Hm.  Okay, you know how Wolf-Man can only be hurt by silver bullets?  What if we covered a Wolf-Man with titanium, and so silver bullets couldn’t hit it?  That’s like Wolf-Man 2:  Even Tougher Wolf-Man.”

This is plainly stupid, because it overlooks the key narrative device at the core of Wolf-Man, and what makes him so great.

The Wolf-Man is a WOLF MAN

So, here it is:  in the story of Wolf-Man, Wolf-Man is both the antagonist and the protagonist, but not actually the victim.  That is crazy, that is a crazy kind of storytelling, who would ever tell a story like that?  Well, hardly anyone, which is why there are basically only two good Wolf-Man movies:  The 1941 Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr., and An American Werewolf in London.  The original flavor Wolf Man is pretty great, and clearly gets to the root of the psychology behind the fear of Wolf-Man:  it’s not a fear of being EATEN by a wolf.  It’s a fear of BECOMING a wolf.

We live in a pretty good civilization, all things considered, that has gone a pretty good way to stopping people from just murdering and eating each other all the time.  But since we started making civilization, we’ve always been afraid of cannibal monster men, lurking on the fringes of society, behaving with the kind of complete sociopathy that we assume that animals have (obviously wolves are NOT sociopaths, and have a complex social and emotional society that we probably rightly ought to acknowledge as a kind of civilization itself, but to some poor medieval peasants who only know about Jesus and sheep, wolves are basically terrifying teeth-monsters).  Early accounts of werewolves (again, from the undifferentiated-monster era, when lots of different ideas about werewolves, vampires, witches, &c. all just got lumped together) describe human beings that turned into wolves for the purpose of hunting and eating their fellow man — that’s the fear of the anti-social, our own impulses to perversely defy the society that protects us, sublimated into horror literature.

It’s like Tourette’s Syndrome, you know?  You know how whenever you know you shouldn’t do something, some little part of you thinks about doing it anyway?  Like, it starts out as just a “What IF I threw a hot dog at the president?” but then immediately turns into a weird impulse to ACTUALLY throw a hot dog at the president that you kind of have to tamp down?  Life is full of shit like that, and people with Tourette’s Syndrome sometimes have a hard time controlling those impulses.  Well, don’t think that you don’t suffer impulses like that when you think about wanting to eat a baby, or if there’s a guy in line in front of you at the grocery store and you’ve got a big jar of pickles in your hand and he’s going through the self-checkout but he’s some kind of IDIOT who can’t figure out why it won’t let him keep going if he doesn’t put the fucking Rice Krispies down in the bagging area and maybe if you just clocked him with the pickle jar it’d be messy but at least he’d be OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY…

In that dude's defense...babies ARE delicious.

The point is, we all know about that.  And in Medieval Dayes, the fear of people who just indulged the worst impulses of perversions was pronounced; people like that (like Stubby Peter) were identified with animals because in those days they didn’t have Psychology and so didn’t know words like “Psychopath.” That’s the root of the fear — the fear of humans that embrace the anti-civilized, the anti-social, the cannibal monster-men that wear beast skins and make deals with the devil and murder and eat people.

But the thing is, cannibal monster men are great, but they aren’t really any better a monster than gryphons or dragons or some shit.  The real innovation in the story of Wolf-Man was the Curse of the Wolf-Man — the idea that a person could be an unwilling participant in those anti-social tendencies, that something could happen to you that MADE YOU DO all the horrible things that you pretend you never think about…that’s pretty creepy.  And it becomes an existential metaphor, a horror that translates directly into how we live in the world; every day we, knowingly or not, inflict harm on the rest of the world.  Just how much harm is too much?  Just how bad would we have to become before we decided that killing ourselves is worthwhile?

