Queer Moon Rising: Introducing the Werewolf Reread
Tonight, a full moon rises on Halloween night across all time zones in the United States for the first time since 1944. Unleash the werewolf jokes. Trick-or-treaters, pack your silver bullets: that’s not your dog howling. Although neither glamorous like vampires nor as neat a metaphor as ghosts, werewolves stubbornly persist in horror—perhaps not the most beloved, but always prowling the periphery. Traditional lore states the werewolf, usually a man, transforms once during the lunar cycle: human throughout the month but a wolf under the full moon. That’s only mostly right.
A werewolf is something ineffably queer. It is neither human nor wolf, but rather a creature of its own. “Werewolf” is a spliced-together taxonomy (etymologically, “man” and “wolf”) that transforms into a concept bigger, looser, and more fearsome than its words suggest separately. It eludes fixed definition even as it prowls the genre; its familiar parts are rendered unrecognizable. Ever the outcast, werewolves destabilize gender and eschew sexual binaries. Lycanthropic monstrosity is rooted in their disruption of the moral and social fabric of a normative society.
“A werewolf is something ineffably queer. It is neither human nor wolf, but rather a creature of its own.“
Werewolf stories feature an average man with a hidden self, the metaphorical sexual “deviant” in a suit and tie who walks—or stalks—among us. Most often, however, werewolves figure as gender and sexual dissidents, particularly as they represent non-binary embodiments and desires. Their transformations demonstrate the malleability of bodies and their meanings. Sure, werewolves visibly go from bipedal to prowling on all fours (though not always). Teeth sharpen into fangs. Spines arch and bristle with hair. And often this moment of transition is itself central to the horror of the werewolf story. But what of the rest of the lunar cycle? In many books and films—even in some accounts of “real” lycanthropes—werewolves maintain telltale symptoms of their condition: the awkward loping gate, unhealed scars, lingering predatory behavior or signs of illness. Some werewolves can transform at will. The binary between wolf and human breaks down pretty fast when you start to pay attention.
Queer readings of werewolves as allegories for non-binary desires and embodiments have been overlooked in favor of more direct metaphors for transgression, like the vampire or, in SF horror, the alien body. And yet, as long as werewolves have been documented, they have been vehicles for anxieties about gender and sexuality. Because they explore the threatening nature of complex, intersectional identities, they’re also pretty good headliners for revenge tales. From sightings and executions in early modern period, to nineteenth-century Gothic literature, to a frankly outstanding number of films in the 1980s, werewolves are a horror staple. They’ve dug in their claws and are here to stay.
Gender, sexuality, and monstrosity are old bedfellows. As queerness increasingly enters mainstream discourse, widespread backlash likewise escalates. Culturally, we are erupting at the binary: we are obsessed with black and white, ever more specific labels and the visible categorization of identity. Society is fearful of anything that slips across boundaries. At the same time, queer creators’ efforts to reclaim horror and the monstrous terms in which we are rendered offer insight into the political complexity of monstrosity—whether dehumanizing and othering, empowering and anti-assimilationist, or a peculiar combination of each.
“Queerness cannot be extracted from horror. Queerness is not horror’s context, its sub-genre, nor its subtext; queerness is the genre’s very premise.“
So, as we enter a new decade of contestations and resistance regarding gender and sexuality, this series of essays will turn to the werewolf as a tried and true representation of ambiguities and transitions. A global and historical figure, werewolves offer particular insight into the tension between queerness and belonging across time and geographies. My approach in these essays will therefore summarize and provide commentary—and very likely, insoluble questions—on an array of literature and film that prominently feature werewolves. This series explores the works of horror fiction masters like Stephen Graham Jones and Stephen King, as well as debut authors and books from independent presses. Early texts from the nineteenth century and prior will also make an appearance. Films, too, will range from the first, now lost, werewolf film in 1913—about a Navajo woman seeking revenge on white settlers—through horror-comedies and dramas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There may not be a definitive werewolf, but there’s certainly no shortage of their stories.
Queerness cannot be extracted from horror. Queerness is not horror’s context, its sub-genre, nor its subtext; queerness is the genre’s very premise. Even in the frat boy sensibility of An American Werewolf in London, queerness always lurks around the corner. Werewolf tales unmoor bodies from static meaning, settle in the unsettled, and hide things deep within. It will be this series’s work to draw out gender and sexual dissidence from these stories.
Something is out there. Always has been. More terrifying—more wonderful—is that something may be within, too.
Join me on November 23, in roughly three weeks, for the first installment: an exploration of The Devourers by Indra Das.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.