Of all the creatures in horror films and literature, the werewolf seems to be the least glamorous, the least sexy and threatening. Unlike vampires, witches, or zombies, his identity is not fixed. Even among shape-shifters, the wolf is but a choice among many options. The explanation for poor lupine self-esteem could be that the werewolf is a temporary state: a few hours of madness, always at night, and always associated with the full moon. Let’s face it: the werewolf is a boring guy in need of a PR makeover.
He — the werewolf, who until recently had been exclusively male — is no vampire who charms his victims with an accent, turns into a bat, or terrorizes them with incisors. Until the 1981 movie The Howling, the werewolf had no sex life or tribe. He was the loner, a situation that could be attributed in great part to nineteenth-century Romanticism. He is no possessor of spells and incantations, no conductor between worlds like witches. He — again, only male until recently in film and literature — isn’t even interested in, or capable of, turning others into a werewolf. He is rather poor at self-promotion. The werewolf is, in short, a somewhat tragic figure, lone wolf jokes aside. He is milquetoast Larry Talbot or angst-ridden Oz of Buffy fame most days of the month until that pesky full moon rises and brings out his canine side. The werewolf is a cursed figure.
As banal as it sounds, the werewolf represents the instinctive and animal part within us. Men are dogs. There is also that midlife crisis, from which women are either immune or far cleverer at hiding. The lunar cycle gets it shade of lore here, too, from controlling ocean tides, hormones, and being the cause of irrational behavior. Are not these transformations of man into the wolf possible metaphors for puberty, midlife crises, or, in the case of women, for menopause? Lon Chaney’s metamorphosis is quaint when compared to the harrowing scene in American Werewolf in London. Nobody I know who saw that in the theatre the first time ever forgot that scene; but even then, that movie was laced with dark humor. Dracula yawns, as if the werewolf is nothing more than a distant cousin of Fido on a bad day.
The curious thing about werewolves is that their pedigree starts in the ancient world as incidental creatures, disappears well into the late medieval era, and then reappears as if two breeds of werewolf had developed in Germany and Eastern Europe. The persecutions of werewolves and witches have had a lot in common. I suspect that this is the case because trying animals was common in Medieval Europe. Witches have animals for familiars and there was a spate of animal attacks in certain parts of Europe. It was a terrible time for animals. Animal trials were business as usual in Medieval Europe. A horse, for example, could be found guilty of kicking a human to death and then executed in one of those splendid auto-da-fé Michel Foucault loved so much. In the few incidents in which a person was accused of being a werewolf, there was cannibalism and the suggestion (in hindsight to us moderns) that the accused might have been a serial killer.
The werewolf legend does, however, have a lighter and more rational dimension to it. Remember Romulus and Remus, the two babes, who founded Rome? They were suckled by a she-wolf. In today’s world, it is not uncommon to hear about animals that protect and nurture a human baby, or cross the species line and care for an orphan. We shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but there are times when animals demonstrate far more compassion than bipeds. The wolf is the totem animal of Rome in Italy. Fun fact: in Latin, “lupa” means prostitute. The Romans had the Lupercalia celebration every February to honor shepherds and the god of the forest, Pan, in front of the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled. Celebrants wore wolf pelts and festivities were known to get kinky.
There are many Germanic names that include the “wolf/wulf” stem (think Beowulf), but there is a richer and seldom discussed werewolf tradition in Scandinavian literature, namely in saga literature. The Vikings seen in the amusing “What is in your wallet?” commercials are berserkers. These men were fierce and feared and called the Úlfhednar, or wolf-men. More like a Scandinavian version of Special Forces, these warriors were dedicated to Odin and they went into battle wearing wolf pelts, known to “hamask” or change form, which meant they became ferocious as a pack of wolves. They are not romantic, tragic figures; they were formidable fighters. Pure testosterone. We have Nordic noir, and we may have Nordic wolf literature in the future, but the precedents are there in the saga literature of the past.
Teen Wolf enters its fourth season on MTV Monday nights. Unlike the Michael J. Fox version in the eighties, this Teen Wolf is not a howler; it has received critical praise.