Selling Out and Coming Out in Teen Wolf (1985)
Content warning: This article discusses homophobic language used in Teen Wolf (1985).
A couple years ago, when I started to mull over the queerness rife within werewolf media, I sat down to watch Teen Wolf (1985) for the first time since childhood. Between Marty McFly, Scott Howard, and Atlantis’s Milo Thatch, Michael J. Fox was like another family member in my household. His characters’ earnestness as well as their dissatisfied and often egotistical edge wheedled their way into my own personality. Even to this day, despite the mound of cheese Teen Wolf grates, I find the werewolf surfing atop a van undeniably delightful. Though Teen Wolf didn’t loom nearly as largely as Back to the Future—with a brother ten years older, some of my earliest memories are the trilogy on a constant loop—my family still had a go-to Halloween costume of a werewolf mask with furry gloves and flannel shirt complete with sunglasses stored away. The synthetic mask has since collapsed, though those gloves are still pretty kick ass. So when I revisited Teen Wolf as an adult, I was struck by two things: first, it essentially has the plot of High School Musical (to the degree that I joked with friends that Scott beat Troy Bolton by two decades in the tension between basketball star and thespian, a neat metaphor for bisexuality) and, second, it is incredibly—and fretfully—queer.
In Beacontown, Scott Howard is the first-stringer for his high school’s abysmal basketball team and lusts after the unattainable Pamela Wells despite his best friend Lisa “Boof” Marconi’s interest in him. Scott’s life could be pretty much anyone’s. He works at his dad’s hardware shop; they don’t have much money but they’re not in too bad shape either. His mom has passed away. “I’m sick of being so average,” he opines to Boof. But when the full moon glows, Scott finds he isn’t so average: like his father, Scott is a werewolf. Soon, his friend Stiles capitalizes on this peculiarity by selling “teen wolf” t-shirts and memorabilia, and the school adopts Scott as part celebrity, part mascot. He gets the girl and the attention he longs for, overlooking father’s warnings. As he realizes that it’s the wolf, however, and not Scott himself who is beloved, he forgoes his celebrity status, acknowledges his feelings for Boof, and wins the basketball game—all as himself: the (mostly) average Scott Howard.
With the 1980s’ explosion of creativity in horror and the resurgence of the werewolf, it’s no surprise that a teen comedy might also wet its snout. From the college-aged David Kessler of An American Werewolf in London to the Fitzgerald sisters and the third-wheel of Twilight’s love triangle Jacob Black, or, more recently, Stephen Graham Jones’s bildungsroman Mongrels, the werewolf has come to represent that sticky in-between period of change and self-discovery. When Scott tells his coach, “I’m going through some changes,” the joke is obvious. Like puberty, Scott Howard’s transformation is not, for the most part, painful. Many of its signs occur in the settings you’d expect: Scott pulls a long stringy hair from his chest in the school locker room and shifts fully into the wolf behind his own locked bathroom door. Teen Wolf is, more than anything, a romantic comedy in which the main character happens to be a fairly docile werewolf. Scott’s powers aid him in typical teen comedy hijinks—in one particularly silly moment his eyes glow red as he demands a keg of beer after being carded. But more than simply a romcom, Teen Wolf’s injection of its lycanthropic premise invites a queer reading. Its narrative mirrors the most trite of coming out plots, hitting such familiar beats as coming out of a (literal) closet, confessing his condition to his friend Stiles, and then celebrating his uniqueness. That is, up to a point.
