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Jack Smith

He'll Bite the Silver Bullet on Werewolf Lore

February 02, 1988|Jack Smith

In writing the other day about a broadcasting company's strange search for werewolves, I observed that Fredric March played a werewolf as Dr. Jekyll in the movie "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," thus at once discomposing both old movie buffs and werewolf buffs.

"Although the various werewolf movies do indeed owe something to Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal yarn," writes Marc Russell, "Edward Hyde was hardly a werewolf."

Gary Keene of Mission Viejo recalls that Dr. Jekyll was experimenting with drugs similar to what we now call PCP or angel dust. . . ."(But) the werewolf legends generally describe lycanthropy as a genetically inherited disease, although there is some mention of transmittal by the bite of the werewolf."

He argues that the transformation of man into werewolf would require profound body changes. "Mere huffing, puffing, growling and howling does not a werewolf make. In short, Dr. Jekyll was suffering from a chemical dependency, not lycanthropy." Lycanthropy, by the way, is defined as "a form of mental disorder in which the patient imagines himself to be a wolf; or the magical power to transform oneself or another into a wolf."

My reference was to the classic movie, not to Stevenson's immortal story. While Stevenson did not describe his anguished hero as a werewolf, in the movie, March not only turns into a brute, but also becomes wolflike in appearance, with long black hair on his head and face, snarling lips, fangs, and hairy, clawlike hands. Can any of us forget the transformation that takes place while Jekyll watches, highly excited, in his mirror?

It may be argued that this transformation is psychological; a part of Jekyll's drug-induced delusion; but try telling that to Miriam Hopkins, or to any of us who saw it happen. If movies want to heighten the horror with makeup, they have to take the consequences.

As for Keene's notion that werewolves and lycanthropes are the same, I quote a real expert on werewolves, Montague Summers, author of "The Werewolf" (Bell, 1956).

"It should be remarked," he states, "that in a secondary or derivative sense, the word werewolf has been erroneously employed to denote a person suffering from lycanthropy, that mania or disease when the patient imagines himself to be a wolf. . . . This madness will hardly at all concern us here. . . ."

Summers' book is scholarly and erudite in the extreme; it is gorged with classic references and quotations from the original Greek, as well as from Latin and most of the modern European languages, most without the courtesy of English translations. He uses such words as expiscate, veaking, tilth, geotic, prolusions and enscorcelling, and scorns mere somatists, solarists and "rationalizing anthropologists" whose expiscations he dismisses as being below his disdain.

He concedes that werewolf is hard to define (or as he puts it in his literary way, "perhaps not altogether easy"), but he tries: "A werewolf is a human being who either voluntarily or involuntarily changes into a wolf" and is thereafter possessed of the wolf's brute appetites.

I would have suspected that Summers' book was a spoof, but how could he have imagined that anyone (even a werewolf buff) could be amused through 272 pages of such turgid pedantry?

In his much less pretentious book "Werewolves," Elliott O'Donnell notes that werewolf comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for man and wolf. He defines a werewolf as "an anomaly (man, woman or child), that, under certain conditions, possesses the property of metamorphosing into a wolf, the change being either temporary or permanent."

As for Stevenson's story, it explicitly describes the changes in Jekyll as being physical, not merely psychological. Whereas Jekyll was tall and handsome, others describe Hyde as being "pale and dwarfish," and "hardly human."

His own butler says Jekyll's appearance made his hair stand on end, and asks, "If that was my master, why had he a mask upon his face?" Hyde is described throughout as being much smaller than Jekyll, and when his body is found in Jekyll's laboratory, he is in Jekyll's too-large clothes.

What about this description of Hyde's hand: "(It) was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. . . ."

Summers cites ancient sources, by the way, to show that sorcerers could turn themselves into werewolves with witches' potions, those being presumably an earlier form of angel dust.

No doubt in my mind that Fredric March was a werewolf.

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