When I was a kid, I had a rather unique way of falling asleep. I didn’t count sheep, or make up songs in my head, or anything quite so benign. No, I used to play dead. I would practice holding my breath for as long as possible so that I might appear to be a corpse. This was for the express purpose of fooling a werewolf which, upon climbing through my window, would see my dead body and move on, because [I was convinced] werewolves like to kill their own food and eat it alive.
Maybe this is why my nightmares, as an adult, are so mundane. Nothing, to me, was ever as scary as a werewolf.
Our perceptions of monsters are often shaped by the ones we first see as children. Most people I know grew up on movies, so they cite things like An American Werewolf in London, which—as great a film as it is—I didn’t actually see until I was in college. [You can shoot me now. I probably deserve it.]
I, on the other hand, was a bookworm. Still am. When I was eight, I received this book as a gift:
And that, to this day, is my perfect werewolf. Wolf head, man’s body. Terrifying, yet almost human in its countenance. Big claws. Wild eyes. Walking upright. [Gary Lippincott, wherever you are, I salute you.]
Literature seems to treat werewolves quite well, in fact. They are often the focus of a good horror story—the feared monsters that haunted my childhood pre-sleep. There were memorable entries in all the horror anthologies I collected… one, called ‘Wolfgang’, I must have read twenty times. I like literary werewolves.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for wolves on film. It’s like Hollywood is allergic to good werewolf movies. Werewolves are either relegated to the background of a larger, more important vampire story [see: Underworld] or the subject of a very low-budget ‘we know this is no good but we’re making it anyway’ schlock-fest [see: Bad Moon, Never Cry Werewolf, etc]. Even worse, they never look right. They show up as four-legged hairy beasts, men with too much facial hair, or bodybuilding giants who manage to retain a six-pack despite transforming into something with skinny arms.
Why do filmmakers have such a hard time with werewolves? They’re rather elementary, really. I’m a linguist, so I’ll stick to the etymological definition: ‘werewolf’ is made up of ‘wer’, meaning man, and ‘wolf’, meaning—well—wolf. [I often obsessed over regular wolves in my childhood, perhaps in an attempt to ground this werewolf fascination in reality.]
For those of you who don’t know, this is what a wolf looks like.
Now, filmmakers. Please take note. This does not look like a wolf.
Neither does this.
Or this. WTF is this?
Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that I put the Wolfman into a separate category than werewolves, mostly due to his history at Universal and his iconic imagery. Wolfman is one thing; a werewolf is something else.
Now, the rules. I realize that these are mostly arbitrary and a product of my own mythology and upbringing. But dammit.
1. Werewolves are scary. This is not a cuddly human being who morphs into a cuddly little wolf, or even a human who can turn into a wolf whenever he wants [that would be called an animorph]. A fully-formed werewolf has all the bad manners of a pissed-off human combined with the enhanced senses, instincts, claws, and general carnivorous bloodlust of a wolf. Scared yet?
2. Werewolves walk on two legs. Not on four. Not even when they’re moving very quickly. They do have the option of climbing, given their hefty claws, and over rugged terrain may rely on both their hands and feet. But a werewolf walks upright while sniffing around. Especially while sniffing around.
3. Werewolves eat people. Whoever tells you differently is either a wuss or a Twilight fan.
4. Werewolves cannot be stopped by stabbing, strangling, spellcasting, or shooting [normal bullets]. Think of them as Wolverine: able to heal immediately, unless silver is involved. Silver makes them vulnerable, but they are not allergic to it. For example, if you stab a werewolf with a silver knife, you still have to stab it repeatedly enough to cause damage.
5. Werewolves only exist at night. There has to be a full moon, people. Daytime werewolves are about as terrifying as daytime soap operas. Okay, bad comparison. But you get the idea. Their attacks come violently, swiftly, often while you are asleep.
Here are some werewolves the world got wrong.
And now, some werewolf art that makes me proud.
And while the ‘American Werewolf in London’ wolf is not my ideal werewolf, I give it multiple points for being the scariest werewolf I’ve ever seen on film.
Oh, and my favourite werewolf movie is Dog Soldiers. Because nothing beats Scottish military brats bunking up against oversized wolf heads on human torsos.
Coming up next: my favourite artists draw their favourite werewolves. Because I can’t draw—I can only write about it.