Pop culture has a fascination with monsters and monster movies, from the advent of cinema up until modern day. Movie makers and writers produce a wide spectrum of monsters dependant on the interests of the audience and the creativity of the talent involved, and the most effective and popular monster movies tap into present discussions and fears in the public consciousness. As noted before, these monster narratives allow filmmakers and writers to discuss social taboos and other large, unwieldy allegories, often by personifying the forbidden in the shape of the monster. And while tens of thousands of monster films have been made over the last hundred years, we tend to simplify it down to two very basic kernels of monster storytelling.
Despite a large pantheon of impressive monsters spanning a wide range of subjects, werewolves and vampires remain the most popular monster types, and they exist in a kind of framed dichotomy in the same way that we’ve polarized the colours red and blue, or pitted pirates and ninjas against each other in a short-lived fad. While the werewolf and the vampire used to coexist peaceably — ‘The children of the night! What music they make!’ — pop culture gradually shifted the two into a comfortable opposition of ideals, from tabletop roleplaying games to film franchises centered around their eternal warfare. The idea of culture-clash between the two became most overt with the popularity of the Twilight franchise, when teens and young adults enamoured with the series were asked to choose between ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, essentially declaring their public allegiance to the perceived superior boyfriend for the series’s female protagonist. The idea had been percolating in the decades prior, particularly with the emergence of supernatural erotica, as subtext became text. Now, the question of werewolves and vampires in opposition added itself to accepted lore. In a way, this helped cement their position as the co-regents of the monster world. Popular rivals fare better when placed in diametric opposition, because doing so artificially limits the choice to one or the other. At the same time, it emphasized the polarized differences between them that contributed to the easy opposition: intellect and emotion, impulse and control, neat and messy, wild and tame, earnest and restrained. Because we can recognize aspects from both sides of this polarity in ourselves and our culture, both have retained social cache. The way the narrative structures have been set up, the aesthetics of these creatures, and the allegories they represent all allow for temporal facelifts to keep pace with each generation, fresh and relevant for all situations. The polarized dichotomy between these monsters also allow us to introduce or mix up a wide array of allegories and dissect what we are afraid of through shifting expressions of these basic monster types. Romanticization is a way of removing the fear from these monsters, though, and as pop culture’s love affair with werewolves and vampires has taken the sexual undercurrents as its new output, we once again must reinvent what it means to be a werewolf or a vampire to provide these monsters to new generations to come.
It’s important to note that my generalizations largely refer to the male monster figures in their fixture in society; while similar tropes are present in the female versions or spin-offs (eg Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter), these presentations give more weight to gender tensions, sexualization, and female empowerment or exploitation than universalized fears. Anything explicitly referring to female tropes or changes outside this paradigm will be remarked upon.
Werewolf and vampire tales have specific narrative structures that remain fairly consistent throughout their allegorical interpretations. The werewolf transformation story is always presented as a ‘terror by night’ with high collateral damage. If the werewolf is the protagonist figure, oftentimes they begin blissfully unaware of their dark side unleashed on the populace, awakening in a foreign environment, frequently nude, without any memory of their transformation or glut of carnage. Ignorance is the last shred of bliss. Like Oedipus, when they discover the truth, they resign themselves to a life of exile, frantically search for a cure, or seek out death as the only certain relief from their affliction. Vampire stories have traditionally remained distant from the vampire’s narrative. They might offer the vampire an opportunity to tell their story, but couched in that distance, the audience has no certainty for whether this is a neatly packaged lie to induce sympathy, or true revelations bestowed in a moment of fellow-feeling, a break from their aloof nature. The vampire is a quiet predator who works on one or two victims at a time, slipping into and out of bedrooms, occasionally taunting the victim’s cohort, but otherwise remaining a thief in the night. It’s a slow, draining, plaguelike terror, ill-defined and difficult to defeat, but always vanquished by a pure heart.
