Weres. Shifters. Animagi.
From horror to Harry Potter, fairy tales to “True Blood,” and everything in between, the big and small screens have seen an influx of human/animal transformations in recent years. Even The CW’s update of “Beauty and the Beast” features not a man trapped in a beastly form, but one in whom a transformation can be triggered.
Why the rise in popularity of this archetype, and what drives our love/hate relationship with weres?
In part, the answer lies in the loss of control and culpability. While some fantasy universes maintain the idea that even in animal form the human mind is in control (the shifter of “True Blood,” the Potter-verse animagus), the idea of the “were” creature holds at its core the notion of loss of self. While terrifying, the idea holds the dark appeal of freedom from responsibility. If you couldn’t control your actions, how could you be held accountable for them?
Yet, a blasé approach to the ramifications of beastly actions has not become a trope in most on-screen adaptations. To the contrary, rather than freeing the individual from the psychological burden of monstrous acts, the state of being a were seems to instead consume the individuals every waking human moment with thoughts of prevention, containment, and control. Further, the modern werewolf (or were-rat, were-leopard, were-chicken, etc) seems to spend an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty not just about what they might do, but about who they are.
Where once the vampire served the role of tortured, cursed outcast, now it is the were-creature who inherits the mantle of human guilt and self-castigation, at least in western film and television. As the violence quota is ever-upped in the realm of mainstream entertainment, the were serves to both add the element of uncontrollable horror to any slaughter in which he participates, and to provide a continued reminder that our “animal nature” is a thing to be hated and detested above all else.
In short, while the vampires get to frolic about in tasteful, sexy abandon the were-creatures are saddled with the responsibility of never letting audiences forget that our base instincts are terrible, terrible things! Chalk it up to our weird repressions, but the message is pretty clear; being an “animal, subject to the drives for food, shelter, sex, and the excitement of the “hunt” (whether literal or metaphorical), is still taboo.
If you’re looking for the bigger picture in terms of were-views, I would suggest that it boils down to gender roles and sexuality. In the vast majority of cases, American audiences are presented with one option; a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. Vampires have had their fangs filed to fit this role, becoming in some cases little more that hemoglobin-sipping emo kids. Drinking blood is their dietary requirement, sunbathing is a no-no, but otherwise they live their lives constrained by human mores and morality.
Were-beasts, on the other hand, hint at more intriguing possibilities. What happens when the moon rises and their blood runs hot? Dot they confine themselves to pair-bonds, or revel in the freedom of multiple pack mates? Perhaps most intriguingly, is their sexuality bound by gender roles, pack standing, or some combination of the two?
Factor in the idea of pack dynamics, the notion of alpha, beta, omega status and everything in between, and weres touch on all the BDSM-themes that many folks seem desperate to avoid … or at least desperate to avoid admitting they like. Add in the “loss of control” most screen treatments adhere to when it comes to were-creatures, and the trend is disturbing; the only acceptable way to engage in the behaviors of a were, is to hand-wave away any responsibility for your actions.
It’s sad that this mind-set persists in the modern audience.
But what of the folks in control of their transformations, who use their animal forms at leisure? The “shifters” of page and screen who turn for protection, for efficiency, for defense, or even for fun? Even in these cases there are judgments about the person based on the form(s) they adapt. Turn into a stag, an eagle, or a dog, and you’re likely to be shaded as “heroic” in the narrative.
But change into a snake, a rat, or a donkey and audiences are likely to write you off as villainous, dishonest, or ridiculous. It’s an odd thing, but our pejorative outlook regarding the animal-to-human transformation works both ways.
Maybe one day the were-creatures will get the respect they deserve, modeling not only the benefits of true “pack” living, but the advantages in following instinct in lieu of over-analyzing every situation. Maybe the were-rat and the vampire will enjoy equally glamorous treatment on the screen. Maybe we’ll stop buying into the notion that sexuality should remain taboo while violence is glorified.
Until then, kick back, grab your favorite werewolf story or shape-shifting movie, and revel in the possibilities!