How Hollywood Changed Werewolf Lore Forever

Hollywood wasn’t exactly the first to connect the wolfman and the full moon, but they were first to codify it.

Full moon howl in The Wolfman
Photo: Universal Pictures

“Beware the moon, lads,” two young Americans are told by a cranky pub regular in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Alas, the summer break tourists with sheep shit in their backpacks did not stick to the roads and instead crossed the moors beneath a full moon. After all, that guy sounded crazy. But by the movie’s end, who’s howling now?

Horror movies make lycanthropes out to be lunatics, but only during certain moments of the lunar cycle. Why does the wolfman have to wait for a full moon to change though? There are werewolves reading this who are hungry now. Even A-list actors like Jack Nicholson, Michael J. Fox, Benicio del Toro, James Spader, and Taylor Lautner have to make monthly reservations to dine on the innocent in their hairiest roles.

It seems unlikely that the full moon catalyst started with Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). He is not even the first person to howl at the moon in that classic movie. The first werewolf in the film is Bela Lugosi, who transforms into the black wolf who puts the bite on Chaney’s pioneering pack leader. But was he the first? As Lou Costello says in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Talbot and “20 million other guys” are going to turn into a beast when the moon is full.

Chaney sat for hours in the makeup chair to change into the iconic Universal Pictures monster, and he transformed our modern concept of werewolves while doing it. But he wasn’t the first to feel the lunar effects on his psyche and physique—on film or off. Werewolf lore goes back a long way. According to The Wolf Man’s knowledgeable antique shop owner, even “Little Red Riding Hood” was a werewolf story. But even the biggest ears heard nothing about a full moon in the cautionary fairy tale, or anywhere else, specifically.

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The moon shines all over werewolf literature and legend, sometimes full, but usually unspecified, and somewhat distanced. The truth is legends tying werewolves to the full moon are sporadic, and often far apart with lycanthropes finding plenty of other reasons to go furry in our ancient superstitions. It took motion pictures to move the shapeshifters and the moon together, permanently.

It’s Only an Autumn Moon

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Claude Rains’ Sir John Talbot reminds his son Larry of these words in The Wolf Man. The “autumn moon” in Sir John’s poem is also the one overt reference in that film to lunar superstition involving werewolves. In its own way, it shows how the concept of werewolves and full moons was still in flux, even in 1941, with Larry transforming every night of pumpkin season. But consider that six years earlier, Universal released another werewolf picture, The Werewolf of London (1935), where the titular character was initially transformed by a full moon. But that movie was never as popular as The Wolf Man (hence no sequels), or the New York Times bestseller from which it likely got the idea for is its title: Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (published in 1933). In that book, a man was literally born bad, cursed to transform when his urges got too wild.

All of these early 20th century stories reveal what was a then undecided contradiction in the canon of modern werewolf lore. The only thing consistent was it’s bad news to become one such beast, as Maria Ouspenskaya’s old Romany woman famously warned in The Wolf Man

But then Romanian folklore has a richer tradition of werewolves than vampires which goes back centuries. The stories of men turning into beasts caught the imagination of the peasants, who held ceremonies to repel the lupine shapeshifters, called vârcolac in Romanian cities, but pricolici in the deep dark woods.

The “autumn moon” of the Universal Film resembles the Night of the Wolf, which was celebrated on the eve of the feast of Saint Andrew, who is now the Romanian Orthodox patron saint of Romania. While the country was still pagan, superstitious villagers in the Apuseni Mountains believed anyone bitten by a wolf on this night would turn into a werewolf, according to the 2012 book Transylvania by Lucy Mallows and Rudolf Abraham. Peasants would hang garlic on doors.

The Werewolves of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Beyond

At first glance, it does seem like the full lunar curse of the werewolf begins with Universal monster movies. Historian Daniel Ogden might agree. In his book, The Werewolf in the Ancient World, he quotes an expert saying “the motif of the full moon is a modern invention, since historical sources do not mention it as an instigator of metamorphosis.”

