Wolves in lore have long been male-centric, and it makes sense from a historical perspective. As a natural predator, the wolf has long been a symbol of might and aggression, a herald of militarism. Norse mythology gives wolves the honor of guarding Valhalla, and an entire class of ancient warriors known as Úlfhéðnar donned wolf skins in order to channel the animal’s ferocious and unquenchable bloodlust in battle. Lest you think that wolf lore is a boys club, Navajo lore mentions witches hiding in wolves’ clothing. A she-wolf holds the prominent position of representing Rome in the ancient myth of the Capitoline Wolf, who suckled Romulus and Remus when they were left for dead as babies. According to legend, the twins later founded Rome. So, the she-wolf’s status in myth and legend has oscillated between villain and heroine across time and region.
Onscreen, male werewolf stories have concerned themselves with the struggles of being a man and relating to other men in a society that forces men to walk a fine line with their masculinity. Be aggressive, but not too violent. Be a sexual Tyrannosaurus, but temper it at all times. Be loyal, but always fight for top dog status within your group, or else you’re weak. These themes embroider themselves into the plot of The Wolf Man, Teen Wolf, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Dog Soldiers, and even the non-horror Twilight films. All contain male boys/wolves jostling for position within a patriarchal hierarchy, or within a set of dominance rules. The position of women in these stories is usually irrelevant, which isn’t a bad thing, it just is.
Alongside Dracula and vampire lore, the werewolf has been used as a symbol of repressed desires. While vampirism emphasizes a metaphorical sexual repression, werewolf lore concerns itself with all primal hungers, to include the literal, the violent, and the sexual. In his book The Monster Show, scholar David J. Skal cites a wolf study and further elaborates:
“The classic ‘wolfish’ traits of voraciousness and bloodlust are uniquely human characteristics, nonexistent in the animal kingdom. Such negative wolf-lore is ‘almost a completely a projection of human anxiety,’ the wolf being ‘not so much an animal we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined.” (212)
Women have made their way into silver screen translations of those anxieties since the early 20th century. The transformation from girl to woman is a terrifying one, and the animalization of human girls into liberated beasts is a perfect onscreen translation of that transition. It’s been explored in a handful of now-classic horror films, one of the earliest of which is Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942). Cat People sees a New York fashion designer, Irena, marrying a naval architect, Oliver, but her fear of becoming an animal prevents her from consummating their marriage. The story equates a woman’s sexual awakening with beastly monstrosity, a theme later explored in John Fawcett’s 2000 horror film Ginger Snaps, which centers around the Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte and Ginger, whose odd, death-obsessed world is rocked when one of them is bitten by a dog-like monster. Following the attack, Ginger begins to exhibit strange symptoms including an extremely heavy menstrual flow, debilitating cramps, excessive hair growth, increased aggression, and skyrocketing sexual appetite. You know, like puberty. All of these symptoms may be considered rites of passage for young women but their normalcy doesn’t assuage any fear or confusion for the girl going through it.
In Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘R Treat, the she-wolf trope enjoys a sort of gender-bent return to form, less a curse than an unshackled Bildungsroman. One of several vignettes, the she-wolf segment begins with Laurie, a shy young woman in a Little Red Riding Hood costume who is strolling through town with her sister Danielle and a few friends. The girls all find dates to party with later in the evening except for Laurie. She wants her “first time” to be a momentous occasion, with a proper suitor. Later on, a hooded, fanged sexual assailant attacks Laurie, though she escapes. At a later bonfire, the hooded man falls out of a tree he was leering from and, once unmasked, turns out to be a sinister but non-vampiric character from earlier in the film. With narrative mascot Sam watching from a distance, Laurie and the girls transform into werewolves and feast upon all men present.
The transformation sequence is key here, as it strikes a stark difference from those of, say, An American Werewolf In London or even The Wolfman. in Trick ‘R Treat, the metamorphosis from woman to she-wolf is painless. Femmes dressed in Halloween costumes writhe and moan by the light of the bonfire, fully in tune with their bodies. A flurry of sexually-charged imagery flutters by: painted nails dragging across skin, lipstick-painted sighs revealing razor-sharp canine teeth, close-ups of gyrating flesh. Marilyn Manson croons a cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” as Laurie pounces onto her prey and rips apart his clothing. The most apt line of the song strikes a bullseye onto a Little Red Riding Hood/Big Bad Wolf subversion:
“Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you”
Rather than being used by the predatory wannabe Nosferatu, Laurie comes into her own by stalking, ensnaring, and consuming him. Using him. The only discomfort on her part is in pre-ritual jitters, which writer/director Dougherty cleverly disguises as benign social anxiety at first. Laurie is not a victim of a soul-crushing curse, nor is she pitted against other women in the alpha male power dynamics that so often dominates male werewolf stories. Rather, she’s strong, empowered in her lycanthropy. The parallel between her freeing transformation and her shame-free sexual awakening make for a powerful evolution in she-wolf cinema.
Sure, a deeper read could still present Laurie’s story as reflective of cultural fears about women’s sexuality. She’s still a textbook example of the monstrous feminine (as coined by feminist theorist Barbara Creed), after all. Laurie challenges the notion of the woman-as-victim in horror the moment that discards her chaste Little Red Riding Hood costume and sinks her teeth into her victim’s jugular. But by orienting the arc onto her coming of age and not how society treats her (save for the predatory man who gets his comeuppance), her agency and personhood take center stage. As she rips her skin off to reveal her true beastly self, Laurie is no longer scared. She is in ecstasy, giving in to her most primal urges. It may be monstrous to those watching, but Laurie, Danielle, and the other women at the bonfire feel no shame, no guilt, and no coerced fear about consuming men, both sexually and physically.
In this feast they are all in unison; no one fights over who is the fairest one of all, who is the most alpha of the group, none of the power struggles that their male counterparts are narratively beholden to. Instead, the women travel in a pack and protect one another (but they notably don’t act as guardians of their community as in Wolfen). It’s far more reflective of how wolves behave in the wild; The International Wolf Center’s website emphasizes a set of dominance rules which, if followed, largely prevents infighting and power struggles within the pack. They sleep, travel, and hunt as one. Of course, there are power dynamics between wolf packs and when a wolf becomes separated from its own pack, but within the context of this story of unleashed feminine power, it’s fitting that Laurie, Danielle, and the others are a tight-knit social group. Once lust is first satisfied, the she-wolf is an icon of feminine confidence. One need only get over the shyness about their “first time.”
The “projection of human anxiety” that Skal alludes to is front-and-center in wolf lore, and glaringly present in she-wolf horror. Ginger Snaps channels pubescent frustrations into a wolf story, whose sexual elements are injected with steroids in Trick R’ Treat‘s Little Red Riding Hood segment. The women therein do not fight for positions of power as their male counterparts often do in werewolf lore. No alphas or betas to be found in these stories. Instead, reflective of wolves in nature, these women are instinctive social predators who travel in packs and protect each other as family. In choosing these wild ways, the women protagonists of these stories find an untamed power that still eludes many of us in real life. Perhaps we should take off our red capes, too.