Werewolves represent a very primal focus in humanity. These beastly creatures give in to their impulses and desires in a multiplicity of forms beyond the physical. They are indelibly associated with nature and with the loss of control in favour of naturalism. The transformation trope generally turns man into an animalistic form, trading intellect for raw, testosteronal strength. That’s a popular image, one borrowed by ancient militaries as a scare tactic, and to bolster the morale of its footsoldiers where adequate defenses, feed, and pay would not suffice. Psychologically, it’s easy to accept the werewolf mythology and its associated transformation tropes into our lexicon; inundated with words like ‘lizard brain’, ‘alpha male’, and ‘primal self’, and with the increasing acceptance of evolutionary theory, culture has left a lot of openings for man’s ‘animalistic nature’ to assert itself. It’s interesting to see where the werewolf movies retain public interest. During times of great struggle, where the individual man feels weak and helpless, suppressing frustrations against a cold and structured society, the werewolf myth finds a home on the screen. Werewolves represented an outlet to vent those aggressions in a more ‘naturalistic’ sense against the unfeeling and inhuman violence of long-distance warfare, the atomic bomb, the cubical-divided workplace where interaction was limited. The werewolf offers a form of fullest expression of self with no memory or responsibility for their actions.
Counterpoint to these almost positive expressions of personal power, the werewolf also represents the loss of control, becoming too naturalistic and losing identity to the passions. There is a certain essence of humanity in the later representations (devoid of the transformation fears) that is absent in the werewolf-as-monster stories, and lost with each rising moon. Giving in to that monstrous impulse eliminates all forms of self-control, removes that person entirely from society into a very isolating existence. Oftentimes, those who transform wind up hurting the ones they love most in the course of their unnatural existence. The werewolf/transformation narrative is a suitable allegory for addictions and self-serving pleasures: while pursuing their desires, they become slaves to their urges, and those urges destroy them. A werewolf has visceral physical power granted to him, the ability to destroy, but this power is more of a bind and impediment than the offering of more complete self-determination; it is an illusory feeling, and emphasizes that power cannot be mistaken for control.
Vampires, in comparison, represent a sense of super-perfection of self. The modern pop culture vampire maintains a certain dignity in his dealings, from drawing humans into his thrall to feeding upon them. He is stylish, suave, and sexual, retaining a sense of old-world manners and wealth with the recent addition of societal acceptance for women’s rights or homosexuality, in short, viewed as the perfect gentleman suitor for all modern women. The 1931 depiction of Dracula was a fangless predation, moving in for a kiss that never landed, but soon the eroticization would take center stage. Hollywood stripped him of his blatant monstrosity and cloaked him in allure. Where the novel’s justification for his titles was a long and bloody history as a warrior-prince, the movie gave him the kind of nobility more recognizable to Englishmen. The vampire is a crystallization of the nostalgia for the past, with little adaptation for the crassness of the present, a fairy tale prince with a dark flaw that set him apart as a ‘bad boy’. Vampires have the curious nature of looking backward and looking forward at the same time, and as the stories slowly moved away from focus on the ‘living corpses’ aspect, the monsters became beautified. They could offer all the benefits of living in the past and the certainty of living the future out unchanging, unaging, undecaying. It was the promise of the golden apples in Greek mythology, a return to Eden: knowledge, and immortality with eternal youth.
The dark prince appearance also conceals an unpleasant side frequently played up in vampire films. Although vampires have little in the way of physical monstrosity, they remain at heart predators, and it’s terrifying to consider that one of your friends, neighbors, or family members may be concealing treacherous desires. Depending on the film or book, the thirst for blood may be depicted as an unfortunate necessity, like human hunger for food, to be sated reluctantly; or it may be presented as an unavoidable addiction, where a single sniff, a single drop, a single taste is enough to incite a sharklike feeding frenzy. For all that the vampire wants to be gentle, sating those urges requires hurting and victimizing a human, usually one they’ve set aside as a love interest or sexual partner. And in the multiplicity of films that offer no vampiric viewpoint at all beyond stock villain, the ability to blend in and get close implies a more unsavory form of human-to-human predation.
An important part of the representation of werewolves and vampires is their physical presentation, and beyond the monstrous figures stereotyped to bear-sized wolves and man-sized bats, their human forms featured strongly in how they were received by audiences, as well as what they represented.
