The Progression of Werewolf Stereotypes in the Media

Content Warning: This article includes references to sexual assault/rape within media, murder, and violence against women.

Like many millennials, when I have a shred of free time, I find myself scrolling through TikTok. The short form content and funky fresh memes often scratch brain itches I didn’t even realize I had and though I hate myself for procrastinating, I thoroughly enjoy the moments spent scrolling rather than doing something productive. But recently, I found myself stuck on a TikTok… And it wasn’t for the dances or some hilarious audio edit involving Cardi B’s ‘WAP’, it was for a beautifully chaotic realization and well described point being made about one of my all time favorite pieces of media: werewolves.

In this video, creator Sim slammed onto my ‘for you’ page with this absolute mind-blowing commentary on HBO’s True Blood and the use of the trope the user ‘ediblesrex’ has named “White Trash Wolf”. 

Sim goes on to state that werewolves are often delegated to this role of “uncivilized, violent other” and are left in “less than desirable economic circumstances”. She points out that it’s an “unflattering working class allegory” and I found myself hastily agreeing. 

The idea of werewolves being monsters is not news. They literally are. From the dawn of their inception in the media we’ve seen them as, well, wolves. But the way their human sides are portrayed outside of the full moon is not often considered. In the earliest forms of Hollywood werewolf films, Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941) you have two cases of wealthy, ‘civilized’ white men who are attacked and bitten by werewolves. Both men go through the tribulations of changing under the full moons, and killing innocent people. Throughout the course of each film they grow to be more and more ‘animal’, falling from their places of wealth and power due to lycanthropy, which ultimately results in their respective deaths. In the case of The Wolf Man, he thanks his killers for the “merciful bullet” to put an end to his lycanthropic affliction.

Image is from the film 'The Wolf Man' (1941). In a smoke filled woodland, a humanoid werewolf is hunching over, looking for something. The image is in black and white.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

As time went on, and more and more werewolves appeared in Hollywood film and television, the “White Trash Wolf” only seemed to become more and more pronounced. The 1950’s introduced The Werewolf (1956) that leans a bit into the “animalistic other” of the werewolf trope in which this film has lycanthropy come as a result of medical experiments. Then, the werewolf is murdered in the end by the doctors who created him, which then frames them as brave heroes for destroying the beast they made out of an innocent man.

The 1960’s brought a whole slew of Werewolf films coming out of both Hollywood, and international markets. But aside from our main monster man, most of these films also featured another unfortunate trope that too often gets roped in with werwolf media: sexual assault. 

Yes, the werewolves of the ‘60s were not only animals hunting and eating innocent humans, they were also men eager to feast upon women. To kick off the decade, an Italian film, Lycanthropus (1961), was released in America under the title Werewolf In a Girls’ Dormitory (1961) and the plot centers around the brutal murder of female students, the sightings of a wolf on campus, and the arrival of a new and very handsome male science teacher.

 The ‘60s, in addition to gratuitous violence against women, also introduced some of the first inklings of what would become one of the ‘Werewolf Film’ staples in the look of the wolfman such as the elongated snout, animal like hair, fangs, glowing eyes and pointed ears. The 1970’s however, perfected this look. 

The ‘70s lycanthropic depictions brought that classic ‘werewolf’ look we know to life, starting in 1971 with The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman, 1972’s The Fury of the Wolfman, and 1974’s The Scream of the Wolf. Using prosthetics, they began creating those pronounced furry features, wolf-like noses, pointed ears, growing claws, and fanged teeth, and oftentimes, different colored eyes, showing a clear difference between man and wolf beyond just covering actors with hair and calling it a day. The ‘70s continued to use the trope of “vicious animal man” and kept telling the stories of wealthy and respected men becoming uncontrollable beasts after being bitten. This decade also gave us some of the first depictions of female werewolves, such as in The Legend Of The Wolf Woman (1976), The Beast Must Die (1974) and into The Howling (1981), only they were usually turned against their will in savage attacks that really kept up with that ‘60s theme of sexual violence.

Image is from the film 'The Howling' (1981). A werewolf in wolf form looms over a casket and bares its teeth at a young woman.
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

The 1980’s, the decade of big hair and leg warmers, brought us a new breath of fresh air into the werewolf genre. Of course, there were still the bloody and gruesome horror flicks, such as some of my personal favorites, Fright Night (1985), Child’s Play (1988) and Poltergeist (1982). But in 1985, the “horrifying beast man werewolf” trope was subverted… Sort of. Teen Wolf (1985) gave us a slice of life werewolf flick, complete with high school drama, a wonderfully cheesy basketball motif, and a supportive werewolf father. Though there was a clear absence of the “being a werewolf makes a man a monster! Monster is bad!” rhetoric, there were still other problematic elements, such as the main lesson of the story being “Be yourself! But only if yourself is someone who ignores natural differences and gifts given to you in order to fit in with everyone else!” … Yikes.

