Bad Moon Rising: A History of the Werewolf
The scene has been set time and time again: a desolate stretch of moorland surveyed by the solitary burning eye of the full moon, summoning up mist from the churning soil like ghosts not yet gone from this earth. A man—poor young wretch of a city dweller—is brought to supplicant knees by the boot heel of an indifferent God who will not be banished by electric light. The man is split by forces within and without him, his very soul clawing monstrously to the surface until at long last he emits a howl, damned and utterly free.
The legend of the Werewolf has been a powerful and pervasive metaphor for the inner animal of desire and violence in humanity that refuses to fade into obsolescence. Unlike the vampire, which overthrows social convention with its sleek and sensual seduction, the werewolf is raw and ancient power, like ore ripped from the belly of the earth still molten and dripping. A metaphor as complete as this, once revealing itself on the (ironically) silver screen, has been one of the most relied upon tropes in the horror genre.
But lately the werewolf has been allotted an ancillary role to that of the vampire in shows like True Blood and Vampire Diaries (don’t make the mistake of thinking these shows have anything in common other than their popularity). One of the only modern shows that features a werewolf protagonist as a separate and complete character is the British Being Human (the Sci-Fy channel has remade an inferior American version of the show). But even Being Human would not survive with out its other protagonist who is, of course, a vampire. Somewhere along the way the werewolf has been inextricably tied up with the vampire mythos as a creature subservient and below the bloodsucker. There are several reasons why.
There is nothing sexy about a werewolf. All hair and drool and ripping skin, they are the sum total of all the grotesqueries of the human anatomy. Even when they kill they have a tendency to expose the viscera of their victims. Part of the true horror behind the werewolf is its analogy for the unapologetic way nature visits death upon all of her creations.
Vampires eroticize death. When they kill it’s clean, discrete, and the victim (usually female) displays a great deal of taboo sexual pleasure. No fuss, no muss, just two puncture wounds on the jugular, a great writhing orgasm, and an eternity as a reanimated corpse. Vampires even seem to have transcended the grosser biological processes such as digestion, excretion, and of course aging. And more often than not they are removed of the burden of a soul, whereas the werewolf spends most of its time as human and has to cope with its crimes. Attraction to the vampire is thus reasonably understood.
Interestingly, the werewolf does not have its origins in literature like the vampire. Dracula in one fell swoop introduced the complete handbook on the modern fictional vampire, with a complete list of rules and metaphorical implications. This forever earned the vampire a place among the Gothic tradition. The werewolf had no such literary prowess. While there are many great works of fiction about lycanthropy, the beast itself has mostly come to being in film, and the rules were developed along the way.
The 1935 Werewolf of London marks the creature’s Hollywood debut. Directed by Stuart Walker and staring Henry Hull as the infected Dr. Glendon, the film tells the story of a young botanist in search of a rare flower (mariphasa Lupina Lumina) in Tibet. The flower is said to only bloom under the light of the full moon. Dr. Glendon finds the flower at a price: he’s bitten by a strangely humanoid wolf, and returns to London from the wilderness with both a flower and a curse. The classic tale of the werewolf unfolds. Unlike the later, arguably more successful 1941 The Wolf Man, the original Hollywood werewolf movie does not indict the curse as something satanic or even unnatural. Rather, the curse is aligned with the mysteries of nature and evolution. When Dr. Glendon is searching for the valley where the Mariphasa is supposed to grow, he runs into a priest who warns him, saying, “I respect some of the superstitions of others. Often they are founded in facts.”
This alignment with the werewolf and nature is further cemented when we see the doctor’s array of exotic plants, ranging from the factual Venus Flytrap to a fictional plant of monstrous size with waving tendrils that gnash at frog flesh. All of this untamed nature is in stark contrast with the sophisticated gentry of the London folk strolling past them as if they were at the zoo. The werewolf in this film is a battle between the old world and the new just as much as it’s a battle between good and evil. One might ask, what is evil but the condemned laws and practices of the old by the new?
The lasting role of both Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man is that they have provided stone tablets, authoritative texts, inscribed with the laws of lycanthropy, which have been followed dutifully and then later, beautifully shattered. The films did not share every rule, but where the two overlap is where we find the rock foundation of the werewolf legend in Hollywood:
1) The curse of the werewolf is transferred by the bite of another werewolf. There are a plethora of supposed methods for becoming a werewolf in legend (being born on Christmas eve, drinking water from a wolf print, having sex with a werewolf and living, magic wolf pelt girdle, or making a deal with the devil) but the one most popularly portrayed is the bite. It’s more than just an infection or curse; it’s a transference of violence and pain from one human to the next, to the next, to the next. It’s a wonderfully visceral symbol for the inherited and inherent evil in mankind, closer to original sin than to rabies.
