Modern Monsters – The Wolf-Man

I was going to write a whole big thing about werewolves back in November when I was writing my southern werewolf family drama for NaNoWriMo, but time got away from me, and the amount of research I’d have to do to tell the entire cultural history of the werewolf is beyond what I’m really willing to do. But almost as much as vampires, I love werewolves, and that love started young when I watched the 1941 The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr.

The thing is, everything we modern western folks believe about werewolves is, more or less, made up. The famous poem from The Wolf Man that everyone quotes doesn’t even mention the full moon. In its entirety:

Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright

Which explains why, in the movie, he transforms over many consecutive nights, not just on the night of the full moon. The idea of transforming on the full moon would be introduced in its sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man. Here is where the verse is changed so that the transformation is no longer in the autumn, but under the full moon, and the full moon also causes Larry Talbot to rise from his grave. This will continue a common trend of werewolves being seen as one of the undead community, a sort of honorary status they get for being a night stalking monster.

Universal had an earlier werewolf movie, and in fact it’s listed as the earliest werewolf movie. The Werewolf (1913), which is now a lost film, like many silent movies. Apparently a fire in Universal Studios in 1924 destroyed a lot of movies. For that reason I only have the summary from Wikipedia:

Kee-On-Ee, a Navajo woman, becomes a witch after erroneously coming to believe that her husband has abandoned her. She teaches the same skills to her daughter Watuma, who transforms into a wolf in order to carry out vengeance against the invading white settlers. Then, 100 years after Watuma’s death, she returns from the dead to kill again.

It is the first Universal Horror movie, and while I can find absolutely no real information about it, it does also continue the trend of lycanthropy coming from a mystical place, usually of cultures that the majority of people have no real knowledge of. In The Wolf-Man, Larry Talbot effectively receives his curse from a Romani man, though this is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of a stereotype. Maleva, in the film, is treated as a grieving mother, her seeing her son’s death paralleled by how Lawrence eventually dies in the film, with Maleva narrating as Lawrence transforms back into a man. Despite codifying many werewolf tropes, The Wolf-Man seems to play them differently than expected, though it does seem at the end of every werewolf movie, the protagonist has to die (if the protagonist is a werewolf).

The other Universal Horror werewolf movie that’s a little more recognizable would be Werewolf of London (1935). This also follows the suit of a “mystical brown people culture” being the cause, as the werewolf bite happens in Tibet. This also takes a Scooby-Doo approach to lycanthropy, in that he changes in direct moonlight. It features an early version of Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformation as well, though this werewolf is full clothed. It follows a similar storyline as The Wolf-Man, including the desire to kill the person it loves most (seen parodied in that Futurama episode).

Werewolves are a little strange in that there’s no real defining fiction for them before movies came around. There are definitely legends, but unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, they don’t have a central piece of literature to turn to. There are books and stories, but many of them have more to do with Faust than they do with modern interpretation of werewolves. An exchange is made with a devil character (or with the devil, as is the case of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf) and shapeshifting takes place. These characters can change shape at will, and often they are given immortality as well. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote The Wolf Leader based on folk tales. In it a shoe-maker takes revenge by making a deal with a wolf that walks on its hind legs, and at first hunts and then is hunted by the town.

The book I’ve found referenced as a book with werewolf themes that I find the most interesting is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, the original novella is probably ruined for its twist now being common knowledge. It is, by all effects, a mystery novel. Our narrator is Gabriel Utterson, who learns his friend is being blackmailed and may be under the sway of a hideous man named Edward Hyde. The mystery is solved after Jekyll commits suicide and leaves a note to his friend, detailing how his transformation took place. Like much werewolf fiction, it touches on themes of duality, the internal vs external, the nature we suppress and what may happen if we let that animal run wild, and ultimately is only solved by the death of the character that changes. In this case, the transformation is self-inflicted as well, and once Jekyll realizes he may be stuck as Hyde forever, he ends his life, hoping never to release such evil into the world. It’s worth noting that in the original work, Hyde is described as undescribable, and then later as ” small and very plainly dressed”, with the person viewing him given a sense that something is not right with him. In all other adaptions, he becomes monstrous, either huge and hulking, the embodiment of a man’s rage and impusle, or small and impish, like a gremlin. My favorite thing about this connection to werewolves is that it’s most plainly spelled out in Alvin and the Chimpmunks Meet the Wolf-Man, in which while a werewolf stalks these pre-adolescent mutated forest animals, they put on a play of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (No, I did not look that up. Like I said, I loved the Universal monsters as a child, and consumed just about anything that had to do with them.)

