Teen Drama with a Bite: Human Animality in Teen Wolf

by Anastassiya Andrianova

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 65] Crossing borders or the ends of man I come or surrender to the animal—

to the animal in itself, to the animal in me and the animal at unease with itself...

--Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am

I’m gonna go stop the big bad wolf…which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever said.

--Dean Winchester, Supernatural

Teen Wolf (2011) is a supernatural teen drama currently in its fourth season and renewed for a fifth; besides inspiring On Fire: A Teen Wolf Novel (2012) by Nancy Holder (known for her tie-in books based on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Teen Wolf has also spawned a wiki, entitled “Your Complete Guide to the Teen Wolf Universe,” and a number of fan blogs, such as “Never Love a Wild Thing,” described as the show’s “official tumblr”; “This Might Hurt,” which posts spoilers; and the “Teen Wolf Outfit Shoppe,” which features outfits worn by characters with links to websites selling those or similar items. The creators of “Not Another Teen Wolf Podcast” were clearly aware of this widespread social phenomenon.1

Although it borrows its title from Rod Daniel’s 1985 film, the MTV series produced by Jeff Davis places “a greater emphasis on romance, horror and werewolf mythology” (Weisman). It is the latter that forms the subject of this paper. Using Daniel’s film as a counterexample, I argue that beneath the familiar tropes and aesthetic of teenage drama, in Davis’ Teen Wolf there lies a serious reflection on the relationship between humans and animals. Drawing on research in animal studies, I analyze key scenes in which the figure of the werewolf brings into focus both our fascination with and resistance to the wolf within, and demonstrate that while the 1985 film is largely anthropocentric, the 2011 series, as well as Holder’s tie-in novel, anthropomorphizes wolves to a lesser extent and reinforces the human-wolf connection; due to the privileging of the human, the freedom of will is a prominent factor in the former, while the latter assumes a philosophical determinism that stresses biological principles in interpreting social behavior. As such, the two versions of Teen Wolf also correspond to two different perspectives on anthropomorphism in recent animal studies debates.

Additionally, what Davis’ series brings out more than its predecessor is the transitional and ambiguous nature of the werewolf. From the anthropological perspective, the process of “turning” could be seen as part of a rite of passage, with the transitioning from human to wolf [page 66] constituting not only an ambiguous “liminality” of the individual who is paradoxically “no longer classified and not yet classified” (in the words of Victor Turner), but also a threatening one, heightened by the simultaneous transformations associated with puberty (sexual maturation and other hormonally induced changes). “Liminal sites” separating the rational and the intelligible from that which transcends these (the Numinous, the supernatural, or the Other) are also a staple of Gothic fiction, where the “movement” between the two domains is “presented as a transgression, a violation of boundaries” (Aguirre 2-3). And it is the challenge to and violation of boundaries between the human and the Other that may be responsible for the feeling of horror, but also that of fascination, the werewolf induces.

Although “not a hugely successful film,” Daniel’s Teen Wolf inspired an animated television series and a big screen sequel, Teen Wolf Too (1987), along with the MTV series. It has been said that “the only resemblance [the latter] bears to the Michael J. Fox campy, goofy classic film is the title” and that “it is closer to The Lost Boys and Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the original movie about suburban werewolves adapting to conventional society” (Steiger 277). Some differences between Daniel’s film and its latest teenage werewolf adaptation are seemingly inconsequential: Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) plays basketball and inherits the werewolf gene from his father, whereas Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) is a lacrosse player “turned” by a bite. While Fox’s Scott works at the local hardware store run by his father, Posey’s Scott works at an animal clinic, assisting a veterinarian who is surprisingly knowledgeable about werewolves and is revealed to be a member of the wise ancient race of Druids.

The difference in the way identity is constructed is, on the other hand, quite telling and has to do with a different treatment of the human-animal relationship: it is more complex in Davis’ Teen Wolf, being both a source of conflict driving the plot and a deeper philosophical problem. Whereas his new identity as “The Wolf” transforms Fox’s Scott into a celebrity and attracts his dream girl Pamela (Lorie Griffin), Posey’s Scott must conceal his condition which also interferes with his love interest, Allison Argent (Crystal Reed), who comes from a long line of werewolf hunters and is herself a skilled archer. (Allison’s surname means “silver” in French and is, therefore, a telling one since silver bullets are fatal to werewolves.) In the end, the former wins the championship game on his own merit, not as “The Wolf,” and leaves the blonde bombshell for the quirky brunette Boof (Susan Ursitti), who prefers his human self; his transformation is merely a means to an end. Posey’s Scott, however, cannot suppress his newly acquired animal identity and finds himself at the center of an intricate social structure with conflicting intra-species allegiances: werewolves vs. hunters (and, in Season 3, also Druids) and a [page 67] hierarchy intrinsic to werewolves, which includes Alphas (the most powerful werewolves who can transform into wolves), Betas (less powerful werewolves who can become Alphas by killing another Alpha, or through sheer will), and Omegas (lone wolves, including former Alphas and Betas, who do not currently belong to any pack). No less telling is the “turning” of Jackson Whittemore (Colton Haynes), the handsome captain of the lacrosse team, into a murderous shape-shifting lizard controlled by a rogue hunter. Even less expected is Allison’s death at the end of Season 3.

