“Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”
—The Wolf Man (1941)
Werewolves exist. I’ve seen them. I’ve met them.
First, I heard about them, the way people always have, around a campfire. When I was a small child in Glasgow, the campfire was a black-and-white TV in a coldwater tenement flat. I watched Moon of the Wolf, an awful film in which David Janssen manages to keep his face straight while Bradford Dillman runs around in designer clothes, a werewolf mask, and furry gloves. I wonder if the reason it doesn’t appear on the list of films on the Wikipedia page of Dillman (who trained at the Actors Studio) is that he’s embarrassed by it…
But it terrified me.
I don’t know what age I was—around seven, I think—but I do know that it was the first horror movie I saw, and I do know that when I went to bed afterward I lay awake for a long time, imagining the werewolf moving around in the freezing, dark slum streets downstairs. I was afraid I’d hear it howl, and then, as had happened in the climax of the film, it would climb the stairs and tear through the front door, and then come for me. And, unlike its prey in the film, I had no silver bullets.
In the days that followed, when I shared my fears with other children who lived locally, I was not reassured. Whether or not they’d seen the film, they knew about werewolves too, though the night creatures they feared had different names: Wazie. Phandy Phoophit. Even Wee Willie Winkie. And, of course, The Bogey Man (who haunted me into adulthood until I wrote a novel about him). These were the things that roamed the broken stairwells at night, always ready to tap on windows or crawl out from under beds.
We were afraid of the werewolf, the Other, but we didn’t know how much we needed it. Some of us were near-feral, and we needed something to hate, a monster to unite against with pitchforks and torches. There was a girl named Ann Cook, or Ann-Cook. I never knew which, because she was always referred to and addressed by both names. Adults, teachers, addressed her that way, so I think it was a double-barreled first name. There was nothing unusual about how she looked or dressed, but, for reasons I never knew, she was said to have “bugs.” We played a game, similar to the American game of cooties, in which someone would touch her, then touch someone else, yelling “Ann-Cook’s bugs!” To rid yourself of the “bugs,” you had to touch someone else, passing it along. She would just sit there, silently watching. She never cried that I remember. The other kids never discussed reasons for disliking her, and I believe there were none, other than a need to unite in dislike of someone, the Other.
As a young man, I hoped that we had left such stupid, fearful cruelty behind with childhood. That hope vanished when I realized that politics is about uniting people against the werewolf—single mothers, supposedly underserving welfare recipients, immigrants, other nations—and that elections are won by handing out pitchforks and silver bullets.
I read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which, following the murder of Caesar, Mark Antony turns the mob against the conspirators, one of whom is named Cinna. The mob corners a different man named Cinna, united in their desire to “tear him to pieces.” When they learn that he is not Cinna the conspirator, but rather Cinna the poet, they declare that they’ll “Tear him for his bad verses!” and attack him anyway.
I read Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, perhaps the best of his many superb novels set in and around a Native American reservation in New Mexico. In some branches of Native American folklore, a skinwalker is a shape-shifter, a human-being who can take on the form of an animal. In the novel, someone is trying to murder the protagonist, a cop. He finally confronts his assailant, who turns out to be a woman with a dead baby in her arms. She shouts, “Skinwalker! Why are you killing my baby?” One of the cop’s enemies has convinced her that her that the cop is a skinwalker, and that he has cursed her child, and that her only hope is to kill him. Even when she realizes that her baby is dead, she thinks that he can be brought back to life by killing the skinwalker.
When I read that, I remembered our tormenting of Ann-Cook, our poverty and anger and fear, and I understood how Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton had gotten elected.
And so I thought werewolves were imaginary, just phantoms created to control us peasants. But then I saw one.
In 1995, I sat in a courtroom in Edinburgh and watched the trial of Paul Agutter. I had known his name for some years before, because a woman I had dated was a biology student at Napier College, where Agutter taught biochemistry. I didn’t meet him, but she and her friends from school talked about him a lot, and he was obviously well-liked. When I saw him, he was on trial for attempting to murder his wife, and also for tampering with bottles of tonic in a supermarket. He did this in order to poison other people so that he could blame his wife’s poisoning on contaminated drinks.
Agutter, I realized, was a werewolf, a shape-shifter. Students and colleagues testified as to his good character. Even after his release from prison, after serving seven years, he was hired by the University of Manchester—to teach medical ethics! The werewolf is also a man, and Mr. Hyde is also Dr. Jekyll. The transformation need not be physical–and that makes it more frightening.
In Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s never clear exactly how much Jekyll changes when he becomes Hyde. In the films, he becomes physically monstrous, but the description of him in the novel is chilling:
He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.
So it’s not Hyde’s body that deformed; it’s something else. Does he change physically at all from when he’s Jekyll, or is it only the change of personality that changes him so that even his friends don’t recognize him? The same question is raised in another, better, book…
Though The Moon of the Wolf is such an inept film that, when I watched it again as an adult, even the memory of how much it had scared me as a child wasn’t enough to keep me from laughing throughout my second viewing, it’s based on a great, and serious, novel by Leslie H. Whitten. Unlike the film, which seems to be set in a Louisiana bayou in the early 1970s, the book is set in the Mississippi of 1938, and is a brilliant, and utterly believable, rendering of racism, classism, voodoo, science, and superstition.
Yes, I said “utterly believable.” How can a werewolf novel be “utterly believable?” Because there’s another major difference between the film and the book. In the film, Bradford Dillman actually physically transforms into a werewolf, without damaging or even messing his neatly-pressed shirt and pants. In the book, despite the picture on the cover, it seems quite clear that he undergoes no physical change that can’t be explained by general unkemptness and lack of grooming. This werewolf kills people he loves, devouring them with such strength and ferocity that when the bodies are found the cops at first think they were killed by a pack of wild dogs … but the transformation that causes and enables him to become such a monster is far less trite, and far more frightening, than the sprouting of fangs and fur. Does his human side know about the werewolf? Can he be blamed for what he is? Is he evil?
We like our pitchforks, our torches, our crosses and our silver bullets, the weapons we can use when we gang up against imaginary monsters, because they help us believe that the monster, the Other, is out there in the darkness. Not working as a doctor in Victorian London. Not teaching at a university. Not sleeping beside us in bed. Not looking at us from the mirror.