There is a book, written in 1933, I see referred to as the Dracula of werewolf literature. It seems to be an early version of The Howling, taking the suppressed desire and sexual themes of werewolves to their deepest end. It deals in rape, incest, sexual promiscuity, bastard children, a sort of Fifty Shades of Grey meets the Marquis de Sade. It also questions human nature, whether we are products of our parents or our environments, how we are the impulses we choose to hide. It would be loosely adapted into The Curse of the Werewolf by Hammer Film Productions, a story that seems perfectly tailored to their interests. It’s worth noting that a huge backdrop of The Werewolf of Paris was political tension of the time, with our main protagonist and werewolf Bertrand hiding out in the Paris Commune. The Commune was home to the radical movements in Paris, a largely socialist space that ruled separately from the French National Goverment. There is a lot to its history, which is primarily bloody and war-ridden, and a more complex overview of it can be viewed over here. As far as I can tell, The Werewolf of Paris comments on both the brutality seen on Paris streets and from the capitalist government. The story may have a lot more to do with social classes and victims of a social hierarchy.

The truth of the matter is, there aren’t that many female werewolves. Werewolves, historically, are tied closely with witches, as are many shapeshifting legends, but in modern fiction, they are rare, unless the story is about a lot of werewolves. It’s perhaps because we’re generally uninterested in writing anything but men, especially when we can tie into a dangerous masculinity, or perhaps because we’re more interested in seeing women as sexy cats, but female sexuality and werewolves do have some intersection. Most often the tale of Red Riding Hood is re-contextualized as a werewolf story, either in a literal sense with Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried, or in a more dream-like sense with The Company of Wolves. This fairy tale is often contextualized as a puberty story anyway, and adding a werewolf to it, also a monster associated with puberty or other major life changes, it creates a dangerous dichotomy of male and female sexuality. Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture breaks it down as a “Beauty and the Beast” tale, where the masculine and the feminine meet. The monster becomes gentler, while the human (usually female) becomes more in control. In theory, part of what draws these feminine archetypes to a masculine monster is the draw of its masculinity, but its also what makes the monster dangerous. (Again, as a lesbian I have issues with lots of this, but I will say that straight people seem to fully believe these masculine/feminine dichotomies and are more than willing to play them out in fiction.)

And when a woman is the werewolf? Just as werewolves seem to exhibit the worst of hyper-masculine traits, it exemplifies the traits of a “dangerous” woman. She becomes more sexual. She is mean and doesn’t hold her tongue. She tempts and seduces. We see this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see this in True Blood. She’s rarely given the introspection of a male character, often there as an instigator or a source of conflict. There are exceptions to this, though, the best of which is probably Nina from Being Human. She takes much of the strangeness in stride, and lycanthropy in that universe is treated something like a sexual disease. Like her partner, she learns to live with it, and together they get on until the second half of the series which is crushingly depressing. It’s a strange case of the domestic werewolf, in a show where domesticity is the highlight of many of these monsters’ day, in which many issues the monsters are facing are expressed due to an argument over the television schedule and doing the dishes. And for that show, the domesticity works. It reinforces how out of place the monsters feel in their own bodies, how desperate they are to not be this way, and makes their struggles all the more tragic for showcasing them in a world that we recognize. It all plays into that “other” nonsense I talked about before.