Whereas Daniel’s film is anthropocentric and incorporates animality as the Other against which to define and ultimately empower the human, Davis’ series invites us to revisit the figure of the werewolf and to interrogate the boundaries between humanity and animality. Examining the two side by side highlights their fundamental difference in the representation of what I call “human animality.” The term originally appeared in Chapter 25 of Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf (1904), whose hero, the captain of the schooner Ghost Wolf Larsen, exhibits aggressive, animalistic behavior. It brings the human and animal together without collapsing the two, and seems to me more elegant than the neologism “humanimality” employed by some scholars, poets, and animal activists, such as Carrie Packwood Freeman, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri, and Bhanu Kapil. The term is meant to delineate the “borders” the “crossing” of which, to draw on my reading of Jacques Derrida’s seminal essay The Animal That Therefore I Am, is an important locus where human autonomy/identity can (and must) confront the animal before it can “surrender…to the animal in itself, to the animal in me and the animal at unease with itself” (Derrida 372). Without collapsing the human with the animal, “human animality” is also meant to register the animal’s difference, thereby avoiding the charge of anthropocentrism, that is, the privileging of the human over the animal.

The figure of the werewolf is both animal and human, but at the same time neither fully animal nor fully human.2 The word can be traced back to the eleventh century and is derived from the late Old English werewulf, with the first element usually identified with wer meaning “man” (OED). Werewolves are alternatively called “lycanthropes” (from the Greek lykos meaning “wolf” and anthropos, “man”). Due to this duality, the werewolf functions like Donna Haraway’s “cyborg,” inviting us to reconsider the usefulness of the “the line between humans and animals … re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science” and yet also “thoroughly breached” given similarities in “language, tool use, social behaviour, mental events” (Haraway 151-2). [page 68]

Although werewolves are fictional creatures, the juxtaposition of wolves and men involved in producing this figure is grounded in historical realities. Evolutionary biology offers one possible explanation for the human interest in and affinity with wolves. John Morgan Allman notes that wolves and humans 150,000 ago exhibited similar cooperative hunting behavior and social structure (extended families where females and males took care of the young); he suggests that the African ancestors of modern humans may have been more successful than other populations in Eurasia due to the presence of wolves and their domestication (204-5). Wolf cubs, like humans and other young mammals, engage in social play, behavior that “may be essential in the development of the forebrain” (Allman 117-8). Moreover, the legend of Romulus and Remus, who are reared by a she-wolf, along with similar Turkish, Persian, Teutonic, Irish, Aztec, and Navaho stories, “all have accounts of wolves that nurtured humans, all possibly deriving from early observations of the close family ties within wolf societies” (Allman 158). The link between social instincts and empathy, which humans share with wolves, was also underscored by Darwin, who wrote, in The Descent of Man, that “[a]nimals endowed with the social instincts take pleasure in one another’s company, warn one another of danger, defend and aid one another in many ways” (680). Writing less optimistically about humankind and emphasizing aggression over cooperative hunting, Freud insisted that humans were not “gentle creatures who want to be loved,” but ones “among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.” “Homo homini lupus,” Freud concluded after citing the ways in which humans treat their neighbor as “someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause pain, to torture and kill him”—all of these, by inference, being wolfish traits (111). In Greek mythology, Lycaon was turned into a wolf as punishment for sacrificing a human child, thereby associating the wolf with transgression against divine authority and lack of human empathy. (This myth is referenced in Davis’ Teen Wolf, where, departing from Pausanias’ account (8.2.3), the Arcadian Lycaon seeks help from the Druids.)

Paradoxically, then, wolves have been regarded as exemplary of both cooperative social behavior and aggressive anti-social tendencies, at once reaching out to others and having no empathy at all. This carries over into the conception of werewolves, as well, and might explain why these figures inspire an ambivalent reaction: a mixture of fascination, empathy, fear, and perhaps even disgust. Sharing the characteristics of both humans and wolves and yet categorized as neither, werewolves can be said [page 69] to inhabit a liminal space, one “betwixt and between” humanity and animality. In his discussion of the symbols, rituals, and rites of passage, Victor Turner famously coined the phrase “betwixt and between” to designate “liminality,” which he described “as a process, a becoming, and in the case of rites de passage even a transformation” rather than a fixed state (e.g., married or single, infant or adult) (234). It is a transition from what Arnold van Gennep, in Les rites de passage (1909), called “isolation” and “aggregation”: the phase of detachment from a social group or state and the consummate phase of the “passage,” when the individual is once again in a stable state with clearly defined rights, obligations, and ethical standards, respectively. Because the so-called “liminal personae” are both in between structure and beyond it, they are “structurally ‘invisible’,” “at once no longer classified and not yet classified” (Turner 234-5). Our inability to categorize, as Mary Douglas has shown in her study of symbolic ritual in Purity and Danger (1966), yields confusion and uneasiness; elaborating on Douglas’ research, Turner concludes that “liminal personae nearly always and everywhere are regarded as polluting to those who have not been ‘inoculated’ against them, through having been initiated into the same state” (236). Turner has been criticized for failing to see that his notion of “liminality” is “essentially utopian” (“issuing in homogenous communitas followed by a regenerative return to structure”) and for “privileging his sense of social leveling and attendant cultural bonding over what we now recognize as an encounter with identity politics and the border,” the latter a place where ambiguity is espoused and “a zone capable of nourishing a rich grid of ‘crisscrossed’ [a term used by Renato Rosaldo] multiple identities” (Weber 530-1). Yet, his findings are still relevant and have been applied to the study of the Gothic by Manuel Aguirre, who looks at “liminal sites [as] not only thresholds into the Numinous, but themselves numinous territory,” not just “passageway[s] that lea[d] to the Other,” but places where “the Other takes over and ‘colonizes’ its own frontiers” (5). To Turner, the significance of the “margin” or “limen” lies in its capability to “expose the basic building blocks of culture just when we pass out of and before we reenter the structural realm” (243). Werewolves are “liminal personae” insofar as they are sites of conflict, and thus also opportunities to interrogate the similarities and differences, between human and animal identity, allegiances, and ethical standards. The resultant ambiguity is confusing, threatening, and also “nourishing” since turning into a wolf, as we will see further, has its benefits and drawbacks.

