For as long as I can remember the idea of Werewolves has fascinated me. Wolves in general have always fascinated me but the idea of a half-man half-wolf creature has always been somewhat intriguing to me. I had the odd nightmare about them as a child and saw lots of exciting and interesting films about them when I was much too young, so they were fairly ingrained by the time I was a teenager. The real revelation came when I was about 15 and saw American Werewolf in London for the first time and was simultaneously scared to death, helpless with laughter and really excited. Werewolves have always given me something of a confused response; they certainly scare me, good old fashioned wolves do too, but they also really interest me, make me curious and fascinate me. Its only been in recent years I’ve understood this seems to be the case with most people, of both sexes importantly, and is the key to their long lasting appeal.
Horror stories depend on an inbuilt fear of the unknown and a fear of predators. They are metaphors for these things and analogous of our feelings towards them. Some have faded into the distance and are paid little attention to, others have developed and become more pertinent and terrifying over time. The best ones reflect something about our human nature or what we are afraid of in real life. If you think of the traditional horror archetypes a few names immediately spring to mind: Dracula/vampires, Werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, Zombies, Ghosts and more general “monsters” like Aliens, cenobytes, etc all have a very prominent place in popular culture and the public awareness. Most of these are as old as humanity themselves. There is enough thesis work done on this at length but basically since we sat around campfires telling stories the model for an unspecified or specific agent of terror has developed based on what we are afraid of. The most recent of which has been, ironically, ourselves. The dawn of the slasher film, born out of those urban legends of hooks on car doors and so on, preys on our fears of the horror of the human and what a diseased mind can do that is just as horrific. Personally I don’t care for this type of horror fare. There are few films/books that tell these stories that don’t rely on shock and or gore which has no long lasting effect or genuine terror. For me at least.
I worry that this trend for fairly paint by numbers ‘Horror’ is taking over as I went online and performed one of my favourite pastimes:
masturb watching film trailers. I watched a few and several were of the horror movie genre. Sadly three of them looked exactly the same; people in silly masks terrorising a group of people in a house. This was done to much greater effect in the excellent Funny Games and the key to it was not shock it was the unbearable tension and its simplicity of involving a real human fear of pain and uncertainty. A fear that has kept us alive as a species it should be made clear. Somewhat depressed by the fact I realised I had seen very few horror movies of recent times that really effected and unsettled me, I took to Twitter and asked if there were any good ‘uns about. A flood of answers came in immediately and with great relish I wrote many of them down and if I ever get any money ever again I will hunt the said films out but what I noticed about the suggestions is that, as I have said, they tended to be more about the uncanny and unsettling rather than just plain gory.
Despite being radically altered in recent years the archetypes listed above play on some fundamental fears we have as humans (and some newly developed ones courtesy of society). Subtextually a lot of horror stories rely on actual things that can kill us or cause us pain. Again, a professor’s ruin of academic paperwork has been churned out on this subject but ultimately the big hitters have been boiled down to: Frankenstein and our modern fear of science gone wrong/mad, Zombies are our natural fear of death – a slow, shambling, malevolent force that will always get us in the end, Vampires were always more about the idea of a sexually transmitted disease but after Dracula mixed with this with the notion of lust it was probably misappropriated as a warning against promiscuity and the dangers of the desire to lose ones virginity to the disreputable (see Twilight for this ideology in full lunacy), ‘Monsters’ et al have always been the fear of the uncanny and what we do not know or understand that we keep away from (something like Alien or Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good example) but for me it was always werewolves that were endlessly fascinating.
