It is virtually impossible to overstate the sheer importance of one single piece of media on the general perception of werewolves today.
This piece of media came from a time when going to the theater was a riveting experience, when movies chilled you, when you watched in awe and wonder, captivated by the practical effects that, to you, as you were fully engrossed in this storytelling experience, were reality. With no famous literature about werewolves having created a foothold of concepts, as Dracula by Bram Stoker did with vampires, and with only forgotten films and stories too strange to resonate with the common people about werewolves before it, this movie alone was allowed set the bar and establish all expectations for all werewolf media to come…
I’m talking about one of the classic Universal Monsters pictures – I’m talking about The Wolf Man (1941).
Other than it’s very fun filmmaking and great use of many different oldshool film tricks and, of course, practical effects, as well as its original Universal Monsters film charm, The Wolf Man is a timeless classic for another reason: without it, modern day werewolf media wouldn’t even be half the same.
Sure, there were other films that came before (though very few) that may have or certainly did influenced it, like Werewolf of London from 1935, but that doesn’t change that Curt Siodmak’s work with his original screenplay for The Wolf Man solidified almost all of our baseline modern werewolf concepts in popular culture. So just how influenced by folklore was he, anyway?
He was certainly influenced somewhat, in many obvious ways, but you may be surprised to learn just how much of our modern werewolves we see during Halloween and all around Hollywood and even, today, in many popular books, games, and other media, have The Wolf Man to thank for more than one major element – or at least derivatives of those major elements.
As a DISCLAIMER I first want to say that I absolutely adore The Wolf Man and almost (but not quite) everything it did for werewolves in media. My favorite werewolves will always be the ones that run close to what Curt Siodmak came up with, because I just love it. It’s a great story full of drama and sympathy and horror and tragedy. I personally prefer my werewolf hero to be different, and to end up different, but that’s an aside.
I just want to make a point here that I am NOT saying “not folkloric = bad,” and I don’t ever mean to infer that in every single situation. I love a lot of Hollywood werewolf concepts and I use many of them, myself, because they’re my favorites. I am merely pointing out what is and isn’t folkloric or original about the film (while probably lavishing praise upon its concepts because, again, gosh, I just love these concepts if they’re actually handled well, they make for such a great story!).
Let’s get into the film (you can find a link to watch this film legally and for free on the Internet Archive at the end of this post, by the way!)…
Even as early as the first shot in the film, after the opening credits, we are treated to some of Curt Siodmak’s original werewolf concepts. This is found not only in the description of the lycanthropy around one Talbot Castle, but also in the addition at the bottom of the fictional encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy that says “the sign of the Werewolf is a five-pointed star, a pentagram.” This is patently untrue in folklore, of course, and that’s just another thing Siodmak made up for the movie.
Sidenote: I appreciate the lines “Oh, another dog.” “No, that’s a wolf.” Wolves aren’t dogs, kids. Although Gwen isn’t exactly right about Red Riding Hood being a werewolf story… Anyway, details.
We come next to the poem. The one that Gwen first recites to Larry in the shop, and we hear it throughout the film, as it becomes extremely important…
Even a man who is pure at heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf with the wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright
This poem was entirely made up by Siodmak. As was, as you might imagine, this business relating to pentagrams being the werewolf’s symbol and one he sees in the palm of his next victim’s hand.
By the way, whatever you do, please don’t go picking wolfsbane like they claim to do in the movie. Just saying.
Next up we have the fact that Larry’s bite heals overnight. This is certainly folkloric in nature, to a degree (more on that later in my overview/rundown), but it’s just as feasible that Siodmak hadn’t heard those legends and just wanted to make his werewolf scary and powerful – and because the healing wounds relates to the silver concept that he himself made up. By the way, I absolutely adore the rapidly healing wounds.
Another aside: this movie is such a joy to watch. I hadn’t seen it in years until I started writing this post. Many, many years, despite knowing it like the back of my hand and studying it all my life. It’s so incredible to watch all the classic werewolf elements we know and love unfold on the screen in their original form. It helps that I’m a massive cinephile movie nerd weirdo anyway and movies are my favorite form of entertainment by an extremely wide margin, despite enjoying many kinds of entertainment.
Anyway, next up for werewolf lore, we have Frank’s dog barking at Larry – because the dog knows he’s a monster. It’s not uncommon in many stories for animals to sense things people can’t, but this is also something else we often see highlighted in werewolf media to follow.
Something to note about silver in this film is that Larry is obviously still carrying his silver cane around even after he’s been bitten by the werewolf. It obviously isn’t burning or harming him even after he’s been bitten and his wound healed, unlike a lot of werewolf media today (admittedly, including my own works), in which silver can cause a werewolf pain just to the touch, even in human form.
