There are entire manuals dedicated to dissecting monsters, but when most people hear the word their minds go to the old Universal movie monsters consisting of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and Frankenstein's monster, which, oddly enough, are all also cereals here in the US. But with Twilight injecting a watered-down version of the old White Wolf RPGs into mainstream culture, werewolves and vampires have left the others in the dust and now vie for the top monster spot.
As always, I’m joined by fellow fantasy author, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen, to put this issue to bed.
Matt: In this discussion there can be no disagreement to the fact vampires will always take the top spot. If this was a videogame, the head boss would be the vampire while the werewolves would be relegated to their rightful place as guard dogs; end of level bosses at best. Because, and I say this without hyperbole, vampires are the greatest monster imagined. Because they enhance humanity so well.
All other of the major monsters mentioned above lose something when they become a monster: Their corporal form for ghosts, their beauty in Frankenstein’s monster (and zombies as well now that I think about it), and their rational, logical minds in werewolves. Vampires, on the other hand, gain everything. Depending on the mythos, they become stronger, faster, and can heal grievous wounds that would end mere mortals. Some of the more esoteric abilities include mind control and metamorphosis, but the most important power of all is the implicit implication of immortality.
So please, tell me how transforming into a deranged hairy beast once a month could possibly compare to eternal life?
Daniel: I was just in southern France for 3 weeks, enjoying its pleasant May sun. Already there I have one-upped all vampires. The only weakness worse than the sun would be water (hello aliens from Sign!). It depends a bit on the lore and myth, but in some instances, not only silver jewelry but religious iconography alone can do it. Or my favourite, a monster that is deadly allergic to garlic. This is not a monster, this is the description of a gluten-free trophy wife that just gave up dairy products, and who is probably rude to waiters.
In current pop culture, focus doesn’t seem to be on the vampire as a predator and supernatural threat. We get the brooding (some would say moping), pale version dressed in all black. I could say Byronic hero to be nice, but I really want to say emo. The way vampires are portrayed today, you get the impression they spend their time writing bad poetry, not stalking the innocent.
Werewolves, however, are still frightening as hell on several levels. On one hand, the idea of a werewolf chasing you is terrifying. It’s like a human-sized wolf or even greater. Faster, stronger, with claws and teeth for good measure. It may have the weakness to silver that vampires do, but that’s about it. If a werewolf is after you, you’re fresh meat.
On the other hand, what is even more terrifying than being killed by a werewolf is being bitten and turned into one. There is an aspect of both body and mind horror, i.e. losing control of them. You become a monster both physically and mentally. I find werewolves a lot more frightening than vampires, yet at the same time, in a post-Cullen era, I don’t think I could handle the associated stigma if I was turned into a vampire. Better to howl at the moon than only shop at Hot Topic.
Matt: Ah, I see what you did there by going for an all-out offense rather than defend your own point. They say desperation is a stinky cologne, and you have proved them right again by focusing on the obvious weak-link Twilight iteration of vampires rather than beefing up your own argument in your oversized sheepdogs. Yet you’re not entirely consistent to your point there, because if the Cullen incarnations are meant to represent vampires as a whole, then you have to discount their best-known weakness of sunlight. Because, you know, sparkles.
The fact werewolves only have one very specific weakness is kind of a backward way of pointing out how undeveloped they are. Opposed to the countless different mythos(es?) surrounding vampires, so many in fact that we can’t even fully agree on the core powers/ weaknesses a vampire has, everyone agrees that a werewolf is a person who changes into a raving beast once a month that can only be killed by silver.
And how boring is that?
You may point out that there’s a psychological horror for the person afflicted by the werewolf’s curse, but for his victims the horror boils down to simply running away fast enough to survive the night. In terms of horror movies, this is your classic slasher villain: an unstoppable, relentless force of nature. These are your Jasons and Michael Myers.
Vampires, well they’re the Freddy Krueger/ Pinheads in that there’s a lot more nuance and to them as they stalk their prey in and out of society. Theirs is a cat-and-mouse game with victims that can range from a literal hunt to a subtle seduction where the victim begs to be transformed.
And honestly, what’s more psychologically horrific than willingly descending into darkness?
Daniel: I was being a little coy with sunlight, admittedly, since that’s a pretty modern invention in vampire lore; if I recall, it was only with the movie Nosferatu in 1922 that vampires were killed by sunlight. But even if we discount that particular weakness, you mention yourself what has completely undermined vampires in modern pop culture. Sparkling. That one is a big, bright stain on vampires for the foreseeable future, metaphorically de-fanging them. In comparison, at least the werewolves of Twilight were still wolves and not subjected to the same indignity.
Also, stalking human prey is good and fine, but what about taking the title of this post literal? A werewolf is pure muscle with actual canine fangs and claws that can rend flesh with impunity. In comparison, a vampire’s fangs seem little more than cosmetic. Adequate for pricking little holes in human skin; laughable against several hundred pounds of animal rage. I know who I am betting on in a cage fight.
In the pop culture that I can readily remember, where vampires and werewolves square off against each other, it tends to be in favour of the good, old lupus. Van Helsing sees our titular hero transform into a werewolf to defeat Dracula. Being Human has vampires noticeably afraid of werewolves when transformed. In Vampire Diaries, werewolf bites are even poisonous to vampires. In a straight up fight, pop culture seems to agree with me, betting its dough on the canines.
Matt: As I stated in the intro, I believe it was the White Wolf RPGs that first pitted vampires vs werewolves, and I’ll admit that in the source material werewolves are the bane of the vampires’ immortal existence. They are indeed the embodiment of pure physicality, while vampires are more mental/ socially adept. So that’s why I’d pick the fanged ones over the furry (fury?) ones as what I would rather be. But I do see your point in the classic cage-match, Thunderdome argument: Two monsters enter, one monster leaves.
All that said, I will point out you’re basing your last argument on Twilight, Being Human, The Vampire Diaries, and the movie abomination that was Van Helsing. You call them “pop culture,” but I would call them “dross.” So take your pyrrhic victory and place your prize on your bookshelf along with all your aforementioned DVDs and rainbow unicorns.
Daniel: I’ll take that victory, or else it was for nothing that I soiled my hands to an unspeakable degree. I’m probably going to be imitating Lady Macbeth for days to come, though no amount of Shakespeare references can save my reputation now.