I’ve never made my feelings about vampires a secret: they’re horrible and stupid and they suck. They’re only marginally better than zombies, who are the only monster giving them a run for their money in the “speaking to the anxieties of the age” stakes. Werewolves, for me, are far more interesting. But I’m in a definite minority for feeling that way. And why should that be? Put simply, vampires got better publicity at an important historical point.

If you go back to early legends, there’s not a lot of distinction between vampire and werewolf legends. They’re both horrible, ravening undead monsters that kill the innocent because they’re unholy abominations. Over time myths refined to the point that vampires leveled out as bloated, diseased corpses that spread death and contagion through villages and werewolves became more of a satanic figure, frequently a person in league with the Devil or cursed by him. And they were still more or less on equal footing, though it must be said that vampires never quite lost their distinctly Slavic roots while werewolves became a bit Frenchified.

The turning point seems to be around about the Victorian period. The Victorians, unsurprisingly, are to blame for a lot that is horrible in modern culture, and vampires as romantic anti-heroes are no exception. See, amongst the many morbid obsessions that the Victorians had, was death. Your local Hot Topic is filled with people who are, spiritually, Victorians; they think cemeteries are darkly romantic, they revel in melancholia, and they think occult doodads are really nifty. The only significant difference is that gothy emo kids of today don’t have a borderline fascist and overtly racist Empire covering a tenth of the globe. It’s not hard to see why vampires appealed to readers in that environment. You’ve got the death angle. You’ve got the sinister foreigner despoiling the women. And you’ve got a healthy dose of sexual repression, as what vampires do is essentially rape (or sexual deviancy, as with Camilla and all the other sapphic bloodsuckers that come alone), but thanks to Victorian prudery it gets soft-pedaled as seduction. With all that lovely symbolism, how could the Victorians fail to love vampires?

Werewolves, however…they get a bit trickier. It’s been argued that Strange Case of Jeckyl and Hyde is essentially a werewolf story, and it did gain a lot of traction with moralizers of the period who saw in it warnings about giving in to base desires, but I’m not sure I agree with that logic. Hyde as I see it is more a story of backwards evolution, and ties in more with the scientific racism and classism of the age. I think the actual symbolism of real werewolves was something that the Victorians just weren’t interested in. There is a strong suggestion with lycanthropy stories that Man is at heart savage. That there’s an unavoidable primitive core in humanity. Were creatures are just letting that hidden side come to the surface. Lycanthropes also bring up the uncomfortable to many reminder that Man is, when you get right down to it, just an animal.

There’s just not enough meat in those metaphors to appeal to the readers of the age, sadly. A couple of other symbolic elements kept werewolves from gaining popularity in later periods as well. For one, werewolves represent an internal threat. They’re something within us that comes out and threatens the community. Vampires are suitably foreign, an external threat, and for xenophobic and tribalistic modern cultures, that’s a lot easier a concept to deal with. Werewolves have also developed an interesting sideline as a metaphor for sexual awakening. A number of films and books use them as puberty metaphors. Heck, even Teen Wolf is a long, sophomoric joke about teen boys growing hair in weird places. And that animalistic nature invites a number of werewolf films to include raw, uninhibited sex. Westerners, it must be said, are a bit prudish about sex. Vampires, despite the creepy rape as seduction elements that filter through, are all about the foreplay. They’re soft-core. Which is why so many brooding, Byronic bad boy vampire romance figures are wispy, effeminate men. Non-threatening. Safe. A monster you can take home to mother, unlike the guy who’s shedding on the couch and humping her leg.

Of course, the big reason why vamps are more popular is that it’s easier to make an actor look like a half-convincing pale, fanged douche than a half-beast, fanged and clawed killing machine.

18 Responses to “Spooky Month Open Thread: How Vampires Won the PR War”
  1. Alan says:

    “There’s just not enough meat in those metaphors to appeal to the readers of the age, sadly. (…) it’s easier to make an actor look like a half-convincing pale, fanged douche than a half-beast, fanged and clawed killing machine.”

    On the other hand: Wolverine.

    “The only significant difference is that gothy emo kids of today don’t have a borderline fascist and overtly racist Empire covering a tenth of the globe.”

