"BIZARRE" Issue 21, June 1999
ALL RIGHT NOWOOOOOOOOOOO!
By Joe McNally
THIS ANCIENT GYPSY curse, invented by scriptwriter Curt Siodmak for The Wolf Man (1941), pretty much sums up what we think werewolves are. You know the drill: once bitten by a werewolf, you change into a wolf yourself every full moon. You can only be killed by a silver bullet. You become utterly evil, much to the despair of your human self. As often as not, you get killed by or because of the person you love.
As is so often the case, all this has little to do with 'real' werewolves. Like vampires, these mythical shape-shifters have been made over by Hollywood; unlike vampires - who, in traditional myth, tended to be stinking, bloated corpses and have been transformed into suave blokes in dinner suits - they, seem to have come out of it rather badly.
The werewolf we're all familiar with comes from middle Europe, where wild wolves were a constant danger (and where they continued to roam long after they were wiped out in more southerly regions). Almost all the world's cultures have stories of shapeshifters - werebears, weretigers, wereleopards, whatever the dangerous local predator Is (see World Wide Were'd). The animal changes, but the story,
and the fears it represents, remains the same: a nobleman is hunting near his home, and sees a particularly sleek animal run past. The nobleman chases but cannot catch it; the best he can do is wound it, slicing off a paw. To his horror, the paw changes into a human hand as the beast escapes. He returns home, eager to tell his wife the day's events but, to his horror, finds she tries to, hide her hand when he returns.
Some of the earliest accounts of werewolves come from Romania and Greek sources. Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, told of Lycaeon, who was turned into a wolf for serving human flesh to a group of passing gods. A Roman fragment tells of a traveller encountering a soldier late at night and following him - only to see bun cast off his human skin and turn into a wolf. The creatures are, amazingly, still reported occasionally,: (German folklorist DL Ashliman reports two accounts of a werewolf in Morbach in 1988, while in 1975 a family in Hexham claimed to have been terrorised by one (see 'howling at the moon').
Unlike movie werewolves, 'real' werewolves change shape voluntarily. In many myths they, are witches who take animal form to travel unnoticed using either a potion made from magic ingredients - the fat of dead children, herbs, human blood - or an animal-skin. A 'real' werewolf changes completely, becoming the animal rather than a hairy human. The full moon business seems to be dramatic license, but there is some basis for the notion that silver bullets will kill a werewolf, as silver was thought to be a holy metal.
It's this traditional shapechanger - the witch or shaman - who influences the small band of would-be werewolves who can be found around the world today, rather than the bloody killer of the silver screen. Some male followers of Wicca carry out rituals that involve invoking the wolf spirit to enter their bodies, not to score a couple of lambs, but to have prophetic dreams - but it only works if you're willing to sleep in the buff outdoors, apparently.
Werewolf wannabes are thinner on the ground than their vampiric counterparts: instead of swanning around in purple velvet and frilly shirts, werewolves get to lurk in damp forests at night, eviscerating small animals. Despite the lack of glamour, there are a few self-proclaimed theriomorphs (they say the term lacks the negative connotations of the Anglo-Saxon 'werewolf', literally man-wolf).
Their emphasis is on the mystical and psychological aspects - more Angela Carter than Lon Chaney. There are, inevitably, a handful of websites for the faithful, and a Usenet newsgroup, alt.horror.werewolves.
So what does a modern werewolf actually do? According to the newsgroup's FAQ, it's as much a state of mind as anything: "When folks here call themselves werewolves, they generally mean that they find the characteristics of lycanthropy, intriguing and see examples of such in themselves. What those characteristics are and the extent to which they manifest themselves are, again, very personal and vary from individual to individual." However, they identify with the full gamut of shapechangers, from wolves through to arctic exotics like the flesh-eating Inuit demon, the Wendigo.
They act a good deal less morbid than their vampiric cousins. While modern vampirism seems to be mainly sexual in nature, being a werewolf falls somewhere between a meditation technique and a martial art. One member describes the "changed" state as "what defensive-tactics instructors call 'Condition Orange': the state of hyper-readiness and alertness that means one is ready to handle whatever crisis emerges. It's the state that I envision a healthy animal being in at any given moment..."
