In recent years the werewolf has made a comeback to the silver screen. But why now, and what is behind the wolf man’s return? Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana howls at the moon to find out…
Vampires, ghosts, witches and zombies: classic movie monsters, depicted in countless horror films across the decades. But there’s one creature that is terribly underused, almost reduced to the status of sidekick – the werewolf.
Despite being one of the infamous originals – due to Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man (1941), as well as cult classics including An American Werewolf in London (1981), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Dog Soldiers (2002) – for many years the werewolf has been out of the limelight. Yet recently the wolf seems to be regaining popularity with new releases such as Werewolves Within (2021), Wolf Manor (2022), Wolfkin (2022), Marvel’s Werewolf By Night (2022) and the upcoming TV series Wolf Pack, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. So what is it about this supernatural shapeshifter which seems to have caused a recent resurgence and how does this reflect modern cultural experiences?
The legend of the werewolf dates back to Ancient Rome and Greece, with fears of a beast that dwells within civilised people. Both the Greek writer Herodotus and Roman author Petronius describe experiences with individuals who could change themselves into wolves during a full moon, and in fact the Greek myth of King Lycaon is where the word “lycanthropy” originates from: Lycaon was turned into a wolf by the god Jupiter after the King fed him human flesh without the god’s knowledge.
However it wasn’t until medieval times when a belief in werewolves proliferated across Europe. Wolves were thought to be symbolic of the darkest nights, winter, death and evil, so it’s no wonder that during the Reformation era witch trial victims were also labelled as werewolves. With the lower classes experiencing poverty, illness, famine and crime many blamed their neighbours for such hardships, accusing them of both witchcraft and lycanthropy. And with the church being the driving force behind the persecution of “heretics”, mystics, witches and werewolves they released guidelines that detailed the tell-tale signs of a suspected lycanthrope, including eyebrows that meet in the middle, hairy palms, being unkempt and living on the periphery of society.
It is well documented that nearly 30,000 people were accused of being a werewolf in 16th century France, with cases such as Gilles Garnier who was known as ‘The Werewolf of Dole’ and was tortured into confessing before being burned at the stake due to his “crimes of lycanthropy”. Medical conditions such as hypertrichosis and porphyria – in which excessive hair growth occurs – also fuelled the belief that a person was a wolf man.
Unlike vampires and scientifically made monsters, the werewolf never became part of the tradition of gothic horror literature, apart from Wagner the Werewolf in the Victorian Penny Dreadful series. This is perhaps why the lycanthrope never gained the same sort of notoriety as Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster. Despite this, when Universal Pictures released 1941’s The Wolf Man the film created the lore that persists to this day, screenwriter Curt Siodmak inventing modern myths such as the death-dealing silver bullet and that new werewolves are created by being bitten.
After ’41 the wolf man slipped into obscurity, and it wasn’t until 1981 when the he became a popular central character again, with Joe Dante’s The Howling representing the power and sexuality of the 80s and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London garnering accolades for Rick Baker’s special effects, as well as depicting the central character’s feelings of otherness and fear of xenophobia.
Despite a few cult classics since – like teen coming-of-ager Ginger Snaps (2000) and Neil Marshall’s debut Dog Soldiers (2002) – the werewolf soon became relegated to being an arch nemesis in more stylised franchises such as Underworld and Twilight. However more recently the lycanthrope has been making another comeback, embracing that main character energy. With a whole slew of werewolf releases right now what is it about present day society that is seeing this resurgence?
Throughout history, horror movie trends have always reflected societal anxieties and cultural phenomenons, whether it’s the problem of capitalism in zombie splatter-fests or STD epidemics mirrored in the vampire flicks of the 80s. If we contemplate the most recent worldwide traumas, it’s not difficult to understand why the werewolf may be the perfect horror movie symbol to emerge from the past couple of years.
There are two breeds of werewolf film: the beast as antagonist – ruthlessly hunting humans – and the beast as sympathetic character – a human fighting against their inner animal, trying to conceal their condition from those around them. In the first category the werewolf represents a dangerous condition that can be passed on, with the potential to devastate communities. Since 2020 the world has been gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, which incited anxiety and paranoia about whether others were infected with the virus, whether they were concealing (or naive of) their infection status, and what kind of damage they could do to those around them.
The werewolf as dangerous enemy can also be seen to represent those within society who may be hiding more monstrous aspects of themselves in other ways. With the rise in white supremacy, toxic masculinity and dangerous political ideologies it has become more and more difficult to be able to trust strangers, neighbours and even family members who may be harbouring belief systems that put people within marginalised groups at real risk.
The second type of werewolf movie is where the person affected by lycanthropy is the central protagonist. The narration of such a film tends to depict the lead being bitten and experiencing bodily transformations, culminating in a complete metamorphosis at the sight of the full moon. In this category the character is desperate to suppress their wild urges from those who are closest to them whilst also dealing with the fear of persecution from the wider community. Much like the discourse behind An American Werewolf in London, this type of werewolf movie can be seen to represent how those from marginalised groups are forced to live with the transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, racism and xenophobia that presents itself both online and in real life.
Due then to recent events affecting society politically and culturally – as well as the constant conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, race and bodily autonomy – the werewolf is the ideal horror symbol for the lived experiences for many communities. Ascending from the shadows of other classic movie monsters, the lycanthrope is ready to live its best main character life by the light of the (full) moon.
© Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana
Enjoyed this article? Check out more of our deep-dive analysis pieces here.