To fully understand the significance of the simultaneous blurring and reinforcement of boundaries that the werewolf embodies, we must turn to animal studies, which is a developing interdisciplinary field concerned [page 70] with human-animal relations and the representation and treatment of animals in literature, philosophy, and science. It originated in the animal liberation movement and Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation. Similar to eco-criticism, it is open to feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism, and other theoretical perspectives. In their examination of animals vis-à-vis humans and as beings-in-themselves, scholars interrogate Enlightenment ideas about human exceptionalism, criticize anthropocentric biases, emphasizing what Haraway describes as “entanglement…the inseparability of human and nonhuman worlds and of the ‘naturecultures’ that have evolved as a result,” and demand the ethical treatment of animals based on empathy (Weil xvii). Animal studies has been aligned with women and ethnic studies; it is the latter, as Kari Weil suggests in Thinking Animals (2012), that allowed the field to gain legitimacy: “If animal studies has come of age,” she writes, “it is perhaps because nonhuman animals have become a limit case for theories of difference, otherness, and power” (5). One of the important questions shared by these discourses is that of language, and it is there that animal difference is particularly felt: unlike their human counterparts, nonhuman animals can never have a voice. Appealing to Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Weil asks, similarly, whether in our attempt to “bring animal difference into theory” we may not risk imposing upon this dispossessed population the language of Western intellectuals. “[Spivak’s] essay may serve as a warning to some who, for example, would try to teach apes to sign in order to have them tell humans what they want” (Weil 5).

There are two main perspectives on anthropomorphism in animal studies: those who, like Haraway and Vicki Hearne, identify with animals and rely on the language of “love or respect or achievement” have been charged with anthropomorphizing them; others find in anthropomorphism a productive approach that encourages empathy and helps the ethical cause of animal rights—with “anthropomorphism [as] the first step to attributing mind to another being and, hence, to acknowledging an other as a subject capable of pain, pleasure, and will” (Weil 19, 47). Building on the work of Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, Weil explains:

On the one hand, as a process of identification, the urge to anthropomorphize the experience of another, like the urge to empathize with that experience, risks becoming a form of narcissistic projection that erases boundaries of difference. On the other hand, as a feat of attention to another and of imagination regarding the other’s perspective, this urge is what brings many of us to act on behalf of the perceived needs and desires of an other/animal. (19) [page 71]

Weil’s solution to this is “critical anthropomorphism” defined as an ethical relating to animals that, like Jill Bennett’s “critical empathy,” is a “conjunction of affect and critical awareness”: “we open ourselves to touch and to be touched by others as fellow subjects and may imagine their pain, pleasure, and need in anthropomorphic terms, but stop short of believing that we can know their experience” (19-20). Opposing the charge that all research on animals is unavoidably biased, Rob Bottice urges us to acknowledge that authors begin their work “because they are human, with unique skill sets and marks of distinction.” “To embrace the anthropocentric means to acknowledge its a priori presence,” he contends. “This is not anthropocentrism as chauvinism, or prejudice (i.e. not anthropocentrist), but anthropocentrism as a non-optional starting point … A work may convincingly be constructed against an anthropocentrist world view, but its starting point will be no less based in the anthropocentric” (Bottice 12-3). Weil ultimately agrees: “It is hubris, if not bêtise, to believe that our thinking can fully escape humanism or that our thinking does not in the end come back to us as humans” (150).

At the other end of the anthropomorphism debate is what Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial,” that is, a “willful blindness to the human-like characteristics of animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves” (Weil 45). If anthropomorphizing animals risks becoming “anthropocentrist” (to use Bottice’s term) and is yet necessary for Weil’s “critical anthropomorphism,” the latter acknowledges human interconnectedness with the animal world (what Haraway describes as “entanglement”), but can also invite the charge of biologism. The latter, also called biological or genetic determinism, is defined as “the attribution of sole or excessive importance to biological factors in the determination of intelligence, behaviour, development” (OED); it challenges the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) according to which it is culture, rather than nature/biology, that determines human behavior. The view is sometimes associated with scientism (often used pejoratively, the belief that scientific knowledge and techniques can solve all of life’s problems), scientific racism, and other positivist applications of the evolutionary theory outside of the natural world, such as social Darwinism (Wright 7). Derrida warns us against it, “that we must not invoke the violence among animals, in the jungle or elsewhere, as a pretext for giving ourselves over to the worst forms of violence” (qtd. in Weil 22-3). In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright defends the relatively new science of evolutionary psychology against this charge, and argues that it acknowledges the importance of Darwinian natural selection in determining human behavior, but stops short of assigning nature any moral authority or adopting “‘values’ that seem implicit in its workings—such as ‘might makes right’” (10). [page 72]

Viewed in this light, the 1985 film errs on the side of anthropodenial whereas the drama series errs on that of biologism. An analysis of two key scenes from the 1985 Teen Wolf should make sufficiently clear that it is an anthropocentric film, which privileges the wer over the wolf and treats lycanthropy as a transitional stage leading to a more assertive human identity. This will, in turn, provide a telling contrast to the subsequent discussion of the series.

In the first of these scenes, Fox’s Scott reveals his identity to his best friend Rupert “Stiles” Stilinsky (Jerry Levine). As the latter rummages in his garage, the visibly tense Scott says he needs “to talk to someone.” Wearing one of his signature T-shirts (with the words “What are you looking at dicknose”), Stiles responds in a manner equally uncouth,

STILES. Hey, man. Are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? If you gotta tell me you’re a fag, I don’t think I can handle it.

SCOTT. [stepping back with a smirk] I’m not a fag…I’m a werewolf.

