Saturday, 5 September 2015

Werewolf? There Wolf

The news that the University of Hertfordshire (no, me neither) is to hold a conference on the cultural significance of werewolves provided predictable filler during the dog days of August (that's dog as in sopping wet spaniel). Inevitably, the para-historians of the commentariat couldn't resist the urge to reshape the lycanthrope as an emblem of our times. Despite the original story in the Guardian noting that the legend of the cursed wolf-man goes back to antiquity, Kathryn Hughes followed up in the same paper with the claim that "Werewolves emerged in folklore in medieval Germany at times when a poor harvest meant that both humans and animals were contending with rumbling stomachs". This dubious claim was used to buttress a full-blown socio-economic theory: "Culturally, werewolves have always come to the fore at those historic moments when our most basic resource – food – starts to feel in short supply. And in these jittery days of collapsing capitalism, lycanthropes, or man-wolves (they are nearly always male) are emerging as the archetype around which our contemporary terrors adhere".

Werewolves, as a particular species of "shape-shifter", originate in the pagan practices of sympathetic magic by which shamans and warriors sought to acquire the powers of animals, often by wearing their skins or amulets fashioned from essential elements such as teeth. The purpose was intercession with the spririt world or an aid in hunting or battle. A lucky rabbit's foot and a grenadier's bearksin are both echoes of this, as is the attempt by Hull City's chairman to rename his club the Tigers. During the Christian era, these pagan practices were both absorbed and deprecated, with the positive aspects channelled into the lives of the saints (St Francis of Assisi negotiating with the wolf) and the negative recast as a curse or punishment, showing the influence of classical myths (Ovid's Metamorphoses, the spellbound wolves and pigs of Circe in the Odyssey etc). Hughes's "rumbling stomachs" theory suggests that the recurrent famines and plagues of the spectacularly dreadful 14th century should have been the medieval trigger, but in fact the folkloric werewolf only appears in numbers in the 15th century. It is a creature of the Early Modern period and inseparable from the witch-trials that occurred between the mid-15th and 17th centuries, with charges of wilful lycanthropy overlapping with charges of wolf-charming or the cursing of others.

As an aspect of the European witch-craze, the popularity of werewolves was driven by wider cultural factors: the dissemination of superstitions and lurid tales by printing (new media usually produce an explosion in credulity before knowledge); the religious hysteria of the 16th century and the belief in a proselytising Satan; and the dislocations caused by the end of the medieval social order. Early werewolves were said to prey on cattle and children, which emphasised that they were, like witches who "spoiled milk", both a quotidien nuisance and a useful projection for dealing with unexplained infant mortality (some historians believe that werewolves were occasionally invented to explain localised serial killing sprees). It is also worth remembering that real wolves were still a threat to livestock and even people across much of Europe, not least because the animals could be rabid. As human settlement expanded and the old woods were increasingly reduced or managed as an economic resource, the chances of conflict increased.

The werewolf trope also preserves the historic conflict between settled pastoral communities and hunter-gatherers ("preying on the unguarded boundaries of civilisation", according to the conference blurb). However, this owes more to relatively recent competition for resources, rather than any prehistoric memory, as agriculture and early industry spread to more mountainous areas in Europe during the demographic recovery after the 14th century. The earliest witch-trials, including charges of lycanthropy, are found in the Alpine regions, notably those with a history of heresy such as the Vaud. In other words, persistent tension rather than episodic famine gave context to tales of demonology and lycanthropy, and this was as much about itinerant communities (hence the werewolf's frequent association with Gypsies, who were also routinely accused of harming livestock and children) as the dwindling numbers who eked out a living in the woods.

The idea that werewolf stories come to the fore during times of economic stress is contradicted in the twentieth century by cinema's consistent interest. The first werewolf film is considered to have been made in 1913 (with a Navajo setting, emphasising the animist roots), and while The Werewolf of London appeared in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, the true classic of the genre, Lon Chaney Jr's turn in The Wolf Man, came out in 1941. Though Hughes references Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933 and set in the hungry Commune of 1871, she fails to note that the closest cinematic treatment of the book was the 1961 Hammer Horror film, The Curse of the Werewolf. That was no more a reflection of hard times than 1966's Carry On Screaming. Since the late-50s, the werewolf has been a universal trope of alienation, transformation and the beast within, often to parodic effect, such as An American Werewolf in London and Teenwolf. According to Hughes, "This recognition that it really is a dog-eat-dog world has always created a ripe breeding ground for werewolf fantasies ... werewolf stories are all about negotiating our terror over where, come the apocalypse, we stand in the food chain". That would make a lot more sense if you substituted "zombie".

This dubious interpretation of werewolves as a sign of hard times serves to create a particular contrast, suggesting Hughes has spent too many hours watching the Twilight and Underworld series: "For vampires belong to altogether more prosperous times and catalyse an entirely different set of anxieties, mostly to do with sex. They raised their fanged heads in Bram Stoker’s classic novel of 1897, which appeared at the height of fin de siècle jitters about sexual decadence. Two years earlier the Oscar Wilde trials had suggested the possibility that Britain harboured an underground community of homosexuals trying to 'convert' young men by penetrating their bodies, taking them permanently away from everything that was decent and holy". Though naughty, vampires have the saving grace of class: "Vampires are nicely dressed, seductive in their own way, and always remember to say 'please' and 'thank you'. (Count Dracula had lovely manners.) Werewolves, by contrast, display no such finesse". This is another example of the Guardian's class contempt, poking through the arch irony.