The werewolf is an ancient thing, like the vampire. It exists in many forms. It is a protector, it is a beast to be slayed, it is a walking embodiment of the things we fear about ourselves. The common proverb is homo homini lupus, or “a man is a wolf to another man”. It’s worth noting that the original form of this is “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit”, which is translated often as “man is a wolf, not a man, to a stranger”, though it’s literal translation is a little more complicated than that. Werewolves, in nearly every modern example, embody the things about us that we are scared of. Aggressive sexuality, a penchant for murder and mutilation, the desire to devour others, and most jarringly, this thing isn’t inherently known by looking at someone. Any person could be a wolf. We don’t know until the moon is full, or they drink their potion, or the wolfbane blooms. It’s why it plays well into a feminine archetype, because the monster is unexpected coming from such a source, but also why it emphasizes a masculine archetype. And for those in the non-binary, who feel neither masculine or feminine, or feel they move between those roles, it offers a literal transformation.

I consume a lot less werewolf fiction than I do vampire, though I also think there is less werewolf fiction than vampire. Still, I have recommendations. The Howling takes the fear of the masculine to its logical extreme, and the werewolves don’t even really show up until late in the film. It seems to take a good chunk of its themes from The Werewolf of ParisGinger Snaps is treated as the feminist answer to the werewolf question and implicitly ties it into puberty and periods. I’ve probably detailed out my love for BBC’s Being Human, but the first two seasons in particular are really good at showing various monsters in domestic settings and building on that “other” that many monsters try to represent. The werewolf in that series tries hardest of the main three to have a normal life and possibly fails the hardest at it, though he’s the one who ends up with a loving family until the later seasons hit. I literally could not watch series four. The first episode I gave up. I’ve never watched the American version of it, so feel fee to tell me how the monsters play out in that version. As usual, I recommend a Terry Pratchett novel. The Fifth Elephant does a wonderful job of deconstructing that homo homini lupus while playing up some aspects of werewolves I feel get underwritten, as well as some “old country” ideas without implictly throwing a culture under the mystical bus. I do think everyone’s favorite An American Werewolf in London is honestly one of the best werewolf movies ever made, with an amazing soundtrack, and deals in a number of these themes. I’m very fond of Bigby Wolf from the Fables comic series, though I am less fond of the series than the first time I read it whenever it started. He’s something of an inversion of the werewolf trope. Originally the Big Bad Wolf, he was granted a pardon and lycanthropy via magical knife, and since coming into the human world has humanized. He has his badass wolf moments, but he is, ultimately, a kind man who looks after his family and who tries to do the right thing. I didn’t completely enjoy Fables: Wolf Among Us for many reasons (primarily its continuity issues), but he does face off with the Jersey Devil in that game, and that’s reason enough to look into it.

I also recommend a more complete oral history of the werewolf as narrated by Blake Smith here. I probably recommend Monster Talk too often for non-skeptics to really enjoy, but it’s a good deconstruction of how modern werewolf myths came about, and he even tracks down the first usage of the silver bullet. I like seeing how folk tales evolve through re-telling, and it’s a pretty good break down of exactly that.

There are fewer adaptions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I’d recommend. Inevitably they all seem to add a prostitute character to murder, I think to tie them into Jack the Ripper style story telling, including a silent film adaption fo the book which may be one of the earliest adaption of that tale. I absolutely loathe The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, both book and movie, and I think I watched the 2007 BBC adaption of a modern day Jeykll that I also found incredibly boring and unwatchable. Perhaps the best adaption of Jekyll and Hyde is Bruce Banner as the Hulk. It plays into the things we fear about ourselves, the quiet and studious Banner turned into a huge, monstrous man. I don’t read many Hulk comics, so my biggest familiarity with the characters comes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s worth noting in that continuity that Banner attempted to end his story the same way Jekyll did, and the same way many werewolf stories end.

The first part of my 1950s monster mash has just completed it’s final chapter over at my writing blog, and I’m in the middle of preparing part two, which deals entirely in werewolves. I also tie werewolves and Dr. Jekyll together rather plainly in my Victorian monster mash, of which you can read an excerpt here. I plan on borrowing some folklore for future chapters here, though they may be a little closer to home than expected.


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