Next up we hear about whoever is bitten by the werewolf becomes a werewolf. This, I want you to know, is speculated to have been started sometime in French werewolf legends – some scholars hold to that. But even if it wasn’t originated by this movie (I honestly kind of think that it was originated by this movie), it was certainly popularized by this movie and sticks in the modern psyche thanks to this film alone. Yes, there was a time when lycanthropy may have been associated with rabies, and that may even be where Siodmak got the idea, but no matter what, that concept is timelessly popular solely because of this film.
Next up we have the buildup to the single most important moment in any werewolf movie… the transformation scene.
This film, as you might expect, also established the importance of the transformation scene. Really, such a scene has been important in werewolf media and highlighted even since Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but this movie really emphasizes the horror behind a man becoming a monster. And it’s so right to do so.
After all, what is most unique about werewolves and why do they stick with us so strongly? It’s the transformation. The idea that a man can become a monster and then return to a human form – and be cursed to live out a life turning back and forth. That’s really the heart of any werewolf story. That’s how it all begins. That’s the backbone.
So anyway, the transformation scene in The Wolf Man is of course excellent. We see Larry undergoing all the stages of the werewolf transformation as all werewolf media will follow after it – he freaks out, he runs home, tries to find seclusion, he looks at himself, looks in a mirror, tries to notice any changes… because he at once doesn’t think it’s real but also is certainly starting to believe it, with everyone freaking out so badly around him, especially the gypsies.
Larry’s first transformation begins and ends in his feet, as they don’t want to show us the werewolf himself yet – they build up to it, and we first see him in the dark forest. The werewolf feet are of course famous as a result of being our first glimpse of the famous wolf man.
Larry goes to a graveyard – a favorite haunt of werewolves and many other folkloric monsters – and kills a guy, biting his throat out. It’s noteworthy, of course, that Larry doesn’t leave humanoid wolf prints. He leaves wolf prints, to the point that everyone assumes it is a wolf, not some kind of monster.
Larry then finds a pentagram on his chest, about where the werewolf bit him or so. He realizes he left a trail and starts covering it up, only to discover the detective is tracking him. Again, the pentagram thing is not in werewolf folklore at all.
The rundown of lycanthropy that Larry’s father gives to him is actually a pretty good one. He isn’t wrong about finding werewolf legends almost everywhere, and it did become recognized as a clinical disease in much later years, around or after the Renaissance. He’s also right about it being Greek, in a way, given the assorted Greek werewolf legends, though we can never really know where it “originated,” per se, as werewolves are a universal legend. And, fittingly, he of course thinks it’s all in the mind – when it very much isn’t, not in this film. Silly practical fellow.
Even at this point, Larry still doesn’t seem wholly convinced that he is a werewolf. This seems to be highlighted in the following scene, when the werewolf gets caught in a trap, and Maleva arrives in time to rescue him. She returns him to his human form – and he has no idea where he is or what is going on. He doesn’t remember: another werewolf element established by this movie.
Larry outright tells his father everything, but of course, his father doesn’t believe him. Not all werewolf media followed the trend of being modern enough to be about people who outright don’t believe in the werewolf legend, of course, but this is still a popular trope.
Next we have yet another popular trope – restraining the werewolf so that he can’t escape. Larry’s father does this to protect him and in an effort to prove to him that the werewolf isn’t real. Obviously, it doesn’t work. Restraining a werewolf isn’t exactly ever easy, now is it?
Again we receive emphasis – a werewolf doesn’t even care about ordinary weapons, like normal bullets. The weapon in question absolutely must be silver to even affect it. And that is, of course, how Larry’s father ends up killing him using his own silver cane – the one Larry begged him to take with him – and the hunters’ bullets didn’t hurt him at all. Really, he doesn’t even seem to notice them.
And so the werewolf is killed – tragically, of course – beaten to death by his own father. This establishes yet another trope that werewolf media has scarcely left behind: the werewolf always dies. That’s certainly one of my least favorite elements this movie established about so many werewolf stories and especially films forever afterward.
So here’s the basic rundown, the tl;dr if you will. The Wolf Man popularized the following elements in media…
- Silver – The fact that the werewolf can only be killed by silver – as Maleva says, a bullet, a knife, or silver like the silver-headed cane – comes from this film. Yes, that huge of an element of werewolves and of culture in general, including the sayings about something’s “silver bullet,” all originate with this movie. The silver, as mentioned, doesn’t burn the werewolf’s skin on contact, but the silver is required as a weapon to actually kill him. It’s also so very important to emphasize this concept came solely from this movie. Curt Siodmak said so himself, not to mention the fact that it’s never been in folklore. Some people hold that the Beast of Gevaudan included a silver bullet vs a werewolf (not that I consider that a werewolf legend, anyway, per se), but the idea that the Beast was slain with a silver bullet comes from a novel published in 1946: Henri Pourrat’s Historie fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan. The idea of silver slaying werewolves comes from this movie. For more info, see my werewolf fact specifically on Silver.