On the evening of a full moon, Scott attends a party where he’s pushed into a closet with Boof for a “two minutes in heaven” game. Though he feels “kind of weird,” Boof entices him into a kiss that soon becomes rough. As the audience, we’re in on the joke and when she turns around to reveal long scratch marks tearing through the clothes on her back, we know Scott’s transformation has begun. They stumble out, panting, as Stiles quips about coming out of the closet. When Scott fully transforms in his bathroom that night, he opens the door to his father who has similarly changed. The following morning, Mr. Howard attempts to calm down his son: “Don’t believe all that stuff you see in the movies. With certain obvious exceptions, werewolves are people just like anyone else.” Though he’d hoped the gene would skip a generation, Mr. Howard comments that “the werewolf is a part of you, but that doesn’t change what you have inside.” Unlike his father, who has apparently kept his own lycanthropy a secret to the degree that even his son doesn’t know of it, Scott is—eventually—openly a werewolf.
Scott has a harder time telling his friends. When Boof gently lets him know that if he needs someone to talk to and she’ll understand, he replies, “Not this time, Boof.” Immediately prior, alone together in a garage, he works up the courage to tell Stiles but is cut short. “Wait a minute,” he says, “are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? I mean, if you’re gonna tell me you’re a fag, I don’t think I can handle it.” Scott sheepishly replies, “No, I’m not a fag. I’m uh, a werewolf.” To prove it, he shifts into the wolf. His instant transformation, which he realizes he can induce, reads like a coming out scene. Though Scott refutes that he is anything but straight, this moment consolidates the conflation between queerness and lycanthropy. The audience can feel Scott waiting for acceptance, the moment of anxiety as he awaits Stiles’s reaction. “What can I say? You’re beautiful,” his friend concludes. As Scott leaves to meet Boof, he ensures that his secret remains between them.
Between the reveal of Scott’s lycanthropy and the end of the film, Teen Wolf molds the sexually charged nature of both puberty and lycanthropy (the latter regularly depicted as brutish and predatory) into a narrative of self-acceptance. Though Pamela sleeps with Scott, she won’t date him. Though he lands a role in the school play, the drama teacher only wants the wolf to perform. And while Scott becomes the star of the basketball team, it’s at the cost of his teammates’ friendship. Resistant to stereotypes and expectations, Teen Wolf proffers a perhaps more complex message than it intends: what makes you a “freak” can (and will be) manipulated by those same bigots into selling a particular version of yourself for money (as in Stiles’s case) and popularity (for the drama department and basketball team). For queer audiences, it’s a familiar problem espeically during Pride month—capitalism reroutes into playacted acceptance as long as it churns a profit. Scott’s ultimate rejection of the wolf for others’ pleasure indicates the hollowness of (self-)acceptance on such a basis.
Yet, Teen Wolf is far from radical. Its use of homophobic perjoratives aside, the film traffics in the same conservative plot as most romcoms as well as the newer “coming out” plot wherein normalcy is not rejected but instead renegotiated. Boof, though comfortable enough with the wolf, prefers Scott as “himself.” His father insists that Scott “get ahold of” his lycanthropy rather than allow it to control him (or others to control it). No longer the fluid embodiment his lycanthropy takes throughout most of the film, the distinction between Scott and the wolf settles into a binary. It is finally the human version of Scott that he presents throughout the end of the film, that kisses Boof, that wins the basketball game. The wolf is pushed back inside.
Despite its queer potentiality, the Teen Wolf property hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years. In 2011, MTV plucked the film from the lineup of faded horror-comedy flicks and recrafted it into a teen drama. Bolstered by the popularity of supernatural network programs like Supernatural (2005–2017) and The Vampire Diaries (2009–2017), Teen Wolf ran for six seasons. Up through the finale, audiences noted the series’ tendency to queerbait. Though the series is hardly indebted to its source material in anything more than name, like its predecessor, MTV’s Teen Wolf demonstrates capitalism’s acceptance of queerness as a tool of profitability and nothing more. Bump up against the confines of the skin you live in, and you’d better look and act a certain way. Make sure it’s digestible. Make sure it’s comprehensible. Make sure it’s a new normal. Otherwise, you’re on your own.
Marisa Mercurio is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD candidate, 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 Ghouls Magazine, World Literature Today, and Ginger Nuts of 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.