In the pantheon of monsters, vampires and werewolves are two of the best known, however when it comes to hunting them, werewolves are much harder to find, making them perhaps more dangerous. They can blend into humanity and are not restricted to moving about after nightfall; more importantly, they are not dead. Outside of the time when they are in the power of the full moon they can live among other human beings.
The bane of vampires, such as sunlight, mirrors and crucifixes have no effect on werewolves. Some could even hide in plain sight as a member of clergy. Remember the movie based on Stephen King’s novelette, Silver Bullet?
In 1935, Werewolf of London, a horror story was released by Universal Pictures as Hollywood’s first mainstream werewolf movie. Jack Pierce who did the make-up for the film would go onto use his techniques six years later on Lon Chaney Jr. In the film the monster’s only weakness is a rare plant from Tibet. In the story Dr. Yogami, played by Warner Oland warns the main character, “The werewolf seeks to kill that which it loves best.”
It was the 1941 film The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr., where once again a good man is cursed by an encounter with a werewolf, however even when he’s transformed he is still mostly human. He can only be killed with silver and at the hands of someone who loves him.
In this film, many of the modern precepts concerning werewolves were created. The main ones are: you become one after being attacked by a werewolf, at the next full moon you are cursed to become a werewolf, as part of the transformation you forgo all compassion towards other persons, you lose the power of speech and if you’re killed as a werewolf you return to your normal appearance when you die.
The werewolf’s weaknesses are wolfbane, garlic and silver, which was the only way to kill one. The old gypsy poem, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”, was made up for the film.
The 1961 film, The Curse of the Werewolf tells the story of an orphaned boy in 18th century Spain. Born on December 25th, Christmas Day to a young mother, he is a product of a rape. The child is raised by a wealthy man, however the man the boy becomes cannot escape his fate. Despite living among a loving family, and finding true love as an adult the power of the curse cannot be overturned. He cannot fail to obey the command of his nature, and as a werewolf he is everything that as a man, is contrary to his nature. He seeks to kill for the sake of bloodlust. Only death can stop him.
This movie introduces the idea that romantic love might overcome the urge to kill, however when the moon is full and bright, there is no love that can stop the curse. In the 1980s film, An American Werewolf in London, one of the most riveting parts is the full transformation of a man into a werewolf. In this film again, there is the hope that love will save the day, but it is not to be. These men become beings that were more than wolves, but with a fierceness that dwarfed those of regular animals.
But in truth, stories of humans that transform into wolves have been around much longer.
Over a 100,000 years ago, mankind feared wolves but also admired them. They had stamina, hunted in packs and in a brutal, prehistoric world they survived. Hundreds of years passed, and as man became civilized these early lessons learned by observing the wolf were forgotten and their traits became only things to be feared. Any human trying to imitate one was thought to be savage and antisocial. However there were those who did not want to lose this connection, and used incantations and spells to transform humans into something that was more than wolf.
In the ancient world a sorcerer had the power to shapeshift and become a werewolf by using either a magic belt or a salve they would apply all over their bodies. In some cases they actually drank a potion, foreshadowing the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wearing a wolf pelt, and chanting certain words was part of the magic formula. Others hunted a wolf, would kill it, eat the organs, especially the brain, sleep in its lair as a way of a acquiring the animal’s power. All instances though, regardless of the source, saw these individuals as evil and the pawn of the devil.
In 40 B.C. Damarchus, an Olympic boxer from Arcadia was said to have spent his youth as a roaming werewolf. The Arcadians believed their first king Lycaon sacrificed his youngest son at a feast honoring the god Zeus. He was so disgusted with King Lycaon’s actions that he turned him into a wolf, and struck down his remaining sons with a bolt of lightning.
The Arcadians then started a yearly sacrifice on Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) to commemorate the sacrifice made to Zeus. A young male would be killed, and his flesh would be mingled with entrails from a wolf. This offering would be made to the god Lykaios Zeus. Any man who ate of the flesh would become a wolf for nine years. If during this time he did not eat human flesh, on the 10th anniversary he would become a man once more. If he ate flesh, then he would remain a werewolf forever.
In 175 the historian Pausanias claimed to have met the Lycanian werewolves when visiting Arcadia.
In 435 St. Patrick cursed a tribe of pagans who resisted conversion to Christianity and mocked him. The curse involved their transformation into werewolves either for seven years or every other seven years.
