“She’s Ours Now:” Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation in ‘The Howling’
The Howling is, alongside An American Werewolf in London and The Wolf Man, often cited as one of the best werewolf films of all time. It’s a classic. When you think of werewolf movies, it’s without a doubt one of the first things that springs to mind. That’s fascinating, on one level, because the feature itself actually subverts what we think of as the traditional werewolf movie in almost every way, especially for the time. The werewolves in The Howling are true hybrids of man and wolf, giving us the bipedal lycanthrope that swiftly became the norm. Gone is the full moon, too, as much of The Howling hinges on werewolves that can change shape at any time, a change that looks small at first but has a great deal of impact on how these werewolves are portrayed compared to the ones that preceded them. Almost everything it does, it does differently. It’s a precursor to movies like Fright Night, Scream, Cabin in the Woods and that whole ilk, commenting on the tropes and traditions, referencing the history of werewolf movies in ways both big and small—several characters are named after directors of classic werewolf films, for example—in a way that’s not too obvious and feels naturalistic.
It is fascinating, then, that a movie that stands out so drastically from what came before it has gone on to genuinely define that genre in many ways. But the difference that still stands out most is its portrayal of werewolves in general, because that is the thing that truly makes this not only superficially and visually different, but a fundamentally different kind of story than what most werewolf movies had been before. At the end of the day, all werewolf stories are to some degree about an internal struggle, about an attempt to—or more often than not, failure to—reconcile with the beast within. The Howling is, on that level, no different. But most werewolf movies are told from the werewolf’s perspective, popularized most prominently by The Wolf Man, and are about the tragedy of the transformation, about the fear of losing control and the guilt of having to live with the consequences. In stories like that, death is an ultimate—and in Larry Talbot’s case, unattainable—release.
And then, in the opening moments of The Howling, we meet Eddie Quist. There’s no build up here, The Howling truly drops us right into the middle of things, as reporter Karen White agrees to meet up with a serial killer who will only speak with her. We don’t see his transformation, or at least the beginning of it, before he is shot “dead” by police. But Karen does, even if she can’t remember it. There is a sense of tragedy to The Howling that is in some ways almost identical to things like The Wolf Man, but the brilliance of it is that these things by and large don’t become clear until the very end. Like Larry Talbot, Karen is doomed from the start, but Larry’s curse starts the moment he gets bitten, whereas Karen fate is spelled out long before that. It’s the moment she sees Eddie’s transformation, so horrific that her mind completely blanks it out, and it might have even started before that. Karen’s eventual death is already set in motion the moment Doctor Waggner suggests she move up to a cabin in the woods to spend time at his experimental therapeutic getaway dubbed “The Colony.” Because Doc is a werewolf, and so is everyone else at the Colony.
If Karen doesn’t remember what she saw, she still saw it. Doc’s therapy is, on one hand, on the level, because he is trying to help her remember. But he makes sure that when she does remember, she doesn’t do it anywhere else. The werewolves at the Colony have managed to keep their secret this long and, obviously, they have no intention of letting the world discover the truth. Even after Doc himself is revealed as a werewolf like the rest, he’s still portrayed as the sympathetic one, and there’s a heavy dose of irony to that, given that he’s the one who recommended Karen go in the first place, and in doing so signed her death warrant.
The manipulation and gaslighting begin right there, from the moment she arrives at the Colony, because everyone is lying to her about what the Colony really is and who they really are. Karen hears the howling the first night and is terrified, right from the start. But the whole town is rigged against her, there’s no one she can turn to, and so when everyone tells her she’s not hearing what she’s hearing or experiencing what she’s experiencing, there’s nothing she can do but accept that. This is especially frustrating, because Karen is a reporter and by all accounts a good one. She took on a serial killer by herself. The people at the Colony take advantage of her trauma and hijack her recovery. She’s vulnerable and they know it, so to the Colony, Karen never really presents any kind of real threat, even though she normally would. It’s a deliberate attempt to either subdue or repress a natural, inherent strength.
Just look at the way Karen is introduced, and it makes her experience at the Colony all the more terrible. When we first meet her, on her walk to meet “Eddie the Mangler,” all we hear is what a hero she is, how brave she is. How she didn’t tell her husband, Bill, about seeing any of the victims because she didn’t want him to worry. These qualities make her a genuine threat to the Colony, and it’s possible that that’s why Doc even worked with her on catching Eddie in the first place, because he knew it would eventually lead her back to the Colony, where she would be out of the picture, no longer a threat to them if she was one of them, or if she were dead.