Contemporary parody and humor media made the immediate connection between the werewolves and the hippies, counter-culture warriors hungering for a more expressive time, where man was given the right and freedom to howl. Examine the aesthetic of the werewolf through the ages, in his human form, and you’ll find the same physical tropes represented: longer, shaggier hair, sideburns or facial hair; a broad, strong build, a gradual shift from propriety to more provocative attire (unusually revealing for the era), a withdrawal from society and its conventions. The visual openness underscored the emotional openness that the werewolf explored. The Wolfman Jack from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Shaggy’s short-lived tenure as a werewolf in Scooby Doo! And the Reluctant Werewolf each show the most obvious conflation between the hippy culture and werewolves, using bipedal wolf-man forms with differentiated faces and hair-versus-body hair, as well as full human attire to illustrate this fusion. It’s true that the early cinematic depictions of werewolves also went the wolf-man route, but this was stated to be a product of the limitations of movie makeup, prosthetics, and puppetry for the time period; these depictions of werewolves in ragged clothing focused on grotesquely liminal fusion of a man who wore his passions and his hungers openly, loosely garbed in the visage of humanity but visibly set apart.
In comparison to the werewolf, the pop culture vampire has always been immaculately groomed, with no facial hair (even in fashion eras where some facial hair is considered attractive), slicked back hair kept short, displays of wealth in jewelry, and fashionable dark attire, if somewhat dated. The 1931 version of Dracula portrayed the Count in more contemporary attire, fit for a night at the opera, rather than the 1880s fashion, or that of the centuries of his existence prior. It was such a strikingly appealing look that future portrayals lagged over further updates to the design, even if presenting a non-Dracula vampire. Grandpa from the Munsters and Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows both adhered to this convention. The look simultaneously suggested glamour and wealth or ‘class’, and a tightly controlled image: power, money, sex. Lestat and Louis from Interview with the Vampire both dressed to the contemporary high-class dress code of the retrospective period the film took place, adorned with flashy vests, embroidered coats, and long, flowing, romantic hair, but as the film concludes in 1990s, they’re both still sporting frilled cuffs and poofy shirts, stuck in the conventions of the past. Some vampires were able to adapt, certainly, and now we can integrate portrayals with crisp business suits or bad-boy leather jackets and jeans, just as the vampire stories have shifted from obvious outsiders to invisible threats; largely, there’s just enough of a differentiation in style to draw interest and approval from prospective prey. It’s a mechanism to attract victims, but the pop culture convention of physical attractiveness also is one of the few ‘benefits’ associated with the vampiric curse. For that, it’s interesting that the inability for vampires to be photographed or viewed in the mirror became such a large part of cultural mythology. The only way for humans to perceive their own fleetingly mortal youth and beauty is through photographs and mirrors; here, as the vampires gain the ability to impress that upon others, they lose the ability to appreciate it for themselves. And as humans remember the past through photographs, so too would vampires become unmoored from the public record, eternally living in the moment. It’s the paradox of living in the past, and simultaneously having no past to speak of. These details lend themselves well to more abstract and allegorical representations of high concepts like time, decay, and mortality through more introspective cycles of horror media.
Horror media cycles through a series of monster types in response to environmental shifts in interest. The easiest example is the rise in alien movies around the time that the Cold War started heating up and the Space Race gained traction. Alien movies have three subsets: alien invasion, interplanetary warfare, and alien abduction; two of those, featuring strong cultural or planetary clashes and the struggle for existence in the face of a cold and inhuman enemy, clearly paralleled propagandist pieces on the USSR. Rather than name the present enemy, or parallel present turmoil in past wars, moviemakers chose to use the monster movies as allegory and outlet for these tensions. Alien horror movies have entered typical shorthand for ‘evil empires’ or administrations out to ‘destroy our way of life’, and this simplification of the themes helps explain when and why these alien films reappear. Elemental monsters and natural crises, likewise, return amidst discussions of human impact on our environment, nature responding to our pollutions and manipulations with a strong retributive force. It would make sense that, likewise, werewolves and vampires have allegorical substructures tapping into generalized societal fears. These monster types have existed longer than the environmental monsters or the alien threats, though, and as witnessed in the aforementioned Twilight films, their basal allegories have changed over the years. The Godzilla film franchise is over sixty years old, but while these ‘kaiju’-type monsters now emblemize the effects of human pollution, the first film suggested the destructive power of the United States’ atomic weaponry against the Japanese islands, itself an allegory against a monstrous political superpower. In comparison with werewolves and vampires, this is a relatively young genre. We can expect that in addition to the overarching themes present in the two monster types, both might be subject to some allegory-shifts over the course of their long lifespans.
