Monday, September 26, 2011

Things That Come Out At Night


“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.” Wolfman ~1941

No matter your age or where you are from, chances are, at some point you were frightened by a creature that comes out at night. Some had fangs and drank blood, others were walking corpses that feasted on the brains of the living, but some looked no different than you and I. They could roam the world as everyday humans and go unnoticed until...the next full moon would find them sprouting thick coats of fur and preying on the throats of unsuspecting travelers in the night. Some werewolves were even graced with the ability to transform at will, making them an even more frightening creature of the night.

The very first werewolf movie that I cut my teeth on as a child was An American Werewolf In London. Even today, it is the standard by which I judge all werewolf books or movies. I was 8 years old and it was absolutely brilliant. Considering the date and the technology available then, it is still one of the greatest transformation scenes I have ever watched and very few can hold a candle to it.

Werewolves hold a unique place in our hearts and minds, but where did this concept of half man, half wolf emerge from and how has it changed throughout the years? Let us quickly find out before the full moon's glow shines brightly and some of us are no longer the same.
As children our first taste of werewolves probably came from the childhood fairytale Little Red Riding Hood, but in history, werewolf folklore dates back thousands of years. In 8 A.D., Ovid wrote the Latin narrative poem Metamorphosis which follows a man cursed to roam the earth as a werewolf because of the heinous crimes he has committed against a child. Other great poets of the same era would dip into the werewolf tale. Virgil, Pliny The Elder and Gaius Petronius Arbiter, were just a few. Some of Arbiter's works on the subject date back as far as 60 B.C.

The origins of the werewolf tale stem from a primitive time when forests covered most of the landscape and animals were quick to steal a bite to eat from the sparse populations of humans that inhabited their lands. Europeans were some who turned terror and misunderstanding into legend and are credited with some of the very first werewolf tales.

In a time where medicine was confined to medicinal herbs, hocus pocus remedies and cures, mental illness was not something that anyone had ever heard of. As such, a person who was suffering from lycanthropy was not mentally unstable and in need of medication, sedation and observation, but was someone who was indeed cursed to be a werewolf and needed to be exterminated in order to save their soul. Sounds crazy to us, but to those living in these wilderness times when humanity was just finding its way, it made perfect sense. Today we understand lycanthropy to be the mental illness associated with schizophrenia where a person becomes convinced they are or have already, transformed into various animals, including wolves.

In European folklore it was said that even in human form, signs existed to distinguish a werewolf from other humans. If you had curved fingernails or low set ears, you could easily have been mistaken for a werewolf. For those poor folks who had the misfortune of having eyebrows that grew together, in a time before tweezers had been invented, they too were thought to be werewolves.

The means by which a person could be become a werewolf, were almost as plentiful as the stories themselves. A person could be bitten or scratched by a werewolf, the most popular means, but there are some more obscure methods that are a lot more fun. There was rubbing your body with magic salve, drinking from an enchanted stream and even sleeping under the full moon on a Wednesday or Friday with the moon's glow shining on your face. My personal favorite has to be, drinking rainwater from the footprints of the beasts that were found in the forest!
As the years passed and we, as humans, became more sophisticated & educated, our take on werewolves changed drastically, but our desire to carry their tale with us through history did not.

Literature has adapted a plethora of these iconic tales into short stories, novels and later on, into the movies we have grown to love over the years. The nineteenth century would see a host of very famous writers tackle the werewolf story from the likes of G.W.M. Reynolds, Sutherland Menzies and even Alexander Dumas.

The twentieth century would usher in the true emergence of the werewolf as a staple in horror fiction and an explosion of stories and movies based on the tale would come blazing onto the scene. In 1933, American author Guy Endore wrote The Werewolf of Paris which has since come to be known as the Dracula of werewolf literature.

The very first feature film to use the werewolf premise was Werewolf of London in 1935. It would however be Lon Cheney Jr.'s portrayal of the tragic character Larry Talbot in 1941's The Wolf Man that would set the standard for all movies in the genre. The movie catapulted werewolves into the public eye and from this one film two very crucial werewolf staples were established...werewolves always kill those they love the most and they can be quickly dispatched from this world by a silver bullet.

Other movies and books would come along and werewolves would be further rooted into the horror genre until the introduction of the paranormal romance and young adult books that embrace the these creatures.

J.K. Rowlings gave a new take to werewolves in her Harry Potter series in which she creates them as dangerous, but also as misunderstood and widely discriminated against. Other authors in the young adult genre would give new life to werewolves with books such as Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, Dark Guardian by Rachel Hawthorne and Night Shade by Andrea Cremer.
Movies have been plentiful and werewolves have graced the big screen hundreds of times. From feature length cartoons like 2005's Wallace And Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, to the 2010 remake of the classic The Wolf Man and even the new adaptation of the childhood tale in 2011's Red Riding Hood, werewolves have found for themselves, a home within our books, our films and our minds.

Even music has grabbed up a portion of this iconic creature that comes out in the night with songs like Monster by Skillet, Wolf Moon by Type O Negative and Of Wolf And Man by Metallica. These are barely scraping the barrel. You can literally find dozens of songs about werewolves and some you may never have even suspected were about them.

Though werewolves have a deeply rooted place in the media of our world, one thing has not changed much in the thousands of years since the very first tales were told. Werewolves were then and are almost always now, portrayed in a negative light. They are the thing to fear, they are the curse from which no one can ever return and they are the stuff of nightmares. I am happy to have them there in our songs, in our books and films in our very history. The alternative is, they walk amongst us, beside us and they are there waiting... waiting for the lights to go out, waiting for that next full moon, wanting to show us what really comes out in the night.

CK Webb

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting post about werewolves. I find the history of them fascinating and I love how writers bring them into modern day tales- keeping some of the old lore and adding some new. I am a huge fan of Harry Pottern and Lupin is one of my favorite characters!

    I found you through Book Blogs and signed up to follow you. When you have a chance- please stop by and follow the blog for my middle grade novel that I am hoping to get published.
    Also, my co-author, Stephanie, liked your fb page today. Please like us back at:

    Take care-
    Jess- although I may show up as Fairday, the main character from my novel. I can't figure out how to fix it. :)