- Wolfsbane – Now, the wolfsbane itself didn’t really interact with the werewolf in this movie other than to signal when the werewolf would turn. But this did, of course, start an association between wolfsbane and werewolves. For more info, see my werewolf fact on belladonna and wolfsbane.
- Quickly healing wounds – We see the werewolf’s wounds – Larry’s bite, namely – heal “overnight” in the film. This is definitely a reigning trope about werewolves forever after, and one of my favorite ones, to boot. For more info about this sort of thing, check out my werewolf fact on Powers and Abilities.
- Pentagram association – The idea that the pentagram is the sign of the werewolf, and that the werewolf has a pentagram on him somewhere, as well as that the werewolf sees a pentagram on the palm of his next victim, was entirely made up by Siodmak – though some may argue that pentagrams can be related to werewolves solely by association with witches and witchcraft in the later years of the Renaissance/Early Modern period. I think it’s very important that we differentiate between werewolves and witches (as the people back then did, themselves), however, so I don’t buy into that theory.
- Werewolf bite spreading the curse – This is, obviously, a huge element popularized by this film. So many things have one becoming a werewolf via a werewolf bite – which is very fun, by the way. I love this trope. For more info about it and other methods of becoming a werewolf that are much less common (because they weren’t in this movie), see my werewolf fact on How to Become a Werewolf.
- Bipedal werewolves – Obviously the movie included a wolf werewolf as well (except it was very clearly played by a dog), but this movie popularized too the idea of bipedal werewolves. It’s not exclusive to the movie – there were werewolves that weren’t 100% just wolves in folklore, too, despite what you may hear. For more info on that, see my werewolf fact on Physical Appearance. This is also associated with the werewolf fact Hands and Claws.
- Turning at a certain time of year – This one didn’t really catch on. However, as will be noted after the end of this list, that doesn’t mean that The Wolf Man didn’t still decide when it is werewolves do transform…
- The werewolf hunting humans specifically – It’s noteworthy that the werewolf is never shown actually eating anyone, only killing them, but this movie certainly helped establish the idea of a werewolf specifically hunting people, which they didn’t generally do in folklore. For more info about how folkloric this is or isn’t, see my werewolf fact on Did Werewolves Eat People?.
- The werewolf as evil – Directly related to the previous point, the werewolf inthis film is absolutely evil, as it seeks out specific people to hunt and kill each night. This is not really folkloric, and sadly, this movie absolutely helped establish werewolves firmly as villains – even if the human cursed to become the werewolf is sympathetic. I have a lot of werewolf facts on this kind of thing, perhaps key among them being my very big fact on When Werewolves Went Mad. My fact on werewolves vs evil is also a little relevant.
- The transformation sequence – As mentioned in the main body of the post, the transformation sequence has some folkloric roots, but this film certainly helped established its incredible importance in werewolf media. This movie doesn’t have quite the dramatic sequence as does some of its sequels (where we actually see the wolf man’s face as he turns), but it still emphasizes it, for sure. For more info, see my werewolf fact on Transformation Sequence.
- Memory issues – A very important concept to the future of werewolf media was the issue of Larry losing his memory about what the werewolf did. This is seen in so much werewolf media after, because, frankly, it’s a fantastic plot element. For more info, see my werewolf fact on Memory.
- Werewolves associated with London and England – This obviously didn’t start with The Wolf Man specifically, given one of its predecessor werewolf films is – as mentioned – called Werewolf of London (1935). However, that doesn’t change the fact that the film taking place in England specifically had a massive influence on films after it, and, later, other media, that decided for some terrible reason that now werewolves are intrinsically associated with later time periods of Britain and London, which they shouldn’t be, really. Here are some more reasons why, if you’re wondering.
- Hiding being a werewolf – This was certainly not entirely originated/popularized by the film, as it was occasionally a thing in folklore, for sure. But this film definitely highlights that being a werewolf isn’t a desirable thing or something you want to advertise, even though Larry admits it to Gwen when he still isn’t fully convinced it may be real. For more info on this, see my Hiding Being a Werewolf fact.
- The werewolf always dies in the end – My least favorite by far of the tropes popularized by this film is very simple… the werewolf always dies in the end (or sometimes even before the end). You see this in almost every werewolf film to follow The Wolf Man and, indeed, many other pieces of werewolf media. This movie firmly established the classic Hollywood concept of the tragic werewolf hero who dies because of his curse.
Later, The Wolf Man – the character – would establish the concept of turning during the full moon, but this didn’t happen in The Wolf Man (1941) – this started in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. For more info about that, see my werewolf fact on the Full Moon here. The famous rhyme from The Wolf Man was changed for it, too, to alter the line “when the autumn moon is bright” to “when the full moon is bright.”
And that just about covers it (mostly, sort of)! Hope you enjoyed the werewolf fact – and if you haven’t seen it, please do watch The Wolf Man (1941) in its entirety right here, free and legal!
And as always…
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