How Werewolves Work

By: Tracy V. Wilson

The Beast of Gevaudan, published by Basset, 1764 (color engraving). Musee Nat. des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Paris, France­
The Beast of Gevaudan, published by Basset, 1764 (color engraving). Musee Nat. des Arts et Traditions Populaires,Paris, France­
French School/Getty Images

Even if you've never seen the 1941 film "The Wolf Man," you probably know what it takes to kill a werewolf -- a silver bullet. That's because "The Wolf Man" did for werewolves what Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" did for vampires. It set the rules for how werewolves are supposed to behave.

According to "The Wolf Man," if a werewolf bites you, you have no choice but to become a werewolf yourself. At night, you'll transform into a part-human, part-wolf creature and prey on human beings. In the original film, this transformation took place in the fall, when some species of Aconitum, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, bloom. Sequels to "The Wolf Man" tied the transformation to the full moon, a trait that many people associate with werewolves today. "The Wolf Man" also made it clear that once you become a werewolf, the only cure is death. Attempts to wish or pray your way out of it will do you no good, and all the chains in the world can't keep you from attacking other people.


Sequels to "The Wolf Man" established a link between werewolves and the full moon.
Sequels to "The Wolf Man" established a link between werewolves and the full moon.
Getty Images

Like "Dracula," "The Wolf Man" is built on legends and stories that have existed for thousands of years. But silver bullets, the full moon, wolfsbane and the incurable curse of lycanthropy have more to do with Hollywood than with history. In stories and folklore, there are all kinds of ways to become a werewolf, and the process isn't always involuntary or even permanent. In spite of these differences, most werewolves in movies and old stories have something in common. They are dangerous, cunning and even evil, and they inspire fear and dread.

So what is it about the idea of turning into a wild animal that's so intriguing and alarming? Why do these stories exist in so many cultures around the world? Do werewolf stories have any foundation in medical or scientific fact, or are they simply the product of imagination?

In this article, we'll explore how people become werewolves and what happens during the transformation. We'll also look into what werewolves represent in different cultures, and we'll examine the medical conditions and historical events that have led some communities to believe that werewolves really exist.­


Werewolf Origins

Although healthy wolves don't typically
Although healthy wolves don't typically

It's hard to pin down the world's first reference to werewolves. One of the oldest known written works on the planet, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," is a likely candidate. In it, Gilgamesh refuses to become the lover of the goddess Ishtar because of her cruel treatment of her previous suitors. Ishtar turned one man, a shepherd, into a wolf, making him the enemy of his friends, his sheep and even his own dogs.

Ishtar isn't the only ancient god to change a mortal into a wolf. In Ovid's "The Metamorphoses," a traveler visits the home of King Lycaon of Acadia. Lycaon suspects that the visitor is immortal, so he devises a test. He serves human meat to his guest, who unfortunately turns out to be the god Jupiter. Jupiter immediately recognizes the meat's origin, and he transforms Lycaon into a wolf. Lycaon's name and the word lycanthropy both come from the same root -- the Greek word lykos, meaning wolf.


Both of these works are ancient, and they suggest that the idea of men turning into wolves has been around for about as long as human civilization has. On top of being old, the idea is widespread. For the most part, if wolves live or have lived in a particular region, that region's folk tales include werewolves. In regions where there are no wolves, stories describe people turning into other carnivorous animals. Stories from parts of Africa describe people turning into hyenas or crocodiles. In Chinese folk tales, people become tigers, and in Japanese stories, they become foxes. Some Russian stories describe people who turn into bears.

In all of these stories, shape-shifters tend to inspire fear. That fear comes from three basic sources:

  1. The animal that the person becomes is a large, powerful carnivore -- it's frightening even without supernatural intervention.
  2. In undergoing the transformation, the person becomes something he fears, and he has no way of escaping himself.
  3. If lycanthropy is transmitted by a bite, a victim faces the threat of ongoing, perpetually terrifying transformations should he survive the encounter.

Being bitten isn't the only way to become a werewolf, though. Next, we'll take a look at other methods used to transform from a human into a wolf.


Becoming a Werewolf

Circa 1945: A werewolf chases a woman up the stairs and grabs her shoulder, from an unidentified film still.
Circa 1945: A werewolf chases a woman up the stairs and grabs her shoulder, from an unidentified film still.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the earliest literary mentions of werewolves, gods use lycanthropy as punishment. The idea of werewolves as punished men is also part of a number of folk tales, although gods aren't always part of the story. Sometimes, someone simply becomes a werewolf as a result of bad behavior -- or someone whose behavior is bad turns out to be a werewolf. The transgression often has something to do with sexual excess, and the culprit is usually male. In one tale, a woman suspects that her husband is a werewolf. One day, while he's at work in the fields, a wolf comes into her kitchen and attacks her. It bites her skirt or apron, which is usually red, and runs away. When the husband returns, his wife sees part of her skirt caught in his teeth. The double entendres abound.

