Teen Wolf (2011) – Subtexts that Hardly Qualify as Such

Some years ago my friend Harry Benshoff published a book called Monsters in the Closet in which he explored various ways in which horror has been associated with homosexuality and homosexual desire. For example, he suggests that the monster has often been figured as a disruptive force that threatens the heterosexual couple. When I recently watched season one of Teen Wolf (I do a lot of commuting!), I was rather taken aback by the extent to which the series seemed to have taken this premise and run with it – big time. It is awash with homosexual subtexts, subtexts that hardly qualify as subtexts – its a bit like Garth Marenghi’s great line: ‘I know writers who use subtexts and they’re all cowards. Okay?’

The story starts with a nerdy young boy, Scott McCall, whose best friend, Stiles, is the best thing in the entire show – far better than Scott. Stiles seems to have been made out of all the best DNA from 1980s teen comedies (and particularly teen horror-comedies). Scott and Stiles are also the kind of best buddies who climb in and out of one another’s bedroom windows, but when Stiles hears about a savage attack by a strange beast in the nearby woods, he insists that he and Scott go there and have a look see. And, wouldn’t you know it, Scott gets bitten by the strange beast … whatever it is.

Then Derek appears, a young hunk but one who is no longer young enough to go to high school; and he warns Scott that the bite will change him into a werewolf and that Scott needs the guidance of an older male mentor so that he can make sense of what is happening. But Scott says, no way, he has fallen for the new girl in school, Allison, who is different from the others (for a start, she appears to be about ten years older than everyone else – even Derek).

But the question is: who is doing all the werewolf attacks. Is it Scott? Is it Derek? Or is it another, even older ‘alpha’ whose identity is unknown but who wants Scott and Derek to join his pack.

Oh, and there is also a high school jock, Jackson, who continually wears an expression of hatred and disgust that screams ‘homophobia born of repressed homosexuality’ – he initially hates Scott and then spends ages trying to have the gift of becoming a werewolf bestowed upon him – he thinks that it will give him an advantage in sports or something…

But the key narrative problem is that every time Scott starts to get romantic with Allison, his inner werewolf kicks in and he has to stop.

Of course, what matters is not whether the show has a homosexual subtext, but what it is trying to do with it. As Benshoff points out, the association between homosexuality and the monster is a very double-edged sword that has some very real pleasures and some very real problems. But I will leave it to you to read his work, which I strongly recommend. Instead, I want to suggest that the search for homosexual subtexts can also cut both ways. Just as much as there are serious attempts to explore the meanings of homosexuality (such as Benshoff), there are also numerous attempts to simply ridicule others as ‘sooo gay!’ In other words, the search for, and identification of, subtexts can either be used to undermine or reinforce notions of ‘normal’ masculinity – whatever that is!

So what is Teen Wolf doing? At one level, it seems to be clearly working towards the establishment of the heterosexual couple, but that is hardly a surprise and may be little more than a narrative of convenience – a pretext that allows the show to play with lots of other material. On another level, the show is also associated with Russell Mulcahy, whose films have long been an exercise in high camp. For example, he directed Highlander, Ricochet, The Shadow, and was even the director of Rambo III before being replaced by Peter MacDonald due to ‘creative differences’. In television, he has also have a variety of credits, most notably (in this context) four episodes of Queer as Folk: USA.

But what does the association with Mulcahy really prove? While the search for homosexual subtexts can be a fascinating game, it is actually very difficult to decide what these subtext actually mean; and part of the reason is that it is often unclear whether these subtexts are supposed to be conscious or not. Sometimes the implication is that they are clearly not consciously intended but rather work at a subconscious (if not unconscious) level; but, others times, the implication is that they are conscious – that filmmakers are secretly smuggling materials into programming below the radar.

Of course, the interest of generic materials is often precisely due to their undecidability. Shows that use horror materials as a metaphor for something else can often be too conscious or obvious; and finally end up being bad metaphors and/or boring horror stories. While those that remain more ambiguous often end up being more telling and more fascinating. In horror, the fascination is often in the ambivalence – Dracula is neither straightforwardly attractive nor repulsive; and much the same is true of the Frankenstein monster.

Returning to Teen Wolf, given that its homosexual subtexts seem so overt that they barely seem to be subtexts at all, another question is also posed: is the homosexual subtext actually a subtext (material that is subconscious or secretly smuggled in below the radar), or is it actually consciously and explicitly aimed at specific markets. The whole thing has the feel of a joke that we are all expected to ‘get’ (or at least a significant number of us are expected to get). In other words, the makers do not seem to be taking the subtext very seriously but rather treating it as ‘camp’.

None of which tells you whether Teen Wolf is actually any good. For my part, I certainly found it to be fun, in a junk food sort of a way; and I am vaguely looking forward to the second season … I am not holding my breath or anything; but I will certainly give it a chance – if only to see if the subtexts are going anywhere.

Lights Out (1946-1952) – Radio to TV

If you like stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, you should check out Lights Out. It was a TV show that ran from 1946-1952 and featured the kind of weird stories and situations that would make those later shows famous. It also illustrates one of the key issues about television at the time. Although many critics today see television horror as a poor relation to cinematic horror, Lights Out was an adaptation of a radio horror show that had started in the 1930s. The radio show was hugely popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, after 1936, it was associated with the figure of Arch Oboler, an outspoken anti-fascist who was fond of social and political themes.

Also, during this period, it was radio, rather than cinema, that was the mass medium, and horror was one of its key genres at the time. For example, if one looks at the radio output of Orson Welles during the late 1930s, it is striking how many of the stories that he adapted were clearly associated with Gothic horror. Furthermore, he not only decided to make Dracula the first radio production of his Mercury Theater radio show, but his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was clearly intended as a horror story and was broadcast on Halloween. Welles had even built up a major reputation on radio as the voice of The Shadow, a radio superhero with mystic powers and an emphatic association with horror. (For more on Welles, radio and horror, see my article, Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s.)

Consequently, the kinds of horror that one finds in Lights Out are very different from those associated with cinematic horror at the time. Indeed, 1946, when Lights Out started on TV, was precisely the point at which the cinematic horror cycle of the 1940s went into decline before the resurrection of horror in the 1950s, with the SF-horror films that followed The Thing from Another World (1951). (It fact, it is interesting that Lights Out had already been playing with the relationship between horror and science fiction on the television well before 1951.)

Lights Out did not focus on monsters, or on Gothic villainy, but rather on the weird and uncanny. In The Dark Image, for example, a wife is menaced by a mirror that was the property of her husband’s former lover. Initially oppressed by its presence, she eventually finds herself trapped on the other side of the glass, her rival having taken her place in our world. Furthermore, the process of her entrapment in the mirror is fascinatingly visualized, and requires one to rethink the common claim that television is somehow less visual than cinema and is therefore a problematic medium for horror.

The sequence is highly visual and uses trick photography to convey the notions of doubling, transference and entrapment, but it does not do so in a literal way. It does not aim for verisimilitude but for something more suggestive or metaphorical. In other words, it demonstrates that, even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was clearly a visual medium, and that it was experimenting with visual techniques of story-telling, even if it sometimes visualized things in terms that were different to those common in the cinema.

It is no surprise then that Rod Serling claimed to have been inspired by Oboler and by shows like Lights Out. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the kinds of production values on which Serling was able to count a decade later but, as a fun-filled glimpse into an imaginative and experimental period of television horror, Lights Out has much to offer.