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.
The Wolf Man's Origins
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.
In the Movies
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.
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. A few other recent movies are Stephanie Meyer’s second book in the Twilight Saga, New Moon and Universal’s 2010 remake of The Wolfman starring Anthony Hopkins and Benicio del Toro. Although New Moon accumulated many followers, the remake of The Wolfman did not impress critics or audiences.
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.