For the Love… of Werewolves

by T. Mack

Werewolves are popular. Although their abundance in pop culture tends to ebb and flow over time, it is never truly gone. Today, we’re taking some time to explore the phenomenon that is werewolves and the possible reasons we love them so much.

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Tales of werewolves have been around since at least ancient Greece, when Ovid told a story of Zeus turning one unfortunate king into a wolf. By the first century, clinical lycanthropy– a psychological condition of delusion where a person believes they have or can transform into an animal- was first diagnosed. For centuries, every culture has had some version of the werewolf tale. In countries were no wolves could be found, werehyenas, weretigers, or werepumas replaced the wolves, but the legend never seemed to die. In some cultures, there even existed werewolf “treatments” for those believed to be suffering from the condition.

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Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot in “Wolfman” (2010)

In the 19th century, werewolves gained popularity as part of Gothic literature and a new obsession with the creatures began. Suddenly, they weren’t to be feared in real life, but to be enjoyed as part of terrific tales and horrifying stories. In 1935, Werewolf in London was released as the first mainstream film to feature the creature. In 1941, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr., became the first iconic werewolf depiction. To this day, almost all on-screen werewolves are compared in some part to that one.

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Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot in “Wolfman” (1941)

When the 1980’s arrived, lycanthropy took an interesting turn. Suddenly David Naughton (1981’s American Werewolf in London) and Michael J. Fox (Teen Wolf, 1985) helped create a new view of of the legendary condition. It became funny, even fun, and in the case of Teen Wolf, pretty darned cool.

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Michael J. Fox as Scott Howard in “Teen Wolf” (1985)

In the 90’s, werewolves made a bit of a return to the dark side with Wolf (1994) and Ginger Snaps (2000) but their appeal was mostly at a low point. Witches  and vampires tended to rule the day (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with the Vampire, etc).

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Jack Nicholson as Will Randall in “Wolf”

Here in the 21st century, though, there has been a new boom in the popularity of werewolves. This time around, the focus is not on fear or humor. Werewolves these days aren’t so much scary or hilarious as they are ridiculously sexy.

From Alcide Herveaux (True Blood) to Jacob Black (Twilight) to  Elana Michael and her pack (Bitten) to Scott McCall and Derek Hale in MTV’s very loose TV remake of Teen Wolf. I’ll even throw in Russell Tovey (Being Human, UK) and Josh Levison (Being Human, US) as examples for those who like their eye candy a little less pretty and a little more adorkable.

At least half of these characters went from being so popular in print that they were adapted for the screen. And most made the leap while being barely dressed! Yes, the appeal for werewolves these days definitely seems to be of the “sex” variety. And these are not nearly all the wolves of popular culture these days.

My personal favorite werewolves actually come from literature, not television or movies. I absolutely adore Remus Lupin (from the Harry Potter series), Ann Rice’s wolves of midwinter (featured in the Wolf Gift series), and the wolves of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Each of these wolves or sets of wolves appeals to me for very different reasons. Remus is a powerfully complex character of immense likability inside a dense story that is beloved by millions, including me. Ann Rice’s wolves are sophisticated, brilliant, and ancient, hidden inside our own world, not one of fantasy. And the wolves created by Patricia Briggs are just fun to hang with and have incredibly detailed laws and complex social rules that govern their world. These guys also share their world with vampires, witches, numerous other shape-shifters, and a plethora of different types of Fae.

My love for these werewolves runs deep. And the reasons for that love vary greatly. However, it does beg the question: Why are werewolves so popular? What is the appeal of these particular creatures that has kept their legend alive and their popularity rising for more than a century? I have theory.

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Tyler Posey as Scott McCall in “Teen Wolf”

I suspect that werewolves offer us an escape from the civilized demeanor of our lives. They let us imagine what it’s like to tap into our primal side. They show us what it would be like to be truly wild, without consideration of consequences for our actions. Of course, it never really works out that way for our wolf friends. There is always a cost in the end, a price that must be paid–in blood, in guilt, in innocence. But I believe that’s the point. We are able to take a journey with werewolves that show us what it is like to throw aside all inhibitions the way many of us long to do. Then we’re reminded that there are always consequences, and that most come at a price higher than we are truly willing to pay. So werewolves allow us to see the fantasy unfold and help us realize that in the end, it’s not really what we want. We see what we believe to be our dream, but realize along the way that it is a nightmare we would never really desire. In the end, we’ve enjoyed the journey, but finish the story satisfied with our own, mundane lives because at least we’re not alone and grieving a life we can never get back. At least we’re not a monster hiding in the woods, running from our past. At least we’re not a dead thing that no one will mourn but everyone will tell scary stories about.

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Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler in “Penny Dreadful”

I believe this theory holds true no matter which variety of werewolf our favorite happens to be, whether it’s contemplative and conflicted, very-very sexy, fun-loving and funny, or a blend of all three. Werewolves are powerful, terrifying, and savage. But at the same time they’re appealing, sexy, and tragic. All these characteristics and more have helped them keep our attention in fiction for more than 100 years. And while they may lose some of that attention in coming years, I don’t believe it will stay gone for very long. Because werewolves are some of the coolest, most awesome, and baddest creatures around. So vampires can suck it and zombies can bite me!

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Meghan Ory as Ruby in “Once Upon a Time”

Which werewolves did I leave out that you believe deserve a mention? Who are your favorite werewolves… And why? Take to the comments and let me know.

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