By W.D. Gagliani On Dec 20 2012, 3:43 pm
In the Dark Ages, hundreds of people were tried and executed for committing the crime of lycanthropy. Unfortunately, the accused were probably either mentally ill, sufferers of porphyria, rabies, or other diseases, or just victims of simple neighborly revenge for slights real and imagined. It was difficult to prove you weren’t a werewolf if you were accused by a so-called witness. They took their werewolves almost as seriously as their witches, maybe more so due to the much more monstrous nature of the beast and the results of its attacks. Even witches didn’t savagely dismember and devour parts of their victims.
In a time when mysterious forces imposed their usually cruel punishment on people, and when hunger ruled the land, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that attacks by starving wolves on humans would be interpreted as attacks by supernatural shapeshifters. Occasionally, perhaps they could be attributed to human enemies disguised as wolves either to throw off suspicions or because the attacker really believed he or she was a werewolf. In any case, sentencing would be swift and punishment swifter. After all, how could one prove a negative? If one didn’t manifest as a wolf, it didn’t mean one wouldn’t shapeshift at the first opportunity. Best keep the opportunities to a minimum then!
Most older European cultures tell tales of shapeshifting, and not all of them involve wolves. However, the wolf – perhaps due to its fearsome reputation as a hunter – is the best-known and represented. Similarly in North America, Native American wolf totems also exist with their own mythology, though they tend to be more on the positive side. Even as a kid in late 60s Italy I was exposed to newspaper stories about the lupo mannaro, which made occasional tabloid appearances and continued to fuel superstition, especially in southern Italy. As a writer who loves the werewolf mythology, I have found particular enjoyment in blending the European with the Native American when possible, though numerous other writers have done so before me, most notably Charles de Lint.
And there are the movies, of course. Curt Siodmak is usually attributed with several movie-oriented werewolf characteristics, including the aversion to silver, which doubles as the werewolf’s kryptonite, and the pentagram business which identifies the next victim. Siodmak wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man (1941), in which Lon Chaney, Jr., played the tragic Talbot. Tragic because he hated the monster he had become, a trait eminently minable for great material. It’s always been apparent to me that most vampire figures enjoy what they are, or have come to embrace it. Talbot – and many other movie werewolves – are definitely more ambivalent about their condition, more likely to consider it a curse. Exception exist, like Jack Nicholson’s Wolf, in which he realizes his lycanthropy might be a good way to cuddle up to Michelle Pfeiffer. Who wouldn’t consider that a boon?
It’s generally accepted that the werewolf motif can operate as a metaphor for the concept of duality. Two personalities, two creatures, united inside one body. The beast within. We all have a dark side, a side which will choose cruelty over kindness for whatever reason. The wolf and human parts are at war, and the stronger side exerts control. In most mythologies, the shapeshifter has little or no control. If the moon is the supreme influence, then it’s the moon that induces the Change. A more recent metaphor has arisen, one in which puberty can be explored, with the beast within understood to represent raging hormones.
As wide a range of movies as Teen Wolf and Ginger Snaps have examined various aspects of teenage angst, both male and female. If you crave a good, old-fashioned men vs. werewolves tale, then Dog Soldiers is a movie for you. Of course there are plenty of other werewolf movies to throw into the mix, and I’d be remiss if I left out the excellent An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen. On the literary side, one cannot overlook the influence of Gary Brandner’s The Howling, S.P. Somtow’s Moon Dance, and Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour, a novel which also operates in the realm of historical fiction.
The vampire may have ruled lo these many years as the most popular and appealing of the classic monsters, but the day of the werewolf is fast approaching. With the upcoming release of the highly anticipated remake of The Wolf Man, and the novelization of its screenplay as penned by multiple Stoker Award winning author Jonathan Maberry, it may be that the werewolf’s day is already upon us. Beware what lurks in the dark woods – and in the hearts of men.
Milwaukee, December 2012