Antagonist and Protagonist but Not the Victim

In this light, with the basic engine of Wolf-Man in place, it becomes pretty clear how a story like this is supposed to work:  a regular dude is subject to the Curse, either through a heroic action on his part (The Wolf Man) or just bad luck (An American Werewolf in London) — the contrast between the man as a good and moral person and the wolf as pure sociopathy is important to play up.  He murders during the full moon, but for it to work he’s got to murder people who haven’t done anything wrong; just regular people, NICE ENOUGH people even, good people who you’d like to have a drink with but are just in the wrong place in the wrong time, until the body-count gets so high that he just doesn’t fucking know what to do anymore.  That’s a real claustrophobia, which is the horror meant to be evoked by being Trapped in a PLACE with a THING — except Wolf-Man is even better, because here the PLACE is the protagonist’s own skin, and the THING is the protagonist himself.

This is why the Wolf-Man is such a great monster, because not only does it make the protagonist his own antagonist, but it also makes him a tragic figure, and Olde-Timey, Greek-style tragic, too — in trying to do good, he has unleashed an evil for which he is ultimately responsible, and that can only be stopped by his death.  That’s why it’s right to say, obviously you have to kill Wolf-Man, don’t skimp out on killing Wolf-Man THE CURSE CANNOT BE LIFTED — but you should probably still feel bad about it afterwards.

An American Werewolf in London varies from the original Wolf Man in some key ways that make it a lot better — the idea of David being haunted by the ghosts of his victims really hammers home the existential horror of what he’s turned into.

Jack is sad, due to having been murdered by Wolf-Man.

And the streamlined nature of the story (it takes place entirely over a single, three-day Full Moon period) means that we don’t have to waste a lot of time on, “People don’t believe me, but they must!  Or am I just going mad?  Why won’t they lock me up?”  This is just wasted energy, because in order for the audience to be really freaked out and upset by the Wolf-Man, we have to know right away that he’s the Wolf-Man — so him trying to convince the people around him of the truth just tends to seem contrived.

Compare this with movies that feature Wolf-Mans but are also completely stupid: the remake of Wolf Man, which in addition to being long and boring and confusing failed to recognize that the victims of the Wolf-Man can’t all be completely reprehensible pricks because then we’re all happy when Wolf-Man goes to town and punches one of them into space; or An American Werewolf in Paris, where he has to fight a clan of Wolf-Mans that can climb up walls and on ceilings like xenomorphs; or Red Riding Hood, which rightly recognized the potential in the An Evil Among Us premise, but was so confused about what we’re actually supposed to be scared about — wolves? Strangers?  Religious fanatics?  Our own families? — that it becomes hopelessly disjointed; or The Curse, which relies on the age-old device that a world in which werewolves really exist must be a world in which no one actually knows anything about werewolves, which is why when the protagonist starts to think he’s becoming a werewolf he actually has to Google Generic Search Engine “werewolves” to find out what’s going on. (Really, The Curse is a completely terrible movie.)

And every single one of those movies is hurt by chickening out on the tragic end that Wolf-Man both needs and rightly DESERVES.  He has to die — the fact that he hasn’t killed himself already has made him culpable and responsible for his murders.  Lifting the curse is just an easy way out, it’s a lamesauce Happy Ending tacked on there because somewhere along the line we got to be afraid of tragedy, and that’s bullshit.  I mean, even Monster Squad had the basic sack necessary to kill Wolf-Man.

This isn't where he died, just where they ineffectually blew Wolf-Man up with dynamite.

So Where Did We Go Wrong?

Wolf-Man is another monster that it’s easy to think of as being an anti-hero.  I think part of this has to do with a sea-change in literature that made violence a lot more acceptable for heroes to get down on than it was in Victorian Dayes (it is important to remember that the Popular Novel is actually a pretty new form, that was mostly defined by the Victorians prior to the 20th century).  Even tough heroes, or knights or whatever, they didn’t usually save the day by just wrecking shit.  A duel, sure.  A joust.  Maybe a gunfight where a couple suckers get tagged, or a wrestling match on top of Reichenbach Falls, but generally heroes don’t kill the hell out of bad guys, so the idea that you might actually want a huge deadly murder machine on your side maybe wasn’t so prominent.  It’s not until the infusion of sex and violence that’s the hallmark of early 20th century pulp literature that we start to see the broader super-genre of Wrecking Shit Literature, and that’s when the Wolf-Man can stop being a tragic anti-social monster man, and start being a dangerous dude who is nevertheless good to have on your side.

