The following was written for episode 30 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where we explored some of Universal’s wolfman films: 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.
In the year 1589 in Germany, Peter Stumpp, after being stretched on the rack, confessed to a series of heinous crimes. He admitted to incest with his daughter and, over the course of more than two decades, to eating men, women, and children raw, including his own son, whose brains he devoured, and two pregnant women whose fetuses he tore out and described as “dainty morsels.” He claimed to have been given a magical metal belt by Satan himself which, when worn, transformed him into a vicious, insatiable wolf. Accounts of his capture describe hunters chasing down a wolf, only to find Stumpp instead. Dubbed the “Werewolf of Bedburg,” Stumpp and his daughter were summarily executed, with Stumpp tied spread-eagle on the wheel, flesh then ripped from his bones with red-hot pincers, his arms and legs broken with the blunt side of an axe, and finally his head removed. At the time, violent tensions frequently erupted between Catholics and Protestants, both of which were fighting for dominance. Stumpp was a Protestant convert in an area where Catholicism had recently regained control. It’s safe to assume that, at least in part, the charges against him were politically motivated, yet their extreme nature also suggests that Stumpp indeed committed some acts beyond what would be the expected capabilities of a human being.
While the accusations against Stumpp are extraordinary in their severity, the precedent of the belief that a man could turn into a wolf goes back to the dawn of our species. Human-beast hybrids can be found throughout human mythology as well as within ancient rumors, such as when Herodotus, the “Father of History,” wrote of a Scythian tribe who transformed into wolves. Wolf-men featured prominently among the Norse with the Úlfhednar, or “wolf-coated” men, who, like the berserkers who wore bearskins, were said to transform from a battle-frenzy in which they became fearless and bloodthirsty and bit their shields in terrible anticipation of the coming slaughter. In Stumpp’s day, werewolf accusations and persecutions were often in tandem with witch hunts, and later they were often connected to cases of vampirism.
While wolf attacks are rare today, as the animals have largely learned to fear and stay far from humans, for much of human history, at least in certain geographic locations, wolves were predators to be feared. For instance, in France, where records go back quite far, 7,600 fatal wolf attacks were documented from the year 1200 to 1920. Given the wolf’s predatory predominance through so much of Europe’s history, it’s not surprising that wolves became symbolic of mankind’s vulnerability to the natural world, and sometimes, even to fate. For instance, Norse mythology told of Ragnarok, the event which would lead to the death of the gods and to the end of our world as we know it, when the monstrous wolf Fenrir, who had been bound after biting off the hand of the god Tyr, would kill Odin, the allfather. And of course, there is the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the origins of which go back to the tenth century though perhaps the best known version is from Charles Perrault, who gave the cape its color in his 1697 story, and who used the folkloric wolf tale to caution young women against the predatory sexual advances of seemingly kind gentlemen. In the tale, the girl gets undressed before getting into the bed with the wolf. It gave birth to the French expression elle avoit vu le loup, meaning, “she saw a wolf,” used to describe a girl who has lost her virginity. Here we see wolves representative of not just man’s susceptibility to dangerous outside forces, but to our more base, sinful inner nature.
This last idea would become compounded after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, which put forth the persuasive theory that the diversity of life could be explained through the process of natural selection, that species today evolved from earlier common ancestors, thereby laying the foundation for modern evolutionary biology. In 1871 he published The Descent of Man where he set out evidence that humans too are animals and are therefore also subject to that same process of sexual selection and, therefore, evolution. It is arguably a major turning point in human history as it shook up long held accepted norms – moral, sexual, and of course, religious. However, this idea that man has something bestial within, whether by the fall from Eden or by nature’s indifferent course, never went away and, indeed, only become stronger. Certainly, the dual nature of man – his rational, evolved mind fighting against his primitive, more reptilian instincts, became a fascination to Victorian society, where strict codes of conduct and rigid sexual mores were the societal standard.