Once Scott transforms, Stiles has trouble recognizing him, stumbles over some furniture, and eventually asks whether he “can do that any time [he] want[s].” Surveying his changed stature, Stiles declares: “What can I say? You’re beautiful.” Scott snorts involuntarily. After the initial shock, Stiles not only embraces his friend’s newly discovered condition, but also capitalizes on it by parading in the “Wolfmobile” and selling “Wolf buddy” merchandise. Lycanthropy is not necessarily bad when controlled and released at will. The superhuman strength Scott acquires when he “turns” not only makes him wildly popular, the mark of high-school domination, but also enables him to challenge Mick McAllister (Mark Arnold), the captain of the opposing basketball team, by becoming a better player and winning over his girlfriend.

Yet this triumph is short-lived. After he claws and rips Mick’s shirt at the spring dance, the crowd of spectators comes to see Scott as a monster; at the same time, however, this violence is contained, and the tension is momentarily lessened through the crowd’s laughter. In this second key scene, Mick demands that Scott stay away from his girlfriend, and taking a jab at him adds, “She’s mine. Stick with your own kind, freak, like that little tramp” (pointing at Boof). Earlier, while getting ready for the dance and donning his black shirt and white jacket, Scott was only too happy to flaunt his difference, saying, “He’s right. You are an animal,” and howling happily to the theme from Saturday Night Fever. But the same term—“animal”—acquires pejorative connotation after his altercation with Mick, when Pamela turns to the crowd of spectators gathered around the two men and exclaims, “What are you all laughing at? You’re just some kinda animal.” That lycanthropy is a transitional rather than a definitive characteristic is confirmed shortly after in Mr. Howard’s encounter with [page 73] Vice Principal Thorpe, who continually scrutinizes and harasses Scott. “He’s a good kid,” Scott’s father (James Hampton) insists. “He’s just having a tough time right now.” Ultimately, it is as a human that Scott wins the championship, and he chooses to be with Boof who refuses to accept him as “The Wolf.” Just as Gene Fowler Jr.’s 1957 film I Was a Teenage Werewolf, this Teen Wolf features “the werewolf as a symbol of adolescent experience,” that is, “the story of a young man who discovers he has werewolf tendencies and parlays them for social acceptance” (Dziemianowicz 684). Once Fox’s Scott gains that acceptance, his inner wolf becomes superfluous.

There is one more obvious way in which the werewolf acts as a symbol of adolescent experience: “turning” is metonymical for androgenic effects, and the newly “turned” teenage werewolf exhibits the symptoms of male puberty, including the growth of androgenic hair (body and facial), changes in musculature and voice, and heightened virility. By analogy, then, once the proverbial “awkward stage” passes, the adult human can resume his normal life, as is the case with Scott’s father in Daniel’s film and, presumably, with Scott himself now that he has come to reconcile his wolf/man conflict. Although there are multiple opportunities for registering animal difference and for thinking critically about the presence of animal traits in humans, this film does not transcend the anthropocentrist tone set early on. To put it differently, what is missing is an acknowledgement of the ambiguity and structural “invisibility” Turner identifies specifically with male puberty: Daniel’s Teen Wolf never really dwells on how “to define the structurally indefinable ‘transitional-being’” that is “a not-boy-not-man, which is what a novice in a male puberty rite is (if he can be said to be anything)” (Turner 235). Fox’s Scott is not an “initiate” or “neophyte” excited about all the changes and challenges involved in his transitional or “liminal period,” but someone who is eager to leave the domain of the Other and reconfirm his membership in the safer, more stable human community.

Compared with such voluntarism exhibited in suppressing the wolf and winning the championship game, Posey’s Scott is far more conflicted and finds himself in a universe less optimistic about human potential. “‘Animals have a will,’ Kant wrote, but they do not have their own will, only the will of nature. ‘The freedom of humans is the condition under which the human being can be an end himself’” (qtd. in Weil 89). Human behavior in the new Teen Wolf is interpreted largely through biological determinism, suggesting that the freedom of the human will may also be an illusion. An illuminating example appears in Episode 3.8 (22 Jul. 2013) entitled “Visionary,” which is atypical in that it lacks a linear plot line and unravels as a series of contradictory flashbacks from the viewpoint of [page 74] different (and likely unreliable) narrators meant to provide the back-stories of the principal characters. This episode includes two separate accounts of the parable of the scorpion and the frog: by Allison’s grandfather, the hunter mastermind Gerard Argent, to Scott and Allison; and by the leader of the werewolf pack, Peter Hale, to Stiles. In this fable, commonly attributed to Aesop, the scorpion asks the frog to carry him over the stream on his back, reassuring the frog, for whom the scorpion is a natural predator, that he would not sting him since that would result in their mutually assured destruction. Yet the two animals drown as they are crossing the stream because the scorpion cannot help himself, and his nature takes over—the reason Scott readily supplies when he hears the fable. Unlike Scott Howard, Scott McCall cannot go back to a semi-normal life after he is “turned.” Lycanthropy is not just a gene; it is an affliction. Although it can be partially disciplined, it also inscribes the werewolf into a new community and hierarchy that demand a different kind of socialization in addition to the already fraught passing through puberty.

The first few conflicts Posey’s Scott faces show how the wolf and the man are intertwined, though not always to the man’s advantage. If before he was “turned” he used to be a socially awkward, average lacrosse player, now he makes first line and attracts Allison’s attention; however, the first lacrosse game of the season meant to vindicate his new social status (“Second Chance at First Line” 1.2; 6 Jun. 2011) poses a difficulty: he resorts to his new powers to win the game, but dashes off the field immediately after, realizing he cannot control his aggression and stop an impending transformation. In Season 4, a hit list is discovered with the names of all the supernatural creatures in Beacon Hills, California, where Scott resides, along with dollar amounts to be collected upon their murder; revealing supernatural abilities in public exposes an individual to far more than social death by ostracism, however devastating that may seem to a teenager. The stakes are much higher than in the 1985 film, in other words; should one’s true identity be discovered, the outcome is death at the hands of hunters or hired assassins, rather than rejection by peers.

