Fuzzy Fiends in Pop Culture: A Werewolf Compendium
By Paul Tate
This weekend we experienced our monthly full moon, and along with it, local outlets reported a blast of peculiar petty crime, which newscasters cheekily blamed on the lunar cycle in bloom. The trend is nothing new; humans love stories about wild and woolly humanoids.
If you look way back to the Ancient Greeks and up through medieval times, you’ll hear tales of the legendary Cynocephalus, part-man, part-dog. The predecessor of our modern Wolfman, the Cynocephalus, was reportedly spotted by Greek Explorers, who brought back terrifying tales from India of a race of barking, hairy men. We can’t be sure whether the Cynocephali were really dog-headed humans or just a bunch of guys with poor grooming habits and smoker’s cough. What we do know is that ever since, fuzzy fiends have consistently starred in our tall tales, campfire stories, and more recently in moving pictures and comic books.
The Werewolf concept first took shape in Greek mythology with the story of Zeus and Lycaon. Lycaon was an Arcadian King who tricked and tested Zeus, which infuriated the God. In retaliation, Zeus punished Lycaon by giving him the head of a wolf and a long furry tail; this simultaneously supplied humans with a fresh subject for their nightmares. The werewolf lore grew from there, gaining popularity over the centuries.
It even gained a foothold in the real world as a diagnosed medical condition, when lycanthropy came to describe a form of insanity in which the patient believes they can transform into a wolf. This wasn’t just some sleazy guy whistling at women on a construction site, this was real-life serial killer stuff. The most notorious example comes from Switzerland in 1859 when a man named Peter Stumpp, aka The Werewolf of Bedburg, was executed for a killing spree that he claimed was necessitated by his voracious wolfen appetites. Wolf Hunts, not unlike the Salem Witch Trials, were quite common during the period all across Scandinavia.
Book covers: Were-Wolf, Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, etc.
The 19th Century presented our first proper werewolf characters, showing up in Gothic Horror novels by authors like Dumas and Ritchie. The howling, snarling, saber-toothed man-beast joined the likes of Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula as stars of the era’s emerging monster fiction genre. The stories included both male and female werewolves, and quite often the stories were thinly veiled allegories about temptation, sin, and temperance. Robert Louis Stevenson cautioned readers about the dangers of drug addiction with a unique spin on the transformation tale in his landmark novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Movie Posters: Werewolf of London; The Wolfman; Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Hair-ray for Hollywood! The wolf became a big screen leading man in 1935 when Universal Studios cast Henry Hull as The Werewolf of London, but it was 1941’s The Wolfman starring Lon Chaney Jr. that ultimately delivered the classic werewolf that we now know and love. For the next several years, Universal (and other studios) cranked out a slew of hairy man movies, peaking with Chaney’s comedic appearance in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1947.
Movie Posters: I Was a Teenage Werewolf
Werewolf films kept coming over the next decade, and by 1957, we saw the wolfman take on his biggest enemy yet: puberty. Future Prairie dad Michael Landon got his big break in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” where his condition is a metaphor for teenage afflictions like acne, body odor, and hormone-inducing deviance. He takes his hair-trigger anger out on a bottle of milk and declares “People bug me.” The success of this low-budget picture paved the way for a slew of high school monster movies that dominated drive-in screens in the late 50s.
In 1964, the character shrank to the small screen with an appropriately small werewolf named Eddie, the youngest member of The Munsters family. The show hit big and continued its popularity in syndication, forever associating Butch Patrick with his velvetine Fauntleroy suit and widow’s peak hairdo.
We’d have to wait a while for the next werewolf craze, but the emergence of superstar makeup artists like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker helped make the early ‘80s a golden age of howling, hairy onscreen transformations. Moviegoers lined up for a string of lycanthropic hits, including The Howling, Wolfen, Fright Night, and my favorite, An American Werewolf in London. In 1984, Michael Jackson rode the fad all the way to a Grammy award, portraying a werewolf in his 13-minute “Thriller” video, recently called the most famous music video of all time by the U.S. Library of Congress.
By the mid-80s, we were clearly getting wolfed out, but the genre coughed up one last hairball with Michael J. Fox’s slam-dunking, break-dancing, van-surfing Teen Wolf. The film was released in Spain with an alternate title: “De pelo en pecho” which means “Hairy Chest Male.”
We can’t talk about hairy creatures without spending a little time on some of history’s other fuzzy figures. Nearly 300 years ago the French fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” popularized the monster meets maiden love story, which has been adapted countless times for print, film, TV, and stage in the centuries since. Disney seemingly cornered the market on the story with its 1991 animated feature, but the late 80s television series of the same name, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, developed a devoted cult following. The series was recently rebooted on the CW and starred Smallville’s Kristen Kreuk.
The premise found its way into the monster genre with RKO’s 1933 blockbuster King Kong, the story of another hirsute hulk who falls head over heels for a dazzling damsel. Unfortunately for Kong, he falls head over heels from the top of the Empire State Building, and, well, SPLAT was the operative word.
Never to be outdone by the French, we Americans have delivered an even better man-beast phenomenon, simply known as Bigfoot. First appearing around the turn of the 20th century, these Sasquatch sightings were part rumor, part folklore, part superstition. And they stayed that way until 1967, when two filmmakers in the California mountains captured a one minute clip of a female Bigfoot, famously trudging across a clearing, glancing back over her shoulder, and then disappearing into the forest. Though some claim that the Patterson-Gimlin footage was a piece of clever fiction, the duo has insisted in the decades since that the sighting was legit. The film launched Bigfoot into the national consciousness, spawning movie & TV takeoffs, including iconic guest appearances on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and a late 1980s family comedy called Hairy & The Hendersons.
In the modern era, we have seen more than our fair share of hairy stars, including Sean Connery, Robin Williams, and Alec Baldwin, but nobody puts the mane in “mane man” like the walking carpet himself, Chewbacca the Wookiee from Star Wars. George Lucas says that the character was inspired by his pet dog, a Malamute named Indiana, who enjoyed riding in his car’s passenger seat like a co-pilot. When cameras began to roll on the sci-fi flick in 1977, few realized then that Peter Mayhew’s physicality, combined with the distinctive grunts of sound designer Ben Burtt, would soon turn Chewbacca into the most popular action sidekick in film history.
So what is it about the hairy creature that keeps us entranced? I think most of us have a hidden side that’s a bit wilder than we’d like to admit, and we work continuously to suppress it in the name of etiquette, good manners, and plain old law and order. A civilization overrun by beasts would hardly be civilized, and it’s good to be reminded by films like The Howling and characters like Mister Hyde that we’re better off taming those urges. Even Chewbacca, as lovable as he is, would probably make a lousy house guest, especially if your game is hologram chess. So the next time you’re pondering lofty topics like arm hair, beef jerky, and the price of disposable razors, don’t forget that lycanthropy is real and the next full moon is coming soon.