"Haemosexuality", the sexual basis of the vampire's blood-lust, has provided an excuse for the exploration of deviant sex and the unshackling of female desire since Freud and Kraft-Ebbing. Homosexuality has only ever been one dimension of this. The coincidence of blood and sex, from ancient fears of menstruation through AIDS, is a commonplace, but so too is the parallel association of blood with the vital force of the body politic, hence the "blood-suckers" trope common to criticism of the state. Though this starts with straightforward complaints about tax collection and decadent, spendthrift rulers in the ancient world, it mutates as money is increasingly seen as a proxy for the élan vital of enterprise and commerce. By the time of Voltaire and Rousseau, the charge of vampirism is routinely levelled against the church and aristocracy, as well as tax-farmers. Karl Marx would famously employ the vampire as a metaphor for dead capital, while the Nazis and others would seek to associate Jews with vampires via the "blood libel". Even today, the compelling image of Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money", owes more to the word 'vampire' than 'squid'.

Vampires did not arrive in popular culture with Stoker's novel, but Dracula was innovative in combining a number of separate vampire strands that had developed over the course of the preceding century (well documented in Christopher Frayling's Vampyre): the folkloric vampire, who was usually low-class and often repulsive; the femme fatale, representing a female sexuality freed of bourgeois constraints (that would further evolve into the "vamp" of early cinema); and the outrageous aristocrat (partly modelled on Lord Byron) that originated in John Polidori's tale, The Vampyre, which he wrote in competition with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1816. This last aspect was as much a reflection of economic as sexual decadence, and was clearly influenced by Stoker's Anglo-Irish background: Dracula, who shares neither culture nor religion with the Transylvanian peasantry he parasitically lives off, seeks to become an absentee landlord in England. Stoker's tale adopted the implacable force of Marx's vampire, but refurbished its feudal trappings and obscured the Irish parallels with a whiff of the oriental and the shtetl (popular British fears in 1897 were more focused on Jews and racial degeneracy than homosexuals).

Prior to the Romantic era, vampires had been predominantly associated with the borderlands of South East Europe, roughly from Galicia down to Greece. If werewolves were centred on Eastern France and Southern Germany, vampires were to be found mainly in the mountainous areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This reflected a number of factors: the region's economic underdevelopment and the persistence of older religious superstitions; the zealotry and cross-fertilisation arising at the historic interfaces of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam; and the frequency of lawless violence ("blood-feuds") in areas where state power was weak and borders frequently shifted through war. Behind this also lay a folk memory of the arrival of epidemics in Europe, via the Levant and the Balkans, during the Medieval period (the plague ships and rats of films such as Nosferatu have a long pedigree), a memory that has been stirred again by the sight of long lines of refugees marching through Serbia and trucks of corpses lying abandoned in Austria.

Today, the vampire and the werewolf form a binary metaphor for class, appealing in particular to the paranoia of the middling sort, who imagine themselves under simultaneous pressure from above and below. The vampire has been stylised as an indulgent posho toying with his or her sexuality (from Interview with the Vampire to Made in Chelsea), while the werewolf stands for the intermittent eruption of the feral through the veener of civilisation (from Shameless to Broadchurch). As Hughes sees it, werewolves "remind us that, if times really do get bad, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to survive, including quite possibly ripping out our neighbour’s throat". This is a call-to-arms for violent individualism, with an implicit "defence of property" justification. In fact, what actually happens in our cinematic fantasies is that we pick up our pitchforks and hunt down the werewolf/vampire/monster together. Mob violence may not be particularly tolerant, but it is collective action and it proceeds from a rationale appraisal of the community good: kill one to save many. Hughes's bestial vision is that of Thomas Hobbes, homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to man), that allows the better sort - those well-mannered vampires - to remain safely ensconced in their castles. I wonder what she thinks of Lords reform?


  1. I like the term 'haemosexuality'. Take a house point.

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction6 September 2015 at 17:48

    Showing my age but the American Werewolf in London was the first film I saw on VHS. And I am not sure I have seen better. My lifelong drooling over Jenny Agutter can certainly be traced to that moment!

    Horror films, more than anyone other genre, have fun with the above themes of society, sexuality, class and the human condition.

    I would like to have seen more of a Vampire, Werewolf and Zombie mix than Werewolf and Vampire.

    From the movies I have seen I would say Zombie movies often reflect some deeper social meaning than Werewolf movies, which seem to portray individualist themes. Zombie movies have commented on consumerism, war, post modernism, the threat from the masses etc more than any other horror genre.

    I watched a couple of modern horror movies recently on the horror channel and they didn't seem to be metaphoric, i.e. the feral underclass were portrayed as just that, rather than folk who had been bitten by something or some environmental experiment gone wrong.

    In these movies the underclass simply came into contact with people from outside, or more accurately the respectable folk ended up in the wrong part of town! And I just think that is less fun! And when I say fun I don't mean in the comic way, American Werewolf in London aside I am not a massive fan of comedy horror, I just mean fun as in intellectual fun.

    Though i remember an horror film with Jason Connery set in a tower block and remember the review which said the horror was more in the grim surroundings that from any malign being, so modern films do have fun with that.

    God I could write all day about this!

  3. Agree the trope of prosperous vampires and post social catastrophe werewolves is not only weak. It misses the dialectic.
    Matheson's 1954 book 'I Am Legend' is about mobs of infected vampires and a lone scientist searching for a cure who hunts them . By the end we realise he was the true vampire and his necessary execution will make him into a superstitious legend for the new society. Vampires proper are the ancien regime viewed from after the revolution; what we were, seen from the present. The Hobbesian social predator explanation sets up the opposition as synchronous, and so misses the insight, 'you yourself are the vampire'
    Does anyone think the wolves are substantially different?