I write this because I have just read “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter, a collection of short stories based on old folk tales and horror legends, it is notable as this is where ‘The Company of Wolves’ comes from. A sexually charged retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Huntsman. In fact if any phrase summed up this collection it would be “sexually charged”. I learned about this particular tome from my fantastic feminist friends over at For Books’ Sake while they were at a literature conference where this book came under discussion. It is seen as something of a feminist piece of literature which is most certainly what it is. Each story centers on a woman or is told by a woman and they are normally the ones in control of the narrative but each one revolves around sex in quite an explicit fashion. Now I do not and never shall claim to know anything of women’s problems or the desires/thoughts of their sex but I do try to sympathise if I cannot empathise. As such, being the ignorant dolt I am, I was intrigued to find each story involved a man depicted quite literally as a creature (lion, tiger, wolf), female nudity described in lingering detail and, in the majority, the removal of skin of both sexual parties to reveal another beneath. Now, yet again, greater thinkers than I who are much better informed than I have written reams of study on this subject but it did sort of confirm (from the male point of view) what I suspected about the Werewolf’s etymology.
Werewolves personify violence, aggression and the animalistic and primal urges deep within us. I’ve known this for sometime but reading it from a woman’s perspective really opened my eyes. Since childhood I have had a pretty bad temper which I have learned to control by ultimately being a sullen and grumpy man who doesn’t often get excited by things and most certainly does not get into confrontations. Sadly when I do lose my temper its a particularly unpleasant experience for all (I am NOT violent toward people I would like to make emphatically clear. I have only ever hurt my sister as a young boy in my temper and since then swore I would never hit or harm anyone ever again) as I shout, kick and hit inanimate objects and throw things. I’ve broken a lot of personal artifacts and upset many people I care about in this fashion and after these particular outbursts I feel utterly ashamed and terrible, clamming up for days. It is probably no wonder then that Werewolves are a creature that I am interested in at such a deep level. The idea that something is inside you against your will that will break out a given moment (I incidentally find it in no way a coincidence that the full moon, that is once a month, controls ‘the change’. Something Carter repeatedly points out in its similarity to the female menses) and change you into something that does not discriminate between friend or foe or lover or loathed and desires only it whim of either murder or sex, is something that I think pretty much every man I know battles with on a regular basis.
What is unique is how poorly werewolves are represented in modern cultural output. I can’t name many modern werewolf films that are any good and not many books either, certainly not a great many successes. Yet the werewolf persists as it is perceived by both sexes as an accurate description of the more unpleasant and baser parts of our nature and yet something we cannot seem to be rid of. I say both sexes as one of the best stories involving lycanthropes is a film called ‘Ginger Snaps’ which I heartily recommend as it tells the parallel tale of a girl becoming a woman (getting her period) and becoming a werewolf. You can watch it for free on youtube if you like. The only trouble is that people can see this as an excuse. “That’s just the way we are”, people might say. I don’t think that. I do my very best to not to lose my temper these days but it does slip out occasionally and I haven’t gone “Full Meltdown” for some years. Its a particularly unpleasant side of me that is always there that I do not like and would happily be rid of but I certainly do not indulge it which a lot of people do. It is a wolf. It does hurt when it comes out. It hurts others and it is crushingly shameful afterward. The nudity the victims in werewolf stories are left with in the morning is pretty symbolic of the nudity you do feel after an “outbreak”. We control this side of us all the time I think and it is rare when it does come out and when it does it is justifiably shocking. We are hopefully evolving beyond the need for this baser side of ourselves and will hopefully be rid of it once and for all eventually. Until then we continue to “keep the beast caged”.
Over the years many many werewolf stories have occurred to me for the very reasons listed above and I had grand plans of making them into films, TV series or novels but with the cynicism of age I realise this won’t happen so after reading “The Bloody Chamber” the various ideas would probably make a good short story collection revolving around this particular mythical creature. One day I’ll get around to it (I’m a bit busy at the moment) so in the meantime if you fancy some lycanthropic literature or cinema in your life here’s a list of some of my favourites:
- American Werewolf in London
- Ginger Snaps
- The Wolfman (1941)
- The Beast Must Die
- Dog Soldiers
- The Howling
- The Bloody Chamber
- Lord Loss
- Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
- Wolf (1994)
Do you have a favourite werewolf book or film? Do you think we should ditch the werewolf archetype altogether? Do you agree we’re horrible creatures caged in human skin? Or am I just an abusive brute who is fundamentally flawed as a human being? Answers on Ghostcard.