Wanting to Change: Lycanthropy


Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska
I admit it. I can still clearly visualize Jack Nicholson, Lon Chaney Jr., and David Naughton all transmogrifying into something else. They all display very startled, even painful, expressions at the start of these extreme bodily changes. Chaney had it relatively easy: the makeup artists just kept interrupting every few minutes to apply some more fake fur and fangs. But Naughton spent weeks filming his alteration into a quadrapedal obscenity in a London flat. But that's modern special effects for you.
The werewolf represents both change and the ability to adopt characteristics not inherently possessed, at least not by humans. Some traits might be easily explained: since wolves (and, indeed, all canids, wild and domestic) exhibit superior sensitivity to scent, hearing, and sight, even if in black and white, we members of the homo sapiens persuasion can wonder how heightened and more dramatic our sensory perceptions would be if our abilities matched theirs. But there's more to it than this emulation: werewolves are supposed to be terrifying monsters, occasionally described as hideous or even immortal, interested primarily (or perhaps exclusively) in tearing more average humans into raw juicy pieces of hunger-quenching meat.
It does seem ironic indeed to idolize or want to copy traits found in a non-human species which has so often been demonized throughout the centuries. Then again, perhaps the alleged irony is misleading; after all, werewolves are generally depicted as voracious, evil beasts, and their condition is usually described as a curse rather than a gift. So maybe this is another instance of prejudice against wolves, combining the debauchery potential of humans with the alleged but inaccurate traits of wolves, yielding the very worst picture of both species.
Still, the strange appeal remains. If werewolves, like vampires, are described as immortal (barring direct encounters with silver bullets or wooden stakes), then it seems easier to understand why someone might wish to possess such a curse. You might be hated and hunted, but at least you get to outlive everyone else. And in the case of werewolves, again, the desire might stem from nothing more than the ability to possess, even if only during a full moon, the heightened sensory apparatus of a wild canid. Or maybe it's the urge to get away with something: if werewolves commit murder, they would seem to stand a better chance of escaping prosecution, since the beast within never leaves fingerprints, and any tissue samples left at a crime scene would, one supposes, leave traces of canid DNA, instead of human.
Ironically enough, the legal aspect is part of what enabled the ancient werewolf tales to persist into the present. The very idea of temporary insanity as a legal defense comes from late medieval French and German trials of "werewolves," or at least of men who apparently were disturbed enough to kill and eat people. And the element of fear is strong, too; we often like being scared of our own dark natures, and the werewolf is a solid symbol of that. From old King Lycaon who offended Zeus at a dinner party and was transformed into a wolf (thus the name "lycanthropy," which means shape-shifting), to Celtic seal-people, to Japanese fox-people, to American Indian bear-people, the idea of becoming another creature, albeit briefly, has always been widely prevalent. Yet the werewolf appears to be the one universally described as evil.