Werewolves: From Myth to the Silver Screen

Our nightmares are filled with creatures of the night, yet few are more terrifying than the primal Lycanthrope, or Werewolf. Stories of the shape shifting beasts have been around since as early as 1 AD, if not earlier. It is widely accepted that the first appearance of a werewolf was in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the oldest known western prose. The cause of lycanthropy has been thought to be anything from ointments and enchanted pelts to a scratch or out and out curse. However they came to be in our darkest imaginings, they have become a cornerstone of modern horror.

Where did the myth originate from? No one knows for certain, but they’ve been blamed for many horrific happenings throughout history.  Two Frenchmen in 1512,  Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, claimed to serve the devil. They claimed the devil gave them an ointment that would turn them to wolves. They both confessed to the brutal murders of several children and were burned at the stake. At this time, burning at the stake was considered one of the only ways to kill a werewolf. I guess if it was good enough for a witch, it was good enough for a wolf. While this is only one tale from our history, it is far from the last.

Werewolves came to the age of the Silver Screen in 1913 with the silent film “The Werewolf”, starring Clarence Burton and Marie Walcamp. Years later was the release of 1935’s “Werewolf of London”, directed by Stuart Walker and starring Henry Hull. However it wasn’t until 1941 that the werewolf really resonated with cinema goers. “The Wolf man”, directed by George Waggner and starring Horror film legends Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney Jr. would go on to reprise this role four more times before he was done.

From the silent era of the Silver Screen till today, we have seen many incarnations and styles of werewolves, but several things have almost never changed, chief among them, is the only sure-fire way to put down a werewolf for good, and that is a silver bullet. Even this method has been toyed with over the years as well. Come to think of it, I’d say my personal favorite is the silver nitrate round from “Underworld”. The Vampire “Death Dealers”, made a type of ammunition that holds a small amount of silver nitrate, a liquid form of silver. When the casing around the silver nitrate impacts, it shatters, allowing the silver nitrate to enter the bloodstream. A faster, more lethal option for taking down the furry bastards.

Werewolves are almost always portrayed as being fully animalistic and primal (I mean why not, just look at them), however there is the occasional offshoot from that. After they shift, they tend to be animal like hunters, killing whatever crosses their path, with the afflicted human counterpart waking up naked and not remembering the events of the night before. This rule is sometimes broken, and when it is, it is usually done very well. My case for this argument is the 2002 Action Horror “Dog Soldiers”. These beasts go beyond your primal variations and show a pack, working together to get their prey. Directed by Neil Marshall, and starring Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham.

You can find them anywhere today. Television (“Werewolf”, 1987), Books (“Cycle of the Werewolf” by Stephen King, 1983), Video Games (“Skyrim”, 2011) and of course, movies. While the werewolf enjoys a good chunk of cinema history, it seems its only true contenders are the vampire and zombie. Next time you sit down to watch one of the primal beasts of the Full Moon, take a moment and remember where this all started.

The image for this article is used with permission from Brett Gray. If you’d be interested in looking at more of his work, and how you might be able to get your hands on some of it head over to Brett’s Site or check out his Facebook Page and be sure to leave a like.

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