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The History of Werewolf Transformation Stories

From folklore to cinema, let’s look at the evolution of today’s most famous shapeshifter.

Full moon on a cloudy night
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  • Photo Credit: Avery Cocozziello / Unsplash

The first mentions of men transforming into wolves can be traced back to Greek mythology. The Arcadian King Lycaon once tried to feed Zeus a meal made from a murdered child to see if the god was truly all-knowing. Unfortunately for Lycaon, Zeus was indeed all-knowing and he transformed the king into a wolf as punishment.

This isn’t the only Arcadian tale about lycanthropy, either. There are multiple tales of men transforming into wolves during human sacrifices to Zeus. While transformed, they must abstain from eating human flesh or they will remain wolves forever. Another variation of this story features a man who must join a pack of wolves for nine years. If he refrains from eating human flesh during those nine years, he can become human again after recovering and putting on his clothes.

The key detail of avoiding the consumption of human flesh continued to feature in werewolf stories into the Medieval Ages. But when these beliefs collided with Medieval theology, the common perspective on werewolves changed. They stopped being viewed as relatively harmless men who were victims of spells and circumstance, and instead became ravenous beasts with a craving for human flesh. In many parts of Europe, lycanthropy became associated with sorcery and Satan.

19th Century Werewolves

In the 19th century, Gothic fiction drew on supernatural folklore to explore themes of duality and good versus evil. In George W.M. Reynolds’ Wagner the Werewolf, an old man makes a deal with Dr. Faustus: If he serves the man for one year, he’ll gain youth and wealth. The catch? He also becomes a werewolf. 

Let’s not also forget the iconic Dracula by Bram Stoker. Many people forget, because Dracula has since become synonymous with vampires, but the titular character gained his abilities after studying black magic at a school run by the devil. And one of these abilities learned is none other than lycanthropy.

20th Century and Beyond

Werewolf tales continued into the 20th century, flourishing during the pulp era of science fiction and fantasy. But in terms of novels, perhaps the most famous from this period is Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris. It follows Bertrand Caillet, a man who was the product of rape and who grew up with sadosexual desires. While he experiences many of these violent episodes as dreams, it soon becomes apparent that some of these dreams are in fact memories from when he was transformed into a wolf. Bertrand’s brutal crimes and murders take place during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune, and Endore’s take on the political climate at the time have led many to compare his novel to Dracula, but for werewolves instead of vampires.

Despite the deep literary tradition of using werewolves to examine human nature, modern werewolf lore as we know it today really began in cinema. Released in 1935, Werewolf in London introduced us to Wilfred Glendon, a famous scientist in search of a rare plant. He successfully finds the plant, but not before he gets attacked and bitten by a humanoid-looking creature. What follows is his struggle to remain human in the face of his growing feral nature. In terms of modern werewolf lore, though, the film features a couple recognizable pieces such as treating lycanthropy like an infectious disease and the idea that werewolves always seek out the one they love most.

Despite Werewolf in London’s expansive treatment of shapeshifting lore, it’s 1941’s The Wolf Man that solidified it. Larry Talbot’s tragic character encounters many of the things now commonly linked to werewolf stories: a miraculously healed wound from a wolf attack, a vulnerability to silver, and nightly transformations that lead to deadly rampages which he has no memory of the morning after. 

A key aspect of Talbot’s character, which would become a popular trait in other fictional werewolves to follow, is that while he is fundamentally a good man, that nature all falls away in the face of the beast. In wolf form, he kills without mercy. This, of course, leads to his desire to protect everything he holds dear from his new beastly nature. Unfortunately, that wish proves futile. Like in so many classic tales, werewolves can only defeat their baser instincts if they themselves are killed.

As for perhaps the most famous piece of werewolf lore—linking shapeshifting with the full moon—that came later. The positive reception to The Wolf Man led to a series of sequels, including 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Here, after the events of The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot comes back to life when graverobbers disturb his tomb. Seemingly unable to die, Talbot seeks help from Dr. Frankenstein, leading him to meet Frankenstein’s monster. Throughout it all, Talbot struggles with his lycanthropy and the murderous rampage that accompanies his transformations, but now his episodes are limited only to times of the full moon.

In the decades since, lycanthropy continues to thrive in fiction. Werewolves have become romantic leads in paranormal romance, detectives in urban fantasy, and ghastly enemies in horror novels. While the classic lore remains a staple, today’s authors sometimes draw upon other cultural traditions to bring a global perspective into this supernatural archetype. Who knows what werewolf transformation stories will look like a century from now?