Werewolves: The Myths Versus The Movies
Photo: The Wolf Man / Universal Pictures

Werewolves: The Myths Versus The Movies

Werewolves have always been a popular subject in pop culture, and especially movies - from Lon Chaney Jr.'s classic Wolf Man movies of the mid-20th century to more modern hits like True Blood and Twilight. And like other magical creatures from pop culture, werewolves are derived from folklore. The earliest werewolf reports come from Europe in the Late Middle Ages, when people were accused of "lycanthropy" - in other words, being a magical shapeshifter who preyed on humanity. 

And just like witches and vampires, the pop-culture version of werewolves we know and love today looks a lot different than their traditional counterparts. Some of the most common werewolf tropes have been around for centuries, while others are modern inventions. 

Here are some werewolf tropes and where they came from, whether it be from myth, movie, or in some cases, both. 

  • A Werewolf In Human Form Is Identifiable By Distinct Features

    A Werewolf In Human Form Is Identifiable By Distinct Features
    Photo: Lucas Cranach the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Trope: While in human form, werewolves have several "tells" that give away their identity. These can include features like a unibrow, long and curved fingernails, bristly hairs underneath the tongue, hair growing on their palms, or even fur growing beneath the skin that appears when cut. 

    The Origin: This trope definitely comes from folklore, and it's rarely featured in movies. It's a common characteristic of folkloric werewolves like the Dutch weerwolven. In the traditional version, these kinds of werewolves are more like sorcerers who obtain lycanthropic powers willingly. In movies like The Wolf Man or An American Werewolf in London, characters with lycanthropy usually contract it unwillingly.

  • A Werewolf Can Only Be Slain With A Weapon Made Of Silver

    A Werewolf Can Only Be Slain With A Weapon Made Of Silver
    Photo: Stephen King's Silver Bullet / Paramount Pictures

    The Trope: Werewolves are nearly impervious to physical injury. They can only be harmed by weapons made of silver, especially silver bullets. 

    The Origin: Werewolves' vulnerability to silver doesn't appear in folklore or pop culture before the 20th century. It was once thought that the trope originated from the real-life hysteria involving the "Beast of Gévaudan," a beast that terrorized France from 1764 to 1767 and was killed by silver bullets. This turned out to be a mistranslation in the 1946 novel Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan. Novelist Henri Pourrat mistook "silvered bullets" for "silver bullets." In this case, "silvered bullets" were referring to bullets tipped with quicksilver, the substance that's poisonous to both humans and animals. Traditionally, werewolves have a natural weakness to wolfsbane.

  • A Werewolf Can Only Change With The Full Moon 

    A Werewolf Can Only Change With The Full Moon 
    Photo: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein / Universal-International

    The Trope: Humans who suffer from lycanthropy always transform into their werewolf state under a full moon. 

    The Origin: This trope originated in the 1941 Universal Pictures movie The Wolf Man and its sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Folkloric werewolves don't have this kind of connection to the lunar cycle. It's possible this trope originated from the French myth of the loup-garou, which said that humans could turn into werewolves by sleeping while the full moon shone on their faces. It's also possibly derived from the mistaken belief that a full moon drives wolves to howl at it.

  • Werewolves Have A Commanding Sexual Presence 

    Werewolves Have A Commanding Sexual Presence 
    Photo: Twilight / Summit Entertainment

    The Trope: Werewolves possess an unnatural magnetism that's irresistible. To put it another way: Werewolves are sexy. 

    The Origin: This is another werewolf trope that's found only in modern pop culture, not in folklore. In the earliest depictions of lycanthropy from classical mythology, the gods turned people into wolves as punishment for their transgressions. In medieval mythology, humans gave themselves lycanthropy as a way to wield supernatural power. In both cases, the people afflicted with lycanthropy are grotesque, monstrous, and dangerous. According to scholar Charlotte Otten, our current fascination with werecreatures stems from our "uncertainty about the nature of a human being and [their] relationship to the animal kingdom."

  • A Werewolf Is Created By The Bite Of Another Werewolf

    A Werewolf Is Created By The Bite Of Another Werewolf
    Photo: Wolf / Columbia Pictures

    The Trope: People become werewolves from a bite by another werewolf. 

    The Origin: This also comes from modern pop culture, not myth, and it also most likely originates with The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In mythology, people could become werewolves in different ways, depending on the culture. In classical mythology, lycanthropy was a punishment from the gods and was a one-way, permanent transformation. In various European countries in the medieval period, witches and other magic users could grant lycanthropy at will - in 1589, for example, a German man named Peter Stubbe claimed to have a belt made of wolf-skin that allowed him to transform into a wolf whenever he wished. In 1490, an archbishop in Sweden claimed it was possible to transform into a werewolf by drinking beer and chanting a certain incantation.

  • Werewolves Are Cursed Forever 

    Werewolves Are Cursed Forever 
    Photo: The Wolfman / Universal Pictures

    The Trope: Lycanthropy is an incurable condition. Once a person becomes a werewolf, they're a werewolf until something kills them.

    The Origin: Here's yet another werewolf trope that originates with The Wolfman and its sequel. In mythology, people could become werewolves in all kinds of different ways, but lycanthropy was often a condition people entered into voluntarily. Throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, authorities in Europe accused hundreds of people of making an unholy bargain with Satan in order to be granted werewolf powers. As with accusations of witchcraft, these mostly occurred in rural communities as scapegoats for all sorts of maladies that affected the community.