The werewolf narrative is actually an examination of transformation in its broadest sense, and the repressed internal self coming to the surface, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even the Incredible Hulk representing modern expressions of this trope. The Jekyll/Hyde story follows the traditionalist approach toward werewolves, suggesting a purposeful transformation into a monster for the sake of the individual’s pleasures, and it’s an outlier against the more popular representation of lycanthropy as an unwanted ‘curse’. These narratives couple physical transformation with moral or internal transformation, literalizing degeneracy as something inherent and visible to outsiders. While these stories and early werewolf depictions indicated a degree of acceptance and involvement in their lycanthropy, 1970s monster movie narratives removed even the vaguest sense of awareness of their actions from the werewolf to place them as an unfortunate protagonist. They would remain completely unaware of what was happening to them, and would be as victimized by their self-expression as the werewolf’s victims were. The horror turned from blatant self-indulgence of violent, tabooed acts to the horror of the loss of agency. It’s no coincidence that contemporaneous Jekyll/Hyde narratives followed suit, divorcing the moral ‘super-ego’ Jekyll from the amoral ‘id’ his hidden self represented. If this self-expression came without awareness for the consequences, then the fault supposedly could not lie with the man. Regardless, the impulses remained, originating in the subconscious of the so-called moral individual; the only difference would be how ‘moral’ it would be to accept, condone, and facilitate the unlawful acts their other side committed. The normalcy of the werewolves by day or the meek versions of monstrous doctors like Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Banner also call into question the universality of these monstrous impulses inside us all. Our moral selves move through society with a respect for taboos, but the desire to breach taboos is also inherent, and the temptations boundless. These monsters illustrate what happens when that willpower and self-control is weakened, or when the curious side is given the strength to overpower the will.
Among its allegories, the vampire myth is an effective discussion of plague vectors and culture clashes. It played off well during times of widespread sickness, particularly with invisible transmission, and it resurfaced again in new, clublike settings to prey upon the promiscuous and the ‘deviant’, alternating between then-common sexually transmitted diseases, and the newfound horror of AIDS. Chameleon-like, the vampire has always been depicted as a kind of outsider, delineated by his wealth, his aristocratic background, his foreign birth, or his sexual charisma. Narratives like Nosferatu or Salem’s Lot used a shock of physical monstrosity, but tied these expressions to the vampire’s outsider status as a tired and limitingly racist expression of the evil immigrant. There is no adaptation to their environment in these narratives, because these evil immigrants are only here to despoil the native women and spread their sickness through the land. Although we like to view ourselves as slightly more civilized now, strains of xenophobia have generational dominance, and these allegories may still find use for present audiences.
When paired with a more attractive visage, the vampire instead took more easily to the threat of rape, underscored by decades of opposite-gender predation affirming the sexual nature of the contact, then subverted in titillating implications of bisexuality or homosexuality, as with Interview with the Vampire or The Hunger. The taking of the blood as rape remains the strongest allegorical impulse in these films, particularly due to the increased sexualization of vampires, but with the recent inclusion of loving consent or grey-consent, most vampire depictions in the last ten years have turned instead to tropic depictions of fractured fairy-tale love affairs, leading to a cooling of interest in vampire horror stories. Buffy, Vampire Diaries, True Blood all straddle Hollywood’s uncomfortable new border between the dark prince charming and the dangerous predator, and it remains to see where vampire fiction will go now that preteen sparkle remains in every crack and crevice of pop culture’s memory.
The Present and Future
The basic allegories present in these examples of horror media have remained true for most of the life of vampire and werewolf narratives, but over the last ten to twenty years, new allegories formed, mostly as a response to the increasing romanticization of these monsters. Some of these narratives even called into question whether these monsters could even be called monsters anymore.
