Building a Better Predator: Werewolves
Monstrous Ecology of the Lupine
In today’s installment of Zen and the Art of Screaming, we explore the origins of werewolves and Lycanthropy and examine how werewolves came to represent the Other, fear of self and loss of agency.
The history of werewolves is fairly well known to most, but for those who don’t know, here is a brief synopsis of the basics. The reason why we actually know and remember werewolves is because they became part of the Universal Monsters family. There was a werewolf panic in the 1400s throughout all of Europe. Many people were killed in various horrific ways due to ergot poisoning and rampant falsehoods [ 1 ]. We could also talk about puberty and body hair and whether or not somebody had a unibrow, which, of course, was basically a dog whistle for “Eastern European” in a very racist time. Of course, no discussion about werewolves would be complete without discussing various aspects of transformation and body horror.
Yet all of that is pretty much irrelevant to the fact that the werewolves, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the mummy are all part of what is commonly called the Universal Studios monsters. This is American horror and these are the ones that count. When White Wolf decided to write horror, they chose the Universal Monsters. Many of the modern fantasy settings have in them a variant of these classic creatures, and it’s the modern werewolf that has its roots in Universal Studios’ Wolfman [ 2 ].
The Symbolism of Werewolf
Curt Siodmak fled to Hollywood from Nazi Germany, where he wrote the screenplay for the 1941 classic The Wolfman. This prior experience, fleeing a fascist state, colored everything he wrote about this hairy monster. He created the origin story and every other aspect of the Wolfman, he created the monthly cycle that tracked the full moon, the transformation that they can’t control, that lycanthropy was a curse that could be passed on by a bite, and the fact that werewolves were marked by a star and were hunted down [ 3 ].
While many originally believe the details of the werewolf’s curse was an analogy representing puberty, others see the historical resonance with the Nazi’s imprisonment and attempted genocide of the Jews in Germany [ 4 ]. Both the director and writer of the film knew the significance of the people that were marked for death with the sign of the star. The resulting work also pulled in Bela Lugosi, Claude Raines, Lon Chaney Jr., and most importantly, the composer Hans Salter. They were nearly all of them refugees from Austria.
The wolf is coded for someone who passes for normal and Caucasian in daily life and then, through no fault of their own, randomly attempts to murder people and mark them. There is nothing they can do about it, as it’s just a phase of the moon, and every so often someone would try to kill off all of the werewolves. Notably, in the 2010 remake of the film starring Anthony Hopkins and Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins’ character mentions “never look back. The past is a wilderness of horrors,” and that humanity is doomed to relive them [ 5 ].
Werewolf as fear of self
The fear of the werewolf—unlike the whole vampire or zombie thing—is that you are supposed to put yourself in the place of the creature; in their skin, such as it is. The vampire is the foreign, subtle aggressor. He used to be just an unclean thing. He invokes the morals of, “Stay away from corpses that haven’t been buried long enough.” The zombie is once again the fear of the mindless other.
But the werewolf is always the fear of the self, the fear that there is something about everyone that is wrong or different [ 6 ].
Police capitalize on that fear by having in their worldview an idea that everyone everywhere has done something illegal. That’s why they give you that look that makes it seem like they know… even though they don’t. Every authority figure since the dawn of time has used that look. It is in their base make-up as an authoritarian that you must have done something wrong and it doesn’t matter what.
Intensity of this belief is a sliding scale based on race and economic status, but it’s everywhere. That is a fear that everyone has: the fear of being found out. Whether you are a jock who likes comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, or you are a cheerleader who likes science and engineering, we all share that fear of discovery by someone for what they are or what they have done.
That entire social structure of authority, crime, punishment and catching people works on the premise that everybody inherently at their core has a fear that someone will find out that they secretly have done something they want hidden. Fear that someone with find their search history, fear that someone will find out their sexuality, fear that someone with find out their criminal past, fear that someone will find that they have had unclean thoughts about something; it doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the fear that there is something that you can’t control that someone else will find out. As a personal point, you want to avoid this horror in everyday life.
Werewolves and Racism
Most people are not aware of this, but Teen Wolf is a story about Blackness [ 7 ]. Think about the way in which people like and prize Black people for their athletic prowess, especially in basketball, but then as soon as you are off the field they turn on you almost instantly. This is obviously represented by Michael J. Fox’s hairy wolfman routine. There is a lot of very good scholarship done on how they wanted to do a movie about Blackness with no Black people in it. So that is why we have Teen Wolf: because racism.