2) A werewolf will go after people its human counterpart knows and loves. In Werewolf of London, Dr. Glendon is warned by Dr. Yogami, a fellow botanist and cursed man, that, “The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.” The metaphor not only stands for inhibited desires and violence, but also for the human tendency to destroy the thing that is most precious to it. Something in the heart of every human being wants to gut the world just to see what comes spilling out.
3) Silver is the only thing that can kill a werewolf. This rule was only established in The Wolf Man but has been so commonly used since that it makes the list. While it was the silver head of a walking stick that was used to kill the beast in 1941, the silver bullet has been the go to method of lupine liquidation. The only explanation as to why werewolves are vulnerable to silver is that it is a pure metal that allegedly cleanses evils and toxins in the blood.
4) The transformation is triggered by the light of the full moon. More strongly cemented in Werewolf of London, this rule is the most elemental aspect of the werewolf legend. The cycle of the moon is something that has mystified humanity since we had eyes to gaze heavenward. It is nature’s great, unchanging clock and all life must dance to the rhythm of its beat. Naturally, the full moon brings out the wildest parts of us.
The transformation scene is probably the most important part of any werewolf film, the make or break point, the deciding factor of whether the film will be remembered as campy or truly horrific. To date the most successful film on this front is An American Werewolf in London, a 1981 British horror comedy directed by John Landis and staring David Naughton. Without the aid of CGI, make up artist Rick Baker created a game changing transformation scene that influenced werewolf movies for decades to come. The only other film that comes close to the nauseatingly satisfying transformation scene is the 1981 American film The Howling directed by Joe Dante.
While the transformation scene in The Howling is grotesque, horrific, and ultimately gets the job done, it is decidedly clumsier that its rival and fatally long winded. The use of air filled sacs adhesively attached to the actors face and chest were used to produce the illusion of his bones and sinew rearranging under his skin. But the camera lingers too long on each stage of the scene, and allows the audience to realize the ridiculousness of the illusion. After a while it’s hard to tell if the character is changing into a terrible beast or merely suffering from a severe case of tumescent blisters.
The transformation in An American Werewolf in London is unparalleled in its horror and skin splitting agony. We hear the bones snapping and jaggedly reforming within David Naughton’s sweat soaked naked body. His screams of pure agony drop by decibels as his larynx and trachea tear to allow for the lamentations of a wolf. We see hair erupting, his face elongating into a snout, his palms stretching and forming into paws. It is impossible to tell where the actor begins and the make up ends. No transformation has topped it yet.
But another scene deserves a mention here, both for its originality and for its symbolic implications. The Canadian film Ginger Snaps is directed by John Fawcett, and stars Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle as two teenage sisters at odds with themselves and the world. The transformation in this film does not take place within a single scene, but through out the entire movie. After Katharine Isabelle’s character is bitten by a deformed, wolf-like creature she begins to slowly change, both physically and mentally, into a similar monster. This film is unique in its treatment of the werewolf in several ways. The first is because of the aforementioned length of the transformation, but also because of the irrevocable shift into primal. Once the characters in this film (which merited two others; a sequel and a prequel) turn into beast they do not change back with the dawn of morning light. The second reason is that while the majority of werewolf movies feature a male protagonist dealing with the manifestation of his repressed sexual and violent impulses, this film reverses that and claims the werewolf as something female.
Multicultural feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa writes in her book Borderlands: La Frontera that, “Humans fear the supernatural, both the undivine (the animal impulses such as sexuality, the unconscious, the unknown, the alien) and the divine (the superhuman, the god in us). Culture and religion seek to protect us from these two forces. The female, by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood in her stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), by her virtue of being in tune with nature’s cycles, is feared.”***
In Ginger Snaps the werewolf becomes a metaphor for budding female sexuality and the taboo placed on it by a male dominated society. Instead of the full moon we have the menstrual cycle. The first pangs of lust coincide with the first desire to kill. Instead of a silver bullet we have a knife wielded by a sister complicit in denying womanhood. This incredibly complicated and sometimes bitterly sardonic metaphor is packaged in a film that still manages to be one hell of a horror movie.
More Things In Heaven and Earth
The werewolf has had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood, as well as in literature. Like the vampire, it is a metaphor that can at times appear tired and overused, and it doesn’t help that industries like Twilight have taken the werewolf and pulled an Abercrombie and Fitch sweater vest over its head and snapped a bejeweled leash to its collar. But the mythos persists, and is one that we can never really grasp in its entirety, because it is so intimately apart of us as a species. It’s like trying to reach through the mirror and grab ourselves by the throat. We will always see that full moon in the sky and hope that somewhere out there is a beast, running and howling freely for eternity.
By David Calbert
***Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: La Frontera (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company, 1987), 17.