For example, as werewolves took the place of romantic protagonists or rough, wild men to win over, becoming more socially acceptable and removed from their monstrosity, they returned to one of the basic ‘real world werewolf’ tropes, namely being able to recall the time spent as a wolf, and to direct the actions of their feral self; essentially, offering back control. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Jacob’s depiction in Twilight both offer a ‘super-hero’-type transformation sequence for the monster, removed from uncontrollable external factors like the position of the moon. The BBC mini-series Jekyll handed the reins of control back to the good doctor through a kind of shared-persona born out of love and dedication rather than selfishness and wickedness. It might have been an unsatisfying end to the normally tragic narrative, but it represented a distinct tonal shift in the way our society views these monster-transformations. Even the Hulk, long seen as the bastion of uncomfortable, uncontrolled outbursts of raw primal rage, now has meditative mechanisms to channel his strength into something positive. When the uncontrollable becomes controlled, in other words, it is no longer monstrous.
Perhaps in response to the loss of terror toward this basal element of the werewolf/transformation narrative, new transformation allegories developed. Instead of the animalistic monster developing from naturalistic (masculine) hormonal impulses taken to an extreme, transformation horror explored the perversion of science (a sharp difference from the naturalistic werewolf, at first, but a perversion typified by its sublimation to the power of nature), gender liminality, and the effects of puberty. The scientific angle is present in the Jekyll/Hyde narrative and in the Hulk, but fulfilled to a large degree in science-fiction horror like The Fly or even District 9, where the protagonists endure protracted, unstoppable physical transformations, losing control of their bodies and their identities. Transformation stories involving male-female gender liminality were a rare and fleeting fad, playing upon societal shock or discomfort with transgender individuals or the equation of male and female; Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde typifies this kind of story, implicitly suggesting an inherent wrongness in the introduction of female hormones into the male body, or ambiguous interchange between the male and female bodies. These stories indicated that body dysmorphia was itself monstrous, and the desire to physically alter oneself to the alternate presenting gender a sin against nature, but they focused dominantly on the feminization of women as the inappropriate interchange. Women, again, come on trial in puberty as the driving force of werewolf transformation horror. The body changes present in puberty are universal, as are the psycho-sexual developments for children entering into adulthood, but the subversion of these changes literalized in a werewolf story plays more strongly in women’s bodies. Ginger Snaps demonstrates this formula from first menses presented as abominable and onward, and with the isolating cohort of sisterhood as a form of pack mentality beyond mere sexualization. In fact, it amplifies the ‘horror’ of feminine puberty by conflating werewolf infection with bloody discharge from below, again emphasizing how unnatural and monstrous the processes are perceived. While equally dubious a ‘fear’ as that of the transgender allegory, the puberty angle holds the most promise for future werewolf and transformation stories, especially as traditional werewolves are effectively defanged through romanticization.
Why are we no longer afraid of vampires? The answer comes not entirely from our examination of vampires, but from our examination of humanity. As pop culture became more secularized, the importance of the human soul receded from discussions in favour of ‘consciousness’. Philosophically, too, the discussion of the consciousness precluded an innate moral compass; humans, we said, were not born moral, but conformed to societal expectations and rulesets to navigate through life. Vampires have always been very deliberately conscious and calculating monsters, capable of conversing with humans easily and blending in with their prey. Unlike the werewolves, they’re very ‘human’, and humanized with every opportunity to give themselves self-expression. Dracula, the vampire who popularized all vampires for western audiences, reacted vengefully to the deaths of his loved ones, expressed the capacity to love, provided sustenance for his family, and engaged in discussions of poetry, literature, history, and theology. He demonstrated a humanity in life after death, emotional and intellectual. Is there any wonder that in the absence of a tangible threat against spiritual oblivion, the vampire became attractive? Immortality and eternal youth, the perception of old-money acquisition, the opportunity to be well-traveled and well-read, in exchange for a little bloodletting from people you could make forget — who wouldn’t be tempted? It’s the number one reason for teen interest, actually. As an uncertain future and the disappointment and perils of adulthood loom ahead, here fiction offers a way to freeze time in the mythologized ‘best years of your life’, and in the arms of a perfectly charming ‘dark prince’ to boot. Dracula, again, was a titled, landed, old-family noble who fed from a neat cross-section of England’s class structure; it is often supposed that his blonde bride is flanked by two serving class women whom he brought into immortal life alongside their mistress. A nobleman consorting with those below his station is the stuff of hot-blooded romance fiction, and pairing that with the offering of immortality the absolute dealbreaker for teen interest.
