Friday, June 10, 2011

The Changing Face of Modern Werewolves

If we believe Susannah Clements’ claim that vampires provide a barometer of cultural morals, werewolves hold a different sort of mirror to our culture.  Vampires and werewolves have been fellow travelers for generations, whether as allies, adversaries, or even the same beast.  So how should we read the werewolf representations in Being Human, the third season of True Blood, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood?

Being Human's George (Russell Tovey)
begins a painful transformation
Though wolfmen tales date back at least to Greco-Roman writers like Ovid and Hesiod, the distinct werewolf myth didn’t exist until the early 20th Century.  Dracula had the ability to turn into a wolf, as well as a bat and— everyone forgets this—a rabbit.  But the special effects proved cumbersome in Hamilton Deane's play, and the wolf got separated.  This relatively recent origin lets werewolves contrast with vampires in symbolic terms.

Being Human and True Blood pit supernaturals against one another.  The two species, both series claim, have a longstanding rivalry, dominated by the more physically imposing vampires.  This rivalry should surprise nobody: vampiric ardor and lupine rage both create a rush of blood to the abdomen, a spike in blood pressure and adrenaline, and a need for immediate, visceral satisfaction.

Being Human: Season 1If, as I’ve suggested, Being Human is an essentially religious narrative, then vampire Mitchell embodies lust (the the first episode features him losing control and consuming a woman in bed), while werewolf George represents wrath, making ghost Annie acedia.  George’s werewolf identity epitomizes uncontrolled rage, little more than an angry stomach, lashing out.  And George lives in fear of what he has done.

This conventional depiction turns contrary when George tries to manipulate the wolf.  In season one, caught in his girlfriend Nina’s office prior to changing, demure George turns aggressively sexual, a theme which recurs in season three.  More importantly, in season two, George uses pharmaceutical sedatives to silence the wolf.  On awakening, he suffers violent outbursts and lashes out at inopportune moments, finally admitting he needs to free the wolf from time to time.

Interestingly, True Blood werewolves are played
by actual wolves, not CGI models
Essentially, in Being Human, the wolf represents shame, which characters express by fleeing themselves in different ways.  True Blood wolves are appetite unadulterated: the show depicts them eager addicted to vampire blood, which has both narcotic and medicinal properties.  Werewolves under a vampire’s influence show remarkable strength and determination in pursuit of assigned goals.  But they behave like DARE brochure models: strung out, asleep in their clothes, mindless of little but the next fix.

True Blood: The Complete Third SeasonMore important, unlike George, these wolves retain conscious control during the rampage.  They take pleasure in destruction.  According to Alcide Herveaux, a putatively civilized werewolf, werewolves lapse into unthinking violence if not strictly controlled.  One wolf pounces on a female character, shifts into human form, and arches his back to howl, in a posture that looks unmistakably like anal penetration.

Both of these creatures essentially exist to eat.  The Red Riding Hood wolf seems more interested in power.  The villagers in the unnamed forest hamlet believe they’ve been under siege from the same wolf for generations, attributing to it remarkable skills of strategy and survival.  Every full moon, the wolf enforces a sort of sabbath, when all trade and activity cease, and people huddle in their homes with their families.

Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) and Peter (Shiloh Fernandez)
tempt the wolf into yet another attack.
The wolf picks significant moments to strike.  Whenever Valerie, the title Red Riding Hood, feels amorous toward her woodcutter sweetheart, or dances in the village square, or shows the least willfulness or ambition, someone dies under the wolf’s paws.  Inevitably, villagers suspect Valerie of being the wolf, and pillory her in public like a fresh spring lamb— not a casual metaphor.

Red Riding HoodTHIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS.  After much guessing, the wolf is unmasked as Valerie’s father.  After several point-of-view shots in which the wolf watched Valerie having sex, and after propositioning her with power in a low, sensuous baritone, her father’s offer to make her a werewolf and share in glory with her seems distinctly incestuous.  This is only amplified when Valerie’s lover is bitten and becomes a werewolf, but Valerie still sleeps with him.

As pop culture has fundamentally domesticated vampires, their psychological significance lingers.  We can’t stop mythically representing our dark impulses just because we’ve lost an external source for public morality.  Thus the werewolf, previously only a vestigial myth, has assumed the task of bearing our moral guilt.  Like Jekyll and Hyde, we’ve accepted our dark sides by splitting ourselves in two.

I wonder: since Stephanie Meyer has already begun the process, what happens when we also domesticate the werewolf?

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