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Larry Talbot’s story plays out like a Greek Tragedy, his flaw is arrogant disbelief. And as it turns out, lycanthropy comes from the Greek word lycanthropos, which means wolf-man, although the concept goes back further. The first literary reference to a wolf transformation comes in The Epic of Gilgamesh, from around 2,100 B.C.E. King Gilgamesh refuses to marry the Goddess Ishtar, who warns him of her former lovers: Isullanu, who she turned into a mole, and Tammuz, who she turned into a wolf. Herodotus’s Histories, written around 430 B.C.E., describes a tribe of magicians, known as the Neuri, who transformed into wolves once every year. Plato’s Republic from 380 B.C.E., includes a line from the character Socrates about a legend claiming “he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf.”

The initial lunar conjunction appears to begin with the Roman poet Ovid, whose 8 C.E. work Metamorphoses makes an association between the moon and the werewolf. In Book 7, the character Medea, granddaughter of the sun god and good friend of Jason of the Argonauts, is making a rejuvenating potion to which she adds “frosts which were collected under the all-night moon, the notorious wings of the screech owl, together with its flesh, and the entrails of the shapeshifting wolf, which changes its wild-animal form into man.”

The connection between the all-night moon and the shapeshifting wolf is a small detail in a story much longer in the tooth, and doesn’t necessarily mean a full moon. In Greek mythology, one of the most prevalent stories, which is oft-retold, concerns King Lycaon of Acardia (hence the word “lycanthrope”). Some historians believe Lycaon founded the city Lycosura, the Lycaean Zeus cult, and the tradition of the Lycaean Games. But he is most renowned as mythology’s first wolfman because he played a game on Zeus. Trying to disprove the almighty one’s all-knowingness, Lycaon roasted up one of Zeus’ own sons and served it to the father of the gods to test his discerning tastes. The gods turned Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for his arrogance.

The story is recounted by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, whose 77 C.E. book, Natural History, also mentions an annual event in Arcadia which further confirms man-to-wolf transformation tales. The section tells the story of a young athlete named Damarchus, who is chosen to sacrifice a young boy and eat his entrails, an act believed to bring on lycanthropy. Afterward he strips, leaving his clothes on an oak tree, and swims across a marsh where he transforms into a wolf and joins a pack for nine years.

The connection can also be found in The Satyricon, by Petronius (63 C.E.). In it, the nouveaux riche character Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus recounts a strange incident he witnessed involving a brave soldier. “The moon shone like high noon,” he remembers. “We got among the tombstones, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf.”

While a very interesting encounter, the “high moon” is still not specifically a full moon.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon and the Middle Ages

While the ancient stories do not specifically link werewolves with the full moon, other archaic schools of thought brought the connection closer together. Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, believed the brain was influenced by the moon, similar to tides, because it is the organ with the most water. Ancient Romans believed, erroneously, that wolves howled at the moon. Wolves hunt in packs, and howl to confuse their prey or to warn about danger. The moon is not a danger to wolves.

The moon makes many appearances in G. W. M. Reynolds’ 1847 Gothic fiction novel Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, but it is usually a comforting, or even protective presence, giving light to nighttime terrors. Bad things happen when the moon and stars are “veiled.” In the novel, an old man from the Black Forest of Germany makes a deal with an impatient stranger. He is offered youth, wealth, and wisdom, but he must “throw off the human shape and take that of [a] ravenous wolf.” He must spend 18 months preying “upon the human race, whom he hates as well as I,” says the stranger, Dr. Faustus, claiming the old man’s dark servitude.

The full moon rises more specifically in medieval literature. In The Werewolf in the Ancient World, Ogden cites Gervase of Tilbury, who mentions “men changing into wolves every lunar month” in his encyclopedia Otia imperialia (1214). According to Ogden’s translation, one of the characters “parts company from all his friends when the moon is full, lays his clothes under a bush or secluded rock and then rolls naked in the sand for a long time until he takes on the shape and voracity of a wolf, gaping for prey with wide-open mouth and yawning jaws.”

This does not, however, prove the man changed into the wolf because the moon was full, but it is the first reference which implies a pattern.

The Middle Ages are closer than the ancient, ancient world in explaining our modern understandings of werewolf superstitions. But even then, one of the more famous texts written on the subject, the French poem Bisclavret (which translates to “The Werewolf”), was a story written down in the 12th century. And in that tale, a baron in Brittany is cursed to turn into a werewolf three days of the week, every week, be it a full moon or not. Alas, the popular lord is eventually condemned to eternal wolfdom when his wife discovers his secret and steals his clothes after one of his transformations, so he can never return to human form.

