The Werewolf: Monster for a New Millennium?
by Paula Guran
I'm not sure you can rate a monster's popularity. But if you can, the werewolf's climb on the creep charts has come about primarily in the last half of this century: a relative newcomer to the world of the weird. Sure, the lycanthrope has classic roots, like all our terrifying archetypes, but this shapechanger is particularly versatile and well-suited to scaring us into the next century. And -- appropriately for a modern monster -- most of our basic were-beast lore has been burned into our brains cinematically rather than through literature.
The myth of a human who metamorphosizes into a terrifying beast is found in most cultures. Usually the animal is the most fearsome of the local predators: Africans change into leopards; Peruvian natives turn into jaguars; in India one becomes a tiger; Russians shift into bears; the Chinese have both were-foxes and were-tigers. Our Western disposition to fearing the wolf is derived from the folklore of Scandinavia and southern and eastern Europe where the wolf was a threat particularly to the poor.
Despite this rich folkloric heritage, the werewolf has no solid literary grounding like that of the vampire's originating Dracula or the rich gothic tradition of the ghost. In Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydethere is a central good/evil transformative dichotomy theme and Mr. Hyde is a hairy, beastly, sexual guy -- but he remains human. Hughes, the Wer-Wolf by American Sutherland Menzies (1838), the lurid, serialized Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846) by George W. M. Reynold, and The Wolf-Leader (1857) by Alexander Dumas were noteworthy, but obscure, early contributions to the canon. Sabine Baring-Gould's non-fictional The Book of Werewolves was another important 19th century element in the foundation. It wasn't until 1933 that Guy Endore came close to being the werewolvian equivalent of Bram Stoker with his novel The Werewolf of Paris -- but few people read it then or now, so it can not be said to be highly influential. These, and a number of other early stories and novels predate werewolf films, but only in the pulp magazines, where the were-motif was used frequently and with variety, do we discern some influence on the common man's concept of the werewolf.
The lycanthrope made his film debut in the silent The Werewolf in 1913 and a few other silents followed. Although the German movie Le Loup Garou became the first talking werewolf film in 1932, the first major werewolf movie came in 1935 with Universal's The Werewolf of London. But it is George Waggoneršs 1941 Universal film The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr. that established the "laws" of werewolfdom in the popular mind. The sympathetic monster, death by a silver bullet, aversion to wolfsbane, even a hint of a "baser nature" (read: sex) were established with The Wolf Man So thoroughly has the public accepted this cinematic version of were-folklore, you will often find the following quoted as an "Ancient Gypsy Rhyme," even though screenwriter Curt Siodmak penned the lines that Maria Ouspenskaya intones in the movie:
Even a man who is pure of heart
This relatively late codification has served us well, however. It gave both screen and literary writers a chance to work with an identifiable iconography, as they had with the vampire, but not be constricted by earlier "rules" readers and viewers had come to expect. Indeed, more than most horror images, cinema has influenced the literary and the literary, in turn, re-influenced the cinematic. This artistic freedom has not only allowed the focus to shift from an "evil," if pitiable, outcast to the monster-as-victim and lycanthropy as empowerment. It provided imaginative room for a wide variety of lycanthropic protagonists often written from the shape-shifteršs perspective along with ecological themes, primal sexual power (whatever the orientation,) a broader emphasis on werewomen, interesting blends using aspects of other monsters, more emphasis on the carnivore or, conversely, more emphasis on the psychological.
In more modern interpretations -- like the movie Wolf and numerous short stories of the last decade or so -- the werewolf often delights in the power of his animal nature, and uses it for material or sexual gain: a metaphor of "survival of the fittest" for a corrupt contemporary society which pays lip service to human values, but has lost its spiritual core. The werewolf in some renditions has even lost his "lone wolf" image and gained power in a pack. Beginning with Whitley Streiber's Wolfen, tribes of lycanthropes -- either as a race apart from humanity or a chosen "family" -- started roaming the public's psyche.
The werewolf has become the "classic" monster for our confusing modern times by being able to constantly morph into fresh interpretations.
Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.