I must preface this. When I speak of werewolves (and any other creature), I’m only concerned with modern interpretations of the monsters. Werewolves have been around for a very long time and the lore surrounding them is wide-spread, contradictory and not at all what we have now come to define as “werewolf.”
I thought, since I did a post of vampires, I should make a note about one of the vampire’s favorite pets (apparently). The werewolf, another classic representation of basic human fear, is an interesting conundrum for me. I like making plausible monsters (plausible, meaning they could happen if certain facts of reality are ignored). I like to attribute the more fantastic attributes of mythological monsters to the fact that they are being described by normal people (frequently, superstitious peasants), who are not the best of witnesses. If the only time you ever see a creature is at night, in the middle of some foggy woods with all sorts of creepy sound effects in the background and the “it’s time to run now” music in your ears, are you really going to give an accurate account of what you’re running from?
So. Werewolves. What fear do they represent? I think deep down, we all know that man is at heart an animal. How quickly do we lose all semblance of civility when we are stuck in traffic Monday morning after we slept through our alarm, missed breakfast and have a huge presentation to finish for the meeting that started five minutes ago? The sweetest old ladies become foam-at-the-mouth crazed when someone speaks ill of their favorite football team (down here, anyway). And those are just modern examples. Man has cut a swath of beastly rage across history with wars, genocides and domestic violence. You could say that our civilization was built on the bodies of those civilizations we conquered, with the blood of their children mixed in the mortar (wow, that’s pretty gruesome and kind of off topic).
I’m certain, everyone has had that moment where they lost control. You snapped at an annoying coworker. You slammed a fist in anger. You threw a spatula at an impudent teenager. You yelled at your baby because it was three in the morning and she wouldn’t stop crying and there was nothing wrong with her at all except that she was tired. Anger is a fierce emotion which can be brought on in many situations for many reasons (frustration, exhaustion, PMS, etc). It can be unpredictable and frightening for those unaccustomed to it or a source of great power for those who let it take control (i.e. the Sith). What I’m trying to say is that werewolves embody the fear of losing control and succumbing to anger, of letting the beast within come out for the world to see. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I like that about werewolves. They share a very special trait with vampires which makes them both pretty horrific monsters. From the victim’s point of view, here comes a vicious, slathering beast bent on ripping them to pieces and devouring them (possibly alive). As they stare into the fearsome, raging beast’s face, they realize with absolute certainty that they recognize the eyes gazing back at them. It’s not just the fear of the beast but the knowledge that the attacker is someone they know and (probably) love. This is the cold terror that grips anyone who has been victimized by a loved one. Husband beating his wife and/or kids. Child abducted by an aunt or uncle. Girl raped by a good friend. The familiar features on a face made alien by rage, that is the true horror of the werewolf. That is what makes it an incredible monster.
What are werewolves, though? Really, by the older definition (From around the early 1900’s. You don’t want me to get into the really old definition.), it’s a person who changes into the form of a wolf at the full moon. Newer versions of the werewolf has given it more power over this ability so that they may change at will (though some are still induced to change at the full moon anyway). This is probably a result of the desire to make werewolves more proactive. What’s the point of being a monster if you can’t use your powers for most of the month? In the modern “fluff” books I’ve read with these types of werewolves, they are still ruled by rage. It makes them more dangerous all the time, see? If you make them angry, they Hulk out, so you have to be really careful. Also, the size of the wolf form seems to depend on who’s telling the story. Sometimes they are the same as regular wolves, sometimes between the size of a man and a wolf and sometimes bigger than both (and sometimes, they are Lon Chaney in 6 hours worth of make up). Frequently, they are the pets of vampires (usually, those are the ones ruled solely by the cycle of the moon and have no control over their change).
That’s another thing about werewolves. Where they are, so too are vampires. They are the Lex Luthor to the vampire’s Brainiac (not Superman, because they are both bad guys). There is a huge amount of rivalry between the two beasts and I’m seeing more and more that humans side with the werewolf on the basis that they are still living, breathing beings. They are vicious, ravening beasts, but at least they only eat people. Vampires have sex with and drink the blood of their victims (often at the same time). And that’s just icky.
Anyway, I do have some foibles (big surprise, right?) about how werewolves are portrayed in modern media (i.e. TV and movies). To date, I have not seen a very good representation of a werewolf in a movie (though, to be fair, you can’t please everyone and I’m really picky). The Underworld werewolves (also called lycans), for instance, couldn’t turn their heads. What kind of carnivorous animal can’t turn its head? They couldn’t even bend their necks back in order to howl at the moon, which is a staple of werewolves. Another thing that bugs me is when a werewolf changes when the moon comes out from behind a cloud and then changes back when the moon is hidden again. This suggests that it is the light of the moon that triggers the change (probably based on very old suppositions about the moon). The fact is, moonlight is simply (weak) reflected sunlight so it should have no more effect than the sun does during the day. Also, the light doesn’t change depending on the phase of the moon. There’s only more of it as time progresses to the full moon. So, is it the precise amount of reflected sunlight that makes it happen? Really?