Conversely, other medieval and early modern sources listed the full moon as one of many ways one can get caught with a werewolf’s curse, with one Germanic superstition suggesting you could be cursed to werewolfdom if you slept outside beneath a full moon… but only on certain Wednesdays or Fridays during the summer season. Still, the most popular superstition by the early modern period was that werewolves were men who made a pact with Satan. Early English publisher Richard Rowlands even wrote in 1628 that werewolves were sorcerers who “annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil.”

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Werewolves Were Always Universal

Myths about animal shapeshifters can be found all around the world, featuring the predominant natural threat to the area. In Asia, early mythology includes stories about were-tigers; were-jaguars make appearances in South American tales; African legends tell of were-hyenas, and include a legend of a man who could transform into a lion. In early Nordic folklore, The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a wolf pelt which could make warriors go feral for battle, turning them into wolves for 10 days. For the record, this became the impetus for the Cult of Ulfheðnar, who were Viking Berserkers: warriors who thought they derived power from wolf pelts and drugs (and can be seen dramatized in the movie The Northman).

The “loup-garou” werewolf in upstate New York is a mixture of First Nation beliefs and stories told by French settlers. Louisiana’s swamp-dwelling Cajun werewolf mixes the traits of Canadian and French folklore, and can be a fox as often as a wolf.

In many places in the U.S., the first full moon in January is called the “Wolf Moon,” going back to indigenous people who heard howls on cold winter nights, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.  Many tribes saw the wolf as a protective spirit with wisdom. The mythology of the Fox tribe, of what is now Wisconsin, tells of a spirit-God Wisakachek who took the form of a wolf. Hopi traditions include shapeshifting ceremonies.

The most famous shapeshifter legend comes from Navajo culture. The Skinwalker, called a “yee naaldlooshii,” is a witch who can possess an animal or transform into one.

Sadly, all prints of the very first werewolf movie ever made were destroyed in a fire in 1924. The Werewolf, an 18-minute film from 1913, followed a Navajo witch who teaches her daughter how to transform into a wolf. The transformation sequence was a camera dissolving between the actor and a real wolf. The film was distributed by Universal Pictures, which also released the first commercial Hollywood box office lycanthrope film Werewolf of London in 1935 and later The Wolf Man pictures.

Pseudo-science teaches that the Full Moon brings out periods of inanity, or at least strange behavior. Even Williams Shakespeare’s Othello is warned how men are driven insane when the moon draws too close to the Earth. The “lunar lunacy effect,” or “Transylvania effect,” was a common belief in medieval Europe, according to Scientific American, which concludes “gravitational effects of the moon are far too minuscule to generate any meaningful effects on brain activity, let alone behavior.”

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True science finds most cases of lycanthropy can be diagnosed as hypertrichosis, an extremely rare condition which causes abnormal hair growth all over the body. There have been less than 200 documented cases in medical history. Equally rare, “clinical lycanthropy” has neurological roots, as neuroimaging found unusual activity in the areas of the brain associated with body shape perception in case studies.

The five-pointed mark of the werewolf is open to many interpretations, from the protective talismans of folk superstitions, through scholarly pagans and Christian crusaders, to Sufi soothsayers and the Jewish Star of David.

But no one puts old world legends together like old Hollywood. They invented the idea of werewolves creating other werewolves by biting other people, copping it from the vampire myths, and infecting zombies with it later.

Indeed, if one were to probably point to one movie that really solidified the idea of full moons transforming werewolves in the popular imagination, it wasn’t even The Wolf Man: It was the sequels, beginning with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) where old Sir John’s poem is subtly refined to end with “when the moon is full and bright.” That was the first Chaney werewolf movie to include images of the full moon, and Universal kept running with it until multiple generations were raised on their Tinseltown superstitions. The Greeks can say whatever they want, but millions of Americans saw on their late night televisions for decades what makes a werewolf.

The full moon’s effects on the werewolf would have been a minor note if it weren’t for the movies. Hollywood didn’t exactly make it up, it just put it together for the silver screen, the only silver which empowers a werewolf.