One loss for the vampire narrative in this newfound appeal is the traditional vamp. Female vampires or ‘vamps’ have always been the object of male desire in pop culture. From their introduction onward, they consistently played up irresistible beauty and cool attentions. As the original ‘femme fatale’, to love them is to invite death; they consume the strength and love of a grown man and abandon him when he is spent. In their earliest depictions, these lady vampires were merely another attractive face for Death herself inviting a bewitching, obsessive, all-consuming passion that would lead to male downfall, eg, ‘flirting with Death’. These depictions provided a rare opportunity for female empowerment, but with the simultaneous maligning of female beauty and sexual desire as entrapment; not by their words (most remained voiceless), but their bodies as sufficient weapons to allure their prey. Their contrasting male counterparts did not include such levels of seduction early on, instead vying for a combination of brute masculine strength and hypnotic powers to render their prey defenceless and available, or attacking while their victims slept. Hardly the same kind of effort involved! Interestingly, as male vampires have gained sexual charisma in pop culture, female vampires have receded from the discussion as seductresses. It indicates in part the shifting audience for vampire narratives from male-oriented horror to female-oriented romance, and the empowerment of women beyond their bodies and into the traditionally male spheres. These sexualized representations are no longer necessary now that women themselves have moved beyond simplified madonna/whore complexes in monster narrative. What is offered in return? Something more of even footing, pulling the lady monsters into the mother/maiden/crone paradigm as inscrutable matriarchs, sexy girlfriends, doting wives, loyal mothers, and obedient daughters, everything, in short, that women presently face as roles. There’s much potential to be found in plumbing the depths of the female vampire, particularly in the struggle against these restrictive stereotypes, and we may see the werewolf/vampire dichotomy rehashed for more exclusively feminine allegories as these discussions come to the foreground again.
Similarities and Conclusions
Both of these stories appeal to audiences as a response to feelings of repression, whether in the socio-political context and the psycho-sexual context. Each narrative arc suggests a superficial degree of freedom and empowerment in these monstrous forms, whether from powerlessness in society, or from the cruelties of aging, but reveals to ultimately be a form of restriction in themselves. For all the vampire’s charm, he still resigns himself to feasting on the blood of innocents and strangers around him, bound by his hunger. Should he find love, his options are to leave the human despoiled but watch them wither over a mortal lifespan, or to seduce them into the same unfortunate lifestyle he loathes, and it remains to be seen whether that love lasts when the flush of blood has left their body. The vampire can intermingle with society, but fundamentally remains an outsider, incapable of forming families outside of unnatural curse-based ties. Likewise, the werewolf maintains an arm’s length distance, the illusion of control in the daylight shattered again and again by the waxing and waning of the inconstant moon. His hunger moves beyond satiation to addiction, controlling his every movement as a monster. While he is more human than the vampire, he can never be accepted by society because of the inherent threat that he represents, forcing him into loneliness and isolation; again, the only pack he can make is one born of spreading his infection to others. Both display a kind of inevitability: they will hunger, they will feed, they will descend further into the darkness. The sad fates of these monsters exemplifies the harm in indulging in sins, vices, and taboos unchecked, but each also illustrates the threats from outside: the abusive husband, the rapist hiding behind the face of your employer. They’re universally accessible for a multiplicity of shared allegories, and for all the superficial divides, they have much in common to anchor them as fundamentals in monster stories. Pop culture may have distilled them down to two hot men fighting over a woman, but there’s so much beyond that that reaches out to concerns still present in our culture, and to concerns we’re only now beginning to touch upon, and they will remain a mainstay in media for as long as they’re useful. Maybe forever. They’ve tapped the vein of public consciousness, and there’s so much to draw from that it’s doubtful the well will ever run dry.