In late 18th century France, a monster lurked in the forest, killing and dismembering peasants. After a lengthy and expensive search instigated by the king, the beast was felled by a huntsman’s bullet.
The dead creature was a large wolf. Some said human remains were found in its gut. Many were convinced, and to this day some still believe, that something else was haunting the woods—perhaps a werewolf.
The werewolf is a folkloric creature. Its origins are foggy. The idea of gods punishing humans by turning them into wolves can be seen in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in Greek mythology. The Greek story has King Lycaon angering Zeus (he served him a human sacrifice) and getting turned into a wolf along with his sons.
Nordic tales tell of people donning special furs and becoming murderous wolves. France had its share of werewolf stories, beginning in the 1500s, and most famously seen in the Beast of Gévaudan referenced above.
But these are old stories. Famous elements of werewolf lore—silver bullets, full moons, lycanthropic infection—are newer inventions.
Many of these traits can be traced to a single film. In 1941, writer Curt Siodmak gave the world "The Wolf Man." In this movie, Lon Chaney Jr. plays a playboy American who returns to a family holding in a mysterious European nation. One night in the woods, he gets bitten by a werewolf and becomes a fanged beast himself by the full moon. A little “Gypsy” ditty breaks it down:
“Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the moon is full and bright.”
Siodmak invented this refrain. The full moon and the death-by-silver-bullet aspects are all his. In a later interview, he explained that when he was thinking about werewolves, he had other monsters in mind.
Siodmak was Jewish and had fled Europe with the rise of the Nazis. He’d relate: “'I was forced into a fate I didn't want: to be a Jew in Germany. I would not have chosen that as my fate. The swastika represents the moon. When the moon comes up, the man doesn't want to murder, but he knows he cannot escape it, the Wolf Man destiny.''
This story underlines an important aspect of werewolf popularity. They are monsters that relate to deeper fears and anxieties. They are psychologically significant. Their allure addresses the gloomy substratum of our consciousness.
Famous Hollywood werewolves connect with audiences because, as with Siodmak, they reference social horrors and dreams. In "Teen Wolf," for instance, Michael J. Fox’s transformation makes him aggressive and yet popular, paralleling the wildness of puberty. The 2000 movie "Ginger Snaps" offers a similar parallel for girls, though this one employs horror rather than a comedic angle.
Other wolfman films are similarly psychological. In "Wolf," starring Jack Nicholson, the protagonist goes from being a soft pushover to a virile Alpha Male after his bite. He lands his old job back, gets the girl, and exacts bloody revenge on those who’d trodden over him. In one scene, he actually pees on the office rival, telling him he’s “just marking my territory.” In "The Howling" (1981) the murderous werewolves are empowered self-helpers, who reside in a retreat and wolf-out under the moon. These beasts parody that era’s boon of mind-cure and “primal scream” encampments.
Hollywood werewolves most often embody the “id” function. According to Freud, humans have created civilization as a repressive, if fruitful, buttress against our “primitive impulses,” especially the sexual drive. The id represents the primitive part of our mind, the part motivated by the “pleasure principle” which must in turn be tamed by the ego’s civilization-building “reality principle.”
In movieland, the werewolf is the id unleashed (pun intended). Werewolves literally take us back evolutionarily. They are hairy and feral, hyper-sexual and violent. Their allure is strong. Hollywood knows we dream of breaking out of our repressive cultural structures.
Yet every Hollywood werewolf movie also teaches the same lesson—werewolves must be broken. The silver bullet is a handy stand-in for the useful repression of civilization. Upon being struck with the silver bullet, the werewolf inevitably transforms back into a “safe” human, albeit a dead one.
Hollywood is nothing if not a moral storytelling engine. It knows that we want to be wild and dangerous, but it also knows that we want assurance that those seduced by the full moon will be brought to heel.