Monster of the Week: Werewolves

Werewolf woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder
source: woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1512, located at the Herzogliches Museum Gotha

Howdy! I’m starting a new feature here on my blog. Every Wednesday I’ll be profiling a monster, villain, or mythical creature. I’ll even throw in a writing prompt at the end for those of you who write SFF/horror or GM tabletop games. Note that “monster” doesn’t have to be literal. I might include a human from history or legend who is notorious for monstrous behavior, such as Hannibal Lecter, or a fantasy staple that is non-human but not necessarily a monster—your elves, Vulcans, robots, or what have you.

Okay, enough chit-chat. Let’s dive right in and start off with one of the classics: werewolves.

Werewolves have been around just about as long as stories have. Not just in Western society, either: cultures from every corner of the planet have skin-crawling tales of humans transforming into creatures that would rip your throat out as soon as look at you.

All those variations make for some fascinating reading, by the way. I’d highly recommend doing a little research if you’re a GM who wants to throw their party of adventurers for a loop. But for this post, let’s stick with the classic, American horror movie werewolf:

Full moon comes out. Dude turns into a horrifying wolfish monstrosity. He bites you. You turn into a horrifying wolfish monstrosity.

What’s so scary about that? Let’s break it down.

First off, werewolves tap into a very primal human fear, one that’s been coded into us by millennia of evolution: the fear of disease.

This makes a lot of sense when you realize that the werewolf myth experienced a popularity surge in the European middle ages. You know, roughly around the time of that whole plague thing? The period of history best known for its roll-around-in-mud theory of hygiene? “Bacterial infection” made about as much sense to people back then as “lunar-powered man-wolf transformation.” Not a surprise that werewolves went viral. Uh, so to speak.

And hey, let’s face it. Bites are gross. Mouths are gross. You don’t want to know where that’s been. You especially don’t want to know about the rows of saliva- and blood-stained teeth sharpened into lethal points bearing down on your throat right now—

Ahem. Uh, where was I? Um, right. Bites. Infection. Yeahhhh.

In all seriousness, the threat of death is not what makes werewolves scary. A regular wolf could kill you. Anything could kill you. What makes werewolves scary is what happens when the monster spares you.

A human infected by a werewolf bite faces an existential terror. They have lost control, no longer able to define who they are at all times, or even remember what they’ve done. They’re constantly at war with the monster living inside of them. They know that no matter how much they try to be a good person—whoever they believe themselves to be—there will always come a time when they can’t stop themselves from becoming a monster. The lupine transformation makes this literal, but this is a battle that all of us face on a metaphorical level. Am I a good person? What does it mean to be human? Through the monstrous, we cut to the core of something deeply human.

That is what the best monsters do. That’s personal. It’s scary.

And then even the most well-behaved werewolf faces the burden of keeping a terrible secret, because another monster lurks in the wolf’s shadow.

Like wolves, humans are social animals. We rely on each other to survive. A human cast out of society loses one of their greatest resources. And if we define humans as social animals, what does that say about a human who no longer exists in a social context? What about a werewolf—neither wolf nor human? They are caught between two packs, isolated because they do not fall neatly into either category.

Isolation. Dehumanization. These are, again, deeply human fears.

A human community rarely wastes any time turning against an outed werewolf. These stories hold up a mirror to the worst of human nature: mob mentality, violence, betrayal, abandoning reason because of fear. The best stories will leave us wondering if the monster was really the wolf or the humans.

So, in summary, werewolves: visceral fear, existential fear, social fear. A great trifecta. These guys are classics for a reason.

Want a few examples? I’m looking forward to watching Brotherhood of the Wolf, a 2001 French film exploring an actual folk legend about werewolf attacks in the 18th century, which was recommended at this year’s GenCon panel on writing monsters. Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter series undoubtedly know that the character Remus Lupin is a werewolf—but did you know that JK Rowling has said she wrote Lupin’s experience as a werewolf to be a metaphor for HIV and AIDS sufferers? I have a lot of opinions about this and its relation to queer representation, opinions which deserve their own blog post, but nevertheless it’s interesting food for thought in the context of those social fears.

I leave you now with a writing or GMing prompt, most sinister reader (because we all know that writers and GMs are indeed sinister people):

Prompt: Pick one of the three types of fear I mentioned above—visceral, existential, social—and create a monster that is deceptively positive in that area. BUT. It still has grave consequences in at least one of the other two areas. For example, it might be very charming socially but still tap into deep, existential fears about human nature. Write a short story about it or fold it into an adventure, and then come back here and tell me all about your monster!

So, what are your thoughts about werewolves? Something I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to discuss in the comments? Let’s talk lycanthropy!

One Comment

  • Jeremiah Reply

    I love that in so many stories not only are the Werewolves themselves separated socially but how easily their presence separates everyone else with widespread distrust. It is common enough in a lot of fantasy settings (vampires, cultists, assassins) that I think the “who done it” aspect is frequently overlooked as a unique horror element (at least in Dnd) but I think they really shine in the existential fear that you mention not only from their own perspective but from that of the Hunter/ Victim. Even knowing what they become condemning an innocent person for actions entirely out of their control is a really fun character development point. I think their is added appeal to wolves as they display some many levels of fear, e.g. not only could they kill you but from a scavenger and pastoral viewpoint they are competitors for food, potentially causing you and anyone relying on you to starve, and they play so well off the fear of the unknown hunting in packs with seemingly endless unseen reinforcements hiding in the forest. I’m trying to write up a module with Wererat like villains and I really hope to be able to play off the social isolation aspect. Your post was really well informed, witty, and fun to read. I especially enjoyed the ability it had to talk about such deep visceral human fears, while keeping a fun, conversational sense of humor.

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