Mar 28 2011 3:26pm

Fanged and Hairy and Mad

Jason and his werewolf pawsWhy aren’t werewolves as popular as vampires?

When I was a junior in high school, I read Interview with the Vampire and, soon after, The Vampire Lestat, and I really wanted to be a vampire (though Anne Rice’s other novels all fell flat for me). Tortured souls, doomed for all eternity…well, I felt like a tortured mortal already. Vampires were always sexy and fast and melodramatic, and I only ever managed one of the three.

As everyone in the universe knows, vampires are popular. Lots of people fantasize about being a vampire. I think True Blood has it right: if vampires were real, they’d have groupies, in abundance.

Also perennially popular are zombies, but no one I know of wants to be one. And then there are werewolves. Far from obscure. Everyone knows what a werewolf is. There’s no denying, though, that werewolves simply don’t get the love the upper-fang set gets.

I’ve always liked them, the way the howl and get all toothy and tear shit up and whatnot. But I had never daydreamed about being a werewolf until two Halloweens ago when I decided to make a werewolf costume (pictured throughout the post because I’m a show-off). Since then, they have totally replaced their pale cousins, in my heart.

Werewolves—I’m talking about werewolves specifically and not more broadly about shapeshifters of other sorts—have been part of myth and folklore for a very long time. Ovid wrote of them in Metamorphosis, telling the story of Lycaon, a crazy-ass king who served Zeus a chunk of human for dinner. Zeus frowned on this sort of shenanigans—perhaps more upset that Lycaon tried to fool him than that he ate some man-beef—and turned Lycaon into a wolf and  sent out lightning to kablooey Lycaon’s palace.

Jason as a werewolfIn modern stories, werewolves and vampires are often enemies, but modern vampires and werewolves come from the same Slavic folkloric source. The vampire wasn’t a completely separate creature from the werewolf until fairly recently. Words like upir, strigoi and vukodlak all refer not specifically to the modern concept of vampire or werewolf but to an evil, magical undead creature who might turn into a beast, might drink your blood, might molest the miller’s wife…whatever’s clever. For a working description of these wizard-vampire-werewolves, we need look no further than the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy. The subject of “Bark at the Moon” isn’t just a werewolf. He’s a malevolent spirit, cursed and buried who emerges to take vengeance. He’s your old world Balkan-style bad dude, essentially.

But lets get back to modern werewolves. The silver bullet, uncontrollable, wake-up-naked-covered-in-blood kind of werewolf. Back to my original question. Why are they second rate, compared to vampires?

Ever since the Halloween I mentioned earlier, I have thought about this over and over. I have a few ideas and I would love it if you’d add your thoughts as well.

  1. The Lord Byron Factor: John William Polidori, author of the first vampire story in English, was Byron’s personal physician for a while. Lord Ruthven, his vampire, is clearly based on Byron. The globe-trotting, sexy, wealthy vampire of noble blood has been with us ever since. Werewolves? They’re usually broke, poorly-groomed nobodies.
  2. Name recognition. Dracula, Lestat, Carmilla, Angel, Spike, and so on (by “and so on” I mainly mean Edward). Just about everyone can rattle off a list of well-known vampires. But werewolves? None that I can think of are anywhere near as famous as Dracula or even Angel. Professor Lupin from Harry Potter, Oz from Buffy, and George from Being Human. Alcid from True Blood. I find him dreadfully boring, but I understand he’s a stronger character in the books. Oh, and what’s his face with the abs. You know, Sharkboy.
  3. Control. Bloodlust for many vampires is like being a horny junkie. But even a horny junkie can hold off for a while. Werewolves do not have that sort of option. They change when the full moon is up, period. Readers are more likely to identify with a character that forces down a destructive urge than one who has no hope of holding it back.
  4. The rest of the month: A vampire is a vampire all month long. A werewolf is usually just a regular Joe or Jane when the moon isn’t full. (Some werewolf characters are more broadly cyclical, changing subtly throughout the month, and I think that’s cool. But it isn’t the majority).
  5. Creepysex: Back to the horny junkie concept. Vampire feeding is often tied to sexual dominance, submission and possession (and you could write many books analyzing that). Though pent-up frustrations and the need to let loose can and should play a part in werewolf stories, the beast itself is not, for most of us anyhow, a sexual force. (Unless you’re some teenager with amazing abs, I guess.)  

Were-treaterSince most of us are more likely to fantasize about being sexy and rich and irresistible, vampires win the popularity contest. And because of that, I think, a lot of writers don’t investigate the possibilities of lycanthropy with as much vigor as they do vampirism. There are exceptions, I’m glad to say. Jim Butcher did a good job thinking it through in Fool Moon. Toby Whithouse works to keep George interesting on Being Human. Another Toby (Barlow) did well with his poem-novel Sharp Teeth.