These cyberspace wolfmen want "to balance the two halves of our nature, so that we can teach the rest of humanity how to balance its drive to conquer with the reality that it needs nature to survive."
Although most of the 'real-world' werewolves are a sensible if eccentric branch, the line between fantasy and mental illness can sometimes, sew a little thin. While some modern werewolves claim to be lycanthropes in the medical sense, it's doubtful they understand that they're actually claiming to be delusional.
Lycanthropy is a medical condition that's well recognised. The symptoms range from just believing you're a wolf, to full-on episodes during which a sufferer behaves like a real wolf: snarling, walking on all fours, eating raw meat and assaulting women.
As with most myths, there is truth at the heart of the werewolf legend. A lot of cultures have stories of wild men who live in the woods, perhaps inspired by feral humans (see BIZARRE 16) or sufferers from hypertrichosis, a skin condition which causes thick hair to grow all over the face. The blood disease porphyria, as well as being blamed for vampire stories, may also have influenced werewolf tales, since the condition produces traditional werewolf traits like unusually sharpened teeth (see 'It's These Hairy Hands, Doctor'). Psychoanalyst Carl Jung accounted for our identification with wild animals by suggesting that we're tapping into an archetypal memory in our subconscious. When it breaks into our consciousness we start thinking we're animals. But people who think they're animals can be as deadly as magical creatures. So perhaps you should still tread carefully If you find yourself on the moors at night. And keep to the path.
As with witches, finding a werewolf largely seems to be a matter of looking hard enough. Some of the warning signs, according to the world's myths, are:
IN 1976, THE BBC'S current affairs programme Nationwide broadcast the terrifying story of a real-life werewolf, apparently connected with two Celtic stone heads found by a family from Hexham - near Hadrian's Wall - in their garden. The heads were discovered at the end Of 1975 by the Robson family. Soon after, Mrs Robson told reporters, she was woken in the night by loud crashes coming from next door. Next day, the neighbour (who had handled the heads) told her that she'd been in her daughter's room when a hideous, half-human creature "like a werewolf " walked past the door. She shrieked and her husband ran out of his room in time to hear something padding down the stairs and out of the front door.
The beads were sent to Dr Anne Ross, an expert in Celtic mythology, in Southampton. Dr Ross soon found her own sleep being disturbed by a shaggy apparition. She woke in panic one night to see "this... thing... going out of the door... It was about six feet high, slightly stooping, and was black against the white door. It was half-animal and half-man. The upper part, I would have said, was a wolf, and the lower part was human... It was covered with a very dark fur. It went out and I just saw it clearly, and then it disappeared." Her daughter saw a similar figure leap over the banisters, run along the hall and disappear. The disturbances ceased as soon as the heads were removed from the house. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
In 1988, there were more werewolf sightings at the Morbach munitions base near the village of Wittlich in West Germany. Wittlich has a long werewolf history. As the supposed location of the last werewolf killed in Germany, there's a shrine just outside the village with an eternal flame. According to local legend, if the flame goes out, the werewolf will return. One night in 1988, a group of policemen were on their way to the munitions base, noticed the candle was out, made a few jokes and returned to their posts. Later that night, alarms started going off at the base's perimeter fence. Investigating, several men saw a huge animal standing on its hind legs. "The creature that we saw was definitely an animal and definitely dog or wolf-like. It was about seven to eight feet tall, and jumped a twelve-foot security fence after taking three long leaping steps," one of the witnesses stated. A guard dog was bought to the scene of the sighting to track the animal, but it "went nuts" and wouldn't follow.
The first film about werewolves was made in 1913. Titled The Werewolf, it tells of an old Navajo woman who transforms herself into a wolf to exact revenge on settlers. It lasts i8 minutes and was probably the only time an anthropologicallycorrect werewolf has appeared on screen.
Lon Chaney Jnr's cinema's most famous werewolf. He played unwilling howler Larry Talbot in 1941's The Wolf Man, reprising the role five times. Spain's Paul Naschy made an entire career of playing werewolves; he furred-up for numerous low-budget Spanish productions in the 1960s and 1970s, making a comeback in 1996's Licatropo: El Asesino de la Luna Liena (Werewolf: The Full Moon Killer).
