Stories about shape shifters are among the first traceable stories ever told. It’s something that has caught the imagination from the earliest days of human memory. Being something else, being something different, something stronger. But it’s not a matter of wish fulfillment. If anything, these stories have always been about exploring the deep connection between humans and animals, between the ways mankind attempted to separate itself from the wild as we began to build the world and the truth of our violent, bestial nature. The more we attempted to repress that nature, the more these stories began to hold weight.
For the most part, the shape of the shape shifter depended on the region in which the story was told. In South America, the Aztec balams were knights who would transform themselves into jaguars under the light of the full moon. In North Africa, depending on region, the bouda was a grave-robbing werehyena, sometimes a man turned into a hyena and sometimes a hyena disguised as a man.
Greek mythology saw several instances of man turning into beast. Zeus himself would regularly visit Earth in various animal forms, sometimes even copulating with young women in those forms to produce his numerous demigod offspring. But it’s the myth of King Lycaon that proves the most interesting. Ruler of Arcadia, Lycaon was somewhat similar to the Christian myth of Satan, in that much like Satan himself, Lycaon questioned and tested the omniscient and all-powerful nature of his god (Zeus, in this case, of course) and was punished and fundamentally transformed for it.
Lycaon’s deeds were more explicitly horrific, as he served the unknowing Zeus the flesh of his own son. For this heresy and savagery, Zeus transformed him into a wolf. If not the first werewolf legend (there were earlier ones hailing from Mesopotamia) it is the most explicit and is also the origin of the world lycanthropy–basically a catch-all term for Werewolfism.
Throughout Europe, werewolf legends flourished for centuries. In many regions, they were intrinsically linked to vampirism. If one were a werewolf in life, for example, they would be doomed to return from the grave as a vampire. One could be turned into a werewolf for denying the church. More often than not, though, becoming a werewolf was an act of will, a form of witchcraft. Werewolves were the result of a pact with Satan and the transformation itself, the result of an incantation. But most legends would agree on the fact that one who was the victim of a werewolf would be doomed to become a werewolf themselves.
Reports of werewolves were incredibly common throughout the middle ages and continued to be common into the early modern era. One of the most famous cases was that of Germany’s Peter Stumpp, also known as the Werewolf of Bedburg. Believing himself to turn into a wolf due to a magical belt given to him by the Devil, Stumpp was accused of killing livestock and drinking their blood. He was claimed to have eaten fourteen children, as well as killing two pregnant women and tearing the fetuses from their wounds. He confessed to his allegiance with the Devil after undergoing serious torture and was executed in 1589.
Stumpp was hardly the only one in his situation. Throughout the 1500s and early 1600s there appeared to be an epidemic of werewolves throughout Europe, particularly in France. Men, women and children were tortured and executed in numbers that exponentially overshadow those of the Salem Witch Trials.
Bizarrely, it’s around the same time that “werewolves” were being persecuted in outrageous numbers that their stories began to take root in literature, with one of the classic examples being Charles Perrault’s rendition of “Little Red Riding Hood,” a story that would truly be popularized by the Brothers Grimm, but which had dated back to at least the 10th century. Werewolves continued to circulate in literature, though neither they nor vampires would prove nearly as popular as the beloved ghost stories of the era until the later nineteenth century.
One of the earliest attempts at a horror film would also be the werewolf’s cinematic debut, that being 1913’s aptly titled The Werewolf. At a total of 18 minutes, the film was directed by Henry McRae and released by none other than Universal Studios. The story sees a Navajo woman and her daughter transforming themselves into werewolves in order to kill the white settlers invading their land. Unfortunately, all prints were destroyed in a 1924 fire at the studio.
Universal would again attempt to bring the werewolf to the screen in 1935’s Werewolf of London. The movie shares much in common with its more famous counterpart, which would see release six years later. Both feature Jack Pierce makeup, both are about men who are bitten and cursed to transform into a monster after their encounter. So why is The Wolf Man the more remembered movie? What is it about the latter film that makes it feel so much more resonant?
Well, it has a lot to do with what happened globally during the six years between the two features. By the end of the 1930s, World War II was in full swing. And it was still raging with no clear end in sight when Universal released The Wolf Man in 1941. This was far from just simple entertainment to take audience’s minds off of the global horror. As a Jewish person born in Germany who emigrated to America just as the Nazis were beginning to take control, screenwriter Curt Siodmak—like all great writers—could not help but bring some of that personal struggle to The Wolf Man.
The themes are immediately present in the film, with this historical context in mind. With the sign of the pentagram, the werewolf and his victims are distinctly marked. The terminology thrown around by the old woman Maleva matches up entirely well with what the Jewish people were used to hearing at the time. “Even a man who is pure in heart” and especially “through no fault of your own” are words used to describe the werewolf that easily sound like things used to describe Jewish people in the 1940s. They’re ultimately words that mean the same thing, too: that because of something you cannot change or control, you will be persecuted and you will be hunted.
And hunted is exactly what the Wolf Man becomes. Even though all of the Universal monsters are known for their sympathy, Larry Talbot might truly be the most sympathetic of all. He’s a man who is cursed by a condition he has absolutely no control over. But what’s interesting is that Larry’s not actually a great person at the start of the movie. What makes The Wolf Man unique even when compared to every werewolf feature that came after it is the strong Jekyll & Hyde element that become clear after Larry is bitten by the wolf. The bite almost seems to split the best and worst aspects of himself. Before the bite, he practically is an animal, less-than-civilized and acting entirely predatory around poor, young Gwen.
After the bite he’s immediately a more sympathetic character. He’s empathetic to everyone around him and horrified of the damage he might cause, while all of those animalistic and predatory instincts are distilled into the Wolf Man itself.
The Wolf Man also solidifies the idea of lycanthropy as a curse. That it is not something to be celebrated, but a fate that someone is doomed to that they cannot change. This also relates back to Siodmak and the Jewish experience of the 1940s. It’s not that Judaism was not something to be celebrated, but there was a guilt that simply stemmed from being a Jewish person who survived that experience. Larry has an incredible degree of survivor’s guilt that was absolutely a reality for Siodmak and many other Jewish writers of the time. There was this lingering notion of, “Why am I alive when so many of my brothers and sisters are dead?” This is especially true as the series goes on, particularly in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, when Larry is faced with the notion that he might be doomed to walk the earth forever.
Stemming from such a tragic time, under the weight of this mentality of guilt, life itself begins to be thought of as a curse. And that would ultimately come to be the very thing that defines The Wolf Man.