It’s Friday night and you’re on a date with a guy from school, possibly Michael Jackson. Maybe you’re at a drive-in, parked in a large American car. Everything’s going great. Then the moon comes out.
First, the date’s face begins to warp, becoming lumpily misshapen. Next, you sit, hyperventilating, watching him watch his outstretched hands as his fingernails elongate into claws. At this stage the date may convulse. Finally, the buttons of his shirt pop off as his spine and ribcage blossom upwards and outwards. Bones crunch, hair sprouts, letterman jacket splits. Maybe, between uncontrollable snarls, he gets a chance to croak, “Run!” You probably shouldn’t bother. You’ve hung around far too long already and anyway, you’re in a 1980s werewolf movie: this is a dinner date and only one of you is eating.
The grisly transformation was not always a horror movie staple. Werewolf of London (1935) was the first film to show a werewolf walking around on two legs. Around 20 minutes in you can see the first draft of the iconic transformation scene (the film is available online in its entirety). In other early treatments, like The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein vs. The Wolf Man (1943), technical obstacles required the transformation to occur either politely off-screen or with the subject remaining placidly still.
But once Hollywood was capable of showing eligible male protagonists ripped apart from the inside out, it did. The werewolf exploded onto the pop-culture scene in the 20th century, becoming an instant star of the silver screen and equally popular in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and novels like Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933). Along with ghosts, zombies, vampires and regular old serial-killers, werewolves are what we moderns like to be scared by best.
Unlike ghosts and zombies, which plug into disquietude about the dead from our species,vampires and werewolves are usually thought to embody human worries about the divide—or lack thereof—between human beings and animals. It was not until Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 that vampires began to metamorphose into bats. The werewolf, however, has been a human/nonhuman hybrid being since its earliest imaginings—and it is very old indeed.
European literary history is full of man/wolf imagery, from Cicero’s denunciation of Mark Antony cavorting in a wolfskin at the Lupercalia festival to the medieval French werewolf tale Bisclavret by Marie de France. Alas the late 20th century werewolf boom on film and TV has battered the complicated werewolf of folklore into an unimaginative metaphor for teenage sexuality.
If, like me, you’re tired of cod-anthropological insights into bad contemporary films about mythical creatures, you might be cheered by the arrival of Matthew Beresford’s The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture (Reaktion). Beresford generally avoids indulging in the kind of pseudo-cultural critique that has dominated discussions of vampires and werewolves over the past two decades. There is a great deal to say about supernatural characters’ embodiment of cultural anxieties. But a lot of smart people have written a lot of terrible criticism about a lot of terrible films. Terence Rafferty was a notable exception, puncturing Interview with a Vampire for the New Yorker with these well-chosen words: “the endless elaborations on the vampire story’s obvious eroticism become very tiresome … subtext should stay where it belongs—underground. If it’s brought into the light, it shrivels and dies.”
Beresford isn’t interested in fictional representations of werewolves. He wants us to focus on prehistoric man’s spiritual relationship with the wolf itself. For tens of thousands of years, it seems, human beings have lived in interspecies communities: the dog and wolf cannot be considered separate entities in prehistoric European culture. (Although the exact dates of the domestication of dogs and their emergence as a subspecies remain shrouded in mystery, Beresford points out that the early domesticated dogs were considerably more like a wolf than a lap-dog.) The kernel of Beresford’s argument seems to be that hunting magic—rituals involving cave painting and totems—often focused on wolves and that hallucinogenic potions helped spur on visions of the wolf transforming into humanoid form. Hence the tangle of European folkloric concerns with the wolf and the wolf-like.
The White Devil loosely divides all of European history into three sections: prehistory, medieval history and modernity, and Beresford’s expertise seems to lie with the first. A consultant archaeologist who does a lot of community work, he is obviously a keen enthusiast of early culture. He tells you where, when and how people first started to live alongside wolves: what they might have admired in them, what bits of them they liked to be buried with, how they dressed up as them to march into battle. However, the chapters aren’t divided by theme. They are instead arranged in blocks of prose which meander across subject matter without much regard for the reader’s ability to keep up. If there’s a coherent approach here, its in Beresford’s insistence on mining all sources—visual, literary, archaeological, historical—for werewolf anecdotes. Beresford treats all sources in exactly the same fashion—as if fiction, religion and archaeology were indistinguishable.
Interesting material is flung in at strange points, without commentary. In the chapter on European folklore, Beresford notes that Adolf Hitler underlined sections of a general occultist text concerning demons. “Hitler himself could be said to have some sort of ‘link’ with werewolves,” he continues, “for example, his secret ‘werewolf bunker’ was located in the Ukrainian town of Vinnytsia.” Hitler’s Werewolf Bunker sounds like a good concept for a computer game but sadly Beresford offers no further explanation.
