Stories of people changing into animals, especially wolves, have been a part of cultural mythos since ancient Greece. Those are the ones that have been written down; it is very likely that these stories go back even further. Some suggest that a story appearing in such similarity in such vastly different parts of the world can be taken as evidence that these creatures are real. However, I think it says more about the human condition than the existence of supernatural beings.
Wolves and bears were the apex predators in remote early civilisations. So it was no wonder that they were seen with such reverence and that people wanted to emulate or turn into that. In fact the word Berserker comes from the name given to crazed Norse warriors who wore Bear skins into battle. They were called Bear Shirts, taking the strength and viciousness of the animals into battle.
This idea of taking on the aspects of an animal have survived and been co-opted into other myths, such as the vampires. In addition to this the structure of the story started to take form and the monster went from being a figure to revere to one of fear. It stopped being something that people wanted to take on to become a curse that was laid on them, something that they could not control and would now manifest with the cycle of the moon.
In fact this linking with the lunar cycle became so embedded as an idea that is was accepted as reality at one point. You will have head the cliché of the crazies come out on a full moon, in fact the word Lunatic actually comes from this very idea.
So what changed in us for the story to change? Well, we grew up, become civilised and repressed our animal urges. The stories of the beast being unleashed had shifted from being one of warrior bravery to representing the release of violent sexual desire. This is the story structure that becomes standard with the birth of film. The person that became cursed is usually lusting after someone but cannot have them because the beast would be let loose. Finally they have to be put down or be sacrificed to prevent the beast from attacking again (The Wolf-man 1941)
It is only in the latter half of the 20th century that the animal side starts to be represented as something that could be embraced. The sexual awakening of the 60s and 70s made it ok to be more promiscuous, and so the beast becomes a sexual release to be revered once again (The howling). This is reclaimed in later films when not only the animal but the cyclical nature of the change is taken on by female werewolves in Ginger Snaps (2000).
Werewolves may not be as sexy as Vampires or as satirical as Zombies but they definitely have more to say about us as a society. What we want and how we are now more that civilised animals repressing primal animalistic urges that get released in different ways such violent or extreme sports, hunting, sexual perversions or even something as simple as loud music and sweaty dancing. After all, underneath art we all just a little bit of an animal.
To celebrate the first vs. battle (American Werewolf in London vs. The Howling) I have compiled my list of 10 werewolf movies you should check out.
1. The Wolfman (1941)
2. Curse of the wolfman (1961)
3. American Werewolf in London (1981)
4. The Howling (1981)
5. Silver Bullet (1985)
6. Monster Squad (1987)
7. Wolf (1994)
8. Ginger snaps (2000)
9. Dog Soldiers (2002)
10. The Wolfman (2010)