Something Wolfish This Way Comes

The Hour of the Wolf is the hour between night and dawn. . . when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. . . when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.  – from The Hour of the Wolf, a film by Ingmar Bergman

This is my second Halloween post for this year’s season of the supernatural and the frightening. My last post focused on mental illness and the psychiatric treatment methods of the 19th centuries. This post reflects on how mental disturbance is transformed into myth.

Traditional folklore of humans who became monsters emerged into the cinema of the 1920s and 1930s as everyday people with recognizable shortcomings: the vampire is a rapist, the wolf-man is a drug addict and/or serial killer, the mummy is an obsessive stalker. The Frankenstein monster is an amalgamation of our guilt over how we treat our outcasts: prisoners, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the homeless. The Invisible Man is a sociopathic capitalist in the guise of a mad scientist. And in the 1960s we created a new monster for a new anxiety: the zombie, who represents our fear of alienation in an impersonal, automated, materialistically obsessed world.

Maurice Sand Legendes Rustiques

An American Werewolf

In this post I want to focus on the werewolf in horror films, specifically in An American Werewolf in London which was released in 1981, and the social context of this folkloric monster. The story involves two young American college students backpacking through the UK. They have a strange experience in a pub; the locals warn them not to go hiking out on the moors, but they do and are attacked by a werewolf. One, David, survives but his friend is killed. David, of course, becomes a werewolf.

As tradition dictates, he only assumes wolf form involuntarily during a full moon, when he loses his sense of reason and is driven to kill. The people he kills haunt him, however, during his normal everyday human life, appearing to him in visions where they incessantly beg him to kill himself in order to free their souls from the werewolf’s curse. They cannot be free to move on to the afterlife as long as their werewolf killer lives. Disturbed and guilted by these visions, David attempts to find help but is in the end shot to death while on a werewolf rampage.

The Berserkers

Reports of warriors who wore the skins and furs of bears and wolves and entered a trance like state to increase their aggressiveness in battle were frequently told during the Viking era in Scandinavia. These warriors were called Berserkers ( berserk is an Old Norse word that means one who wears an animal’s pelt as a coat.) To “go berserk” was a reference to a state of battle-frenzy in which such a warrior attacked everything he saw. Norse literature also suggests that a berserker literally changed in physical appearance, or shape-shifted. Berserkers were outlawed by AD 1000, although bands of them persisted for another 200 years. Perhaps as a result of the changing times, the word vargr (meaning wolf or monster) came into use in Icelandic law codes to refer to an outlaw.


Although it may seem obvious that an aggressive trance state could be useful in battle, the Berserkers may beyond that have had a warrior society in which this state was part of initiation and training, and group cohesiveness.

As told in the Saga of the Volsungs, the elder hero Sigmund and his young companion live in a dugout in the woods. They discover a house where werewolves live; they steal their wolf skins and wear them themselves, becoming werewolves and learning the supernatural powers given them through the wolf skins, killing as many as eleven men at one time.

The tale seems to show the transmission of  knowledge and the techniques of the berserker state from the original group of men to Sigmund and his companion, while they are in a probationary training state and living in the woods. (This idea of transmission of spiritual power through initiation seems to be at the root of the folkloric idea that one becomes a werewolf contagiously, by being bitten by a werewolf.)

The psychologist Ed Tick, in his fascinating book War and the Soul, tells the story of a war veteran named Keith who found wolf teeth in the Vietnamese jungle and fashioned them into a protective spirit necklace he wore. Quoting Mircea Eliade in his book, Tick writes “the test of courage (was) resistance to physical suffering, followed by magical transformation into a wolf.. . (the initiate) became a wild-beast warrior, irresistible and invulnerable.”

Instinctively, Tick writes, Keith also believed his wolf teeth necklace would protect him and give him the powers needed to succeed in combat. Keith returned home from Vietnam suffering from PTSD, however, and it was years before he was able to find a therapist he thought he could trust to talk to about his war experiences. A few months into his therapy Keith was strangely bitten by a dog. Keith believed the wolf spirit had returned to him through this canine bite, and that his further growth as a warrior would result.

