Werewolves have hunted and haunted humans throughout history. Lycanthropic legends stretch as far back as Ancient Greece, and stories of humans shapeshifting into monstrous animals can be found in a variety of medieval cultures. These archaic tales are powerful, but our modern-day understanding of werewolves comes from a single pop culture source that is less than a century old, novelist/writer Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for Universal’s legendary 1941 film, The Wolf Man.
Siodmak’s script introduced all of the classic traits we associate with werewolves; lunar induced transformations, an infectious bite, and a vulnerability to silver. He even penned the four-line poem that is heard throughout the film and is supposedly, “Gypsy folklore”:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when when the wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
Before Siodmak, there were a myriad number of ideas as to how one could become a werewolf. Some stories mentioned an enchanted salve, while others talked about magical belts or wolfskins. The source of these magic items was usually believed to be infernal.
The belief that werewolves were a product of Satanic pacts was especially common in the 16th century. In 1521, Frenchmen Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were burned at the stake after confessing to the brutal murders of several children. In 1573, Peter Stubbe, “The Bedburg Werewolf,” was accused of transforming from a wolf back into a human by several hunters. He was blamed for a number of killings in the town, and under torture confessed to murdering and eating a number of men, women, children, and animals. He also confessed to owning an enchanted belt that allowed him to transform into a wolf; a belt that was never found.
The History Channel article, “Werewolf Legends” suggests that the idea of werewolves might be a medieval way of explaining what were actually examples of psychopathic behavior. It also postulates that people like Stubbe might have been victims of political witch hunts. So it’s possible they suffered from mental illness or were victims of other forces beyond their control.
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That idea of not being in control of your own fate is a central element of Siodmak’s script for The Wolf Man. In the film, Larry Talbot, a seemingly ordinary and decent guy, is transformed into a vicious monster after being bit by another werewolf. So, a stroke of misfortune causes Larry to transform into his bestial alter ego every time the moon rises; which is another thing he has no power over. It’s almost as if Larry has been cursed by fate or some unseen and powerful deity.
“Siodmak transformed the Wolf Man from an obscure creature of folklore into a monstrous icon whose legacy continues to terrify and thrill fans across the world.”
That type of curse is a major element of classic Greek tragedy. In the short documentary The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth (which was first released as a special feature on the 2010 two-disc Universal Legacy release of The Wolf Man) author and screenwriter Steve Haberman (Dracula Dead and Loving It) called Siodmak’s script an “Everyman Greek tragedy.” He said the writer was looking back at the classic Aristotelian definition of tragedy. He wasn’t the only writer to make such comparisons.
Siodmak was aware of those collations and accepted them, but he never intended to write the film as a classic Greek style tragedy. In his memoir Wolf Man’s Maker, which was published in 2000 (the same year he died), he wrote, “I had, by chance, constructed the film like a Greek tragedy, which seemed to have made that character a classic”. It’s possible that the tragic nature of The Wolf Man sprang from its writer’s equally tragic past. Siodmak was a Jewish man who was born in Germany in 1902. He had to flee his country when the Nazis rose to power. In a 1999 interview with the Writer’s Guild of America Siodmak said, “I am the wolf man. I was forced into a fate I didn’t want.”
Germany’s hatred and persecution of Jewish people also appeared in Siodmak’s script via the invisible marks that both the werewolves and their intended victims bore; the pentagram. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, film historian Constantine Nasr, suggested that the Pentagram was a stand in for the Star of David and that, “If you had that symbol you were going to be cursed.” In episode five, “Killer Creatures,” of the 2018 documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror, writer David J Skaal points out that Siodmak consciously put into the film some of the horrors that caused him to flee Europe like someone being marked for death with a star, which was a common Nazi practice.
There have been a number of suggestions as to why Siodmak created the idea of silver as a werewolf’s achilles heel. Some have suggested it’s a reference to Jean Chastel, who allegedly slew France’s legendary “Beast of Gevaudan” with a silver bullet. In The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth Steven Haberman stated that it was because fathers from the Church often blessed silver, which gave the metal a religious association. In that same documentary, director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) offers a much simpler explanation; that Siodmak had been listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio and thought that the character’s penchant for carrying silver bullets was a good idea.
“Siodmak didn’t just transform the werewolf […] He paved the way for other filmmakers to revolutionize our understanding of mythic monsters…”
In that same documentary, Landis compares what Siodmak did with The Wolf Man to Bram Stoker’s reimagining of the vampire in Dracula. Siodmak accomplished that by taking the monster’s folkloric roots and bundling them together with a tragic backstory and a unique weakness. With that potent combination, Siodmak transformed the Wolf Man from an obscure creature of folklore into a monstrous icon whose legacy continues to terrify and thrill fans across the world.
Siodmak didn’t just transform the werewolf though. He paved the way for other filmmakers to revolutionize our understanding of mythic monsters like writer/director George Romero whose legendary 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead created the modern-day zombie myth. That film, like The Wolf Man, also featured subtle, but clear nods to some of the troubling political realities of its time.