    On the other hand: America.

  2. Alan says:

    Although, to be fair, there’s a lot of brooding byronic masochistic melancholia “howling at the moon” in Wolverine (“wwaaaa I killed her!”, “waaa my pain is represented as spikes coming out of my naked body!”), which readers and writers seem to think it’s stronger and more powerful since “he’s usually all tough and bottled up” or something (you know, sort of like Batman does from time to time. Hmm, I guess you could say recent-years-Batman was a bit of a Werebat at times).

  3. Marina says:

    Hi, long time lurker here. I’m loving Spooky Month!

    It can be a bit hard to favor werewolves without raising suspicions of being a furry.
    (As kindly pointed to me by a certain group of Anne Rice fans a few years ago – even so, one may question the common sense of a group that chooses to wear crushed velvet under a 35°C heat, but I digress).

  4. C says:

    Actually, Marina, you have a good point. As much as many people might find vampires unattractive, the vampires at least appear human. In Dracula, the title character was suave and attractive and very human-appearing. Although by definition in most versions, werewolves are human most of the time, but there is still a hint of beastiality in finding someone who turns into a large dog (essentially) attractive. The Victorians weren’t very big on bestiality. It lacks a certain something. And most women don’t find super-hairy guys attractive, so there’s that aspect of it too.
    Modern young women tend to like neuters, men who are theoretically sexy and could be available, but are for one reason or another unavailable so they don’t have to actually make a choice. It’s terrifying being a young woman and feeling all these things and wanting to do things you know you’re probably too young for and aren’t really ready for, but they seem attractive. But the vampires that are really popular are the ones that will love you sincerely and want you, but love you so much that they won’t try anything because that would be complicated. So they make the decisions. It means acknowledging sexuality and lust without confronting it. Werewolves don’t allow that, well, except for Angua, who is just awesome. Then again, maybe that’s just it. The vampires have a glamour like the elves, the werewolves don’t.

  5. Sharing this on facebook, Dorian. Telling you that may annoy you, but you nabbed my issues with vampires stone cold.

  6. Justin Cognito says:

    Of course, now there’s a lot of literature that plays up the sexual aspects of werewolves. I think we can all blame Laurel Hamilton (and her improbable penises) for starting the trend, and note that Stephanie Meyer takes it to some uncomfortably racist places (okay, so, the werewolf is a hot-blooded Native American who can’t help but force himself on the love interest?).

  7. Captain Splendid says:

    To be fair, the Victorian era of the British Empire is responsible for almost everything that sucks in the world today. It was basically the anti-enlightenment, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Tim O'Neil says:

    Well, to its credit the Victorian era was also home to some of the unqualified masters of the English novel, writers such as Eliot and Hardy and even DIckens who worked tirelessly to subvert or at least question notions of imperial triumphalism and foppish prudery. (Seriously people, Return of the Native).

    But there’s another element that I think speaks to vampires’ general utility as horror creatures: it’s easier to write a semi-decent story if the antagonist can think and scheme and articulate themselves. I like werewolves too, but the fact that they are almost always mindless – while certainly proving fertile ground for metaphor – makes for repetitive storytelling in the hands of the average creator. You just don’t see the Wolfman sitting around hatching master plans for the heroes to foil.

    It’s why Dracula is a recurring and effective supervillain at Marvel, even if his comics characterization is just Doctor Doom divided by R’as al Ghul (and I *like* Marvel’s Dracula). Werewolf by Night, on the other hand, really can’t support an ongoing title because the concept is such that most creators don’t have the interest / ability to look beyond the basic “wild man on the fringes of society seeks to control his dark urges but becomes entangled in sinister machinations” setup.

  9. Evan Waters says:

    It helps that vampires have one defining Great Story that’s in the public domain, while there’s no one work of classic horror literature you can point to for werewolves, for whatever reason. So much of the popular werewolf myth dates to 1941 and Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for THE WOLF MAN, and though you can apparently steal bits and pieces of it without Universal suing you, it doesn’t have the same level of cultural penetration.

  10. JamesK says:

    There is nothing I hate more then “I am in love with both a vampire and a werewolf. One is loving, hugs me, is handsome and warm and totally human 90% of the time. The other is a pale scrawny dick who holds me at arm’s length and generally acts like an ass. I’ll go with the vampire!”.