The opening sequence in the pilot episode (“Wolf Moon” 1.1; 5 Jun. 2011) takes place the night before school starts; it is at first ostensibly lighthearted and even goofy. Posey’s Scott is shown fixing the net on his lacrosse stick and doing pull-ups shirtless, thereby revealing his hairless, muscular adolescent torso; after brushing his teeth, he looks in the mirror, and that is when the audience first sees his face. Scott hears a strange noise, goes outside with a bat, and is startled by his best friend “Stiles” (Dylan O’Brien) who falls out, hanging upside down from Scott’s terrace. Through the Gothic trope of the explained supernatural,3 the tension is [page 75] alleviated:

SCOTT. Stiles, what the hell are you doing?

STILES. You weren’t answering your phone! Why do you have a bat?

SCOTT. I thought you were a predator.

Stiles, the son of Beacon Hills’ Sheriff Stilinski who has a habit of eavesdropping on his father’s police dispatches, proceeds to inform Scott that there has been a murder, but that only one of the severed halves of the dead body has been discovered. The two run through the woods on this strange scavenger hunt, which culminates in Scott being bitten by an animal on all fours resembling a wolf. The latter is known as “the Alpha” and is the main antagonist in Season 1 who, we learn in Episode 9, turns out to be Peter Hale (Ian Bohen), one of the few remaining werewolves in his family; the halved corpse belongs to his niece Laura whom Peter had to kill to become the new Alpha. Not only does Posey’s Scott need to learn how to discipline his inner wolf; he is also inscribed into a violent hierarchy where predators become prey, and one either kills or is killed.

Two elements in the opening sequence are particularly important: the mirror and the case of mistaken identity. Although one may dismiss it as typical teenage narcissism, Scott’s mirror reflection exemplifies the Gothic trope of the mirror and introduces the doubling he will experience when he is “turned” later in the episode.4 There will be two more mirror scenes in the first two episodes: one, when incited by bloodlust (the instinct to kill especially powerful on the night of a full moon), he leaps onto the roof of Allison’s house and sees himself reflected in her window; the other, when he involuntarily “shifts” while scoring the winning goal in the lacrosse game, rushes into the locker room to avoid being discovered, and smashes the mirror upon seeing himself in full werewolf form. The second element, Scott’s mistaking his best friend for a predator, develops the theme of the double and the confusion between predators/hunters and victims, as well as between enemies and allies, which renders Scott’s identity—as teen/wolf/werewolf—dangerously murky. No longer fully human and not yet part of a wolf pack or familiar with the rules of this new structure, Scott is “betwixt and between” experiencing an inner struggle with the dark Other, whom he attempts to avoid and suppress but must ultimately give into, espouse, and train. (In Season 3, Stiles does become the predator and is responsible for several deaths when he is possessed by a demon, a trickster figure who has an objective existence separate from his host but whom he can inhabit, manipulate, and replicate, thereby making it impossible to identify the real predator, to distinguish the Other from the self.)

Although it juxtaposes a similarly anxious Scott with a similarly [page 76] incredulous Stiles, the recognition scene in the MTV series bears little resemblance to its 1985 analogue. Unlike Fox’s Scott who self-identifies as a werewolf, Posey’s Scott has trouble articulating what his new condition is; instead, he provides a list of symptoms which Stiles interprets as constituting lycanthropy:

STILES. So all this started with a bite?

SCOTT. What if it’s like an infection, like my body’s been flooded with adrenaline, like I’m going into shock or something?

STILES. You know what, I actually think I’ve heard of this; it’s a specific kind of infection.

SCOTT. You serious?

STILES. [with his hands upon his waist in a self-important, pedantic manner] Yeah. I think it’s called lycanthropy.

SCOTT. What’s that? Is that bad? [visibly aghast]

STILES. It’s the worst, but only once a month.

SCOTT. Once a month?

STILES. On the night of the full moon. Awooooo.

SCOTT. [playfully punching Stiles in the chest] There could be something seriously wrong with me.

STILES. I know; you’re a werewolf! [imitates a wolf’s growling]

That it is Stiles, not Scott, who identifies him as a werewolf is not accidental; the werewolf is inflicted upon him and initiates an ongoing identity struggle. When Scott first tells Stiles about the howling he heard and shows him the wound from the night before, the latter assures him that there have been no wolves in California for sixty years. Scott is then shown sitting in an English class where the teacher writes “Kafka’s Metamorphosis” with a faint black marker on the white board, an ironic confirmation of his own “metamorphosis” which he does not yet recognize, yet feels acutely: he is deafened by a shrill ringtone, though no cell phones are in sight, and is able to hear Allison’s conversation across the school yard. His hypersensitivity in hearing and smell enable him, like Fox’s Scott, to win the game along with the girl, yet they are also symptomatic of his crossing into a much more violent and precarious world.

Already in Episode 1 it becomes clear that the bite, like the ambiguous figure of the werewolf, produces ambivalence. When talking to Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin), the Beta who would become his pack brother and mentor, Scott insists he does not want to be a werewolf. To this, however, Derek responds, “Is it really that bad, Scott? That you can see better, hear more clearly, move faster than any human could ever hope? You’ve been given something most people would kill for. The bite is a gift.” Like Prometheus’ gift of fire, the bite empowers and brings humans closer to the divine, but also risks unleashing great destruction [page 77] and suffering. Before Scott learns to “shift” at will with Stiles’ and Derek’s help, he finds himself at the mercy of his wolfish drives, with human nature conceived à la Freud more so than Darwin, as ruled by war of all against all more so than by cooperation and empathy.