At first, the only person she can turn to is Bill, who goes with her to the Colony to help her through her recovery. Her husband is the only close tie that she has there and the number one person she needs to have in her corner if she is going to safely get through this, which makes the gaslighting and manipulation on his part that much more despicable. He’s lying to her both about his transformation and about his relationship with the Colony’s most free-spirited werewolf, Marsha, even when confronted about that directly. He continues to tell Karen that what she’s hearing is nothing, that there’s no danger at the Colony, there are no wolves, even after he has learned the truth. That’s when it becomes clear that there is genuinely no one in her circle that she can trust. The friends she’s made at the Colony all know the truth and keep hiding it from her, they insist there’s nothing to be afraid of, from casual acquaintances to law enforcement to Doc himself, who sent her there. Nobody is on her side.
But to some extent, Karen is not the only character being gaslit. The entire Colony is on Doc’s hook. Even if he genuinely believes he’s helping them, he clearly isn’t. Whatever steps are being taken toward integrating werewolves into modern society, it clearly isn’t working. And he has to know that. He’s giving supernatural monsters the same “beast within” lecture he gives on primetime television and is somehow expecting it to resonate. There’s a clear sense of pride to Waggner, as much as he plays at being the “good guy,” as much as he tries to show he’s not like the others. It’s all a load of crap, because what he really hates is the fact that he’s a werewolf. He doesn’t want to be one, he wants to pretend he isn’t one, and from everything the members of the Colony say toward the end, it’s obvious that that’s what his whole program is based around. When he thanks Christopher for shooting him at the end of the movie, it’s probably the first completely honest thing he’s said.
Given that, it’s amazing that the two most honest characters are, essentially, our two antagonists. Eddie Quist is clearly in touch with the beast within to an obviously destructive degree, being a serial killer who has left the Colony to terrorize Los Angeles. Whereas every other person at the Colony tries to hide what they are from Karen, tries to keep her completely in the dark, Eddie tries to show her exactly what he is upon meeting her. His sister, Marsha, is similar, except that she sets her sights on Bill, not Karen. Marsha is known for being a free spirit and speaking her mind, to the point that she’s literally introduced to Karen as a nymphomaniac. While Marsha does not tell Bill she’s a werewolf right away, she makes her intentions incredibly clear, grabbing him and kissing him when he takes a rabbit to her cabin to prepare for stew, the very first time they’re alone together. Karen is easily the most hostile toward Marsha, only natural given that her husband is not only leaving her but shedding the remnants of his life and humanity to be with this woman. Yet, Marsha is the only one who is not actively hiding who she is.
Karen’s attempts to bring in outside help only get her friend Terri killed and even then, she can’t be blamed for that, because with everyone around her insisting that what’s going on all around her isn’t happening, what choice does she have? Thankfully, Christopher happened to stumble onto some handy silver bullets, which is a small but fascinating detail, because the existence of those silver bullets inherently means that someone has tried to put a stop to the Colony at least once before. Could it have been Donna, who admits she fought against “the gift” at first? The sheriff? Who knows? It could have been been any of them, before they resigned themselves to lycanthropy and sought Doc’s guidance. Hell, it could just as easily have been Doc himself, given his clear hatred for his own condition and his inability to come to terms with it. In the end, the deception and manipulation all come crashing down, as does the entire attempt at werewolves co-existing with the modern world, as Karen seeks to flee the Colony while, at the same time, the lycanthropes therein finally reject Doc’s teachings, once and for all.
The Howling is fascinating because it’s fundamentally a movie about dragging werewolves into the light—literally, too, as the moon has no effect over them in this movie—and yet at the same time literally about their own fear of being exposed. It’s a werewolf film for the eighties, and not just because of its spectacular Rob Bottin effects. This was, after all, the age of self-help gurus like Tony Robbins. But it was also an age when cults were at the forefront of the cultural consciousness. Charles Manson was still very much in the recent memory, while Heaven’s Gate had already formed and, most obviously, this was only four years post-Jonestown. The Howling is, like all good werewolf movies, about the struggle to come to terms with one’s own nature, and yet it does so in a different way than any werewolf feature before or after it. This time, it’s about how the inability to accept one’s self can take (literally) so many forms. Repression, guilt, it’s all ultimately the same snarling monster. And while it’s not often talked about as a tragic werewolf story, it might honestly be one of the most tragic of all. Karen, despite everything she’s been through, winds up back in the news room where she began, only this time she’s using her journalistic skills that the Colony tried to repress by exposing herself as a werewolf, and in doing so, finally exposing the Colony for what it really was. Her on-camera death is harrowing (though undercut by the bizarrely cute FX) but it has meaning—at least until we cut away to the commercials, showing that most viewers simply don’t believe what they’re seeing, and that at the end of the day, Karen continues to be disbelieved even in death, and the Colony has ultimately won.
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