A prime example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s milestone novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, in which a proper English doctor, feeling restrained by his life-long repression of evil urges, creates a potion which inadvertently turns him into the small, wicked Mr. Hyde, who has no such qualms about fulfilling the most base desires. Given Darwin’s influence upon culture, it’s no accident that Hyde is often depicted with simian characteristics. Stevenson was inspired by the arrest and hanging of his friend, the French teacher (and failed doctor) Eugene Chantrelle, who had poisoned his young wife in order to collect her life insurance. More victims were suspected. Stevenson attended the trial and was aghast and fascinated at the incongruous personalities, that of friend and doctor and that of murderer, under which Chantrelle operated. Werewolf films throughout the twentieth century would take far more direction from Stevenson in the formation of their stories than from old werewolf folklore.
The first werewolf film was titled, appropriately, The Werewolf, and was released in 1913. Considered the earliest film of the Universal Monsters series, it borrows more from ancient mummy stories, which were popular at the time, than from werewolf myth. It told of a Navajo witch who transformed into a wolf to terrorize white settlers in the early nineteenth century and now, a century later, has returned to kill again. Unfortunately the film is now considered lost, all prints having been destroyed in a 1924 fire at Universal Studios.
In 1925 George Chesebro, known for Westerns, directed and starred in WolfBlood: A Tale of the Forest. Chesebro plays Dick, a logging manager who is attacked by members of a rival logging company and left for dead. Desperately in need of a transfusion, a wolf’s blood is pumped into his body. Dick begins to feel that he can no longer fight his violent instincts, and as rival loggers turn up dead from wolf attacks, the men around him suspect him of being a werewolf. Towards the end of the film Dick is seen running through the forest with a pack of phantom wolves, and his desperation is so severe that he attempts to jump from a cliff. The film is not lost, though it is largely forgettable. However, it deserves attention for being the first film to use wolves as symbols of uncontrollable violence within a man.
In 1935 Universal released Werewolf of London, the first Hollywood mainstream werewolf movie, directed by Stuart Walker and starring Henry Hull. Though critically it did fairly well, it was considered too close to 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, and therefore did not do well at the box office. Jack Pierce did the makeup for the werewolf and would go on to create the iconic makeup for 1941’s The Wolf Man.
However, that film’s origins lie not with impressive makeup or werewolf folklore, but with the experiences of a Jewish immigrant named Curt Siodmak. After hearing the anti-semitic propaganda spewed forth by the Nazis under minister Joseph Goebbels, Siodmak fled Germany and eventually landed in the United States. Siodmak had said that his screenplay for The Wolf Man reflects the experience of a man whose life the fates have upended, which is reflected in his own experiences. However, there’s much more to be found if one digs deeper. The Wolf Man tells of the Americanized Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr., who returns to his ancestral Welsh home and finds himself succumbing to the dark forces which are native there. In 1941, when the film was released, America was largely against entering the war erupting in Europe. It had already been burned in the Great War, and the public was tired of being drawn into European squabbles. Staying quiet and safe in the good ole’ “U.S. of A.” was perfectly fine for most Americans. The fear of an America entering into Europe, politically and, to a large degree, culturally its ancestral home, and being overtaken by the raging violence to be found there, could certainly be seen reflected in Siodmak’s tale. Of course, on December 7 of that year, when the Japanese Empire rained death upon Pearl Harbor, enter into the fray of world war America did.
Another less discussed aspect of Siodmak’s script no doubt also was a profound psychological contribution. Wolves were a potent element of Nazi symbology. The Wolfsangel, a wolf trap, was an initial symbol of the Nazi Party. Hitler called young members of the Hitler Youth “wolf cubs” and the SS “my pack of wolves”. He had his sister operate under the assumed name Paula Wolff, a nickname he gave her in childhood. Nazi headquarters were often named for wolves, including Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, on the Eastern Front. Werwolf was a Nazi plan to create a resistance force which would operate behind enemy lines as the Allies advanced through Germany. Hitler’s often photographed dog was a German Shephard named Blondi; dogs like Blondi were longed for as being close to the wolf and became very fashionable during the Third Reich. Hitler named one Blondi’s puppies “Wulf”, his favorite nickname. When Eva Braun first met Hitler, he was introduced to her as Herr Wolf, a name he used early in his political career. Adolf means, unjustly in Hitler’s case, “noble wolf” in Old German.
