As much as the werewolf legend is now relegated to pop culture and teen romance, it used to be a widespread belief. Medieval peasants would hang wreaths of rye over their doors to prevent werewolves from visiting them, and people would avoid stepping in paw prints found in the snow and dirt out of fear of a curse. The history of the werewolf has been somewhat forgotten, relegating them to the background of the supernatural world to play second fiddle to sexy vampires and lumbering Frankensteinian monsters. Werewolves have a rich history in the cultures of the past, however, making them one of the oldest supernatural legends to remain.
Early werewolf origins most likely sprung up in response to the unexplainable acts of violence humans have inflicted on one another for years. In eras where issues of mental health and diseases like rabies were little understood, it makes sense that people would point to a sinister creature as explanation. Here is some far-reaching history that proves werewolves were making supernatural scary-cool way before those other monsters.
In early werewolf legends, the moon had no place in regulating transformation. The moon is closely tied to werewolf lore in the modern age, but even as recently as 1941 - in the film The Wolf Man - the moon was left out of the myth. The first film to feature the moon’s transformative effect was the less famous Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman in 1943. The origin of the lunar effect can be traced back to the 17th-century Italian superstition of turning into a wolf if one slept outside on a Wednesday or Friday, especially if the moon was full.
The concept of human misbehavior, or “lunacy,” during full moons was a separate belief that was later applied to the wolf myth. Modern police and emergency room staff swear that they see more emergencies on nights with a full moon, though studies have disproven this. Early lore around the timing and frequency of a werewolf's transformations is different from story to story, but the lunar cycle didn't play into any of them. The connection between females (witches) and werewolves likely influenced the moon cycle lore, as it relates so similarly to menstruation cycles.
The historical lore on how to spot a werewolf in human form varied. In what is now Poland, they believed that a child born with a birthmark on their head possessed shapeshifting abilities. In Western Europe, it was believed that a unibrow, long fingernails, or low ears were sure signs of lycanthropy. One way to test if a person was secretly a werewolf was to slice open their skin and reveal the fur beneath. One Irish folktale perpetuated this theory. In the story, a curse of lyncathropy befalls a husband and wife. A traveler they come across cuts open the wife's hide and finds an old woman inside.
A werewolf was supposedly weak and debilitated after returning to their human form, and so Slavic peasants would be on the lookout for tired townspeople the night after a suspected werewolf attack. When in werewolf form, Swedes believed a werewolf would lack a tail. It was said, a werewolf might even run on three legs and hold up their fourth leg to look like a tail to fool people.
In the majority of werewolf legends, the werewolves are said to maintain their human eyes, which was one of the most haunting things about them. The modern appearance of werewolves is due in part to American makeup artist Rick Baker. He created the costumes and makeup for the werewolves in the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" music video.
In Eastern Europe, vampiric and lycan lore are closely tied together. In a region with harsh winters, little daylight in its woodlands, and treacherous wildlife, it is no wonder tales of the two supernatural foes developed so closely. In this region, the language for vampires and werewolves evolved from a common term: the Slavic "Vukodlak." In that area, these "wolf's fur" creatures were thought to be autonomous real creatures, not supernatural agents of the devil.
These early "werewolves" were similar to vampires. They were motivated to grow their population via biting, were sensitive to sunlight, could move at superhuman speeds, and were said to have shapeshifting abilities. Like vampires, these creatures transformed into animals and their preferred form were the wolf (not a bat as pop culture would later depict). Even in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Count Dracula's character notes that werewolves descended from his Szekely racial bloodline, which was why he could transform into a wolf.
These early vampire-werewolf hybrid creatures were considered “undead.” In some lore, the werewolves would be human corpses by day and wolves by night - like vampires in their daytime coffins. Modern werewolves aren't often depicted as having the charm of vampires, but in Slavic lore they would sometimes appear in the form of beautiful women and seduce men before killing them in wolf form.
In the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, women were put to death for witchcraft by the tens of thousands throughout Europe and America. A lesser-known chapter of the witch panic is the wolf trials that took place. In every wave of witch executions, there were several individuals tried as werewolves. Under torture, many of the accused confessed. Of course, confessions only caused further damage as these testimonies legitimized the next wave of panic.
One of the most famous wolf trials was that of Peter Stubbe who lived in 16th century Germany. His crimes were so horrific that when he confessed to being a werewolf, his fellow villagers welcomed the explanation. Stubbe had raped and killed members of his family and had cannibalized his son. In Eastern and Western Europe, werewolf mythology was linked with witchcraft. In some legends, werewolves were the creation of witches. In others they were sorcerers or witches themselves, electing to transform into an animal to attack the peasantry. In Fennoscandian lore, werewolves were old witches with poisonous claws who paralyzed children. Most physical descriptions of werewolves across cultures don’t involve tails; this was how a person could tell they were witches in wolf form.