There’s something else, too, I think — with our better awareness of human psychology, the sharp division between social and anti-social behaviors starts to fall away, as we see each human being the product of a spectrum of different kinds of orders and disorders.  With the loss of this division, the frisson of social and anti-social stops being quite as interesting; instead we see men who are savage like wolves, but still civilized, or men who can turn into wolves but still have human intelligence.

Well, who DOESN'T occasionally crave hot man-beast love?

Then it becomes, I don’t know, Laurell K. Hamilton’s fantasy of bestial sex, or Stephanie Meyer’s use of Wolf-Mans as the passionate counterpoint to her numbingly chaste vampires.

And, like I said, a big part of this is modern storytelling just chickening out when it comes to tragedy.  The thing about tragedy is that it takes will.  Even when you’re writing it, you don’t want to; you’re tempted to go easy on the audience because it also means you’re going easy on yourself.  You LIKE Larry Talbot, you don’t want him to have to die.  And there are a lot of people with executive authority in a movie, and the odds of all of them having the necessary will to look the audience right in the eye and say, “Yeah, fuck you.  We all live in a world in which we’re culpable, and the truth of the matter is that we ALL deserve to be killed for it.  Suck it up, punks.”

Obviously there’s nothing implicitly wrong with having Wolf-Man just be one of the standard supernatural beings that live in your Urban Fantasy World which also has Vampires and, I guess, Elves or something.  Whatever, you know?  It’s not a Medieval Fantasy, so it can’t be Elves and Dwarves and Orcs or something (though why there aren’t more Wolf-Man and Vampire characters in Epic Fantasy remains mysterious to me).   And it’s not like Wolf-Man is the only My Own Worst Enemy monster out there — Robert Louis Stevenson riffs on this pretty successfully with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The idea that Stevenson has — that Mr. Hyde is a complete psychopath but still perfectly rational and that, somehow, when he looks at himself he doesn’t see that there’s anything wrong — that’s a great fucking idea.  But I think it’s a little subtle as far as horror literature goes, and it doesn’t translate visually very well, which is why it works great as a novel but not as a movie or a comic book, and why in the popular consciousness it’s the Wolf-Man who occupies this role, and not the good doctor’s nefarious alter-ego.

WOLF-MAN is here to EAT your FACE

ESSENTIAL VIEWINGS:

The Wolf Man (with Lon Chaney, Jr., not the dumb one they just made)
An American Werewolf in London (probably the best Wolf-Man story of them all)
Aaaand, let’s say:

The Howling
Ginger Snaps

Just because they’re pretty crazy riffs on the Wolf-Man idea.

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Comments
  1. katastick says:

    You know you love Blood Monkey, Braak. WHO DOESN’T LOVE BLOOD MONKEY?!

  2. Kate Traylor says:

    These are really cool, insightful essays. Thanks for posting!

  3. thoapsl says:

    Have you seen Ginger Snaps? I thought that was a pretty good and unique werewolf movie — definitely the only horror I’ve seen to play so explicitly with werewolfism as a ‘monthly cycle’ metaphor for menstruation! Sex/blood/puberty themes seem to pop up more often in vampire stories, but Ginger Snaps makes an interesting argument for the way those themes can work well in a werewolf context, I think.

  4. braak says:

    Agreed!

    Ginger Snaps I think takes full advantage of the resonance in body horror that you get when you talk about both werewolves and menstruation. I mean, I don’t know how it is from the perspective of the ladies, but I can definitely imagine if you didn’t know that much about what menstruation was how a girl could just be freaked out the first time that happens. Maybe even if you did know about it?

  5. Moff says:

    There’s also the Alan Moore Swamp Thing story devoted to the same repressed beast within/monthly cycle/werewolf theme. It’s pretty terrific.

  6. braak says:

    I was also just thinking about the Swamp Thing story with the vampires that lived under the lake, and it turned out that if you leave vampires alone, they just want to make their own society. And that society turns out to be full of pirahna fish-men.

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