The oddest werewolf film of all time is The Werewolf of Washington. A heavy-handed satire on the Nixon administration, it centres on a political correspondent bitten by a wolf in Eastern Europe who returns to DC to wreak havoc. Henry Kissinger is portrayed as mad hunchbacked scientist, "Dr Kiss'. Other werewolf oddities Include The Rats Are Here! The Werewolves Are Coming! (excellent title; terrible film), The Werewolf of Woodstock (redneck wolfman vs. hippies), werewolf biker flick Werewolves On Wheels, and Howling IV: The Marsupials.
1972's The Beast Must Die introduced the 'Werewolf Break, a 30 second pause for the audience to guess which of the characters was a werewolf. Since the US video title was Black Werewolf, it didn't require a PhD. Few films since have felt the need to include a werewolf break.
Medics have come up with plenty of reasons why people display symptoms associated with howling at the moon:
Porphoryia was popularised as a cause of lycanthropy in 1963 by British doctor Dr Lee lllis. Congenital porphyria is characterised by extreme sensitivity to light, forcing sufferers to go out mainly at night or risk tissue damage. Ulcers destroy cartilage and bone, causing the deformation of the nose, ears and fingers. Hands can become deformed and paw-like because of ulcers. Behaviour might also become erratic. In Switzerland and Sweden, cases of porphyria occur in "in certain districts and especially along certain valleys". Similarly, many reports of werewolves originated in these areas.
Bettelheim, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, autism could have been misconstrued as lycanthropy. Severely autistic children are extremely shy and withdrawn from their surroundings; some react with panic to the slightest visible external motion. Some will crawl naked on all fours, urinating and defecating as they go. Often ferocious, these patients might howl and scream, eat only raw food, bare their teeth when annoyed or angered, and attack as if with claws and fangs. Again reminiscent of animals, they prowl around at night, in marked contrast to their quiet withdrawal into corners during the day.
Hallucinations of various sorts might also have conjured up werewolves. Ergot poisoning, caused by diseased rye, was a common occurrence in the 9th century and can cause vivid visions. Self-administered hallucinogens have also been blamed. One recognised method for becoming a werewolf involves rubbing yourself with a special ointment. The most complete list of ingredients for the werewolf ointment was provided by Nynauld in De la lycanthropie, transformation, et extase des sorciers (1615): "Belladonna root, nightshade, the blood of bats and hoopoes, aconite, celery, soporific nightshade, soot, cinquefoil, calamus, parsley, poplar leaves, opium, henbane, hemlock, varieties of poppy and the crustaceans". German toxicologist, Erich Hesse, who has stated that, "A characteristic feature of the solonaceae (nightshade) psychosis is...that the intoxicated person imagines himself to have been changed into some animal, and the hallucinosis is completed by a sensation of the growing of feathers and hair."
Rabid wolves become irritable, restless and nervous and show exaggerated responses to sudden stimuli of sight and sound. These animals show no fear and charge relentlessly, often inflicting massive injuries and deaths. The horror of a crazed beast, frantically assailing people, is often amplified by the hair-raising sounds which rabid animals emit due to the paralysis of their laryngeal musculature. Could rabid wolves have contributed to the belief in diabolically possessed werewolves who fiendishly and relentlessly attacked, killed, and sometimes devoured humans? Many human victims of rabies are reported to rage in delirium, howl like wolves in their agony, go into violent frenzies, and attack and bite those around them. The occurrence of a terrible disease transmitted from wolf to man, providing a sinister linkage between the two species, might well have contributed to the werewolf belief.
Gratian is eccentric at least, schizophrenic at worst, but not a werewolf. Ionica, the Headmaster of the village school, dismisses him as a charlatan. "He's been in the village for 30 years exploiting the werewolf myth to frighten the old people." But it's not just the old people who are afraid. Martian, a teacher at the school, hesitates when questioned: "They think he's a wolf because of the way he lives, but there is something about his body, too, something physical." He can't pin it down exactly, and puts it down to a feeling, an instinct.
All text and images Copyright © 1999
by "Lone Wolf" unless otherwise stated