When lycanthropy is a punishment, the transformation is sometimes permanent. The offender remains a wolf or transforms into a wolf at various times throughout his life. In other stories, the man becomes a wolf for a number of years, usually seven or nine. Then, he gets better.


But in other folk tales, becoming a werewolf isn't a punishment -- it's a gift and a source of power. Stories describe articles of clothing like belts or straps that allow the wearer to become a wolf. This has a number of perks, including a pantry perpetually stocked with chickens and wild game. In several German versions of this story, the belt is made from the skin of a wolf. If the belt is destroyed, the ability to transform disappears, too. In depictions like these, the transformation from human to wolf is voluntary -- it doesn't depend on the phase of the moon. A man can change from human to wolf and back whenever he likes, as long as he has the right clothing.

Such stories are common in several northern European countries, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. In a 13th-century Icelandic work, the "Völsunga Saga," men wear the skin of wolves to fight as wolves. This may also tie in to the Norse berserk warriors, who were named for the bear skin they wore in battle.

In some folk tales, becoming a werewolf requires removing clothes rather than putting them on. The werewolf can only regain his human form by getting back into his clothes, although the stories don't typically explain how he does this without human hands or thumbs. In one tale, a man and his companions travel into the woods. The man removes his clothes, urinates in a circle around them -- causing them to turn into stone -- and runs off into the forest. Since his clothes are stone, no one can move them. The wolf has guaranteed that he can return to the human world. Another fictional werewolf isn't so lucky. In a Breton lai called "Bisclavret," a werewolf's adulterous wife steals his clothes, keeping him from becoming human. The next time the werewolf sees her, he bites off her nose.

In modern depictions, lycanthropy is often transmitted by the bite of a werewolf, but there are exceptions. In Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels, for example, werewolves are a race, much like dwarves or trolls. Pratchett's werewolves can change from human to wolf at any time. Some choose to spend most of their time in wolf form, while others, like Angua, an officer in Ankh-Morpork's Watch, change form whenever it suits them.

The transformation itself is generally more important in film than in written works. Next, we'll look at how people physically change into werewolves.


Werewolf Transformation

Some werewolves are more man than wolf, while others are more wolf than man.
Some werewolves are more man than wolf, while others are more wolf than man.
©2007 HowStuffWorks

Many works of literature don't spend a lot of time describing what happens when a person becomes a wolf. One minute, a man is human. The next minute, he isn't. Even in movies like "The Wolf Man," the transformation process happens largely off-screen -- the man himself, rather than his process of transformation, is the primary focus of the film. At the same time, the werewolf transformation in "The Wolf Man" is convincing, particularly considering when it was made. First, hair begins to grow from Larry Talbot's skin, and eventually he becomes a creature that resembles a very hairy man with claws and fangs.

In more recent films, though, the process of becoming a wolf is often the highlight of the show. It appears in great detail, and it's often depicted as being painful. Bones forcibly elongate and change their shape, sometimes moving so drastically that they rupture a person's skin. From beginning to end, the transformation can take several minutes, and the end result is a creature who is part human and part wolf, in varying proportions. Depending on the special effects available at the time the film was made -- and the techniques used to create them -- these transformations can range from absurd to grotesque to truly convincing.


Whether a werewolf transforms when he dies varies from book to book and movie to movie. Sometimes, if a werewolf dies in wolf form, he remains a wolf forever. But in other depictions, he immediately reverts to his human form. In these films, if you cut off a werewolf's paw, it can become a human hand before your eyes. In general, injuries sustained in wolf form appear on the werewolf's human body, making it much easier to determine which friend or neighbor is a lycanthrope.

In most modern portrayals, the only cure for lycanthropy is a silver bullet. But sometimes, potions, medicines or rituals can stop the transformation, or at least keep it under control. In the "Harry Potter" books, Remus Lupin can sleep off his time as a werewolf if he drinks a wolfsbane potion. In the movie "Ginger Snaps," an injected infusion of monkshood can cure lycanthropy.

Today's fictional werewolves grow primarily from folk tales, and in these stories, lycanthropy is often a metaphor. Next, we'll explore what werewolves represent in both old stories and modern movies.


Werewolf Metaphors

As with vampires, there's a sexual element to werewolves. While vampires tend to be smooth and sexually charged, the typical werewolf is hyper-masculine. He's exceptionally muscular, exceptionally hairy and exceptionally violent.

These traits come not just from a werewolf's appearance, but from the folkloric history behind werewolves. In many stories, a man becomes a werewolf because of some sort of excess. His behavior may be too rough, or he may, by the standards of the community, be sexually deviant, usually in terms of wanton relationships with women. These traits may have even caused the word "werewolf" to apply to human behavior. In the 16th century in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of France, teenagers who roamed around at night, broke curfews and socialized outside the bounds of polite society were known as werewolves. In some cases, young people disguised themselves as animals to travel from one community to another. A common belief at the time was that outlaws would eventually become werewolves.


