Buffy and the Beast: The Complicated Depiction of Werewolves and Masculinity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Part One)

Today in our Buffy Blog series we have the first part of Kaja Franck’s exploration of Werewolves and Masculinity in Season Two. As always, you can keep the conversation going using #BuffySlays20.

Though Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), as the name suggests, generally centres on vampire-hijinks, the seasonal narrative arcs featuring the latest ‘Big Bad’ are broken up by frequent ‘monster of the week’ episodes. In this blog post, I want to consider a very different type of monster, Oz the werewolf. Oz’s lycanthropy is introduced in ‘Phases’ (first aired January 27, 1998). This episode manages to balance more traditional monster narratives with increasingly sympathetic depictions of lycanthropy. The first half follows a hunting narrative in which neither the viewer nor the lead characters know the identity of the werewolf. It is then revealed to the viewers that the werewolf is the quiet, benign Oz; we are then torn between wanting the typical outcome – Buffy kills the monster, the Scoobies party – and our fears for the well-being of Oz. The episode opens with Xander and Cordelia in a car on “Lovers’ Lane”. They are attacked by the werewolf. This opening scene, from the suggestion of sexual impropriety to Cordelia’s pronouncement that she can hear something outside the car, follows the typical narrative of the slasher film. (The rules of the slasher genre had been thoroughly postmodernised by films such as Scream [1996] by the time the episode aired).

(Oz in werewolf form)

So far, so tongue-in-cheek, and the reaction of Giles to the news that there has been a werewolf attack continues this pattern. He announces: ‘Werewolves! One of the classics! I’m sure my books and I are in for a fascinating afternoon’ (Hotel/Batali and Green, 1998). Werewolves, then, are ‘classic’ monsters and it is assumed that the viewer will be familiar with them. Indeed, Giles’ statement that he will be researching the werewolf is itself a standard trope within the genre and allows the rules defining their existence to be laid out. For example, it is quickly proved that werewolves transform not simply on the night of the full moon but also the night before and after. Following the darker tone of the previous episodes in this season and the transformation of Angel into Angelus, this episode appears to offer a mildly comedic respite.

Yet despite opening with a pastiche of the werewolf genre, ‘Phases’ goes on to be a more engaged discussion about the relationship between lycanthropy and masculinity. Typically, the werewolf has been gendered as masculine due to its physical prowess and aggression. Chantal Bourgault du Coudray locates the gendering of lycanthropy in Freud and his work with the Wolf Man; the werewolf comes to symbolise the fear of violent, animalistic masculinity which can never be fully repressed (du Coudray, The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within, 2006). Mention of this monster seems to lead inevitably to the idea of the ‘beast within.’ Giles describes it as a creature which ‘acts on pure instinct. No conscience, predatory and aggressive’ (Hotel/Batali and Green, 1998). His description is suggestive of the psychoanalytical idea of the id, the subconscious part of our mind that controls our impulses and desires, often represented as the animal part of our mind.

(Larry acting out a version of masculinity in gym class in ‘Phases’)

Following Giles’ description of the werewolf, the Scooby Gang attempt to isolate the monster walking amongst them. It is quickly decided that the most obvious candidate is Larry, an aggressive, overtly masculine character. Larry is portrayed as being sexually threatening, demeaning women through his language. A brief joke about his hirsuteness, and the confirmation that he has been bitten by a dog recently, leads to Xander confronting him in the boys’ locker room about his potential lycanthropy. This location, the locker room, is a highly masculine space. It is associated with homosocial behaviour which, according to Eve Kofosky Sedgwick, polices acceptable expressions of male sexuality (Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 1985). Xander’s discussion with Larry ends with Larry admitting his repressed homosexuality, and it becomes apparent that his performance of masculinity is compensatory. This scene parallels a key scene from the original Teen Wolf (1985) in which Scott, a recently transformed werewolf, explains his new identity to his best friend, Stiles.

Scott Howard: ‘Stiles, I got something to tell you. It’s kind of hard but …’

Stiles: ‘Look, are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? Because if you’re gonna tell

me that you’re a fag, I don’t think I can handle it.’

Scott Howard: I’m not a fag. I’m a werewolf.’ (Daniel 1985)

The intention of the film was that this scene was comedic, despite the overt homophobia. This scene is reversed in ‘Phases.’ The site of homosocial bonding and policing of homosexuality, the locker room, becomes a coming out space. Rather than being a werewolf, Larry is gay. However, this remains deeply problematic as Larry’s homosexuality is never fully explored. Instead, the scene is presumed to be as humorous as its predecessor. Homosexuality and lycanthropy remain aligned in this moment which reads uncomfortably as though being gay is, itself, monstrous. 

(Teen Wolf poster)

In terms of the narrative of ‘Phases,’ however, this scene relates to the complex performance of masculinity by suggesting that appearances can be deceptive. Rather than the overtly masculine Larry, it is the quiet, gentle Oz who is the werewolf. Oz had been introduced as a potential love interest for Willow. His is physically unthreatening, cerebral, and has no interest in objectifying women; this is made clear when he falls for Willow when she is dressed as an Inuit, during a fancy dress party, rather than the skimpily clad, popular girls who are present (‘Inca Mummy Girl’, first aired October 6, 1997). Furthering the ‘unsuitability’ of Oz to be the werewolf is the way in which he is transformed. Rather than being bitten by a werewolf in wolf form, he is bitten by his young nephew. It is only once he wakes naked and disorientated, a scene which the viewer also witnesses, that he realises he may be the werewolf. The viewer’s sympathy immediately switches to Oz and his trauma. However, he handles the experience with his usual understated cool. Certainly, his manner of transformation undercuts the typical trauma of lycanthropy: Oz is not severely physically damaged by his nephew’s bite and his somatic vulnerability is never performed. It is only when he believes he will be a threat to Willow, that his calm exterior is shattered. In later episodes, we see how Willow’s presence becomes increasingly related to his ability to control, or not control, his lycanthropy. This suggests that, despite being depicted as being an unthreatening, healthy version of sexuality, Oz is as prey to repressed violence as other men.

To further Oz’s predicament, Buffy quickly finds that her role as Slayer is being threatened by the arrival of Cain, a self-proclaimed werewolf-hunter. Cain embodies the role of the Great, White Hunter. He is dressed as a frontiersman and wears trophies from his kill in the form of a necklace made of werewolf teeth. When Buffy and Giles announce that they are not planning on killing the werewolf, Cain dismisses them as a weak woman and effete Englishman. His presence causes Buffy to fail in capturing the werewolf on her first try, leading Cain to state that this is ‘what happens when a woman tries to do a man’s job’ (Hotel/Batali and Green, 1998). Just as the werewolf, the embodiment of repressed violence, is gendered as male, Cain presumes that hunters must also be male. (The unsuitability of the blonde, petite Buffy to be the Slayer is the central concern of the series). However, Cain is a man out of time. A recent arrival in Sunnydale, California, it is clear that there is no longer a wilderness beyond the frontier for Cain to conquer. Cain’s obsession with the kill is contrasted with Buffy’s ethical approach, clarifying for the viewer that despite being steeped in blood, Buffy remains a ‘good’ version of the hunter. Where Cain sees feminine emotionality in Buffy’s decision to tranquilise and educate the werewolf, the viewer sees her innate morality. 

Dr. Kaja Franck is part of the ‘Open Graves, Open Minds’ project (www.opengravesopenminds.com), and she has recently passed her PhD researching the literary werewolf as an ecoGothic monster. As well as a passion for all things werewolf-related, Kaja enjoys touring churches and convents (although Sheffield Gothic can neither confirm nor deny her whereabout during the full moon).