St. Christopher is known as the patron saint of travelers, however before he became a Christian he was a pagan who came from the land of the Marmaritae, “the land of dog-headed peoples”. Byzantine icons of this saint depict him with a dog’s head since was believed to be a Cynocephalus.
In the 12th century Gerald of Wales records a monk’s encounter while traveling through Ossory:
One night, he is approached by an exceedingly polite wolf who, to the monk’s horror, starts to speak to him and begs him to give the last rites to his dying companion. After the wolf has proved himself to be a very ‘catholic’ wolf, the monk follows the human-beast to the side of a dying she-wolf. To vanish the monk’s last trace of doubt (and fear), the wolf ‘unzips’ the she-wolf’s skin, revealing an old woman. According to the wolf, a curse has been laid on their people by St. Natalis that a pair – a man and a woman – will be randomly chosen to become wolves; if they can survive seven years, they will be restored to human form while another pair take their place. The curse is meant to be passed on through generations, but for what reasons? The wolf does not tell.
Between 1764 to 1767, dozens of victims were injured and killed in the province of Gevaudan in southern France. Their throats would be torn out, and many of them were partly eaten. The animal became known as the Beast of Gevaudan.
The monster’s first victim was Jeanne Boulet, a 14-year-old girl watching her sheep. Her death was followed by others, almost exclusively women and children. Throughout 1764, the brutal attacks—victims with their throats torn out or heads gnawed off—riveted France. The violence was so shocking, news of it traveled from the countryside all the way to the royal palace in Versailles
In a world were most were illiterate the power to read secret texts and conjure a wolf being was both feared, and therefore targeted the person for persecution. In exchange for the risk the magician was granted the power to transform into a wolf, larger then a normal one and with glowing, red eyes.
However, there were those who became wolves involuntarily. They were cursed by a sorcerer or a priest, or by someone they had wronged.
Being born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was viewed as an act of blasphemy so close to the birth of Christ, which condemned the person to become a werewolf, unless they led a pious life, free from any sin.
Forced to become savage beasts when under the sway of a full moon, these persons suffered remorse for their deeds, some even seeking ways to commit suicide before they killed other innocents.
By the 10th century, the Catholic Church declared that any who believed in witchcraft or sorcery, and the power to transform into a wolf were heretics. The ability to transform into another species meant you were in league with the devil.
In 1233, the Inquisition was established by the church to address the threat of witchcraft and devil-worshipers
In 1407, witchcraft trials held in Basel burned numerous werewolves at the stake. A council was held there between 1431 to 1449, where clerics convened to discuss the idea of witchcraft, not only sorcery but the worship of demons.
In 1521, three persons were burned at the stake in Poligny, France. They devoured children and killed animals when they became werewolves. They claimed this was done at the behest of a dark lord. Many believe now these individuals were just serial killers using the equivalent of the "insanity plea" to save themselves.
The 16th century, has many stories of werewolves who were executed for being in league with the devil. There was Gilles Garnier, Peter Stubbe and in 1598 a tailor known as the Werewolf of Chalons and the Gandillon family all met their end when found guilty of being shapeshifters.
Reading about these cases that occurred hundreds of years ago, it is easy to see the connection between them and modern day sexual sadists who walk the streets. Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez are only two serial killers, who if born during those times, would have been hunted as werewolves.
The moon from ancient times was associated with the underworld, and it was under the cover of night when demons worked their evil. Witches and shapeshifters would use the phases of the moon to transform their shape.
When confronting a werewolf, the safest time would be when they were human, so there were clues that should be looked at to identify them. Since the times of the belief in werewolves there were signs to give away their true nature. Eyebrows that meet in the middle, a scar in the shape of a pentagram often found on the hand or chest, an index finger longer than the middle finger, love of raw meat, eyes that glimmer in the dark, aversion to iron, steel and silver were all indications this person would transform when the moon became full.
In modern times, mental health professionals have found patients that believe they are werewolves. Some become better with treatment and prescription drugs. There is a list of beliefs that drives their behavior and conviction that they are lycanthropes. They are: they physically transform into wolves and therefore growl and howl like an animal, including crawling on all fours, a desire to kill humans, they are driven to have sex, often and without discrimination including bestiality, a desire to prowl cemeteries and woods at nightfall, shunning contact with human beings, the belief that they are the playthings of the devil which is why they become werewolves, and ultimately the ingestion of drugs that allow their transformation into an animal.
So are werewolves only products of diseased brains that urge a human being slash, kill and mutilate in order to satisfy their animalistic urges, or are there those who become something more than a wolf when the moon is full, and the shadows lengthen?
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer