Year of the Werewolf
By Andrew StrombeckAugust 29, 2019
This was not the case in 1981. In that year, the film industry released three popular, innovative werewolf films: The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Wolfen. The Howling spawned seven sequels; American Werewolf is celebrated as a cult film with a campy soundtrack; though Wolfen is often not remembered at all, at the time it was a critical success.
Why all the lycanthropy? The werewolf was an apt figure for 1981, a moment when prominent commentators worried that many Americans had become too self-focused. Tom Wolfe had first advanced the argument in 1976, dubbing the 1970s the “me” decade, wherein Americans, under the lingering influence of the counterculture, were spending way too much time cultivating their bodies and minds. Christopher Lasch’s 1979 The Culture of Narcissism was so popular that Lasch was invited to the White House, where his ideas would influence Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech. Linking the OPEC embargo, Watergate, and a declining economy, Carter told Americans “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” turning away from the broad project of American productivity that characterized the postwar years. By “self-indulgence,” Carter was referring to the human potential movement, a combination of therapeutic techniques, meditation, swinging, and yoga. Lasch blamed these cultures for the baffling emotional, economic, and social violence that seemed everywhere: in rising divorce rates, widespread unemployment, and the destruction of the inner city.
Carter’s speech was dark — it’s known colloquially as the “malaise” speech. It’s often contrasted with Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” formulation to explain the Reagan revolution. (The phrase was used in a 1984 campaign commercial, but themes of American rebirth characterized Reagan’s speeches throughout his first term.) And yet at core, Carter, like Lasch, was telling Americans that this self-indulgence wasn’t quite their fault. Bigger forces had brought out their dark sides. Something in the culture, born of the late counterculture and nurtured by meditation, swinging, yoga, and the human potential movement — had bitten them. But self-indulgence and consumption are the core drivers of the economy, and from the perspective of the present, Carter’s speech sounds baffling. Donald Trump’s primary characteristics are self-indulgence and consumption. And it’s just as impossible to imagine Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton chastising Americans for traits that are the core drivers of the economy. While many — though not all — Americans might find selfishness an undesirable trait, few, if any, would contest the notion that they should be their best selves at work and home.
Watching The Howling today, it seems odd, then, that the most evil character in the film — George Waggner (played by Patrick Macnee) — has written a self-help book. It’s called The Gift, and it helps readers cultivate their “big untapped potential, a potential for living.” Reading the book is fine, but if one runs into real trouble, Waggner runs The Colony, a rural retreat that immerses participants in Waggner’s principles. The film’s primary action unfolds at this retreat. After reporter Dee Wallace (played by Karen White) is attacked, her employer sends her to the Colony to get her head straight. But instead of lectures and massage, Wallace encounters self-indulgent depravity. Colony residents dance wildly, seduce one another, and drink with abandon. Behind it all lurks the werewolf, and eventually Wallace, with the help of her partner, uncovers the ruse, resulting in lots of transformations, moonlit werewolf attacks, and, eventually, silver bullets. Werewolves aside, the Colony looks and feels like the Esalen Institute, the Northern California center founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price. In the 1960s and 1970s, Esalen became a site for well-heeled clients interested in Gestalt therapy, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and other key discourses of the human potential movement.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Wallace convinces her bosses that everything is fine. She returns to her job, and proceeds to deliver her own crisis of confidence speech. The threat, Carter had warned, was invisible. So is this one. Using language redolent of the cultural paranoia that circulates throughout the 1970s, Wallace warns viewers that a secret society works among them. Viewers need, Wallace urged, to choose “what is kind and peaceful in our natures” over “what is cruel and violent.” Poor Wallace, though, won’t get to choose: having been bitten at the Colony, she transforms on-screen. The film concludes with a cross-cut sequence depicting the ambivalent reactions of Los Angeles residents, most of whom seem receptive to the notion that yeah, werewolves would pretty much make sense at this point.
Using the werewolf, The Howling positions human potential movements as radical and dangerous. Waggner’s therapy might seem benign, but it encourages productive Americans to indulge their worst natures. American Werewolf continues these themes. Its characters, too, embrace self-indulgence, via the college student’s trip abroad. As global airfare prices dropped in the 1970s, such tours became an important way to find oneself for thousands of college-age Americans. As the film opens, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are walking through the moors of Northern England. From the surface, it appears that some self-indulgence is badly needed: the students, Kessler and Goodman are normal to the point of banality. They sport matching L.L.Bean parkas; they’re talking about girls; they’re telling knock-knock jokes. They’ve come to Europe to become a little more interesting, to swerve from their all-too-conventional paths.
On the moors, the two are attacked by a werewolf — Goodman dies, and Kessler is infected. When Kessler turns, the film emphasizes the transformation of his ordinary body into a monster. He’s wearing a gray NYU T-shirt and jeans. Viewers watch as his hands and feet become distended, and hair grows over his body. His self-indulgent trip abroad has led him to a predictable place: he becomes so unfit for normal society that he becomes a menace to innocent Londoners. Kessler is, whatever else, no longer boring.
