The werewolf is one of mankind’s most enduring myths. Most, if not all, of the world’s cultures have a version of the creature embedded in their folktales. No matter what corner of the globe you’re from, no matter who you are, you’re bound to have heard of a man who turns into a wolf at night.
The werewolf’s popularity and worldwide appeal have contributed to the myth’s own
transformation. Like a game of “Pass the Message” with way too many players, a lot of things tend to get lost in the translation as the stories are passed on from generation to generation. People can’t help putting their own spin on the tales, because they make more sense or are just plain cooler that way. The biggest spin doctor of all, of course, is Hollywood. Moviemakers tend to make more than a few edits on a script for a number of reasons, and werewolf folklore isn’t an exception. The werewolf myths we know today are pretty different from the original legends, but since we watch movies more than we do creepy old ladies from “ze old country”, we end up knowing the Hollywood version of the stories more than the originals. Here are seven of the biggest myths about werewolf myths that the movie industry has you believing:
- You can turn into a werewolf if you get bitten by one — As we see in a ton of Hollywood movies, one way to become a werewolf is to get bitten by one of the great big horrifying furballs yourself. While this may set the stage for an amusing biting contest in the war between vampires and werewolves, only the bloodsuckers can transmit their conditions by bite. According to the original folklore, you can’t turn into a werewolf just by being bitten, no matter how much you want it to happen.
So Just how did one become a werewolf before Hollywood changed the script? There are too many to say. Among the oldest methods was taking off all of your clothes and wearing a belt made of wolfskin. Supposedly, this would make you assume the form of the wolf. Another way was to drink rainwater from the footprint of a wolf, although you’d have to be pretty thirsty to try that one out. If all else fails, there was always the good old standby — make a pact with the devil, and the wolf form is yours.
- Silver bullets are the only things that can kill werewolves — One of the defining moments of many werewolf movies is when the hero melts down some silver and arms himself with bullets made from the stuff. The precious metal is said to be the number one weakness of werewolves, like kryptonite is to Superman. One shot with a silver bullet, and the werewolf goes bye-bye.
Unfortunately, silver was never part of the original werewolf legends. Folk weapons against werewolves used to include mountain ash and wolfsbane, and even then, they weren’t necessary. Any sort of weapon could kill a werewolf if it hard and decisively enough. Silver bullets only came into the picture sometime in the 18th century, when the Beast of Gevaudan (the wolf creature in the French film Brotherhood of the Wolf) was reportedly killed by such a bullet. The myth then slowly increased in popularity until werewolf myths broke into the mainstream with the classic Hollywood film The Wolf Man. It should also be noted that the silver that killed the werewolf in the movie wasn’t even a bullet; rather, it was a powerful strike to the head with a silver-tipped cane.
- Werewolves look like men with wolf-like fur and faces — It’s a horrifying scene: the full moon shines down on a shadowy figure, and he suddenly starts to convulse. His body twists and contorts, and he screams in agony as his muscles and bones grow explosively. By the time the transformation is complete, the figure is no longer human. Instead, what stands in his place is a horrifying amalgam of man and wolf; a creature standing on its hind legs as a man would, yet bearing the same bestial appearance of a hungry, sinister wolf.
That is certainly the stuff of nightmares, but not necessarily the nightmares of those who originated werewolf myths. The folks from the olden days were afraid of a less grotesque creature — werewolves from those days were simply men who turned into wolves. There were very few features that set them apart from your typical wolf; the most common features that were unique to a werewolf were human eyes, a human voice, and the lack of a tail.
- It’s almost impossible to tell if someone’s a werewolf in human form — One of the most terrifying aspects of modern werewolves is the fact that you’d have no idea if the person sitting right beside you would suddenly turn into a half-man half-wolf monster and bite you in half. You’d only know for sure when the full moon rises, and you’d probably be in someone’s belly by then. It’s that same fear of suspicion that can make werewolves so horrifying; the person you least suspect might turn into a gruesome creature hell-bent on devouring you.
In the olden days, however, spotting someone who was actually a werewolf in hiding wasn’t too difficult. Certain physical features gave the creature away, such as low-set ears, curved fingernails, and eyebrows meeting at the bridge of the nose. There were other telltale signs in the werewolf’s behavior; his walk, for instance, would be particularly swingy, like a wolf swishing its tail as it walked. A more invasive way of checking to see if someone was a werewolf was to look for bristles under the tongue, a sure sign of the curse.
- Werewolves are always men who turn into wolves or wolf-like creatures — Lon Chaney, Jack Nicholson, Taylor Lautner, and now Hugo Weaving — it seems that all the werewolves in movies are men. This, of course, is blatantly wrong, as one of the oldest werewolf myths was that the creatures were condemned women who wore wolves’ skins and were transformed. It’s pretty rare to find female werewolves in film, although they do exist in movies such as She-Wolf in London and, more recently, Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers. Suddenly, all those shirtless werewolf hunks in New Moon seem a little sexist.
What’s even more obscure, however, is the fact that werewolves didn’t even have to be human to begin with. Some folklore revolving around the werewolf describes the creature as a wolf that turned into a man, rather than the other way around. The wolf would put on the flesh of a man, and through some sorcery would assume the form of the man whose skin it was wearing.
- Werewolves and vampires feud like cranky old rivals — It seems that everywhere you look now, werewolves and vampires simply just can’t get along. The reason behind the feud may be as simple as the “I’m the one she should be with!” love triangle argument between Edward Cullen and Jacob Black in New Moon, or it may be as grandiose as a centuries-old war between the two factions, as in the Underworld series. No matter how you cut it, werewolves and vampires are like oil and water to each other; bitter, angry, violent oil and water.
Of course, there’s nothing in ancient folklore that supports this theory. There have always been werewolves, and there have always been vampires, but the enmity between the two seems to be primarily a product of good old Hollywood magic. The idea might have come about from the wonderful contrast between the two creatures, with the werewolf representing raw bestiality and the vampire a more cunning creature. It may also be reasoned out that with the two factions having humans as their common meal of choice, some competition is bound to happen. Whatever that reason may be, though, it doesn’t have a place in the more traditional werewolf myths.
- Once a werewolf, always a werewolf — It seems that these days, the only cure to being a werewolf is death. We hardly ever see people returning to normal after becoming the man/wolf hybrids we all know and fear. If you want to put an end to a lifetime of involuntary transformations and craving the taste of your next-door neighbor’s flesh, you’ll need to take a silver bullet.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the case with the classic folktales. The ancient Greeks believed that severe physical exhaustion would “tire” the werewolf out of a person. In medieval Europe, one had several options: special medicines, surgery, or a good old-fashioned exorcism to end the werewolf’s pact with the devil. The Danish had the simplest way of curing a werewolf: all you had to do was scold it.