Scott’s conversations with his other mentor, Dr. Alan Deaton (Seth Gilliam), make this ambivalence even clearer. When asked to review photographs of the first murder to assess whether an animal could have been involved, Deaton, his boss at the animal clinic, notes that while there may not have been any wolves in California for sixty years, the creatures “are highly migratory; they could’ve wandered in from another state driven by impulse or strong enough memory.” Appalled, Scott hesitantly mutters, “Wolves have memories?” Deaton explains that they have “long-term memories…if associated with the primal drive” (“Pack Mentality” 1.3; 13 Jun. 2011). It is also Deaton who tells him that he may be “the True Alpha,” one who rises to the status of an Alpha on the basis of character and through sheer willpower rather than by murdering another Alpha werewolf (“Currents” 3.7; 15 Jul. 2013). The claim that wolves have memory is an instance of blurring the human-animal boundary and a sign of anthropomorphism that privileges the animal by drawing a parallel with the human, what critics might dismiss as the projection of human traits onto less sophisticated sentient beings. Mid-way through Season 3 (“Lunar Eclipse” 3.12; 19 Aug. 2013), Scott does become an Alpha through his willpower; however, this is a far cry from the kind of anthropocentrism we find in the 1985 film: besides amplifying his physical prowess and sharpening his instincts, the Alpha status makes Scott more prone to violence.

Several other marginalized characters in the Teen Wolf drama series are empowered physically, psychologically, and socially by “turning”; yet like Scott, they are also forced to conceal these powers from others, and even if ceasing to function as pariahs in human society, they are subsumed into the werewolf hierarchy in which they are once again disenfranchised, given competing allegiances and enemies. Erica (Gage Golightly), an overweight epileptic with acne problems, is transformed into an athletic seductress and starts dating Boyd (Sinqua Walls), a black man who also gains confidence through lycanthropy. In “Master Plan” (2.12; 13 Aug. 2012), however, Erica is captured and tortured by Allison’s father, Chris Argent (JR Bourne), who is also a werewolf hunter; she escapes the hunter only to be captured, imprisoned, and ultimately killed by the Alpha Pack in Season 3. Boyd, the other Beta, dies from being impaled by Derek Hale, the leader of his pack, under the direction of a hostile Alpha. In contrast to Daniel’s film with its embarrassingly dated coming-out scene, moreover, homosexuality is represented more thoughtfully in the series [page 78] and offers another site of interconnectedness between werewolves and humans. The new Teen Wolf features an openly gay lacrosse player Danny (Keahu Kahuanui) who is romantically involved with an Alpha and whose love life receives serious treatment, especially when compared to Stiles’ childish infatuation with Lydia Martin (Holland Roden), who dates the werewolf’s identical twin brother. In the final episode of Season 3 (“The Divine Move” 3.24; 24 Mar. 2014), Danny breaks up with Ethan (Charlie Carver), admitting that the latter’s good looks and wonderful personality notwithstanding, he simply cannot be with a werewolf. The scene is consummated with a kiss and is a touching one, yet it is difficult to dismiss that it is the wolf that makes Ethan both attractive and unacceptable.

One aspect the film and the series share is the role of the werewolf’s beloved in bringing him back to the human domain, an archetype of women as men’s civilizers traceable back to Gilgamesh and Genesis. Allison, like Boof, civilizes her stray boyfriend; it is her voice that helps quell Scott’s murderous desire after he “shifts,” enabling him to return to human form (“Night School” 1.7; 11 Jul. 2011). The two eventually separate due to the Montague-Capulet feud their romance evokes (the first time Scott is wounded as a werewolf is with the arrow shot by Chris Argent), as well as the lack of trust on Allison’s part after Scott leaves the group at the mercy of the Alpha haunting the school. This is, in fact, one of the first trials Scott faces which also reveals his conflicting allegiances, with his human friends pitted against his new and not yet confirmed werewolf pack: the Alpha wants him to kill his friends because to have him in his new pack, Scott “ha[s] to get rid of [his] old [one].” While underscoring the similarity between wolves and humans in terms of social structure, then, this trial indicates that the two groups cannot peacefully coexist—something Scott would repeatedly challenge, but also suffer from, as he is “betwixt and between” the two.

The transitional character of the werewolf, along with the inner turmoil created by the multiple identities and allegiances it entails, is further developed in the episodes featuring Malia Tate (Shelley Hennig), a “werecoyote” (half-woman-half-coyote) who attacked and killed her adoptive mother and younger sister the night that she first “shifted.” Malia enters as a full coyote, but one haunted by the memory of her deed: investigating the unsolved case of her family’s deaths, Scott and Stiles discover a toy that belonged to her sibling, which was evidently part of Malia’s mourning ritual and the only visible remnant of her former human self. This pursuit brings into focus a series of confused identities and hierarchies: Malia, trapped in the body of a coyote for eight years, is transformed with Scott’s help, but she is uncomfortable in her own (new) skin and is almost immediately committed to an insane asylum—the [page 79] ultimate ostracism of the socially, and in her case also culturally and biologically, maladjusted. The three main characters, Scott, Allison, and Stiles, are simultaneously experiencing a liminality of their own while dealing with the aftereffects of transitioning between life and death (they were submerged in ice-cold water in order to obtain information otherwise inaccessible). The crossing of this boundary (compared by another character to “Bardo,” the state in between life and death in Tibetan Buddhism) leaves Allison hallucinating about her dead aunt and unable to aim her weapons; Stiles—suffering from insomnia, somnambulating, and incapable of distinguishing reality from dream; and Scott—apprehensive about “turning” for fear of not reverting back. As a result, Allison misses when she is given the task of shooting the coyote with a tranquilizer gun; his confused state having affected his ability to read, Stiles cannot help Lydia escape from the trap set by Malia’s adoptive father (traps, we are told, come with written instructions because “animals can’t read”); the latter correctly identifies the werecoyote as the perpetrator of his family’s tragic accident but, ironically, does not realize it is his own daughter; and Scott has to face his newly acquired identity as an Alpha. Thus, we have a fraught and potentially fatal confusion of the animal and the human typical of Davis’ drama: Malia, the therianthropic shape-shifting coyote, is hunted by her father, and both humans (Lydia) and werewolves (Isaac, another Beta) get caught in the traps he set for the coyote not knowing it was his lost human daughter, who had, in fact, murdered her mother and younger sibling because she could not control the aggressive instincts induced by her animal self. It is later revealed that Malia is, moreover, the biological daughter of Peter Hale, Derek’s uncle who bit Scott, a morally ambiguous character and repeated killer; like Scott, Malia would have to face the powerful Other as she struggles to define who she is and what motivates her in light of her own murderous past: genetics? animal instincts? both? neither? Finally, this and many other chase scenes throughout the series, including the initiating bite that “turned” Scott, take place in the woods just outside Beacon Hills; this is close to but also not part of the town’s civilized life, and hence itself a liminal locus and a perfect Gothic setting for the blurring and destabilizing of order and meaning.

