What does the mythological werewolf say about us?by Josephine Livingstone / October 31, 2013 / Leave a comment
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,…