The ‘80s and ‘90s also gave the monster genre a new spin on a classic tale: vampires vs werewolves. Beyond ‘Dracula’ meeting ‘The Wolfman’ throughout Universal Studios’ long history of monster movies, there wasn’t really a whole lot of media that discussed the interactions of two powerhouse supernatural species. The last two decades of the 20th century brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie, 1992, and the TV Show 1997), Interview With A Vampire (1994), An American Werewolf In Paris (1997) and the dawn of the Blade (1998) franchise.

From this, a new spectrum was created for monster film tropes. Vampires – thanks to their immortality and historical ties to nobility – were seen as regal and poised, while werewolves were seen as beasts or dogs… They became the poor man’s monster. 

This trope has been carried over into modern film and television. In more TikToks, Sim has created a series detailing MTV’s Teen Wolf’s (2011) use (and misuse) of werewolf tropes in the name of “subverting tropes by indulging [them]”. In 2008, we saw the dawn of a whole new brand of supernatural media, one that subverted many popular tropes and turned them into something new, yet equally as cringey… Starting with the sparkly blood suckers that everyone loves to hate.

Image is from the film 'Twilight Saga: New Moon' (2009). A werewolf in wolf growls menacingly. Behind them are three young men, who are all shirtless and wearing shorts.
Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment

In Twilight (2008),  the wolves are literally native americans, who since the dawn of media have been depicted in racist ways as bloodthirsty savages in which filmmakers use fear mongering tactics to make the audience think a certain way. The wolves in Twilight, though less than other media, are depicted similarly and their tribe was definitely not made up for the books. The Quileute Tribe are a real native american tribe who live in the pacific northwest around the (also real) town of Forks, Washington. Native Americans, a marginalized group of peoples that have been thrown into the “savage and uncivilized” stereotype since the creation of film and television, and the Quileute tribe are the werewolves who live in the woods while the Cullen family are sparkly vampires who live in a massive mansion and have more money than god… Or a Nike executive, is… not the best look. Twilight also creates a whole mess of other race and culture issues, but that is way too much to fit into this article.

The Vampire Diaries (2009), though being mainly about the vampires moving into a small town and terrorizing a local highschool, had a whole plot line surrounding werewolves and involving a vampire/werewolf hybrid. The story itself, in my opinion, was an interesting take on the lore of both vampires and werewolves, but the depiction of the wolves versus their vampire counterparts is where this gets a little ‘yikes’ for me. In this universe, in order to become a werewolf after being bitten, you had to kill someone to complete the change. One of the characters, Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), was 18 years old when he was bitten by the Hybrid Werewolf-Vampire, Klaus, and then manipulated and hypnotized into killing a fellow high school student to complete his change. Many of the wolves in the series were also portrayed as wild animals, while the vampires of the show were played up in a ‘sexy, brooding, tortured soul’ trope despite the fact that they also killed people.

In HBO’s True Blood (2008), we were given a very raunchy and sexy world of vampires, but within that we also met werewolves, shapeshifters, faeries, and witches. There were vampire aids, vampire turf wars, anti-vampire religious cults, and on top of all of that… Were-panthers. To quote Sim once more, “a werewolf trope I didn’t consciously register until True Blood did it so gracelessly [that] it red-pilled me…” 

Image is from the TV Show 'True Blood'. In a dim light, a were-panther in animal form sits on the floor, it's yellow eyes glowing.
Image courtesy of HBO

In the show’s fourth season, Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), sibling to the main character Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), winds up kidnapped by a pack of were-panthers. These creatures live in a rundown trailer park and are all extremely stereotypical rednecks. They’re portrayed as inbreeding in order to keep the were-panther gene alive, but they kidnap Jason in order to forcefully turn him into a were-panther and tie him down to a bed to force him to be a “breeding partner” for the female were-panthers of this community. 

Jason luckily does manage to escape after being raped by one of the were-panther women and thankfully avoids being turned into a were-panther himself. However, the portrayal of the were-panther pack as inbreeding, trailer trash has to be the most clearcut use of the “White Trash Wolf” trope ever.

So, now we see this trope, see its history, where it came from, and how it’s evolved,  what do we do with this information? Well, knowing a trope exists means you can subvert it. Despite the trope not being about a certain race or culture of people, it can still be harmful due to the other stereotypes that can fall into it. Creating and consuming media also means being critical, it means learning from harmful cliches to not only create something new, but something better. If Teen Wolf (1985) can have a werewolf playing basketball for 70% of the film, I want to see werewolves in 2021 doing taxes, or being as regal and refined as their vampire counterparts. 

These tropes have been around since the dawn of film and TV, and before that in books, stories, plays and other media… That’s a very long time to keep using the same stories and same, often harmful, tropes over and over.  So why do we keep doing it? I don’t have the answer to this question, but perhaps now that we’ve acknowledged this, we can find a path to take to change it. It may seem silly at first, changing the “rules” of such long standing iconography… But if it benefits the genre in the long run and simultaneously stops the use of harmful stereotypes and thinly veiled classism/racism, why not start changing it now?

In the vein (pun intended) of food for thought, I had the opportunity to have a discussion and interview with aforementioned tiktok creator Sim (@ediblesrex) on werewolf/supernatural media as a whole. Check it out below!

Header image courtesy of MTV