The main themes of the drama series are further developed in Nancy Holder’s On Fire; these include the liminal nature of the werewolf, straddling the line between humans and wolves, and the inner conflict between instincts and willpower, or (animalistic) aggression and (human) control, which requires a continuous reshaping of the werewolf’s identity, allegiances, and ethical standards. “Turning” is similarly conceived as a metonymy for the physiological and emotional changes brought on by [page 80] puberty, with the supernatural giving emphasis to the already difficult decisions facing individuals as they pass from one phase of life to another. With the narrative interrupted by shifts in perspective, the novel directs our attention to and explores the psychology of the characters, their motivations and struggles; it also fleshes out Derek Hale’s back-story and, specifically, his entanglement with Allison’s aunt, the hunter Kate Argent, which anticipates Scott’s later romantic involvement with her niece.

Similar to the drama series, the novel reflects the dual impact of “the Bite.” Besides triggering potentially murderous urges, it also benefits the shape-shifter in constructive ways: “Becoming a werewolf had cured [Scott] of his lifelong asthma” (Holder 6). It also comes with “enhanced werewolf vision” (36). In “Weaponized” (4.7; 8 Aug. 2014), his infrared eyes (an attribute of an Alpha Werewolf) help Scott find the necessary antidote to a lethal canine distemper virus released by an assassin. In addition to healing powers, “[w]erewolves ha[ve] good spatial skills—they [a]re able to assess the shape and size of rooms, dens, and enclosures, notice entrances and exits” (Holder 196). The wolf inside is, moreover, a valuable instinctual guide to social interaction, at least within the werewolf group: “If someone had asked [Derek] to explain what was bothering him, he wouldn’t have been able to explain his reasons point by point. But he was a werewolf, and he had animal instincts, and his gut was telling him that there was something wrong” (113). At the same time, however, “the Bite” also divides the werewolf, pitting the human against the wolf. Scott experiences this conflict acutely when he is first bitten and nearly succumbs to the authority of the Alpha; he must exercise tremendous willpower to control his aggressive drive:

Come to me, a voice said inside Scott’s mind. Commanding, insistent. He didn’t want to obey, but he found himself moving forward like a sleepwalker. Come with me, the voice ordered…And then the voice said: Kill with me The wolf inside Scott howled crisis, menace, threat; but it also cried pack, belonging, Alpha… (7, original emphasis; 224)

At a later point, he orders himself not “to wolf” the same way that Derek did before him (101, 135). Protecting Allison means “keep[ing] her safe [f]rom the wild wolf, and the darkness, and himself” (83), a list of nouns comprising Scott’s identity as part animal, part Gothic hero, and part human. In the comedic universe of Daniel’s film, there may be some mishaps, but human willpower prevails, whereas in the two contemporary versions, werewolves have to continually control their urges, claim and give up their powers, and move between different groups/packs in what is a more complex, as well as darker, depiction of human-animal interaction.

One pivotal source of discord in Davis’ Teen Wolf predates the narrative proper; it is a fire that took place at the Hale residence, claimed [page 81] the lives of Derek’s relatives, and left his uncle Peter in a coma for six years. It is also one of the two fires referenced in the title to Holder’s novel; the other, at the end of the narrative, nearly consumes Scott. The former was started by Kate Argent in violation of the hunters’ code of honor, namely, “We [only] hunt those who hunt us”; to the renegade, “The Code” seemed “an outmoded relic of a different time” (Holder 42). “In her opinion, the only good werewolf was a dead werewolf” (98). As part of her plot against the Hales, Kate got hired as a swim instructor at Derek’s school and seduced him, then still an unaware teenager who, though born rather than “turned,” could not yet discipline his inner drives: “He was sixteen, and he was finishing human puberty. When hormones were racing through him, turning him into a man, it was hard for him to stay in control” (172). In a scene involving both characters, Derek’s shifting is implicitly compared to an adolescent male’s inability to hide an erection: seeing Kate, he became so agitated that “[h]e had no idea what to say to her, and he also had no idea how to get out of the pool without embarrassing himself” (159):

He made himself stay in the water until he was sure the wolf shift had reversed itself, and then he scrambled out of the pool…he wanted to be 100 percent positive that there were no telltale signs of the shift on his face—no sprouted hair, no long teeth, no glowing eyes. (162)

It is not inconceivable for a human adolescent to feel like a monster when confronted with an altered body which he cannot fully control, especially in the presence of desire; still, just as a teenager’s social ostracism and rejection by peers becomes for the werewolf a real threat of physical violence and death, so this scenario, though perhaps innocuous to an adolescent male who fears being exposed in front of a woman, for the werewolf carries far more risk: it is not a trait that will help the teenage werewolf rejoin the human community in a more mature state, but one that separates and makes him the Other to this community. Whereas the human adolescent transitions into adulthood, the werewolf is stuck in a permanent condition of liminality.

