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A History of Classic Monsters: The Wolf Man

The image of a cursed soul doomed to become a werewolf at the rising of a full moon is one of the most iconic concepts in horror. Unlike Dracula or the Mummy, the notion of a “wolf man” or “werewolf” was not cemented by one single actor, author, book, or horror series. It is instead a truly ancient concept dating back to the pre-literate sagas and legends told by Europeans centuries ago. 

Also, unlike Dracula or the Mummy, there is no consensus on what a wolf man even looks like. The various cinematic and literary visions of werewolves differ radically in characterization, appearance, and even strengths and weaknesses. Despite the protean nature of his characterization--appropriate for a shape-shifting monster--the wolf man remains a favored creature with enduring appeal for audiences, filmmakers, and storytellers alike.
 
The origins of the werewolf are rooted in the ancient pagan religion of the Germanic people. The most honored of warriors to the ancient Germans were called the ulfhednar, men who were so savage and deadly and combat that they were considered the wolves of the god Odin. They went into combat in a berserk rage, terrifying their foes with their sheer ferocity and wearing only a wolf pelt for protection. 
 
References to ulfhednar appear throughout the texts of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) and other writers from the early Middle Ages. It is likely the strength and brutality of a man fighting in a wolf pelt became magnified through storytelling exaggeration into tales of a man literally becoming a wolf. Wolf men remained popular characters long after Christianity replaced the old pagan religion, becoming antagonistic menaces in folk tales of the supernatural.
 
A Vendel-era (550-793 A.D.) bronze plate found in Oland.
 
The protean nature of the werewolf mythos is also reflected in how the wolf man found his way to the silver screen. Unlike Dracula, there was no single popular werewolf novel that became popular enough for Universal to adapt, and the wolf man’s arrival on the silver screen was belated in comparison to that of Dracula and the mummy. The first werewolf film Universal produced was not the Lon Chaney classic The Wolf Man, but Werewolf of London (1935), which starred Henry Hull as the werewolf. The film is radically different in casting, setting (taking place almost exclusively in metropolitan London rather than a rural Welsh village), and even makeup (Hull insisted on using more minimalist makeup than was used in the later Chaney film). 
 
Although re-released several times, this film was not as successful as The Wolf Man (1941), which left in indelible mark on audiences with its eerie rural setting, doomed romantic protagonist, and elaborate, detailed werewolf makeup. Audiences loved The Wolf Man, making it as consistent a moneymaker for Universal as the older Dracula and Mummy series. Four sequels were made, all of which starred Chaney in the role of the Wolf Man; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein
 
Chaney’s dedication to the character of Larry Talbot, the man doomed to become a werewolf “when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” made him unique among Universal’s horror stars. No other actor played his monster in all the entries of their respective series. Lugosi and Karloff both left their original roles in the Dracula, Mummy and Frankenstein series. Even in the later series entries, which frequently featured egregious budget cuts (in House of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man appears without hand makeup in one scene!) and recasting of roles, Chaney was always present as Lyle, and his performance in his tragic role is what gives these films much of their power for a modern audience.
 
The end of the Universal horror series proved far worse for werewolves than it did for vampires or mummies. Hammer Studios, which enjoyed a great deal of success with its own Dracula and mummy series, only produced one werewolf film, 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf. A single werewolf series would never have the same level of cultural influence as Universal’s original, despite the popularity of numerous werewolf films such as An American Werewolf in London, Van Helsing, and the Underworld series. 
 
More werewolf films are set to be released soon with an adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s novel New Moon and Universal’s remake of The Wolf Man set to open in the coming months. Perhaps no actor will ever be as iconic in a werewolf role as Chaney was, but the wolf man will always return to frighten audiences as long as they fear the glow of the full moon, the icy winds of autumn, and a bone-chilling howl.