Wolf-People of the World Unite! Socioeconomic Conflict and Classic Horror Creatures

Wolf-People of the World Unite! Socioeconomic Conflict and Classic Horror Creatures

Tired of emo-vampires and pathetic werewolves? It’s the Ruskies’ fault.


Really?  I'm honestly more scared of her.

Really? I mean, really? I'm honestly more scared of the chick.

Again, it’s best to tackle this issue from the vantage point of the Middle Class’ collective unconscious.

America is indeed a deeply religious country, and the most popular of its many faiths is called Consumerism.  Most of us derive a sizable portion of our happiness, and connect with the world around us, from the consumption of goods, the anticipated consumption of goods, or by watching those bizarre “haul” videos that are so popular on the YouTubes.  Even the Evangelicals, the most outwardly pious of us, have simply adorned  their old Gods with Christian labels, and continue to worship consumerism Voodoo-style.  That’s why MegaChurches have gift shops, or, like, exist at all.  And, as far as I can tell, is the only possible explanation for this insanity.

Now, every religion has an angelic class, the beings that epitomize the faith’s central themes, and shine as glorious examples over lowly mankind.  In the faith of consumerism, angles are those people who can consume infinitely – hence, the rich.

So, it makes sense that, during the majority of the 20th century, the classic Vampire form remained essentially unchanged, and the Werewolf remained scary.  As the Middle Class grew, following the omnipresent (but infuriatingly unattainable) American Dream, their combined idolatry and resentment toward the angelic Upper Class remained a common characteristic.  This is encapsulated in the Vampire form–the indefatigable, aristocratic social leech.  Likewise, most of these people, their parents or grandparents understood the harsh consequences of the economy’s cyclic nature.  They’d survived a Depression, after all, and knew that anyone can be quickly dragged down from the comfort of the Middle Class to a “less civilized” status.  The Werewolf remained a Lupine reminder of economic stature’s fragile nature.

All of this gets completely rewritten in the early 1990s.  First, the major communist powers fell under the force of Capitalist competition.  Russia famously deflated, and ‘Communist’ China developed into a country with one of the world’s most formidable banking industries, a strong currency and heavy trading with the West.  Communism was supposed to be the ultimate workers’ revolt, the rise of the oppressed, unwashed (let’s say, Werewolf) masses to permanently usurp the entrenched power of the ruling aristocracy (… of Vampires). Russian propaganda was even festooned in populist, agrarian imagery, playing right into the metaphor.

And yet, it turns out that Vampires are hard to kill.

At the same time, a second trend was developing in the West.  Prior to 2007, Americans were enjoying a famously over-inflated access to wealth, both real and virtual.  With the unprecedented availability of cheap credit, almost anyone could buy the American Dream on margin: if we hadn’t worked ourselves into the angelic class through the sweat of our own brows per se, we could still attain their trappings.   We were tourists in the upper class.

As Americans used cheap credit to approximate membership in the Aristocracy, two things had to change about the consumer religion and its accompanying Vampire metaphor.  First, we no longer needed to worship the rich, seeing as–as far as we knew–we ourselves were rich.  Of course, we weren’t happy to just call it “mission accomplished” and settle down, but more on that in a moment.  Second, as the average American began less and less to resent the Aristocracy, and more and more to identify with him, those classic, cartoonishly urbane characteristics of the Vampire needed to go.  Even after attaining wealth, we’d realized we were still feeling, emotional beings, and so our Vampires made a parallel development.  Look at Buffy’s “Angel” and “Spike” characters in early seasons: other than being told that one has a soul while the other lacks it, what distinguishes these two characters from two normal humans, one nice and one an immoral prick?

In order to remain a cultural touchstone, Vampires needed to jettison outdated elements and adopt a more modern sensibility; they needed to remain a symbol of what was deeply desired, though deeply resented.  No more old white guys.  No more old people at all, actually.  Likewise, gone are the hooded tuxes, gold amulets and stone castles.  Say goodbye to the glowering, manipulative mastermind Vampire, the unfettered ruler of his dark domain.  In his stead, we got a character who embodies the West’s new unrequited longing: the true power wielded by the truly wealthy.  Yes, if our credit-frenzy had been a genuine class ascension, with our new-found wealth would have come new-found control.  And yet, infuriatingly, it was the same group of people calling the shots for society as it had always been.  The truly wealthy didn’t need to show it (as the faux-wealthy so often did), hence the Vamps’ caped tux is supplanted with those shiny stripey shirts I can’t afford.  The truly wealthy can afford a level of personal care few would dream of; they are, quite literally, better-looking that we are.  And of course, with the instinctive sense of entitlement that comes with owning the world comes a cool detachment in dealing with it.  Vampires are cool.  They’re young, sexy, every bit as controlling and powerful as before, but show it less.

What about Werewolves?  The very concept that we could lose our wealth was, prior to the housing market’s collapse, complete absurdity.   Moreover, as Middle Class society was already becoming progressively detached and anonymous, the fear of being expelled from it held little weight.  The werewolf became an archetype without a socially valid metaphor: his Great Workers’ Revolutions were failures, and the symbol of ever-present economic collapse was laughable.  This was not the beast of your undoing, he was the poor shlub who missed the Everybody-Gets-Rich boat.  He’s a pitiable, sympathetic character, not an object of fear.  If you watch Underworld: Rise of the Lycans–and I thoroughly advise that you don’t–you’ll see what I mean.

I suspect the next few years will be a fascinating case study in how these archetypes further develop.  Since the economy’s down the pipes, and the gulf between real and imagined wealth has been thrown into stark contrast, it’s tempting to say that life will simply return to its pre-90s state.  Perhaps it’s no accident that this is happening in the current economic climate.  But I wonder if we can really go back, having tasted the life we longed for.  Maybe we’re no longer a society ruled by our yearnings for the unattainable and fears of the inevitable.  Perhaps we’ve become a society that feels entitled to regain what it’s lost, one which held indescribable wealth in its hands and watched it turn to dust.  Now, all we wish is to rise from the dead, take back what is ours, and with it the true power it’s embodies.

Essentially, I’m predicting another spate of Mummy movies.  Brendan Fraser, it’s GO TIME.

17 Comments on “Wolf-People of the World Unite! Socioeconomic Conflict and Classic Horror Creatures”

  1. stokes OTI Staff #

    This was rad as hell.


  2. testington #

    that Buffy article was written by a Yale professor? That is baffling, truly. That is probably the worst article/disseration I’ve ever read on Buffy, and I once wrote a 10 page analysis of the third wave feminist politics of Buffy so I’ve read more than my share of articles on the topic…they tend to have sources


  3. shechner OTI Staff #

    Thanks, Stokes! It was a lot of fun to write.

    @testington – well, he’s a *former* Yale professor. Though I believe his tenure renewal issues were less a result of his poor annotation, and more the result of his being an anarchist. Still, the dude gives *fantastic* lectures.


  4. shechner OTI Staff #

    Hey, Texas. This, was written by me, but inspired by a lecture given by a Yale professor in 1999. I’m merely an MIT grad biochemistry student. Though, if Yale’s hiring…


  5. testington #


    YOUR piece is a great read though! Really fascinating and quite funny to boot!


  6. shechner OTI Staff #

    @testington Aww.. shucks. Thanks!


  7. Gab #

    Thumpin’ good read!

    I couldn’t help but notice how Legosi was in the trailer for _The Wolf Man_, too.


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    There’s a lot of good stuff packed in here. The idea that middle class Americans in the 1990’s were “tourists in the upper class” is a phrase that’s useful outside of vampire articles.

    You definitely made me think about how the depiction of vampires has changed pretty radically over time. On the most basic level, vampires aren’t bad guys anymore. In a lot of cases (Angel, Twilight, Underworld, Blade, True Blood) the primary vampires DON’T EVEN KILL PEOPLE. They have chosen to live via blood banks, animal blood, or synthetic blood. And even in the movies where the vampire does kill people, they’re often depicted sympathetically (Interview With the Vampire, Let the Right One In).

    In fact, I’m trying to think of a vampire movie which fits the mold of “group of people band together to kill an evil vampire,” and all I can think of is Van Helsing (shudder) and Dracula 2000 (which I remember liking a tiny bit, but only a tiny bit).