But his self-indulgence makes him destructive, and the film foregrounds his self-indulgent threat to mainstream Americans in one of its most shocking scenes. Shortly after being infected, Kessler dreams of animalistic humans invading his family’s suburban home. They tear viciously through his family, using automatic weapons. They wear flak jackets. One has a shaved head; another has what looks like a Mohawk. They look visually similar to the London punks that Kessler encounters on the Tube a few scenes later. They destroy the tidy kitchen, kill the children watching The Muppets, and set the home ablaze.
Turning away from the productive life his parents imagined for him, Kessler has found what he was looking for in Europe. But freed from the constraints of the middle-class home, he becomes hedonistic and selfish, just as Lasch warned. Before his transformation, he is hesitant but focused, devoted — as the NYU shirt he wears signifies — to the productive path that his parents wanted for him. For all its camp, then, American Werewolf, too, depicts Americans who have taken their quest for self-exploration too far.
Inspired by Lasch, Carter was urging Americans to turn away from self-indulgence and pitch in, to rejoin the grand project of the productive American community. This was the key concern raised by Lasch: Americans had turned away from a tradition of productivity and civic participation, and toward themselves. Other critics, though, saw self-indulgence more in terms of the margins than the center. This was the case made by Edwin Schur The Awareness Trap: Self-Absorption Instead of Social Change (1976). Schur contended that the real problem with middle-class cultures of self-improvement was that they ignored the widespread poverty that had become increasingly visible in neighborhoods like the South Bronx, as well as the ecological crisis that had been worried over throughout the decade.
1981’s third werewolf film, Wolfen, turns toward these problems, using its wolves to engage the counterculture’s more activist legacy. The film begins with a mysterious attack on an affluent real estate developer and his wife. Once the murders are discovered, two explanations emerge. One, pursued by a corporate security team and the dominant forces of the NYPD, concerns international terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof variety. They pursue their suspicions through high-tech expertise: databases, infrared scans of witnesses, a computer room to which the film repeatedly returns. The other, pursued by down-on-his-luck New York city detective Dewey Wilson, concerns wolves. Eventually, Wilson learns that attackers are indigenous shape-shifters lead by Eddie Holt, who Wilson knew as a violent activist with the Native American Movement, a play on the real world American Indian Movement. The characters pursuing the international terrorists are clean-cut, productive, and embrace technology. In contrast, the characters pursuing the wolves are oddballs and people of color, who embrace then-marginal habits like jogging and karate.
By overlaying these two explanations, Wolfen connects the most frightening version of the counterculture with poverty, the ecological crisis, and the ongoing problems of settler colonialism. Situating its wolves as insurrectionary, Wolfen picks up where American Werewolf left off, inviting the flak-jacketed monsters from Kessler’s dream into the real-life violence of the revolutionary counterculture.
Albert Finney is the only one on that police team who can hear what the indigenous characters in the bar are saying, and it’s his refusal of the productive, high-tech police team that allows such openness. More widely, Wolfen refuses to dismiss the counterculture, and this makes sense. Wolfen was directed by Michael Wadleigh, who had made his mark with the documentary Woodstock. Ultimately, Wolfen sees the werewolves’ attacks as justified, emphasized by Finney’s voice-over at the end of the film, which laments humanity’s neglect of “life that we prey on us as we prey on this Earth.” Holt is never brought to justice; the skinwalkers will continue hunting the rich humans who destroy their habitat, which the film identifies as the South Bronx. It’s likely for this reason that Wolfen fades away. The cultures of the 1980s would leave little room for justified attacks on the wealthy. Indeed, the wolves’ initial target in Wolfen — cocaine-sniffing members of the upper class in a limousine — would calcify into the sine qua non symbol of Reagan’s supporters. (Describing Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Michael Kinsey joked that every limousine in the Northeast was in Washington that weekend.) As young urban professionals emerged to symbolize a supposedly renewed economy, Wolfen’s themes became a bit too pointed.
The werewolf films of 1981 were part of what’s been called the Golden Age of American horror film. In that sense, they filled a cultural appetite for on-screen violence that was also being met by films like Friday the 13th and Halloween, whose sequels were also released in 1981. But the sheer fact of three werewolf films in the top 100 grossing films of 1981 indicates that filmmakers and audiences alike found something politically significant in the werewolf. As a cultural form, the werewolf narrative has distinct traits that made it an appealing subject for filmmakers and audiences alike in 1981. These films told good stories, but in doing so, they reflected the cultural pressures of their era in ways that resonated with the concerns of their mainstream audiences.
The werewolf films narrate a complex cultural transition, as American culture segued from self-improvement and Esalen to aerobics and Wall Street. On-screen werewolves both acknowledged the power of self-indulgence and dismissed it as threatening and marginal. From the vantage point of the present, it’s clear that the declining productivity visible in the 1970s was less a problem of self-indulgence and more a product of longer economic trends. The werewolves of 1981 tapped into rising fears of the dissipation of productivity. But watching them on-screen, mainstream Americans could interpret critiques of the productive center as monstrous.
