During the medieval times, the fear of werewolves took grip of Europe. Wolves were known to attack man, as wolves during those times had no reason to fear man; guns were unheard of. In most of Europe, the fear of werewolves included wolfmen (“berserkers“) who wore wolves skin and killed savagely. Germans, however, viewed the wolf with honor. Names such as Wolfgang and Wolfhard were common. As Christianity slowly gained prominence, such beliefs were condemned as Satanic.
Although most people know werewolves as simply creatures of nightmares and horror movies, they were once viewed as real beasts who killed savagely. The creatures are less feared in today’s society but the sheer terror can still be inflicted; fear of wolves and things that go bump in the night is almost natural.
The history of the werewolf can be traced back to Greek mythology, when the god Lykaon was turned into a wolf after serving Zues human flesh. This myth helped fuel a cult in Arcadia which involved human sacrifice and the thought of transformation into wolves. Although lycanthropy is usually associated with the metamorphosis into a wolf-human hybrid, different legends include the mutation into bears, cats and birds of prey.
The word werewolf comes to us from the Old-Saxon – by combining “were” meaning man with wolf, we get manwolf. You hear the work lycanthrope associated with werewolves, and this term has come to mean someone who suffers from a mental condition whereby they actually believe they change into a wolf.
In most cases those who believe they can change into werewolves are considered mentally ill. In 1589 a German man named Peter Stubb was put on trial for the murder of twenty five adults and children, including his own son. Peter said he had not only killed the victims but also ate their flesh. Peter also claimed to have made a pact with Satan.
Philosophers and religious thinkers of the time contemplated the theory that perhaps the person did not physically change into a wolf but had been tricked by Satan into acting like the creatures. Generally, though, most believed that only God has the ability to change the body or mind of man.
In the dark Middle Ages, the church stigmatized the wolf as the personification of evil and a servant of Satan. Many of our children’s stories reflect this attitude and wolves share the villain’s role with the witch. In 1270, it was considered heretical NOT to believe in werewolves. The church forced confessions from the mentally ill to prove its convictions. Ultimately, they quit charging people of being werewolves in the 17th century, but only for a lack of evidence. The belief in the beasts, however, did not cease in the absence of indictments.
Werewolves in the Movies
The first feature film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf was Werewolf of London in 1935. The main werewolf of this film is a dapper London scientist who retains some of his style and most of his human features after his transformation, as lead actor Henry Hull was unwilling to spend long hours being made up by makeup artist Jack Pierce. Universal Studios drew on a Balkan tale of a plant associated with lycanthropy as there was no literary work to draw upon, unlike the case with vampires. There is no reference to silver nor other aspects of werewolf lore such as cannibalism.
However, he lacks warmth, and it is left to the tragic character Talbot played by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941’s The Wolf Man to capture the public imagination. With Pierce’s makeup more elaborate this time, this catapulted the werewolf into public consciousness. Sympathetic portrayals are few but notable; the comedic but tortured protagonist David Naughton in An American Werewolf In London, and a less anguished and more confident and charismatic Jack Nicholson in the 1994 film Wolf. Other werewolves are decidedly more willful and malevolent, such as those in the novel The Howling and its subsequent sequels and film adaptations.
The Wolfman (coming in February 2010)
Nobleman Lawrence Talbot returns to his ancestral homeland, where his brother has gone missing and villagers are being killed by a nightmarish beast. The search reunites him with his estranged father and draws him near to his brother’s fiancée, however, Talbot’s lager concern is the discovery of a side to himself which he never could have imagined existed …