There is something that will cause the lynch mob to come for you if they find it out. It’s something you can’t control that is inherent to your nature; whether it be your color, your religion, or your sexual preference, it’s fear of self. There isn’t a werewolf myth that doesn’t deal with this, or at least not a long standing one. Now there are biological backups for it I am sure. With zombies there are drugs that make you trance out; with vampires, corpses have their gums and fingernails recede so they look all vampy. There are lots of people that have various conditions, such as hirsutism, in which their bodies are covered entirely with hair. P.T. Barnum famously featured someone with hirsutism in his act [ 8 ]. Yet most of the people who have been persecuted or set on fire for being werewolves did not have hypertrichosis [ 1 ].
All of this fear is because there is something in you that you see as less than human or undeserving. People with great self-esteem never become werewolves. Feel free to look at the humans of any given werewolf story; all of them are broken individuals that already have something that if found out they’ll be lynched for. Lon Chaney’s character is, fundamentally, a coward even before bitten.
In the various American werewolf tales, they were unbearably shy. You have folks who were hiding themselves, you have folks who were ultimately ashamed. That makes the transition into something that goes against their control, makes them something they are going to be hunted for, almost like not a transition at all. It’s just turning that outward, and it’s the fact that when that shame is put out there and for all to see, it explodes into violent rage.
There is another fun instance of werewolves and Nazi crossovers. There were terror squads called Werewolf Squads after the Reich fell, composed of those who could not accept that their side had surrendered [ 9 ]. These Nazis showed their true colors when they decided that there was no possible way their side could have fallen. Instead, they went rogue.
They became known as “werewolf” squads because they would look like normal people about to surrender and then attack and kill anyone they could. They would continue to do this until killed or captured well into the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s almost a guarantee that not all of them were caught. The take away from all this is “werewolf” can be synonymous for being violently ashamed. “Wolfing out” is equivalent to your reaction to having that shame exposed. It is either inherent to your nature or inflicted on you by another.
There are only two “common” stories of the werewolf. One is of the savage beast that kills under the full moon due to a curse, typically called Lycanthropy. The other is a savage beast that kills just because. Someone is “Othered” through no fault of their own and is then hunted. The story is typical: the protagonist is relentlessly pursued, despite their condition is not their fault, and there has been no significant change in that approach throughout the history of the werewolf story. There has been little to no evolution of the matter. We may be ashamed of different things but the result of that shame always has a similar manifestation.
What we do see evolution of is how these two different ideas play out. Whether we use the shame of puberty, the misfortune of being a targeted race, or being the victim of sexual assault, our shame forces us to change; the werewolf is the result. This static, unyielding icon of horror is, at its core, most horrific due to the involuntary nature of the curse.
What can “cure” lycanthropy? In some cases, it’s true love. In other cases, it’s eating wolfsbane while sitting under a waterfall and letting your blood flow out into the river (and then hopefully receiving a blood transfusion from someone prior to death). Various symbols of purity and letting yourself open to the world are said to help.
The other thing that cures it is a silver bullet typically for the purity aspect (and possibly for all the holes in you). In some cases, this bullet must be shot by someone who loves you, and if that isn’t a metaphor I don’t know what is. The broad telegraphing exists, however, for archetypal reasons. Silver is a symbol of purity, mostly due to its appearance and, surprisingly, its antibacterial properties; when people would rub silver on wounds, they would often get better or at least no longer be infected or diseased [ 10 ]. So if you are one of those people who believe that the soul is more important than the body, a silver bullet is indeed a valid “cure.”
A werewolf is damned through no fault of their own; they were original sin made manifest. Even if they are a good person and say their prayers, the wolf takes over and they go out and do evil by night. The point of killing them with a silver bullet wasn’t to end them being a danger to you. You could end a werewolf being a danger to you rather easily: put it in a trap or a cell, they aren’t that much stronger than humans. You can put a collar on it. You can put a chain on it. It’s not much more deadly than your average moose.
However, the premise of the silver bullet is that you are trying to save their immortal soul, unfortunately in a way that kills the person as well as the monster. That person will at least die pure, their legacy having been cleansed with the knowledge that the impurity and shame that it suffered under will be removed, and that they will therefore be remembered as a person. You will note that every time somebody shoots a werewolf with a silver bullet it is done through the heart. In the event that they say that a werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet and they don’t say that it has to be from someone that the werewolf loves, inevitably it is someone they love that does it in almost all cases unless the werewolf is a random beast.
