The Werewolf: A Discourse in Duality

The following is a guest post by Aaron Waagen

Werewolf. The word alone might remind you of a full moon hanging in the night sky or wandering alone after dark, only to hear a howl that’s far too close and turns your blood to ice. Of course, the only thought more terrifying than a werewolf stalking you is turning into the beast yourself. The fear that a rational, possibly even timid, person can change completely is the central theme most werewolf movies have shared since the inception of the genre.

Dating back to the first mainstream werewolf movie ever produced, 1935’s Werewolf of London (WoL), we begin the film with a mild-mannered protagonist. In this instance, Dr. Wilfred Glendon, a botanist in search of a rare flower. He’s seeking something which most believe to be a myth; already he’s a protagonist we can get behind. A more modern take on the werewolf tale, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (AWiL), opens with David and Jack, two young friends backpacking across Europe, gleefully discussing their plans for adventuring and discovering love. In both tales our heroes’ futures are rife with possibility, making their downfall all the more tragic.

In most of these narratives, someone warns the protagonists of the danger they’re about to face. In WoL, a wise man who knows the region informs Dr. Glendon where he can find the flower he’s seeking, but warns him no man has returned from the valley. In AWiL, a local villager advises David and Jack to keep to the roads at night, and not to enter the moors. In both movies, the protagonists ignore the warnings, and, shortly after hearing an ominous howl, are attacked by a large, furry wild animal. In AWiL, only David survives, barely evading Jack’s fate: ripped to shreds by the beast. Our protagonists don’t come away from their encounters unscathed: every hero escapes the scene of their attack with a gruesome wound.

In each film, there’s something about the encounter that doesn’t seem right. In The Wolf Man (1941), Larry Talbot, our main character, is told it wasn’t a wolf which attacked him, but a man. In AWiL, a police officer explains to David he was attacked by an “escaped mental patient.” Both protagonists insist it was a wolf attack, only to have their caretakers disbelieve them. Our heroes are weary, and though they insist that what they saw was a wolf, they are starting to question it themselves. Their skepticism compounds as the wounds they received from the monster heal far too quickly.

Despite their trauma and inexplicable non-wounds, our main characters try to continue forward with their lives and, in the cases of The Wolf Man, and AWiL, begin exploring burgeoning romances. It’s right as life returns to normal when it happens: the Full Moon. Our hero transforms into their own antithesis. They are forced (and in the case of AWiL, in one of the most elaborate and iconic transformation sequences ever shown on film) to become a werewolf, driven by the urge to kill. During their primal transformation, they eviscerate at least one victim before the sun rises and releases them back to their human selves. Our protagonists learn of the grizzly murders the following day. They realize they have no memory of the previous night, fueling the hideous understanding of their new reality.

Our main character is now in complete turmoil. In The Wolf Man, Larry exclaims that he’s just a simple man who works with his hands, and that he can’t possibly wrap his head around something so incredible. In WoL, Dr. Glendon fervently studies werewolf myths, only to learn that the werewolf will attack that which its human form loves most: in his case, his wife Lisa. How can they stop this deadly metamorphosis? How can they restrain themselves? How do they protect the ones they love from the animal they become?

In many werewolf movies, the protagonist-turned-antagonist kills more people in their moonlit quests for destruction. Their change occurs on multiple nights in a row, spreading panic throughout the populous. Most often the only resolution is for them to die when they are about to claim the life of the one closest to them. In WoL, as Dr. Glendon lays dying, still in his werewolf form, he manages to articulate words and thanks the officer who shot him for doing what had to be done. In The Wolf Man, Larry is killed by his father, wielding the same silver-headed cane that he used to kill the werewolf who bit him. In all of these stories, it’s a bittersweet finale: the beast is slain, but our hero has paid the ultimate price.

In most other monster movies, the horror is an unknown creature chasing you; in a werewolf movie, the horror is not knowing what you can become and who you’ll harm in the process. Each of us has lost our temper before, or reacted out of anger we later regret, but what if we lost control completely? What if we were so blinded with rage we couldn’t see who we were about to destroy? This is the fundamental horror of the werewolf genre. It’s through these movies about supernatural creatures that we experience the true horror of humanity, and that is the purest horror of all.