    So while vampires are huge in our culture right now, the vampire HORROR movie is close to extinct.


  9. Gab #

    @Belinkie: True that, about the horror aspect leaving vampire lore as of late. I *am* highly intrigued about this upcoming Ethan Hawke movie, “Daybreakers.” Humans being the minority adds an interesting horror twist. The main vampy looks like he wants to convert, though, so maybe that still goes along with the turn vampires have taken lately.

    That book/movie _Blood and Chocolate_ has been brought up on other threads before, and I’d argue it’s a very good werewolves ONLY book; and as its own entity, the movie was entertaining enough (but if compared to the book, total bollocks, completely different and more like a “suggested by” than a “based on”).

    I’d also like to point out the observation that while vampires don’t play much of a role in it, the Harry Potter universe has a werewolf as one of the main protagonists.


  10. Martin #

    The second Wolfman trailer (the most recent one) looks amazing.

    Lycans won’t remain as the werewolf’s worst case scenario for long… you mention it in the next sentence. In Twilight: New Moon not only do you have to fight vampires for a vain human girl’s affections, you be shirtless the whole movie (something to do with body heat, apparently).

    It also incorporates your True Blood point, if I’m not mistaken, in that they’re Native Americans.

    Yeah, I know too much about Twilight.


  11. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Let me amend my own point. I didn’t see it, but I believe 30 Days of Night is about regular people fighting evil vampires. So that’s a recent movie in which vampires are straight-up evil. HOWEVER… that movie was a box office disappointment, not even breaking 40 mil domestic. So that proves my (and Shechner’s) point. Nowadays people IDENTIFY with vampires. We don’t want to wipe them out.

    (Although of course, 30 Days of Night might have underperformed for a variety of reasons. Correlation does not equal causation.)


  12. Gab #

    30 Days of Night played out a lot like a modern zombie movie in a few aspects: survivors holing up and hiding out, and the vampire state spread the same way, i.e. through biting/ infection. And they were by no means sexy, these vamps- they may have been fully clothed, but they were definitely intended to look grotesque like zombies. But they also kept a few of the more “classic” vampire characteristics, like using mortals as slaves, sunlight=death, uber strength, and using their intelligence to lure in victims. There was also an established rule system and hierarchy among them. I could say and debate (with myself)(read: ramble) a lot more, but it would get spoilerific.


  13. Lisa #

    Harry Potter does in some ways have a vampire–Voldemort. He has to use Harry’s blood to sustain his physical form. (As far as we know, he doesn’t ever need to eat anything else again.) He has incredible powers and has at least split his soul into teeny-tiny pieces. He’s more into darkness than sunlight, and he definitely has a lot of willing minions.


  14. Valatan #

    It’s not American, but isn’t Night Watch a vampire horror movie? though I guess you could read that one as being about eth rise of the oligarchs in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR.


  15. Emily #

    This is a cool theory, and I think it holds true for a lot of the monster genre, but I wonder how some of the recent urban fantasy series fit into it. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, for instance, portray vampires as literally inhuman monsters, while the werewolves are actually pretty cool – a group of college kids who learn to shift into werewolves and do retain their intelligence in wolf form. Maybe that just shows the way society’s sympathies are shifting, or that we view our future hopes in a new, up-and-coming form of power and not in the old worn out system.


  16. garciad #

    A super-clever thesis and fantastic read. I’m getting high off all your cultural references! It’s potent stuff, and hilarious.

    By chance my vacation this summer spanned Twillight country, Port Angeles to Forks, WA on the upper western peninsula of WA. Everyone was bonkers for it up there. Businesses proudly displayed banners declaring they sold “Twillight” this and that (t-shirts, postcards, hamburgers, etc.). Twillight tourists came in all ages and socioeconomic statuses. I was just glad to see the boon for businesses in some of these economically very depressed areas.

    You’re an MIT grad biochem student, eh? For my science blog I’m looking for someone to review a new paper coming out soon, D.S. et al. I’ve also been looking for someone to profile their transformation from the world of structure to non-coding something or other, and you know, make it funny. You recommend anyone?


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