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
The werewolf's origins can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European mythology. Many believe the most honored of warriors in ancient Norse mythology called the ulfhednar, were men who were so savage and deadly in combat that they were considered the wolves Odin. They went into combat terrifying their foes with their sheer ferocity and wearing only a wolf pelt for protection. References to the ulfhednar appear throughout the texts of Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet, historian, and chieftain. In 16th century France, there were a number of reports of werewolf attacks. To become a werewolf, in more modern times at least, you were usually cursed, bitten, or wearing the skin of a wolf. And of course, the poor soul changed under the month's full moon.
In folklore, various characteristics have described the werewolf. The cursed Some said if a person had a unibrow, curved fingernails, low-set ears and a swinging stride, they were a werewolf. The appearance of the werewolf was described as a two-legged beast covered in hair, but retaining eyes and other human characteristics. Various remedies have also been suggested: the Ancient Greeks and Romans believed exhausting a werewolf until it died. In Medieval Europe, the medicinal plant wolfsbane was used, or in Catholic practices, exorcism.
Some modern researchers have come up with clinical lycanthropy, or a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves delusions that the affected person can transform into, or has transformed into, a non-human animal. The word lycanthropy is the mythological ability or power of a human being to undergo transformation into an animal like state, such as a werewolf.
In the Movies
Unlike other movie monsters, there was no single popular novel that became popular enough for Universal Studio to adapt. The first werewolf film produced was Werewolf of London (1935), which starred Henry Hull as the werewolf. The film is radically different in casting, setting and even makeup. Six years later, the Lon Chaney Jr. movie was released, which influenced modern-day versions of the werewolf.
The Wolf Man (1941), left an indelible mark on audiences with its eerie rural setting, the doomed romantic protagonist, and elaborate, detailed werewolf makeup. Audiences loved The Wolf Man, making it as consistent a moneymaker for Universal. Four sequels were made, all of which starred Chaney in the role of the Wolf Man. Chaney’s dedication to the character of Larry Talbot, the man doomed to become a werewolf, made him unique among Universal’s horror stars. No other actor played his monster in all the entries of their respective series.
Hammer Studios only produced one werewolf film, 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf. In 1981, John Landis wrote and directed a howling werewolf hit, An American Werewolf in London. With comedic flare and an astounding werewolf transformation by makeup extraordinaire Rick Baker, it was a huge hit at the box office. In the same year, two other werewolf movies were also released, The Howling, directed by Joe Dante, and the supernatural crime film Wolfen. In 2003, the first Underworld film was released, which involves ancient battles between vampires and werewolves. Movies like Underworld and the second installment of the Twilight saga, New Moon (2009) introduced sexy werewolves, along with MTV's Teen Wolf (2011-2017) series.
Perhaps no actor will ever be as iconic in a werewolf role as Chaney was, but the wolfman 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. Looking for some howling good reads? Check out this book list.
Updated by Meg Bingham 10/2017