Archive for October 7th, 2008

07
Oct
08

Where’d HE come from? The Wolf Man

It’s nighttime. A full moon is on the rise. Your hands are itching, so you begin to scratch. Dark hairs start to grow on the back of your palm. Your ears, eyes, and nose begin shifting around on your head. Dropping down to all fours, you have but one thought on your mind: human flesh. A radio in the background is playing “Werewolves of London,” by Warren Zevon. In irrepressible urge to howl at the moon floods over you. But, how did we get here?

 

Werewolf legends are almost as time immemorial as vampire lore. Both stem from the idea of shapeshifting, albeit into bats, wolves, or whatever. One of the earliest examples is the Greek story of Lycaon, the mythic king of Arcadia. After resorting to eating human flesh, Zeus turned him into a wolf. And according to Herodotus, there was a tribe that turned into wolves once every nine years.

 

And these legends, again like vampires, twist and turn through the ages, mainly becoming more elaborative and exaggerative in Europe, where the wolves were thought to be evil men who were commanded to terrorize by the Devil. Some werewolves were thought to be fighters who disguised themselves in wolf clothing. Whatever the cases or the causes, one thing remained simplistic: werewolves brought murder and carnage with them.

 

Enter Peter Stumpp. For twenty-five years he had a track record that would make Dracula envious: he sucked the blood from goats, sheep, lambs, men, women, and children, as well as having consumed their flesh. Upon torture, he claimed to be in league with the Devil and to have had incestuous relations. Some theorize that this was socio-politically motivated, but either way the guy had a gruesome death. He was put on a wheel and had his flesh torn from his body using hot pincers, his limbs were broke and he was beheaded, all to keep him from returning from the grave. As a warning to others the torture wheel was set on top of a pole with a figure of a whole on it as well as his severed head.

 

But how did one become a werewolf? Two distinct ways: one, make a pact with the Devil. Two, be bitten by another werewolf. The upside to number one is that it’s less painful, but there’s the whole “selling you soul to Satan” thing. Number two is more painful, but if you kill the werewolf that bit you the “curse” is lifted. Or so Hollywood says.

 

And that’s where the real mythology of werewolves comes from: Hollywood. Traditionally speaking, werewolves are less romanticized than vampires and were often the excuse behind killings more appropriately attributed to serial killers and the like. Wolves in general rarely, if ever, attack a human being, but we find ourselves mortally afraid of the possibility. But once cannibalism, mutilation, and wolves are mixed with ideologies and myths reaching back to ancient times, the rest is sheer fiction.

 

That Hollywood history begins with “The Werewolf,” a 1913 movie about a woman taught how to change into a wolf, seeking revenge on white settlers. Also a silent film, “Wolf Blood,” was released in 1925. It’s about a logger who, after an altercation, needs a blood transfusion. He gets the blood of a wolf and imagines himself as one. Meanwhile, the rival logging company is being picked off one-by-one by wolves. Coincidence? And “Werewolf of London” (1935) was the first to show werewolves on two legs.

 

1941’s “The Wolf Man,” was the cornerstone to the collective werewolf mythos. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home, falls for a girl, and buys her a silver-headed walking stick with a wolf on it. When he saves her friend from an attack, he’s bitten and now cursed to be a werewolf. After roaming the countryside for a bit, he’s finally returned to normal (read: killed) by his father with his silver walking stick. Silver, changing during moonlight and the pentagram tie all came from this movie. Of note, the “changing under a full moon” idea came from the sequel, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.”

 

From that point the “Wolf Man” has met Abbott and Costello, been a teenager (“I Was a Teenage Werewolf”), and even had its own TV series (“Werewolf”). Also, watch for Benecio del Toro as “The Wolf Man” next year!

 

“Stick to the roads, and stay clear of the moors.”

07
Oct
08

Where’d HE come from? Dracula

You know the rules: sleep during the day. Come out at night. You can’t see your reflection in a mirror. You’re allergic to garlic. And, you’re undead death will come from a stake to the heart, unless you’re trapped in the sunlight first. But, how did we get here?

