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Newsletter: We're The Wolves, Bhediya & Other Werewolf Stories Say

In the monsters' canon, the werewolf is closest to man.

Newsletter: We're The Wolves, Bhediya & Other Werewolf Stories Say
A still from Bhediya
  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 06.49 AM, Jan 19, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on November 27, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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IN THE REALM OF MONSTERS, werewolves stand apart. They're not humanoid beasts (like the Gill-man), or bona fide creatures of yore (like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster). They're not simply apex predators who — by some freak of nature or science — have transformed into even more of an unstoppable force. The werewolf isn’t truly comparable to other shape-shifters (like the ichchadhari naagin) or animagi (Manimal, Harry Potter). Unlike the vampire or the zombie, the werewolf isn't undead. In fact, at all times other than the full moon, the werewolf is decidedly human.

It is perhaps this quality that makes the werewolf a person of interest. As a metaphor it is not an abstruse one: it speaks to the idea of “the beast within man”, to the id (frequently referred to in literature as a “wolf” — and signifying one’s primitive, animalistic side) being locked in conflict with the superego (the evolved, moral and human side). The struggle to tame the id is shown to be terribly taxing. In fiction, the duality is literally expressed in the form of a person split into two — like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or a pair of twins, one angelic and the other Satan's spawn. But the werewolf’s existence eschews this “othering” or externalising of evil: you can’t siphon off the parts you're ashamed of into a doppelganger, and keep the rest. Your greatest battles, the werewolf attests, are always internal. Varun Dhawan’s Bhediya is only the latest movie to explore this theme.

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Like zombies and vampires, werewolves too are most commonly the product of a bite. Apart from an infection so transmitted, werewolf mythology details a few other causes: Sometimes, it is a curse that condemns a man to take on the form of a wolf (usually for the sin of angering a god, or consuming human flesh), when under the moon's influence. Since werewolves can procreate (unlike vampires or zombies), the condition is often hereditary. (The 1987 Thai horror movie Mnusy Hmapa depicts the leading man Sorapong Chatree turning into a werewolf — really a weredog or werebear — after a wolf — really a dogshoots laser beams into his eyes. But you’re unlikely to find this phenomenon replicated in any other narratives.)

The oldest myths about werewolves (the ones that don't ascribe it to a curse from Zeus) describe men putting on a wolf's pelt, and acting wolf-like as a consequence. When they take off the pelt, they return to their human forms. Many variations of this story exist in folklore from different parts of the world: sometimes a person's human clothes are stolen when they are in wolf form, which means they can't transition back. Other tales claim that simply donning your human clothes once again is enough to return you from beast to man. And if someone were to call you by your human name while you were in wolf form, the spell would immediately shatter.

Implicit in all of these origin stories is an exploration of what it means to be human, or what it means to be an animal. There's a reason you won't likely find a lab experiment leading to a werewolf epidemic storyline in pop culture. (Even Wolverine, who isn't a werewolf but shares more than a few similarities with the creature, already has the mutation present within him that is later exploited by the Weapon X programme.) The other is of course that a werewolf epidemic simply wouldn't play out the same way as a zombie or vampire apocalypse, due to the very specific set of conditions needed for a person to be infected. (Here's an equation that explains all the variables you'd have to account for in such a scenario.)

And so, because you can't quite "science" werewolves in the way you might zombies or vampires, they've tended to retain more of their mystic or shamanistic influence than their other fanged peers. True, the werewolf myth does owe some part of its prevalence to rabies, just like vampirism. But its roots in other real-life historical phenomena — the practice in many cultures of wearing animal skins when going into war, the depredations of Viking raids, the preponderance of shape-shifting characters in storytelling traditions, and the perception of the wolf itself as a predator — tends to favour the supernatural slant.

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The transformation sequence is a visceral focal point for most narratives involving werewolves. It is depicted as excruciating — a type of body horror where bones and muscles are reshaped to form a beast with a bloodlust. (Dhawan’s description of it is presented as a joke in Bhediya, but the process depicted is very obviously traumatic.) Vampires and zombies too have painful transitions, but what sets these apart from the werewolf segue is that the former only go through it once. The condition of being a vampire or zombie isn't reversible. But a werewolf must undergo the transformation on every full moon, and in the absence of a cure, must endure the agony for the rest of their lives.

Many of pop culture’s most popular werewolves are shown to have a moral conflict each time their transformation is imminent. The attempt to subdue their animal side seems as torturous as the sheer physical discomfort. For werewolves like Remus Lupin (Harry Potter) and Oz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), locking themselves in during the full moon phase, or taking a potion like wolfsbane, seems to be a preferred course of action. On the rare occasion when they may have escaped their restraints during their transformation, the moral werewolf will usually be racked with remorse over the inability to control their animalistic urges or having unwittingly caused harm to others. Gaining mastery over their transformation is seen as a sign of the highest self-control.

In What We Do In The Shadows (2014), there's a nod to the famed rivalry between vampires and werewolves, when Viago (Taika Waiti) and his vampire friends run into a pack on a night out. When things get heated, one of the werewolves cusses at Viago, prompting their alpha to immediately issue a reproof, and ask: “What are we?” “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves,” his chastised pack choruses back. It’s a hilarious moment in a film filled with them, but there's a kernel of truth in there too: Who else but a werewolf would be so invested in self-improvement, and maintaining their humanity?

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