Leaving a roller derby bout last Saturday, I espied what I took to be a full moon and couldn’t help but think of werewolves. A check of the lunar calendar showed it was the day after the full moon, but by tradition the werewolves are active for the three days on and bookending the full moon, so it was still a werewolf night. I didn’t encounter one, but when I got home I watched Wes Craven’s wolf movie Cursed (2005). Despite the presence of Jesse Eisenberg and Christina Ricci, this film gets mixed reviews because, I think, it is mixed genre thereby disappointing purists. It is playful without being a parody, rather in the style of a Buffy episode. I like it: lightweight but pleasant enough.
Nonhuman (or not quite human) monsters in books and film never scared me as a kid – at least not since the age of 9. They weren’t credible and so not truly frightening. All-too-human villains were the scariest to me – and still are – simply because their ilk does exist: e.g. psychopaths of the type found in M, Blue Velvet, and Kalifornia. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy monster movies back then. I did. I still do, for monster movies are not all about the scare. They tap into something more. The monsters are our darker selves. The big three of horror movie monsters are vampires, werewolves, and walking dead – the latter colloquially called “zombies” though that strictly speaking is an inaccurate term in the absence of voodoo. Occasionally, one or another of these types of creatures gets overexposed in the entertainment media and vanishes for a while but they always come back. They recur because they exhibit something primal in a way that other common archetypes do not: for instance, it’s a pretty sure bet that there won’t be many teen soap operas about mummies or creatures from black lagoons.
What do the big three offer? The walking dead seem relatively simple: they play to a fear of death that we handle by taunting it, much as we do on Halloween. Vampires are more complex. They combine the death wish with the libido and they are weirdly romantic; it is no accident that “vampire” was ‘20s slang for a seductress. They are also immortal (barring encounters with sunlight or stakes), which neatly combines the death wish with the survival instinct; Freud postulated that a part of us desires the peace of the end even as we struggle against it. The werewolf by contrast is pure animal instinct. Libido is there in force as well: not as romance, however, but as lust, which of course has its attractions, too. The werewolf is the id unleashed. Which of the three monsters is one’s favorite probably tells a lot about a person, though I’m not sure if it does so by correspondence or by opposition. I’ve been in the werewolf camp since the first time I saw Lon Chaney Jr.’s version of The Wolf Man; this year, as it happens, marks the 75th anniversary of its release. Though not the first werewolf movie, it is the one that most firmly established the modern conventions and made them permanent in the landscape.
Lycanthropes have a long legendary history, and not just in the West. Stories of transformations of people into animals were common all over the world in ancient times. The wolf always was a favorite. The second century novel The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius (the Robert Graves translation is still the best) describes transformations of humans by witchcraft into various animals including – unfortunately for the protagonist – an ass. Ovid tells the tale of Lycaon whom Jupiter turned into a wolf because it better suited his savage nature. In early modern times werewolf trials in Europe were contemporaneous with witch trials. In 1521, for example, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were convicted of being werewolves and were executed; it wasn’t too much of a miscarriage of justice since evidence indicates that they really were serial killers. More problematical is the case of Peter Stumpp in 1589; his neighbors claimed to have seen him transition from wolf to human. He admitted to being a werewolf: also to murder, incest, and cannibalism, but he did so under torture. He was executed on the wheel. So were his wife and daughter, presumably for harboring a criminal. It’s very possible he was indeed a murderer, but the eyewitness accounts of his metamorphosis have to give one pause about their general reliability.
In present-day storytelling, lycanthropy is commonly represented as a disease transmitted by a bite, much like rabies. So too with vampires or zombies. I’m not a big fan of bites, but if I have to choose one I’ll still pick the one that will cause me to hang with the wolves – albeit not with Herr Stumpp. Guys like that give werewolves a bad name. Compared to the other two of the big three, the wolves seem to me to have more fun.
Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs - Little Red Riding Hood (1966)