 

Vampire myths disappear and reappear having existed for ages, much like their main proponent Dracula. Since ancient Persia, there have been characters throughout time that drank the blood of men (and babies) and often were members of the undead. They would evolve to be called Witches, Demons, and Vampires. Over the ages vampires became the “mythic reasoning” behind such events as the bubonic plague.

 

Vampires would soon have an identity in three crucial tyrants, the first of which was Gilles de Rais. Gilles was a Frenchman who searched for “the Philosopher’s Stone,” and had help from the blood of 200-300 children to do his experiments. Around the same time Vlad Tepes Dracula, Prince of Wallacia, came into power. When you have a name of Tepes (“Impaler”) and Dracula (devil or dragon, it was his dad’s name) ya gotta live up to expectations; he liberated the land from Ottoman invaders and then ordered thousands impaled for his pleasure.

 

The last of the three arrived in 1611 as Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Bathory’s husband was always at war, so her spare time was spent dabbling in black magic and the thought that the blood of the innocent (young girls) would keep her young and youthful. She was found out and her life spared, but was thrown in the tower.

 

The vampire mythos came back in the 1800’s through poetry, novels, and stage productions. “Vampyre” by John Polidori (1819) was the first vampire story written in English. Supposedly this came about the same night Mary Shelley concocted “Frankenstein.”

 

Not too far after came “Varney (Feast of Blood)” (1845) a full-fledged novel based off collected “penny dreadfuls,” inexpensive pulp pamphlets that used vivid imagery to describe Varney’s exploits. Varney influenced current vampire culture with the addition of fangs, leaving two puncture wounds in the neck, having hypnotic powers, and superhuman strength. However, Varney was immune to sunlight and wasn’t allergic to garlic.

 

“Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) introduced the world to a female vampire. Laura, the protagonist of the story, is a young girl who has a dream in which she’s bitten by a figure who disappears. Fast forward and she becomes friends with a girl named Carmilla. After a series of incidents Carmilla is found not only to be a vampire, but Laura’s ancestor. She has to be killed by exhuming her body and destroying it by cutting off the head. This story was also the beginning of lesbian sexuality in vampire stories.

 

Taking 8 years, Bram Stoker delivered the eponymous epistolary novel, “Dracula,” in 1897. Taking ideas from previous novels (especially “Carmilla” and “Varney”) as well as the life and times of Vlad the Impaler, Stoker wove a story about Johnathan Harker, a real estate solicitor who travels to a remote castle in the Carpathian Mountains to do business with one Count Dracula. He barely gets out alive. Meanwhile, Dracula decides to do London hitting on Harker’s fiancée, Mina. When Mina’s friend Lucy begins looking pallid, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is called in. Van Helsing figures out what’s going on and is hot on Dracula’s trail. Dracula packs his bags and heads back to his castle but not before the Van Helsing faction traps and kills him.

 

With the advent of the motion picture in the latter portion of the 19th century, Dracula and other vampyric kin had a new world to conquer. Filmmaker Gustave Le Rouge made two movies about bat-winged, blood-drinking creatures on Mars in 1908 and 1909. Dracula himself first appeared on screen in 1922’s “Nosferatu.” German director F.W. Marnau asked permission from the Stoker estate. The Stoker estate said, “No,” and Marnau did it anyway. Changing the names of the characters, eliminating secondary players, and using a bona-fide weirdo named Max von Schreck to play Count Orlok, this film is the seminal “Dracula” movie, inspiring take-offs and even a remake in the Seventies. Of note, the Stoker estate filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won, sinking the newly-founded Prana production company.

 

“Children of the night… what beautiful music they make.” The infamous Bela Lugosi “Dracula” movie was released in 1931. Now a staple of American cinematic mythos, “Dracula” cast a hypnotic spell over audiences, leading to sequels and remakes. Lugosi, a Hungarian stage actor who played Dracula in the theatrical production, was spot-on with his film delivery of the character. Of note a Spanish version was shot at the same time using the same sets.

 

There’s still probably the lingering question of: what about not being able to see his reflection in the mirror? Or a stake through the heart? Or being afraid of religious symbols? These ideas came mainly from various filmmakers, TV directors, and authors who would pick and choose what traits a vampire would have in regards to the story.

 

“Children of the night, shut up!” –“Dracula: Dead and Loving It”