Equally intriguing is the lengthy description of the crimes and trial of the 19th century French murderer Joseph Vâcher, notable for his accordion, white furry hat, and habit of disembowelling people. Vâcher is not, however, traditionally noted for having had anything to do with werewolves. Beresford’s attempt to link the crime to the book’s general aegis is not totally unfair, but badly expressed:
“While there are neither any claims from Vâcher that he assumed the ‘form’ of a werewolf as he killed, nor from any other parties that he was one, there are numerous instances where the evidence could have convicted him for being a werwolf, had he lived just 300 years earlier. [sic]”
While there are neither any claims from me that I am a man as I’m writing this article, nor from any other parties that I am one, the very fact that I am writing it suggests that I could have been thought to be one, had I lived just 300 years earlier.
This book did, however, have the benefit of reminding me how great traditional tales can be—especially ones from Romania. Beresford quotes a story recorded in Emily Gerard’s 1885 essay “Transylvanian Superstitions”:
“[A man] driving home from church on a Sunday with his wife, suddenly felt that the time for his transformation had come. He therefore gave over the reins to her and stepped aside into the bushes, where, murmuring the mystic formula, he turned three somersaults over a ditch. Soon after this the woman, waiting in vain for her husband, was attacked by a furious dog, which rushed, barking, out of the bushes and succeeded in biting her severely, as well as tearing her dress. When, an hour later, this woman reached home alone she as met by her husband, who advanced smiling to meet her, but between his teeth she caught sight of the shreds of her dress which had been bitten out by the dog, and the horror of the discovery caused her to faint away.”
Take note, film-makers: the shreds of your dress between your husband’s teeth as he smiles at you. Top-drawer horror.
By the 17th century, Beresford tells us, the werewolf was so stock a figure that lycanthropy, the delusion that one is a werewolf, had become well-known. “Wolf-madness” bore an interesting relationship to the European witch-persecution and demonic possession-fad of the same period. In France, the late 16th century saw a number of executions for the crime of werewolfery. In 1573 the parliament of Franche-Comté (Burgundy) issued a decree permitting citizens suspecting a werewolf “to assemble with pikes, halberds, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said werewolf in every place where they may find or seize him: to tie and kill him.” Shades of Beauty and the Beast, indeed.
There is much of this ilk to enjoy in The White Devil. You also have to respect Beresford’s gumption: at one point he accuses Sigmund Freud of reading too much into a dream. Perhaps the best section of the book is on film, where Beresford’s priorities are just right. There is half a sentence on Twilight but a lot on cult classic The Howling (1981), excellent Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves (1984) and the very fine teen girl puberty-horror Ginger Snaps (2000).
Beresford’s best move, I think, is his reluctance to read the werewolf in the obvious way: as a familiar allegory of the bestiality of man. How dull, to look at a wolf and see oneself—and yet, how very interesting to observe a werewolf! What is it that they bring to life, if it isn’t something from inside us?
Karl Steel, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written about Marie de France’s werewolf tales, agrees that the beast-in-man werewolf model is not a useful one. Instead, he thinks, werewolves remind us how strange are the distinctions between man, wolves, domestication, and wildness. “The dog is a wolf that has followed humans into their homes,” says Steel. “And a werewolf, similarly, [is] a human that has allowed itself to be domesticated in the other direction, into the homes of wolves.”
Our relationship to the over-built urban environment, our taming: that is what the werewolf evokes, for me. There’s nothing wrong with being a wolf-man, as long as you don’t happen to be one in New York (or Paris, or London, for that matter). Werewolves of all sorts—from the Romanian husband nibbling on his wife’s dress to Professor Lupin—run off to the forest at the crucial moment. The wildness in the werewolf needn’t be read as simple impulsiveness. Why not think instead about what we have done to wildness, the wildness in our bodies but also our environment, and hear the werewolf’s howling as a mourning sob over the repetitive nature of city living?
In the end, the werewolf remains our creation—fictive but somehow true. To express this paradox at the werewolf’s heart, we might do worse than to turn to the lines that begin the screenplay for 1985’s Teen Wolf:
“Due to our strong personal convictions, we wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult. Nor do we propose that any beings, supernatural or otherwise, actually exist.
Most of what follows is true.”
MORE BY JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE:
“Hired by a bitch to find scum”: The murky, masculine, sex-suffused world of the movie detective
How we got pukka: To understand India’s influence on English, you need a Hobson-Jobson
When nuns puked nails: Why are we so obsessed with tales of demonic possession and exorcism?