Additionally, seeing a pentagram on a person destined to be murdered sounds awfully reminiscent of seeing the Star of David sewn onto the clothes of people fated to be victims of the Final Solution. Though the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust were not known to Americans in 1941, it would be difficult to believe that the Nazis didn’t inspire Siodmak in the telling of his tale of inhuman violence, where SS officers such as Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, could raise his offspring as an apparently loving father while putting to death 1.2 million innocents just beyond the garden wall, including countless children. Like Chantrelle and Jekyll, the duality required to commit such acts can only be described as monstrous.
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, there was no real literary precedent for the werewolf when it came time to make its way onto the screen. Siodmak succeeds in creating a werewolf mythology which pulls from many varied sources, including vampire lore, and which many today have come to mistakenly accept as ancient lore, including being marked by an aforementioned pentagram, immortality apart from being slayed by silver, and of course wedding the Moon inextricably with werewolfism. The Moon had long been associated with madness – lunacy’s root word being lunar, after all – as well as the pursuit of wild game, such as with the Greek goddess Artemis who was the goddess of the Moon, the wilderness, and the hunt. The match was inevitable.
The Wolf Man was the jewel in the crown of Universal’s second monster cycle, and the last time they’d put their best foot forward in terms of production and casting. Larry Talbot was played exclusively by Lon Chaney Jr., who reprised the role four more times.
Werewolf films occur less frequently than one would expect, and most have taken their cues from Universal’s wolfman, and therefore also from Stevenson’s basic Jekyll and Hyde motif, where a person afflicted with the curse must come to terms with and ultimately destroy the dangerous monster he becomes. This is certainly true of the most famous werewolf movie besides The Wolf Man, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, where again we once again see an American succumbing to a unique violence native to Europe. Others have notably taken inspiration from older sources, such as Charles Perrault, once again associating the werewolf with sexual desire and the lunar cycle with menstruation (a word which owes its lineage to the Greek word for “moon” – mene). A prime example of this is 1985’s fantasy-horror, The Company of Wolves.
Today, clinical lycanthropy is a psychological diagnosis, considered a rare delusional disorder in which a person believes they can, have, or will transform into an animal, literally. Figuratively, we can sympathize. The werewolf is most often used to symbolize man’s dual nature – his human intellect always working to subdue his bestial instincts. Everyone at times feels that animal within when we feel the pull of ancestral impulses which we like to believe, in our naivete, we’ve moved beyond: the grumble of a hungry stomach, the warm throb of aroused loins, the unbridled wrath which threatens to overtake us in our moments of rage. Yet we succeed in waiting to eat until lunchtime even as we watch the minutes tick by at work, in waiting for an appropriate time to release sexual tensions, and we breathe deep and walk away from the person whose head we fantasize about bashing in. Always, however, we fear those impulses enslaving our mind, rather than the other way around. Religions, dietitians, the self help industry, therapists, and countless other professions and services have made it their main prerogative to be an ally in this battle. And we succeed… for now.
But for most of us, I think, there’s that morbid curiosity that says: “Maybe we won’t put on the chains tonight. Maybe we’ll run through the woods, howl at the moon, and give no mercy to the passerby.” Like Dr. Henry Jekyll, we wonder what it would be like to have our own Edward Hyde. And the damage left behind, after all, wouldn’t be our fault. Those tracks leading to our doorstep are clearly not those left by a human. We would shrug our shoulders and nod sympathetically to those who have suffered. “But don’t blame us,” we would say, “blame the Big Bad Wolf.”