Poised between the animal and the human, the werewolf has long served as a site for filmmakers and novelists to take up problems of violent cultural energies and their containment. The best-known werewolf novel of the early 20th century, Guy Endore’s 1933 The Werewolf of Paris, located the werewolf within the anti-capitalist struggles of 19th-century France. In doing so, the left-leaning Endore responded to the roiling turbulence of the economic crisis of the 1930s. Universal’s 1941 The Wolf Man overlaid the Jekyll and Hyde story onto the werewolf, depicting Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.) as a man fighting to maintain an organized, conscious will against the animal urges of the wolf. The Wolf Man, too, was a product of its time: rising war in Europe raised questions of whether animalistic violence could be contained. And in the post-feminist era, a steady stream of less-mainstream werewolf texts, from Angela Carter’s short stories to the Ginger Snaps films, have used the werewolf to interrogate problems of repressed feminine violence. The werewolf evolves with its time.
For a time, it seemed as though self-improvement cultures, with their inward focus and celebration of the unproductive body, were to blame for the economic decline of the 1970s. Perhaps unconsciously, filmmakers and audiences alike understood the necessity of putting a silver bullet through the heart of these cultures, so that Americans would once more focus on being productive. Carter didn’t invite Lasch to the White House because he was interested himself in self-improvement. He and his team knew that malaise was on the minds of his voters. He missed, though, that many of these voters didn’t want to have such malaise affirmed: they wanted it put down. The counterculture became a convenient scapegoat for falling productivity; if Americans could just stop focusing on themselves and work harder, the nation could enjoy a new dawn instead of suffering under a full moon. That’s the story that Reagan told to his voters, in the Morning in America commercial and elsewhere.
It’s fitting, then, that the premier werewolf movie of the Reagan era, Teen Wolf, starred Michael J. Fox, an actor then best known for playing the arch-conservative Alex Keaton on Family Ties. In Teen Wolf, becoming a werewolf means becoming more productive. After Fox’s transformation, he becomes a stellar student, a clutch basketball player, and the school’s most popular student. In other words, transforming into a werewolf helps him be better at his job. By the time Teen Wolf comes out, it was hip to be square: cultures of self-improvement had merged with cultures of productivity, such that cultivating an interesting self became a crucial part of succeeding in the workplace. This was the message of In Search of Excellence (1982), the best-selling book by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman. It advised readers to cultivate “a spirit of self-reliance, adventure, and willingness to try new things” in order to succeed on the job. Self-improvement had moved from a site of dissident anti-production to the core of capitalist enterprise. In this new spirit of capitalism, the werewolf was tamed, or at least could lend its animalistic energies to accumulation: the wolf could find Wall Street.
One might posit, in fact, that by adding a wolf to the title of Wall Street (1987), the title of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street suggests just this: that Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko was a grown-up version of Fox’s Teen Wolf character, an out-of-control animal disguised as a trader. But of course, The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t about real werewolves: the film’s title uses the werewolf as an oblique metaphor to examine the animalistic consequences of the 1980s version of narcissism: Gekko’s pronouncement that “greed is good.” Actual werewolves would never reach the same peak that they did in 1981. Teen Wolf became a minor franchise, werewolves play secondary roles in Twilight and True Blood, and a smattering of werewolf films would continue to pop up (1994’s Wolf, the Ginger Snaps films of 2000 and 2004, 2010’s The Wolfman). As the dissenting energies of the counterculture became, on the one hand, banished to the margins as radical and, on the other, absorbed into cultures of productivity, the particular characteristics of the werewolf mattered less. Instead, the zombie has been installed as the ur-figure for late capitalism: lumbering, mindless workers who have lost their individuality. Once everyone jogs and does yoga, these activities are no longer monstrous, just part of the daily grind of getting slightly ahead of one’s fellow workers.
But as the werewolf disappears as a figure for critiquing Americans that dissent from the mainstream, it becomes available as a figure for marginality. This accounts for the tenderness with which Ferris treats the werewolf in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Sheared of its violence, in Ferris’s hands the werewolf becomes something different: a metaphor for the ways in which a productivity-focused culture rejects subjects that it deems unproductive. For Ferris, the werewolf is less a way to grasp the specter of some Americans’ narcissistic choices, and more a way to understand queer, immigrant, and differently abled bodies. After all, when Trump invokes a crisis of confidence, he does so by pointing directly at the figures that Ferris celebrates. In interviews, Ferris has made this connection herself, comparing her character’s persecution to the 2017 events in Charlottesville, Virginia. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters returns, under the altered politics of the present, to problems of insurrection and werewolves. 1981’s werewolf films worked to banish the counterculture to the margins. Returning to them in the context of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters shows us that worries over a wolfish culture of narcissism were worries about maintaining an intact American center.
Andrew Strombeck is associate professor of English at Wright State University. His DIY on the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art after the 1975 Fiscal Crisis is forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2020.
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