Battle Scars


An interesting theory put forth by Dion Fortune ( a renowned 20th century occultist)  in her book “Psychic Self-Defense” is that soldiers contracted a form of supernatural contagion when fighting the world wars, and brought it home with them. Eastern Europe has long had a reputation as being superstitious and prone to “occult” ideas and practices. The modern concept of the vampire has its origins in the Slavic countries. Fortune claimed that Eastern European soldiers knew how to keep their spirits lingering on after death, long enough to attack and invade the wounded on the battlefield, and so live on as a kind of astral parasite.  She believed this explained emotional disorders in war veterans we would now typically categorize as PTSD.

(Veterans) . . . feel more intimacy with the dead than with the living, as if they themselves were already dead – Ed Tick, War and the Soul

This idea, bizarre as it sounds, has a parallel in the Buddhist traditions of the Vietnamese, who Ed Tick explains believe their war dead wander the land to this day in a state of limbo, unable to rest since they did not receive a traditional burial, and continue to harass the living.

The link to the werewolf legend is here clear to me. Soldiers fight in close combat, those that survive are haunted by the memory of those they killed and of comrades they lost, and soon these traumatized veterans show signs of agitation, hyper-arousal, inability to sleep, nightmares, and an increase in aggressive and violent thoughts and behaviors. Or as we would put it in a folklore context: bitten by a werewolf, a man becomes a werewolf. (I found that someone else has discovered this parallel: Johnathan Shay, psychologist, draws a parallel in his book “Achilles in Vietnam” between the berserker state of frenzy and the emotional chaos of PTSD.


An American Werewolf in London is not a war film, and I don’t think the writers or the producer had any conscious motive to explore war trauma; nonetheless, I think the movie is primarily the story of a war veteran suffering from PTSD. The Vietnam War, which deeply affected the American consciousness, had only ended seven years before the film was released. A few films directly discussing this war were made, but for the most part it was still a very sensitive subject, and I think deep reflection on the effects of the war tended to manifest in indirect ways. The horror genre is a perfect medium for such buried forms of social reflection.

This scene, the first hallucination that David experiences after being attacked by the werewolf (and therefore the first indication that he himself is a werewolf), shows his family attacked and killed by Nazi soldiers with werewolf faces. The scene is a complete non sequitur unless you understand my premise:

My interpretation of the storyline for this film would be this: a young war veteran returns home to find himself alienated. Home is not recognizable anymore, and his community seems afraid of him, and hostile. David remembers his best friend, who died in the war. He thinks of him as a “slaughtered lamb,” an innocent young man sacrificed for a society that will not even honor him. David feels the loss keenly, remembering a time when they were wolf brothers, warriors who participated in a code of identity and behavior. David begins to imagine that he actually turns into a wolf at certain times.

They (veterans) see the dead in their sleep or beckoning to them from roadsides. They hear them calling in the mountains. They see dead children’s faces behind the faces of smiling kids. – Ed Tick, War and the Soul

David is hospitalized after he begins to breakdown. He has visions of his dead friend, and of others who died or were killed by their actions in war, including civilians. These visions accuse David and continuously pressure him to kill himself. David begins to suffer psychotic episodes and attacks people, and threatens his loved ones. He is eventually killed in a confrontation with police.

David’s chronic visions of dead people he has killed, who implore him to kill himself,  is a striking parallel to what many war veterans experience. Ed Tick, who has worked with traumatized veterans for decades, relates that veterans commonly experience visions of the dead who accuse them and beg for the release of their tortured souls through either a reconciliation rite or the death of the soldier who killed them. He relates the story of one Vietnam veteran who was plagued for nearly forty years by the spirit of a Vietnamese boy he had killed.

And so it is that the werewolf, originally an honored initiate of a warrior society, became a social outcast, an outlaw, lost in the violent memories of his past. The werewolf is the symbol of our own transformed and confused attitudes to the meaning of war.







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