This connection to rough or coarse behavior also ties in to modern psychology. In psychological terms, you might think of a person's struggle with lycanthropy as a struggle to come to terms with -- or get rid of -- his more primitive nature. When a man becomes a werewolf, his primal instincts, which aren't necessarily considered to be appropriate, take over.

There are natural parallels between lycanthropy and puberty. During puberty, the human body changes dramatically. These changes can seem foreign, and they're definitely beyond a young person's control. Similarly, in some depictions, lycanthropy is a metaphor for menstruation. A woman's body changes according to a regular monthly cycle. In a lot of ways, these changes define who she is -- menstruation is a hallmark of being a woman, and physical transformation is the hallmark of being a werewolf. Because of its typical transmission through biting and frequently fatal outcome, lycanthropy can also be a metaphor for any contagious disease, particularly those that are transmitted sexually.

This is one of the reasons why people can identify with werewolves, in spite of their status as monsters. Teenagers and young adults can identify with the idea of sudden, seemingly inexplicable changes in their skin, hair and body. And just about everyone has experienced the struggle to keep control of emotions like anger and frustration.

At the same time, there are some medical conditions that can make lycanthropy seem very real. Read on to learn about some of these.


Real Werewolves

Fajardo Aceves Jesus Manuel, from Mexico, has congenital hypertrichosis.
Fajardo Aceves Jesus Manuel, from Mexico, has congenital hypertrichosis.

Most people have heard of the witch hunts of the 16th century. Less well known are the werewolf hunts that happened in the same time period. A common belief was that werewolves turned their skin inside out to return to human form, so one interrogation practice involved cutting and pulling back a person's skin to see if there was fur underneath.

There are several notable claims of lycanthropy that took place during these werewolf hunts. In 1573, an alleged werewolf, Gilles Garnier, was burned at the stake. In 1589, a man known as Stubbe Peter or Peter Stubbe, was executed near Cologne, Germany for cannibalism and multiple murders. He claimed he had a belt that allowed him to become a werewolf. In 1603, a young man named Jean Grenier­ claimed responsibility for a series of murders and disappearances, saying he had a skin that let him become a wolf. A court determined that Grenier was insane and confined him to a monastery.


In France, between 1520 and 1630, there were more than 30,000 recorded cases of people who claimed to be -- or appeared to be -- werewolves [source: Dunlop]. As with the witch trials, there were probably several simultaneous causes for this, and for the werewolf hunts:

  • Hypertrichosis: A genetic disorder linked to the X-chromosome can cause people to grow very thick hair over their faces and bodies. People with this condition can physically resemble werewolves, but it's extremely rare. One variety, congenital generalized hypertrichosis, is known to affect only 19 people in one Mexican family [source: Glausiusz].
  • Ergot poisoning: Ergot is a fungus that can infest grains like barley and wheat, and eating it can cause hallucinations. Ergot poisoning has also been suggested as a cause of the witch trials in Salem, Mass.
  • Rabies: Many mammals can carry and transmit rabies, typically through biting. Rabies is fatal without immediate treatment. In its advanced stages, it can cause agitation and hallucinations. A rabies epidemic may have caused wolves and dogs to bite humans, who then could have exhibited werewolf-like tendencies.
  • Wolf hybrids: Healthy wolves don't generally attack people without provocation, but aggressive hybrids of wolves and dogs may have attacked villages, leading to the idea of violent werewolves.
  • Porphyria: The supernatural condition most often associated with porphyria is vampirism. Porphyria causes sensitivity to light. In some cases, exposure to sunlight causes lesions and blisters, which can sprout fine hair during healing. Advanced porphyria can also lead to hallucinations.
  • Collective hysteria: As unlikely as it sounds, the sudden, simultaneous onset of psychological symptoms in a large group of people is a recorded phenomenon.
Wolves aren't a large part of the industrial world -- perhaps that's why many of today's werewolf stories take place in cities.
Wolves aren't a large part of the industrial world -- perhaps that's why many of today's werewolf stories take place in cities.

The belief that werewolves are real isn't confined to the distant past, though. In the 1930s, researchers working in the part of Africa now known as Ghana reported a widespread belief that people could turn into hyenas. These shape-shifters were typically witches living in the grasslands. As recently as the 1980s, an obscure practice in the Iberian Peninsula -- the part of Europe that includes Spain and Portugal -- was intended in part to prevent children from becoming werewolves. This practice involved older children acting as godparents for their younger siblings, beginning with the seventh or ninth child [source: da Silva]. According to folk tales in this part of the world, werewolves recruit new members from excess children. Children who are born in the caul, or with part of their amniotic sac covering their face -- may be more susceptible to becoming werewolves, or, conversely, healers.

In industrialized parts of the world, the idea of werewolves, or of wolves in general, can seem distant and archaic. Perhaps that's why many more recent depictions present lycanthropy as a manageable condition. Werewolves are ordinary people with a keen sense of smell who happen to be unpleasant to be around for a few days each month.

You can learn more about werewolves and the supernatural by following the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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