Death Creeps is a monthly column of ecological readings on horror media. Combining the terror of the climate crisis with terror on screen and in print, Sydney Bollinger looks at how horror can act as a guide and reflection on our dire situation.
Maybe the oil industry was the werewolf the whole time...
Crude oil is everywhere. It’s refined and processed into the ever-growing amount of plastic on the earth, so it’s hard to even imagine how much there is. It’s turned into gasoline to power cars and other modes of transportation. In the United States, transport accounts for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a small problem.
Enter Werewolves Within (2021), the horror-comedy whodunnit based on a video game of the same name directed by Josh Ruben. In the film, postal worker Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub) and forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Wheeler) partner up to expose the townsperson who moonlights as a werewolf. While the main plot of the film is enough to hold interest, Ruben adds another layer to the events at hand — oil mogul Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) plans to build a pipeline through the town.
Sam is never given the benefit of the doubt and is marked as a sworn enemy immediately. The film doesn’t try to make him sympathetic because, in this day and age, oil moguls aren’t worthy of praise. The top 10 highest-paid Energy Sector CEOs, including ubiquitous companies like Chevron, Valero Energy, Marathon Petroleum, and Exxon Mobil make over $16.5M per year. According to a 2019 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), air pollution damages decreased from 2010 ($245B) to 2017 ($133B), which is a sizable reduction. The glaring problem, though, is that energy plants continued to produce $133B worth of damages. These are not people who care about communities. Sam embodies this type of oil tycoon who seeks out industrial expansion no matter the cost.
The film is set in the charming-yet-eccentric Beaverfield, a small rural community with stunning forests, a cozy lodge, and apparently the perfect spot for a new pipeline. As the werewolf murders townspeople, the blame continually turns back to Sam, and rightfully so. He’s an outsider who has never once tried to understand the inner workings of this community and chooses to be at odds with the people of Beaverfield, purposefully stoking the fire against him because he thinks he can get away with anything.
Many of these energy companies think that they can get away with anything. In Sam’s characterization, we see an amalgamation of the American oil tycoon—he is both everyone and no one, and yet somehow, he’s not a straw man either. This is what is so perfect about the character in Werewolves Within; he’s a face of this evil that not only the people of Beaverfield contend with but that we all contend with every day.
He’s not meant to be specific in his characterization; that would ruin the effectiveness of Ruben's criticism of the oil industry and multi-millionaire (sometimes billionaire) moguls. In many ways, the oil tycoons of the present aren't that different from one another. Despite what some of these large companies might say, no one is really taking action on climate change or is willing to part with their oh-so-precious coal, oil, and gas. It doesn't matter that Sam is trying to build a new oil line and someone else is fracking. One is not better than the other and actually, fracking is pretty bad despite what you may have heard.
He's uninterested in the murders-by-werewolf that keeps occurring in the town and sees the panicked frenzy of Beaverfield's residents as the perfect opportunity to swoop in and make strides on his projects. He is, however, completely oblivious—or perhaps knowingly arrogant—to the community's dedication to their place on the map.
Similar situations have happened time and time again, often when oil companies want to build new lines through Indigenous Land. In the United States, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Line 3 gained prominence because of the large protests. These protests were not only about the line going through certain parts of the land; these are ongoing issues of Indigenous sovereignty. Now, activists are working to shut down Line 5, which Enbridge plans to route through Bad River.
Although Sam isn't met with thousands or even hundreds of activists, he is met with opposition. Werewolves Within isn't an environmental movie at its core and it doesn't need to be wholly environmental. Even without the primary focus on the environment, Ruben is able to put the focus on the environmental issues as they naturally play out in the background, often overshadowed by larger events, which usually seem more pressing and immediate.
While things are moving quickly compared to our planet's history, climate change appears rather slow to most people. Sam's actions are part of this slowness, of the hyper localization of these issues that make it unclear whether the problem affects just one community or if it's systemic. Climate activists are aware of the interconnectedness of all these "pieces" of climate change, so to speak, but they're hard to pin down.
So, when the story of Sam and his oil line plays out in the background, it's normal. Whether with intention or not, Ruben shows how insidious these affronts to nature and humanity are. Even though Sam's work is not innocuous, it is just a small piece of the larger environmental picture. An oil line is not just an oil line, after all. In the case of Enbridge's Line 5, the oil originates from tar sands in Canada. There have already been oil spills from Enbridge's lines. Just like climate change itself, these oil lines have both big and small ramifications.
At the end of the film, Cecily and Finn think that Sam must be the werewolf—and it's a logical conclusion, especially since Sam has been using intimidation to get his way. Finn even calls Sam out on inciting paranoia in the community, claiming there is no werewolf. While Finn's conclusion is factually incorrect (Cecily is the werewolf), he isn't really wrong. In his own way, Sam was the werewolf; he's a monster hiding in human form, ready to make the kill when the perfect conditions arise. He's not ending just one life, though. His work ends many lives.
Ultimately, Sam is killed—right before the "eternal flame" where he hoped to build his line. Even though Sam wasn't the werewolf, his death was a moment of justice. With him dead, the pipeline will not be built, and future Beaverfield residents would be free from worry about their health with regard to an oil line. This isn't to say a pipeline would never be built through Beaverfield—it's hard to claim that about anywhere, but hopefully, this death means justice for the community.
Werewolves Within takes a clear stance on the environmental movement through the character of Sam. Beaverfield is anywhere and everywhere. The people at the top of these companies don't care about the environmental impacts; they only want to line their pockets with more money. Sam would go to great lengths to exploit Beaverfield and its citizens for his own personal gain. Taking a stand against the construction of new pipeless and the use of fossil fuels is incredibly important. Killing the oil industry is about more than the growth of sustainable fuel sources. Killing the oil industry is about protecting all life—human and wildlife—and our world from further climate disasters.
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She is the author of the bi-monthly Slay Away column, Death Creeps, and an arts and entertainment writer for the Charleston City Paper and Into. Sydney is the creator of the Thursday Matinee, with a weekly newsletter released every Thursday afternoon in addition to film and television reviews.