In the 2000 film Gingersnaps, we find another horror movie about secret shame [ 11 ]. The protagonist was ashamed that she was sexually assaulted; the way she deals with this is that she kills people once a month. Incidentally, she doesn’t just have the moon as the trigger; she also transforms when she feels that someone is going to sexually assault her again.
Why people who are the victims of assault feel shame is its own can of worms to be explored, but it works for both male and female survivors of abuse of any sort, even if they are just bystanders that feel it’s somewhat their fault. Many victims of a horrific event feel survivor’s guilt, and often feel that, even though what happened is in no way their fault—and that they in no way could have changed—is still a secret shame of theirs. That shame is what werewolves are made of.
Coming full circle
The end result of all this pondering is that the werewolf as an icon leaves you as a victim of your loss of agency and secret shame. However, despite the lack of personal evolution of its media presence, this monster has followed the circle of horror we’ve discussed in previous installments of this series. From the horrible monster (the original), to comedy (Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf) [ 12 ], to sympathetic (Gingersnaps), to a protagonist tale (Teen Wolf), to romance (Twilight) [ 13 ], the entirety of werewolf media is diverse. As such, the evolution of the werewolf has achieved the full circle that all monsters eventually complete.
This allows them to reinvent themselves, which is the final step that they must take. In this case, this perhaps involves combining vampires and Lycanthropes to get a hybrid more powerful than either one alone. In the Underworld film series that is exactly what happens, forced evolution but evolution nonetheless [ 14 ]. Where the werewolf will end up next is anybody’s guess, but I am pretty sure I know what components are going to make up its core. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a werewolf.
- “Tied to man’s unreasoning fear of nature and the demonization of the wolf as a predator, the myth of the werewolf, much like its subject, is a shapechanging entity, constantly evolving.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/werewolf-howling-dark-cold-forest-big-1823237033
- “From Lon Chaney, Jr.’s portrayal of The Wolf Man, to Latin American productions, and even the old world myths of Loup Garou, werewolves have been an international phenomenon since long before ‘pop culture’ existed.” Source: https://free-images.com/display/el_lobo_humano.html
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
- Interesting, All That’s. “The Grisly Werewolf Panic That Swept Europe a Century before the Salem Witch Trials.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 31 Aug. 2017, allthatsinteresting.com/hans-werewolf-trials.
- The Wolf Man. Directed by George Waggner, Universal Pictures, 12 Dec. 1941.
- King, Susan. “‘Wolf Man’ Writer Reflected Wartime Jewish Experience.” Los Angeles Times, California Times, 3 Feb. 2010, latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-feb-03-la-et-classic-hollywood3-2010feb03-story.html.
- Matzen, Robert. “Curt Siodmak Jew.” Robert Matzen, 28 Oct. 2018, robertmatzen.com/tag/curt-siodmak-jew/.
- The Wolfman. Directed by Joe Johnston, Universal Pictures, 12 Feb. 2010.
- Dobson, Dr. Eleanor. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Werewolves (and Us).” University of Birmingham, birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/the-big-bad-wolf.aspx. Accessed 25 June 2021.
- “Teen Wolf.” Black(Ness) in Bold: Black Professors, Black Experiences and Black Magic., 1 Apr. 2016, blackprofessorblog.wordpress.com/tag/teen-wolf/.
- Dimuro, Gina. “The Story of Annie Jones, P.T. Barnum’s Bearded Lady.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 24 July 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/annie-jones-bearded-lady.
- Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Nazi Werewolves Who Terrorized Allied Soldiers at the End of WWII.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 30 Oct. 2018, smithsonianmag.com/history/nazi-werewolves-who-terrorized-allied-soldiers-end-wwii-180970522/.
- Politano, Amani D., et al. “Use of Silver in the Prevention and Treatment of Infections: Silver Review.” Surgical Infections, vol. 14, no. 1, Feb. 2013, pp. 8–20, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4955599/, 10.1089/sur.2011.097.
- Ginger Snaps. Directed by John Fawcett, Unapix Entertainment Productions, 11 May 2001.
- Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf. Directed by Ray Patterson, Hanna-Barbera Productions, 13 Nov. 1988.
- Twilight. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Summit Entertainment, 21 Nov. 2008.
- Underworld. Directed by Len Wiseman, Lakeshore Entertainment, 13 Sept. 2003.