Indeed, admiring his physique, Kate reflects about Derek’s identity in terms that bring to mind Turner’s “betwixt and between”: “What a body. Still boyish, but with the sweet promise of a truly splendid man,” she concedes, but then hastens to introduce the very ambiguity that plagues the werewolf: “If she was right about the Hales [that they were werewolves], Derek would never become a man. Just as he wasn’t really a boy. He was a monster hidden inside a human disguise” (167). Yet, at the same time, the two have something in common: “Funny thing about werewolves. When you shot them or cut them open, their blood was red, just like humans’” (167). Faced with the ambiguous figure of the wolf whom she cannot categorize, Kate is at once drawn to and repelled by him. Paradoxically, then, werewolves are both boys and men, but also neither the one nor the other, and are at once not human and human in both appearance and lifeblood. The simultaneous lack of identity (“Derek would never become a man. Just as he wasn’t really a boy”) and the presence of multiple identities (werewolves’ “blood was red, [page 82] just like humans’,” but also, presumably, red just like wolves’) inspires a combination of admiration and horror.

Let us conclude by briefly considering another wolf figure in a television drama series. In an episode of Supernatural in which the Winchester brothers solve a series of crimes inspired by Grimm’s fairytales, Dean says to Sam, “I’m gonna go stop the big bad wolf…which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever said” (“Bedtime Stories” 3.5; 1 Nov. 2007). Dean would go on to say many more bizarre things, yet the “weird” feeling he mentions here is noteworthy. The weirdness of hunting “the big bad wolf” outside of the narrative world of “The Little Red Riding Hood” corresponds to the “uncanny effect [which] often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary,” one of the meanings Freud ascribes to “the uncanny” (150). This effect, Freud claims, is “nothing new or strange”; it corresponds to “the animistic phase in the development of primitive people” which “did not pass without leaving behind in us residual traces that can still make themselves felt” and, on the level of the individual, to that which “was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only by being repressed” (147-8).

“Crossing borders or the ends of man,” to quote Derrida once more, may produce anxiety not because it risks exposing humans to the unknown, but because it unearths a familiar bond humans have repressed due to the “culturally normal fantasy of human exceptionalism,” which Haraway defines as “the premise that humanity alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies” (qtd. in Weil 139). The borders between the supernatural and the real are, perhaps, like those between animals and humans. The return of the big bad werewolf as “the double” and our ongoing interest in werewolf mythology may be attributed to our evolutionary link, to the at once appalling and thrilling idea that wolves bring out the animal in us, and if recent scholarship on animals has it right, also the idea that there may be a bit of humanity in wolves, too. It is therefore high time that we revisit the old adage, Homo homini lupus. [page 83]


1. The sites referenced are: http://teenwolf.wikia.com/wiki/Teen_Wolf_Wiki, http://teenwolf.tumblr.com/, http://lovebeafraidteenwolf.tumblr.com/, http://teenwolfoutfitshoppe.tumblr.com/, and http://notanotherteenwolfpodcast.tumblr.com/.

2. For more on wolves, see L. David Mech’s The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (U of Minnesota P, 1970) and Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, co-edited with Luigi Boitani (U of Chicago P, 2003). For critical studies of werewolf mythology, see Elliott O’Donnell’s Werewolves (1912), Montague Summers’s The Werewolf (1933), Basil Copper’s The Werewolf in Legend, Fact and Art (1977), and Charlotte F. Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture (1986).

3. For a discussion of the trope, see Edward H. Jacobs’ Accidental Migrations: An Archeology of Gothic Discourse (Bucknell UP, 2000), 27.

4. For another example, see Harry M. Benshoff’s Dark Shadows (Wayne State UP, 2011), 29.

Works Cited

Aguirre, Manuel. “Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction.” Gothic Studies 10.2 (Nov. 2008): 1-17. EBSCO Host. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Allman, John Morgan. Evolving Brains. New York: Scientific American Library, 1999. Print.

Boddice, Rob. Introduction: The End of Anthropocentism.” Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments, ed. Rob Boddice. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011. Print.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow). Trans. David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter, 2002): 369-418. JSTOR. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan. “The Werewolf.” Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, ed. S.T. Joshi. 2 Vols. Westport, CT/London: Greenwood Press, 2007. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 21. London: Hogarth Press, 1978. Print.

-----. “The Uncanny.” The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. Intro. Hugh Haughton. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Holder, Nancy. On Fire: A Teen Wolf Novel. New York: MTV Books/Gallery Books, 2012. Print.

Ng, Philiana. “‘Teen Wolf’ Closes Out Season One on High Ratings Note.” Hollywood Reporter. 16 Aug. 2011. Web. n. p.

Pausanias. Description of Greece. Trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod. 4 Vols. Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP/London: William Heinemann, 1918. Perseus. Web. [page 84]

Steiger, Brad. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-shifting Beings. 2nd Ed. Detroit: Visible Ink P, 2012. Print.

Supernatural. Created by Eric Kripke. Warner Bros. Television, 2005. TV series. DVD.

Teen Wolf. Dir. Rod Daniel. Perf. Michael J. Fox. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 1985. Film.

Teen Wolf. Dir. Jeff Davis. Perf. Tyler Posey. MTV, 2011. TV series. DVD.

Turner, Victor W. “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.” Reader in Comparative Religion, ed. William A. Less and Evon Z. Vogt. 4th Ed. Harper & Row, 1979. Print.

Weber, Donald. “From Limen to Border: A Meditation on the Legacy of Victor Turner for American Cultural Studies.” American Quarterly 47.3 (Sep. 1995): 525-36. Print.

Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

Weisman, Jon. “MTV Greenlights Eight Projects.” Variety 23 (Jun. 2009). Web. n.p.

Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

MLA citation (print):

Andrianova, Anastassiya. "Teen Drama with a Bite: Human Animality in Teen Wolf ." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 65-84.