    I stopped reading Laural K. after it became clear the werewolf was staying dumped. And whatever few dregs of interest watching the Rifftrax of Twilight generated was quashed by the knowledge that adorable-as-hell wolfie boy was going to get dumped for scrawny pale stalker-pire.

    Were’s the supernatural love triangle where the werewolf gets to live happily ever after, I ask?

  11. Tim O'Neil says:

    I realized after I wrote my last comment that wild man on the fringes of society seeks to control his dark urges but becomes entangled in sinister machinations” is essentially the storytelling engine for the Hulk, but the Hulk is big, green essentially heroic and ultimately misunderstood, whereas a werewolf, regardless of the best intentions of the human alter-ego, will still mostly kill you and eat your face. Something I have not seen the Hulk do.

  12. Shepen says:

    To be fair, Victorian era New Englanders had a VERY different idea of what vampires were than their Goth/Emo descendants. 19th century American vampires were tuberculosis victims who pressed on the chests of living relatives suffering from TB until they too died (at least according to contemporary reports!) Thus people kept dying until someone went an decapitated the suspected vampires, crossing the femurs below the skull. Or they just exhumed & burned the bodies of TB victims to keep them from feeding on the living. We’ve found 18th and 19th cemeteries with graves containing such skeletons, thus confirming the belief in vampires as something far more unpleasant than the later fantasy versions.

    http://www.registercitizen.com/articles/2008/11/02/news/doc490e5cc2edca6475695642.txt

    Now as far as modern versions go, I also much prefer werewolves to vampires. ‘Course I like my horror more along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft and less along the lines of Laurell K. Hamilton.

  13. Nik says:

    Even though I just wrote a long post about lovin’ vampires, I dig this one too — I think what werewolves have lacked is that one defining work like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There have been decent werefolk movies and bad ones galore, but vamps won the battle like you say. I do think there are great werewolf possibilities out there but when all we get is stuff like Jack Nicholson’s “Wolf” I’m not too hopeful (although Del Toro’s “Wolfman” could be cool).

  14. Hayden says:

    Anyone have thoughts on other shapeshifters? Wolves have become pretty passe, from what I’ve seen in the romance market. Now it’s all about writers coming up with the craziest animal that the tormented hero can turn into. Octopus? Check. Dolphins? Check. Dragons? Yep. Dinosaur? I’m not sure, but I think I might’ve seen a T-Rex shifter somewhere. I hope to see someone attempt a banana slug shifter; then I can really wax philosophical on the psychology behind it.

  15. Gareth Wilson says:

    I like the class theory of monsters, with vampires representing the upper class and zombies the working class. In this theory werewolves are the middle class – they look normal and secure but are constantly terrified of losing control and moving down the social or evolutionary ladder. So if vampires are more popular it just means the aristocrats are winning.

  16. Phill says:

    Some just prefer their men bigger and hairier.

  17. MaxBenign says:

    I don’t really have a dog in this race, though I note my favorite vampires are the least human (Nosferatu & the vorvon riff on same in Buck Rogers, the werebat transformation in Coppola’s Dracula).

    I’d concur with the comments pointing out the lack of a definitive and widely known werewolf novel. I also wonder if the werewolf isn’t something of a casualty of the industrial revolution, in that few Europeans and Americans live in close proximity to wolves the way many did a couple hundred years ago, a point touched on in your review of Wolfen.

    Your comment about the werewolf as metaphor for sexual awakening rings true as well — I’ve been digging on the first Cramps record lately, and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” is a pretty unhinged take on hormone crazed adolescence. (There’s also the older and more negative metaphor of wolf as sexually aggressive man — wolf whistles, slavering zoot-suited cartoon wolves, etc.) Interestingly, someone afflicted with lycanthropy generally ends up an autonomous monster, whereas vampires turn their victims into thralls.

  18. Captain Splendid says:

    whereas a werewolf, regardless of the best intentions of the human alter-ego, will still mostly kill you and eat your face. Something I have not seen the Hulk do.

    STOP GIVING MARVEL IDEAS!

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