In short, lycanthropy needs its Lestat, or better still, its Agyar. Nobody I have read has attempted that kind of personal, detailed, close-up revision of the werewolf myth (if you know of such a book, by all means tell me about it). I think werewolves have every right to be as huge as vampires. Their mythology is as long and as rich. In the hands of the right author or screenwriter, all the deficits I mentioned above could be made into strengths.

Jason Henninger lives in Los Angeles, which would be a pretty lousy place to be a werewolf. No Little Red Riding Hood trick-or-treaters.

Sharat Buddhavarapu
1. Sharat Buddhavarapu
Thanks for poking at Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson. I think that Pattinson might have a chance at redeeming himself, but Sharkboy.... good luck :D

I think you may be onto something with the whole sexy image bit. I'm going off to do some research on this thing. Get brushed up on my lycanthropy and all that. TTFN.
Chris Modzelewski
2. elflands2ndcousin
I think the major reason why werewolves haven't caught fire the way vampires have is because they're usually portrayed as objects of pity. As humans, they're poor/broke/miserable, and as werewolves they're cursed/sick. The traditional stories make them pitiable, like mad dogs, and what's attractive about that? The cynic in me thinks that's why they lack vampires' name recognition, too.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
@2 Pity...interesting! I think you are quite right.

BTW, the line at the bottom was originally going to read "No Little Red Riding Hood trick-or-treaters were harmed in the making of this post" but it seems I accidentally cut the end of that sentence off.
4. dwndrgn
You clearly haven't been reading a lot of the recent urban fantasy here are some examples with werewolves:
Gail Carriger, Soulless
Patricia Briggs, Moon Called
Ilona Andrews, Magic Strikes
Kim Harrison, The Hollows

to name but a few. While, yes, some of these deal with just 'shifters' and not necesarily werewolves, they are similar. And very few are outcasts and downtrodden. For the most part they are (at least in my mind) much cooler than vampires (I don't really like them anyway).
5. Michael B Sullivan
This is sort of shooting fish, but in the Vampire Boyfriend subgenre, werewolves and "the beast" are definitely and relentlessly portrayed as sexual. Of course, all supernatural beings are portrayed as sexual, since that's the point of the subgenre, but there's a very clear triangle typified by early Anita Blake, by Twilight, and by early Sookie Stackhouse:

Human woman torn between vampire man and werewolf man. In this love triangle, both the vampire and the werewolf are objectified and sexualized, representing two different expressions of male sexuality: the vampire is refined, stylish, and dangerous while the werewolf is earthy, rugged, and loyal-but-with-flashes-of-danger.

Notably, in all three of the defining paradigms, the woman chooses the vampire over the werewolf.

Ginger Snaps, perhaps the definitive modern werewolf movie, does interesting things with attaching lycanthropy with female sexuality (paranormal female sexuality is almost entirely missed in the vampire boyfriend subgenre, for obvious but, I think, unfortunate reasons). In that case, it's an almost vampiric predatory, dominant sexuality, and a metaphor for a part of an adolescent girl's life that she fears can spiral out of control, but which is also so tempting.

I think that lycanthropy as temptation and power is under-explored and interesting, though the American Being Human touched it a little recently. Vampires are always powerful but fear losing control (in their sympathetic portrayals, at least). Werewolves gain power by losing control. That's a thematic element that has legs, I think.
Abigail Johnson
6. AbigailJohnson
@Jason ! Love this! And you are so right. Werewolves do not get half the love that vampires do. I agree that name recognition is a big part. Jacob really is about the only really popular/famous werewolf for most people. @dwndrgn has a good list of Were books. Patricia Briggs especially focuses on portraying a 'personal, detailed, close-up revision of the werewolf myth.' Someone who has recently attempted to redo werewolves is Maggie Stiefvater with her Wolves of Mercy Falls series. It's YA and will be coming soon to theaters. Her wolves are unlike anything else and the whole mythology is a departure in a good way.
Mouldy Squid
7. Mouldy_Squid
An interesting argument you present here. I will have to think about it for a while. As for Werewolves in fiction you might try Brian Stableford's David Lydyard trilogy. I will admit it has been a decade at least since I read the first novel, The Werewolves of London, and I had no idea that it was the first of three. I do recall that there were some interesting twists on the werewolf trope and a very interesting take on the myth of Lucifer.
8. reaeverywhereelse
Werewolves? Poorly dressed? St. Zevon preserve us!

"He's the hairy-handed gent who ran amuck in Kent
Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair
Better stay away from him
He'll rip your lungs out, Jim
I'd like to meet his tailor
Werewolves of London"
Jason Henninger
9. jasonhenninger
thank you for the recommendations and ongoing food for thought. Nice to see the enthousiasm for werewolves.

