My fascination with werewolves began early. Aged 8, my parents sent me to a boarding school near Broadmoor asylum, formerly home to lunatics and the mentally deranged. Every Monday at 10 o’clock we would hear the alarms being tested in case of any patients escaping. Then, after dark, we would tell each other horror stories, often about an escapee from the asylum. I remember listening at the window whenever there was a full moon, wondering if I would hear some blood-curdling howl from inmates escaped or otherwise. In my mind, there was little difference between a bona fide werewolf and a frenzied lunatic: they both kept me up late into the night as I watched for shadows moving in the woods beyond the playing fields.
The modern idea of a werewolf or lycanthrope only really took hold in the last century. According to TV shows and films, a werewolf is created when someone survives a werewolf attack. Most of the time they are human, but once a month around the full moon they transform into a half man, half wolf hybrid. In this form, they lose their human instincts, becoming a bloodthirsty beast instead. They have heightened senses and heal faster than normal humans. Their human side can be appealed to while transformed, but only through their one true love. Finally, there is no cure, while death can only be brought about through silver weapons or old age.
These details are superfluous, an attempt to define something that is constantly changing. Shapeshifters have featured across various mythologies for millennia, always in different guises and under different “rules” with their nature adapting to the narrative’s need as required. Sometimes unimaginably violent, other times benevolent, sometimes changing at will, sometimes under provocation. Until we find a werewolf willing to correct the record, they will remain entirely adaptive to the stories we want to tell and the issues we want to explore.
What does not change is the core of what the werewolf symbolises: the beast within. We live in a human environment, governed by human rules and human etiquette. Yet we are still animals. When we climbed down from Palaeolithic trees, we did not leave our bestial instincts in the branches and amongst the leaves. We still act on impulse, on desire, on lust. While these acts are usually within social boundaries, the fear remains that these instincts will overpower our morality, humanity, and sense of reason with catastrophic consequences.
This is an inescapable and intrinsic aspect of being human. So core is it to our lived experience, that werewolves have been used to explore issues as diverse as understanding puberty (Teen Wolf), the consequences of sin (A Werewolf in Paris), and the threat of strangers (Werewolves Within). Indeed, they can be used to explore any issue that revolves around our instincts or our humanity. It is this ability to tackle such a wide array of issues that elevates the werewolf above his peers in the monster community.
To offer a comparison, consider the vampire. Bram Stoker’s Dracula created the modern vampire, but in doing so he gave culture a way to kill the immortal. Dracula is a summation of the fears held in society at the time: a camp man from foreign lands with an aversion to Christian symbols seducing innocent women. It worked while society disdained all those things, but one by one they have fallen. We are less homophobic, less xenophobic, and less religious than before. Consequently, the modern vampire is simply an immortal seducer. While this has proved a successful seam for the romance genre to mine, it leaves little room for the vampire as a vessel to explore deeper questions.
Horror is often written off as lowbrow pulp, ill-suited to tackling these issues. After all, much of it relies on cheap gore, over the top violence, and outrageousness to draw in the audience. Yet this ignores the reasons why horror draws us in. It manifests our fears, turning intangible feelings and emotions into unavoidable conflicts that must be faced and resolved. Whether it is our fear of failure (The Shining), our struggles to deal with loss (Don’t Look Now), or our refusal to accept being replaced in a relationship (The Birds), horror can and should be used to explore deeper, psychological questions in ways that “real” drama cannot.
We can see the evidence of this in how our view of monsters has changed. In 19th century gothic fiction, the audience was not invited to understand the monsters, rather fear what they represented. There was, however, one notable exception. Frankenstein was radical because it turned the table on the reader. We expect ourselves to fear the creature, but it is Dr Frankenstein and mankind who turn the creature into a monster.
Early Hollywood horror expanded on this idea. King Kong is the stereotypical brutal monster until we see him displaying tenderness towards the beautiful Ann. In their interaction, we are forced to re-evaluate our image of the beast and of all other beasts. Not long after, The Wolf Man went even further by showing the man before, during, and after his time as a beast. In seeing his whole story, we feel no joy in his destruction.
As the 20th century wore on, a host of societal trends (universal suffrage, feminism, the civil rights movement, independence movements, the birth of multicultural societies etc.) forced us to acknowledge and understand different perspectives. As demonised groups gained a voice, it became harder to define something or someone as naturally evil; there is always a reason for it being the way it is.
The changing dynamic between us and our environment has amplified this. Medieval monsters lived in a rural world where man was at the mercy of Mother Nature: the threat of wild animals to life and livelihood was real and constant. Thus, werewolves represented creatures of pure terror. Now, however, ours is a world of concrete, metal, and glass. We face the damage we have done to the planet and, rather than fear wolves, we fear for them.
While some stories use werewolves as a terrorising force, the most effective stories are those where we follow the werewolf. In these stories they become relatable and sympathetic. After all, for roughly 27 days out of 28, they are human. They too fear what they will become, what they will do, and who they will hurt. We see their inner conflict and will them to pull through. When they transform, we are torn between not wanting to see them hurt but wishing the beast to be defeated. What truly makes them relatable, however, is that anyone can become a werewolf. We all have the potential to submit to bestial urges, to be placed in situations that will test our humanity. As much as we try to cut ourselves off from nature and our animalism, such endeavour is doomed to failure: it is not merely a part of us, but an essential aspect of our being.
Early on, a character in A Werewolf in Paris lays out the traditional signs of a werewolf: a monobrow, hair on the palms of the hands, a taste for blood and raw meat, and being born on Christmas Eve. Yet as the novel reaches its conclusion Paris is under siege from a rampaging Prussian army. The werewolf’s uncle looks around him and reaches a horrifying conclusion. His nephew is a small werewolf in comparison with the hordes of larger werewolves amongst the sieging army and the besieged populace. These werewolves have separated eyebrows, smooth palms, eat fine food, and could be born on any day of the year. They cause terror and destruction on a far greater scale than his nephew ever could. They walk the streets, come from all walks of life, and never transform into wolves.
When I looked out of my dorm room window at the full moon, I feared becoming a werewolf, that a howl would boil up my throat that I would be powerless to stop. It turns out I need not have worried. From the moment I was born, I was a werewolf. Just like you and everyone we have ever known and will ever know. There is no cure nor silver bullet. We just have to learn to accept it.