[23 June 2010]
There’s no arguing that even the most pacifist among us loves a good fight in our entertainment options. Popular culture thrives on rivalries. There’s nothing quite like a showdown between epic arch-nemeses to get audiences tuned in, taking sides and passionately invested in the outcome.
Long-standing rivalry is what drew 28.2 million viewers to watch the 17 June game seven of the NBA finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, making it the highest-rated NBA game in 12 years. Also within sports, rivalry defines relationships between entire cities, as with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and splits others cities in two (Mets vs. Yanks, Cubs vs. White Sox). Some rivalries have clear cut winners and favorites (Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen A. Douglas, Batman vs. The Joker), while others will remain historically open to interpretation, despite the final score (“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler vs. “Sugar” Ray Leonard, King Kong vs. Godzilla).
The hunger for rivalries is such that we even create imaginary scenarios where conflict doesn’t really exist, e.g., The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, pirates vs. ninjas. Ihe best rivalries are defined by tension and a war of words that’s only occasionally – even rarely—interrupted by actual encounters.
Though feuds exist in popular culture the world over (Macbeth vs. Macduff, Glasgow Celtics vs. Rangers football clubs), America is especially caught up in a game of “who would win” in a fight. Perhaps because the Civil War left such a cultural scar on the nation’s childhood, Americans continue to pit sides against one another, as if in a perpetual adolescence.
Which leads to the current preferred rivalry in American entertainment; it’s a rivalry both sides can really sink their teeth into: vampires vs. werewolves. Like a brawl between goths and jocks, or a contest between the couch potatoes and the outdoorsy types, this current battle royal is dominating all areas of paranormal pop culture.
At the moment the stand-off is famously characterized by Team Edward and Team Jacob in The Twilight Saga film franchise—the third installment of which, Eclipse opens in theaters across the US on 30 June. In the book and film series, the vamp and “were” issues go back for ages in Forks, Washingon, but mainly begin to flare up in Stephenie Meyer’s 2006 young-adult novel New Moon, because of—what else—a girl. (Before Twi-hards begin a letter-writing campaign, yes I know Jacob Black’s Quileute tribe are technically shapeshifters, but I’m sticking with werewolves, here.)
Considering the recent plotlines of vampire pop True Blood, now in its third season on HBO, or ABC’s new summer primetime soap opera The Gates, it’s easy to assume the conflict between these two supernatural species was spawned directly from the mega-successful Twilight machine. Yet while the current depiction of this ages-old rivalry seems new (and like ripe material for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-esque literary mashup starring the Capulets and Montagues, or at least a West Side Story and Werewolves theatre treatment), it precedes Meyer’s books by more than 60 years.
This rivalry also predates author Charlaine Harris’ first introduction of her Sookie Stackhouse character (who would later be immortalized on True Blood often in the nude, by Anna Paquin) to werewolves in the 2002 book Living Dead in Dallas, and then to handsome wolfie Alcide in 2003’s Club Dead. It goes back before Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman fell in love as Vampire and Lycan in the 2003 movie Underworld, before Hugh Jackman wolfed-out to defeat Dracula in 2004’s Van Helsing, and before the Sunnydale vampire slayer encountered were-Oz in 1998 on Joss Whedon’s Buffy series. It even predates the Anita Blake adventures from 1993’s Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton.
The contentious relationship has some of its modern roots in The Dark Reunion, the 1991 installment of L.J. Smith’s young adult book series The Vampire Diaries – the same one recently adapted by The CW into a show by Scream and Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson – where the werewolf character Tyler squares off against vampire Stefan.
Indeed, as Eric Nuzum points out in his pop-vampire exploration The Dead Travel Fast (an excellent 2007 book begging for an update) the resurgence of the supernatural family feud is largely attributable to the 1991 role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade by White Wolf Publishing. However, even if White Wolf had the most significant impact in popularizing the rivalry in the last 19 years, it existed to some degree in 1968 as a plotline on the daytime soap Dark Shadows, and really began stateside in 1944 and 1945 thanks to Universal Pictures.
The most famous vampire and werewolf characters appeared together on screen in The House of Frankenstein (1944) and The House of Dracula (1945) where Lon Chaney, Jr., as The Wolf Man, squared off against the big daddy of bloodsuckers. Due to the success of the monster mashups, Chaney did it again in 1948 when his werewolf battled Count Dracula once more, this time played by Bela Lugosi, in the horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
In the comedy, without The Wolf Man, the master vampire would’ve wreaked havoc with Frankenstein’s monster’s re-energized body (and yes, “Van Helsing” ripped off this yuk-fest). So what’s the appeal of this rivalry that has given it legs for nearly a century, and keeps it going strong?
Well it’s hard not to love a war between the cursed and well, the cursed, since no matter who prevails, someone bad bites it. Like the zombified Hatfield and McCoy feud on display in George A. Romero’s new flick, Survival of the Dead, it’s fun to watch powerful supernatural creatures who appear pretty evenly matched throwing down in the schoolyard. Neither can easily die so it’s a fight that could potentially last for an eternity—long after anyone really remembers why they’re fighting in the first place.
That’s another reason the rivalry is engaging—and relatable. Many of the wars waged in the real world are fought because of ancient grievances—over outdated maps, dusty religions, long-ago insults, East Coast vs. West Coast rapping supremacy – and essentially they curse people to fight, in perpetuity, for fighting’s sake. Forgetting the catalyst for the rivalry is a theme that very much applies in reality. Much like conflicts between peoples (past and present), what’s most ironic about vampires vs. werewolves is that the two parties have more in common with one another than not.
For example, the previously mentioned Lon Chaney, Jr. While making bank as his most famous character Lawrence Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, he was also moonlighting as the Count in Son of Dracula in 1943. Now that’s close. Further, as The Straight Dope website points out, old Eastern European legends foretold that dead werewolves would rise as vampires. Of course, it’s well known vampires can transform into wolves, as well as bats, but even the Slavonic word volkodlak, which means werewolf translates into vampire in Serbian.
Plus, both creatures are fang-driven; they come out only at night; neither are fans of silver; in animal form as bat or wolf, they both are carries of the exact same scourge: rabies. They are also both damned, and if that’s not a common bond to commiserate over, what is?
Besides, if pop-culture continues to be inundated with vampire/werewolf wars, audiences will overdose and both cadres of the nearly-immortal will receive a lethal injection and will be rendered dead—for a while. As mentioned earlier, the best entertainment rivalries are defined by only occasional battles. Unless a new element is introduced, all good fights get old (see: Paris Hilton vs. Nicole Richie, Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly).
So perhaps it’s time to listen to the call for peace, love and understanding as told by Elvis Costello - who walked “through this wicked world searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity”. Maybe in order to keep their particular piece of paranormal pop culture fresh, these wicked ones at war should take a break from ripping each other’s throats out to come together and resolve their differences.
Or even better, how about a Justice League and Legion of Doom-style team-up? Since neither can really emerge from the darkness of insanity (that would entail burning up in the rays of the sun or going down with via a silver bullet to the chest) they can forge an alliance and go after a new enemy – not completely unlike teams Edward and Jacob try doing in Eclipse.
Just a suggestion: Vampires and werewolves vs. the Los Angeles Lakers… and maybe mummies, too? That might net some ratings for the next, oh, 60 or so years.