Here’s where I like to insert a little bit of reality into the realm of fantasy. The moon has always been associated with the altering of moods (the term lunatic comes from the Latin for moon). It has a gravitational effect on the planet, specifically, the oceanic tides. It also has a gravitational effect on people because we are made of 70% (or so) of water. People are literally a bit loonier at the full moon than during the rest of the month. That’s where the correlation of crazy (or evil) and full moon come from, I suppose (this is apparently a well-known fact among emergency personnel). From that pebble of scientific fact, I have built a plausible theory for how lycanthropy could work. If it is based on the gravitational pull of the moon rather than the light of the moon, then the change is triggered when the moon reaches its strongest gravitational phase (full moon). It could also be supposed that since the moon is in a constantly changing cycle, that a werewolf is also constantly oscillating between the wolf and the man. This might explain where the superstition came from. Since people only see the full werewolf at the full moon, it might be assumed that the rest of the time, the werewolf looks like a man and that there is a sudden change rather than a gradual one.
I am also not fond of another Hollywood mistake (in my humble opinion). This is the one where we watch the sun set and once it has, the werewolf changes. Once the sun rises, voila, they are human again. It only irritates me because it seems to again make the controlling factor the sun, which kind of goes against the entire mythology. The moon must be central to this beast or it loses some of its appeal as a monster.
The interesting thing about werewolves, compared to vampires, is that they don’t seem to have as many weaknesses. Sure, there’s the silver bullets thing, but go ahead and make up a batch of silver bullets if you can. I’ll wait. While you’re getting your silver up to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit, we can discuss some other weaknesses. Churches? No. Crosses? Nope. Holy water? Nein. Mistletoe? Yup. That means that what really scares a werewolf isn’t religion but being forced to kiss someone under a poisonous plant. Aha. In a strange twist of fate, they are also reportedly vulnerable to a plant genus called wolfsbane (some species of which are used for poison). Otherwise, there isn’t a lot that will take down your modern werewolf. They’re not even perturbed by the threshold of your house (some really old stories have doors popping open at their approach) or sunlight (except that they are frequently stuck as human during the daytime). Even better, they are notoriously resistant to injury, unless it is inflicted by a silver instrument. Which kind of makes you wonder why vampires always act so superior around werewolves. Are they just not dog people, er, monsters?
It seems that nowadays, werewolves are the monster to be, if you’re gonna be a monster. You get the strength, speed and super senses of vampires without the drawbacks of inforced nocturnalism, aversion to garlic and fear of falling on wooden sticks. You can even continue to go to church , if you want. Plus, living and breathing with a heartbeat and you still get immortality (one of the newest additions to the werewolf arsenal). None of this icy, pale skin. You get warmth and probably a healthy tan without even risking skin cancer. Really, the only actual threat to a werewolf is other werewolves (and himself). There is one thing (besides vampires) that always comes hand-in-hand with lycanthropy and that is violence. Werewolves live a violent life, a life of survival of the fittest and all that. It is very rare to find a non-violent werewolf, even in the most recent era of de-clawing our monsters. The change itself is often a very violent, painful affair and there is always the looming threat of losing control. It’s what makes being a werewolf a curse: that fear of losing control and hurting (or eating) someone you care about.
I think that’s all I have for now. My werewolf rant isn’t really as big a rant as the vampire one, which is probably a good thing. (For the record, I have no problem with the Twilight werewolves-that-aren’t-werewolves except that becoming a werewolf makes them instantly studly to middle-aged women. Yelch.) They aren’t really my speciality, though I do enjoy the concept (even if it could use some work).
For reading, I recommend any of the City Watch books in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. One of the cops is a werewolf. Also, Patricia Briggs has a couple of decent werewolf series (Mercy Thompson and Alpha/Omega). They’re kind of fluffy, but what I like to call good comfort (easy) reads. She has a couple of graphic novels out, as well. I like how she puts werewolves in packs, treating them like regular wolf packs with an Alpha and everything. It’s kind of a neat concept. If you want to see a really horrible werewolf movie (worse than the “Wolfman” remake last year), check out “Brother of the Wolf.” It’s in French, but it’s all about the Beast of Gevaudan in the 18th century and it stars Mark Dacoscos as a savage, wolf-loving Native American. You might remember him from such bad tv shows as “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” and (not bad shows) “Iron Chef America” on the Food Network.
If you have any suggestions for reading or watching, please let me know. It’s a genre I’d love to see more of.