Why “Werewolves” are Problematic

The problem is that fantasy is not real.  It’s based on historical myth and cultural superstition, born from either religious beliefs, an incomplete knowledge of physical science, or a lorekeepers’ embellishments as tales are passed on through word of mouth.  Furthermore, these myths and superstitions are both organic and regionally subjective, meaning there is no definitive “law” or “canon” to spell out just what any particular myth is or is not.  This leads to constant and endless arguments about minute details of a fantasy creature as the debaters struggle to find out what is “right”, when it’s very likely that there IS no “right” or “wrong”, only a fuzzy sliding scale of proximity to confirmed historical fables.

To complicate the matter further, contemporary culture has developed its OWN lore about fantasy creatures, which sometimes only loosely references the original myths, or ignores them completely.  For example, if I told you that a man bitten by a werewolf will become a werewolf himself, you would agree with that.  And yet, very few if any real werewolf legends attribute an infectious bite to the creatures; the infectious bite likely gets its roots from the 1941 “Wolfman” film.  Even the “canonical” lore that a werewolf transforms under the light of the full moon is another non-historical fabrication from that same film.  And yet, the public accepts these tenants as “fact” when it comes to describing the properties of a werewolf, so much so that if a story were written today which OMITTED these details, all readers would cry foul.  Are the old myths any more correct than the NEW myths when they are both myths to begin with and werewolves do not actually exist?

Or perhaps is it the NAME which we value so?  Humans throughout the ages have always sought to explain the unexplainable and give names to the nameless.  A “wolf” is just an animal:  we can see it, describe it, and explain it scientifically.  But a “werewolf” is more than a creature: it is an entire mythos with intricacies and grey areas.  A dozen different works of fiction may deal with “werewolf” in a dozen different ways, and all of them might adhere to one old legend or another.  Yet, we feel compelled to ask which among them portray “true” werewolves, and which are shams; we value the name, and we wish to attach qualities to that name, so that it might become more real in our minds, and we will be able to comprehend it better.  Would we perhaps be more put at ease if there were different names for different types of werewolves?  If a werewolf that transformed under a full moon were called a “Lunar Werewolf” and one that did not were called a “Terran Werewolf”, would this convention be preferable?  But once again we are brought back to the problem that werewolves are not real.  There is no scientific committee to classify every type of werewolf in fiction with an official genus and species; only an amorphous collection of common people.

When something is not real, a person’s mind creates for itself an ideal version which they believe it would be like if it was real.  This version is by no means comprehensive, because the mind is a strange and fickle thing, but key factors are always set in stone, like the dots of a connect-the-dot puzzle.  When the unreal thing in question is given a name, say, “werewolf”, billions of werewolves are suddenly brought into existence, each werewolf “correct” to at least one person in the world.  But now you take a work of fiction:  a movie, or a book.  In it, the creator of this work of fiction shows the world not what a “werewolf” is, but rather what his “werewolf” is.  Some agree with it, and some do not, based on what their “werewolf” means to them.  You could replace “werewolf” with any word:  “dragon”, “immortal”, “post-apocalypse”.  These words represent ideals and possibilities in our heads, not concrete facts, and the clashing of ideals has fueled human conflict for millennia, whether major or minor.

Still, creators continue to use established fantasy creatures rather than create their own, despite the many complications presented above.  It’s a scale of counterbalancing benefits and detriments:  a common creature is familiar and relatable to the audience, and less time need be spent explaining the lore behind them, but it’s bogged down by decades of mythos, claims of unoriginality, and the mental ideals of the audience.  Contrast this with a newly-fabricated creature, which is flexible and can be written to suit the purposes of the fictional world, but runs the risk of being either alienating or downright pretentious as the audience is forced to swallow strange names and unfamiliar lore.  And somewhere in the middle are “original” creatures that feel and act so much like an established beast of legend, one wonders why the creator bothered to call it original in the first place, and it fails to satisfy on both levels at once.

Fantasy races, fantasy creatures.  No matter what you do with them, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.

{Note:  This does not only apply to werewolves.  In case you didn’t get that.}


5 thoughts on “Why “Werewolves” are Problematic

  1. At least we don’t have wereturkeys. Yet…
    *Ominous music plays
    I think everyone’s entitled to their own adaptation of a fantasy being. So long as they don’t maul the poor creature TOO terribly.

    • Agreed, agreed. And case in point, Twilight. A “Twilight Vampire” is so far removed from any established vampire myth that they are functionally not vampires at all (personally I consider them to be some kind of blood-fueled golem, which would explain why they’re made of granite, possess great physical prowess, and have no emotions). And yet, because we as an audience value the WORD “vampire” so much, there’s mobs of adoring fans for those that agree, and public outrage for those that disagree. I’m almost certain that if Stephanie Meyers had called them by some other name yet kept everything else exactly the same, the series wouldn’t have nearly the vitriol towards it, or the popularity.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. It puts me in mind of Plato’s cave and the idealised shadows humans believe are real. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂 What about fantasy writers that take a ‘familiar aspect’ of a traditional fantasy creature – such as the werewolf but apply it to a new species…such as a werecat? or werebuffalo?

    • Concerning were-somethings specifically, there actually ARE a number of historical accounts of regions around the world believing in different kinds of were-creatures, mainly because those regions did not have a large wolf population, but had other wild types of animals, so the myth evolved to relate to the area. The important thing with were-creatures is the symbolism of a man turning into a beast and giving in to his primal, animalistic urges (not unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), so variations of the were-creature should stem from that. Contrast the modern werewolf, which is more akin to getting infected with a deadly disease and going through the Kübler-Ross model. But, as I mentioned originally, it’s all a crapshoot anyways: since none of these fantasy creatures exist, there’s no right or wrong way to write them from any “canonical” sense, and someone’s going to complain no matter what. Ultimately my opinion boils down to “I don’t much care what you do, but if you’re going to do it, do it well, otherwise don’t bother.”

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