I've read and certainly enjoyed Carriger. Interviewed her, too. The others you mentioned I haven't read yet. Carriger's werewolves have the benefit of societal acceptance, for the most part, and I think that alters the pity aspect mentioned by @1. And her main wolf (I'm blanking on his name, sorry) is pretty damn sexy, at that. Kim Harrison I have been meaning to get to for a long time. I have heard good things.
10. Clarentine
@Michael B. Sullivan - early Anita Blake, yes. >:-) While the books still made sense and actually had, you know, characters. People who happened to have fangs and fur and weren't completely Byronic. I'll credit LKH with being in the forefront of the werewolf-and-vamp urban fantasy genre to start out with, but I do not applaud her descent into vampire boyfriend fiction.
james loyd
11. gaijin
In my opinion, the best werewolf novel so far is Moon Dance by S.P. Somtow. Of course he also wrote at least three vampire novels.

I think the control aspect you mentioned is a big factor for many people. Somewhere between Stoker and Rice we have embraced and internalized the Other, but we like it on our own terms. As for the rage and power aspects of lycanthropy, Klingons and FPS games are more popular because that power is constant and accessible at will.
12. cnote56
I've always been a werewolf fan. Vamps are played out. We need a resurgence of the werewolf mythos.
James Veitch
13. JamesDamadan
With Disney owning Marvel Comics, perhaps there's a chance they'll do a Werewolf By Night movie. Jack Russell has usually been portrayed as one of the whiny cursed ones, though Mike Carey pulled him back from that.
Lisa Schensted
14. heylisarenee
i appreciate your 5 point breakdown of why werewolves might not be getting their dues. i just really like lists.

i totally agree that Pity is a distinguishing factor between vamps and werewolves. while you eventually get to the pity party with the vamps, with werewolves it happens almost instantly. their transforming is almost always painful and out of their control. therefore, you pity.

what i can tell you is that werewolves have been on an uprise in the young adult literature world as of late. Maggie Stievfater has a romantic wolves series (as Abigail mentioned earlier in the comments), as well as the Nightshade series by Andrea Cremer.

mostly i'm excited to have some food for thought in the mythical media world. thanks for the article!
15. Patricia Mathews
Don't forget Kitty the Denver talk-show host, who thinks that just because she's a werewolf (surely the proper term for a female werewolf is wifwolfe?) doesn't make her any less a civilized young woman born in the last third of the 20th century, and in all ways acting like it.
16. jere7my
Just have to tip my hat for the Do You Love Me? quote.
17. Stefan Jones
I find both vampires and werewolves somewhat silly, but because I like wolves (in a "favorite calendar animal" way) I guess I'd favor the latter.

Daniel Pinkwater wrote some great kid's books about elementary-school werewolves. They were benign creatures, not unleashed-id beasts.
18. Ian P. Johnson

(surely the proper term for a female werewolf is wifwolfe?)


You, madame, have just WON THE INTERNET.
19. hapax
I'm going to point to Kit Whitfield's essay on this topic
( and say "what she said."

(Whitfield is also the author of a seriously interesting werewolf novel -- BENIGHTED -- and a terrifically nice person, but the essay would be well worth reading even if neither were true)
Jason Henninger
20. jasonhenninger
Thanks for sharing. That was a very informative and well researched essay. I'm now going to hunt down a copy of Benighted.
21. Gorbag
IMHO, if you want a really good werewolf story, read Michael Moorcock's Revenge of the Rose. “Esbern Snare, the Northern Werewolf”.

Mike writes what should be the seminal werewolf story of this current generation, and answers most of Kit Whitfield's concerns quite adequately - indeed, he does it so well that I spent quite considerable time searching for the "original" Norwegian, Swedish or Danish story of Esberne Snare.

Read it.
22. Lindsay Ribar
Don't forget Kelley Armstrong, either. Not all of her Otherworld books are about werewolves, but the first book, BITTEN, remains firmly at the top of my preferred werewolf mythologies.
23. NicoleMFitzhugh
Thanks for the shout-out to Ginger Snaps. Man that was a great movie! I highly recommend it. No one ever seems to remember it in their lists of horror films.
24. AmberCiara
L.A. Banks, Keri Arthur, Eileen Wilkes, Rebecca York, Lori Handeland,Alexandra Ivy, all of Patricia Briggs,to name just a few who do an excellent job on werewolf stories. And don't dismiss those written by Terry Spears,Lydia Dare, Lucy Monroe, and others who I remember the stories, but not the authors. Don't forget the "one-offs" like Dakota Cassidy's " Accidental Werewolf"!
Wesley Parish
25. Aladdin_Sane
James Blish wrote a short werewolf story once, which I remember dimly. Mind you, I read it over thirty years ago ... it introduced the standard details of the standard "werewolf" in modern English-language fiction to me - full moon, silver bullets, whatnot.

He was wise himself not to pursue that further - his Black Easter was so much better ...
26. Colin Jones
If you're looking for a different kind of werewolf story (lycanthrope as hero, transformations accomplished via M-Theory, etc), you might check out my novel "Shifted". Here's a review:

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