The Wolf Man
One of my favorite books is a work I read in middle school called The Lord of the Flies. As you may recall from when you read it in school all those years ago, The Lord of the Flies is the story of a group of schoolchildren who crash into a deserted island; they try to survive and establish their own society and rules, but everything falls apart. The novel depicts humanity and society in a bleak light, implying that humans are inherently savage and even children are capable of evil; this interpretation is in broad strokes, but it will do for the sake of argument. I read the book in 7th grade and it was probably my first exposure to the idea that humans could be innately savage or evil; I’d heard about original sin, but the implications of it were not made apparent to me until I read The Lord of the Flies. I think the idea is fascinating and makes for great horror fiction; it’s a facile explanation for why people do bad things, but it works for fiction. The idea is key to the werewolf mythos and consequently The Wolf Man.
The story goes that Larry Talbot to home to his wealthy father, Sir John Talbot, upon hearing the news of his brother’s death. Larry spies a beautiful young lady in town through his father’s telescope and decides to pursue her. This would be creepy if it weren’t for the fact that he flirts with the young lady, Gwen Conliffe, in such a cheesy and affable way that it’s hard to dislike him. Not even Gwen can resist his charms, despite her initial insistence that she won’t go out with him. Larry learns about werewolves from Gwen when she explains the meanings of the symbols on a cane he buys from her shop; the cane has a silver wolf for the handle and a star inscribed in the wolf. She explains that the star is the symbol of a werewolf and that “Even a man who is pure in heart/ and says his prayers by night/ may become a wolf when the wolf’s bane blooms/ and the autumn moon is bright.” Larry, Gwen, and Gwen’s friend Jenny go to a gypsy encampment so Jenny can get her fortune told. The fortune teller, Bela, refuses to tell Jenny’s fortune and tells her to leave. She runs off and is soon attacked by a wolf. Larry tries to help her and is attacked by the wolf; he kills the wolf, but not before being bitten. The next day, the police investigate the crime scene and find that Jenny’s throat has been torn out and the Bela’s head has been bashed in with Larry’s cane. The police assume that Larry killed the old man without meaning to, but keep an eye on him because they think he might be going crazy. Larry learns from an old gypsy woman, Maleva, that
Bela was a werewolf and that Larry will turn into one because he was bitten by Bela. John assures his son that lycanthropy is just a form of delusion, a psychological manifestation of the someone’s dark side, but Larry is certain that he’s a werewolf. As the evidence mounts, Larry decides that he must leave home to protect the ones he loves, particularly Gwen. However, he changes into the wolf man and chases Gwen in the woods while his father and the police search for the culprit behind the recent murders. In the end, John kills Larry with Larry’s silver cane, and he learns that his son truly was a werewolf.
The Wolf Man has all the elements of a good werewolf story. Larry is bit by a werewolf and he changes when the autumn moon shows and the wolf’s bane blooms; the movie comes before the idea that only a full moon prompts a werewolf’s transformation. Furthermore, Larry is a reluctant monster, transforming and attacking loved ones against his will, and there are suggestions that his lycanthropy is the result of a diseased mind or an inherent dark side. Lycanthropy is scary because the person is betrayed by his own body and mind; he’s helpless to stop himself from killing. A werewolf serves as a physical embodiment of a person’s savage nature, but it’s the helplessness to stop the savage transformation that makes werewolves tragic and frightening creatures. Every person has a dark side, whether we like to admit it or not. When talking about The Lord of the Flies in English class, we likened the civility of society to putting on a mask. We like to think that we can hide our dark sides and that we can control them. The Wolf Man is a great werewolf movie because we can sympathize with Larry. Because we sympathize with Larry, we can put ourselves in his shoes and wonder what would happen if our darkest, most savage selves were revealed to the world against our will, that we would commit atrocities without meaning to. Perhaps, your inner werewolf is lurking in your subconscious, waiting for its full moon and wolf’s bane bloom to strike. It’s a terrifying thought.