Werewolf fiction denotes the portrayal of werewolves and other shapeshifting man/woman-beasts, in the media of literature, drama, film, games and music. Werewolf literature includes folklore, legend, saga, fairy tales, Gothic and horror fiction, fantasy fiction and poetry. Such stories may be supernatural, symbolic or allegorical. A classic American cinematic example of the theme is The Wolf Man (1941) which in later films joins with the Frankenstein Monster and Count Dracula as one of the three famous icons of modern day horror. However, werewolf fiction is an exceptionally diverse genre, with ancient folkloric roots and manifold modern re-interpretations.
In Greek mythology, there is a story of an Arcadian King called Lycaon who tested Zeus by serving him a dish of his slaughtered and dismembered son to see if Zeus was really all-knowing. As punishment for his trickery, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf and killed his 50 sons by lightning bolts, but supposedly revived Lycaon's son Nyctimus, who the king had slaughtered.
However, in most legends influenced by medieval theology the werewolf was a Satanic beast with a craving for human flesh. This appears in such later fiction as "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains": an episode in the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Marryat, featuring a demonic femme fatale who transforms from woman to wolf.
Sexual themes are common in werewolf fiction; the protagonist kills his girlfriend as she walks with a former lover in Werewolf of London, suggesting sexual jealousy. The writers of The Wolf Man were careful in depicting killings as motivated out of hunger.
The wolf in the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood" has been reinterpreted as a werewolf in many works of fiction, such as The Company of Wolves (1979) by Angela Carter (and its 1984 film adaptation) and the film Ginger Snaps (2000), which address female sexuality. 2011 also saw the release of Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfried in the main role, with the character name of Valerie.
In folk and fairy tale traditions all over the world, humans who can shapeshift at will into both human and lupine forms appear in several fairy tales. According to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, they can appear in this capacity in the following tale types:
Nineteenth-century Gothic horror stories drew on previous folklore and legend to present the theme of the werewolf in a new fictional form. An early example is Hugues, the Wer-Wolf by Sutherland Menzies, published in 1838. In another, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847) by G. W. M. Reynolds, we find the classic subject of a man who, although a kind-hearted man himself, accepts a deal with the devil to become a werewolf for 18 months accompanying Dr. Faustus and killing humans, in exchange for youth and wealth. "The Man-Wolf" (1831) by Leitch Ritchie yields the werewolf in an 11th-century setting, while Catherine Crowe penned what is believed to be the first werewolf short story by a woman: "A Story of a Weir-Wolf" (1846). Other werewolf stories of this period include The Wolf Leader (1857) by Alexandre Dumas and Hugues-le-Loup (1869) by Erckmann-Chatrian.
A later Gothic story, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), has an implicit werewolf subtext, according to Colin Wilson. This has been made explicit in some recent adaptations of this story, such as the BBC TV series Jekyll (2007). Stevenson's Olalla (1887) offers more explicit werewolf content, but, like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this aspect remains subordinate to the story's larger themes.
Charles De Coster's 1867 novel The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak includes an extensive episode where the Flemish town of Damme is terrorized by what seems a rampaging werewolf, the numerous victims' bodies bearing what seems the mark of a wolf's fangs - thought ultimately they turn out to have been killed by a completely mundane serial killer, clever and ruthless, who used metal blades to simulate these wolf's tooth marks.
A rapacious female werewolf who appears in the guise of a seductive femme fatale before transforming into lupine form to devour her hapless male victims is the protagonist of Clemence Housman's acclaimed The Were-wolf published in 1896.
The 20th century saw an explosion of werewolf short stories and novels published in both England and America. The famed English supernatural story writer Algernon Blackwood wrote a number of werewolf short stories. These often had an occult aspect to them. American pulp magazines of the 1920 to 1950s, such as Weird Tales, include many werewolf tales, written by such authors as H. Warner Munn, Seabury Quinn and Manly Wade Wellman. Robert E. Howard made his own contribution to the genre in "Wolfshead".
The most renowned werewolf novel of the 20th century was The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by American author Guy Endore. This novel has been accorded classic status and is considered by some to be the Dracula of werewolf literature. It was adapted as The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961 for Hammer Film Productions. The novel The Wolf's Bride: A Tale from Estonia written by the Finnish author Aino Kallas was published in 1928 and it tells the story of the forester's wife living in Hiiumaa in the 17th century who became a werewolf under the influence of a malevolent forest spirit.
In cinema during the silent era, werewolves were portrayed in canine form in such films as The Werewolf (1913) and Wolf Blood (1925). The first feature film to portray an anthropomorphic werewolf was Werewolf of London in 1935 (not to be confused with the 1981 film of a similar title), establishing the canon that the werewolf always kills what he loves the most. The main werewolf of this film was a dapper London scientist who retained some of his style and most of his human features after his transformation.
However, he lacked warmth, and it was left to the tragic character Laurence Stewart "Larry" Talbot played by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolf Man to capture the public imagination. This catapulted the werewolf into public consciousness. The theme of lycanthropy as a disease or curse reached its standard treatment in the film, which contained the now-famous rhyme:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf
When the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
This movie draws on elements of traditional folklore and fiction, such as the vulnerability of the werewolf to a silver bullet (as seen for instance in the legend of Beast of Gévaudan), though at the climax of the film the Wolf Man is actually dispatched with a silver-handled cane.
The process of transmogrification is portrayed in such films and works of literature to be painful. The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless, and prone to killing and eating people without compunction, regardless of the moral character of the person when human.
Lon Chaney Jr. himself became somewhat typecast as the Wolfman and reprised his role in several sequels for Universal Studios. In these films, the werewolf lore of the first film was clarified. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) it is firmly established that the Wolf Man is revived from the dead at a night of the full moon. In The House of Frankenstein (1944) silver bullets are used for the first time to dispatch him. Further sequels were the House of Dracula (1945) and the parodic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
The success of Universal's The Wolf Man prompted rival Hollywood film companies Columbia Studios and Fox Studios to bring out their own, now somewhat obscure, werewolf films. The first of these was The Undying Monster produced by Fox in 1942, adapted from a werewolf novel of the same name by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, published in 1936.
More recently, the portrayal of werewolves has taken a more sympathetic turn in some circles. With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature. Author Whitley Strieber previously explored these themes in his novels The Wolfen (1978), in which a (non-werewolf) species of intelligent wolf-like creatures are shown to act as predators of humanity, acting as a "natural" control on their population now that it has been removed from the traditional limits of nature, and The Wild (1991), in which the werewolf is portrayed as a medium through which to bring human intelligence and spirit back into nature. The heroic werewolf has also returned via the paranormal romance genre, where wolf-like characteristics such as loyalty are shown as positive traits in a prospective mate.
Werewolves have featured a number of times in the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who and its other media tie-ins. The first time a werewolf appeared in the television series was in the Seventh Doctor serial The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988) during which the young punk girl Mags is shown to have aversion to moon signs and reacted in a violent, animalistic manner to various acts of violence throughout the story. In the cliffhanger to the third episode, she was seen to transform into a discoloured, ferocious, humanoid depiction of a lupine-like creature when a silvery-blue lighting effect is shone upon her during the climactic act in a circus ring. A wolf-man appears in the 1986 Sixth Doctor story Mindwarp, and the primords in the 1970 Third Doctor story Inferno are also lupine in appearance, but in both cases these are induced mutations rather than people who switched between human and wolf forms. A (more traditional) werewolf also appeared in the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode "Tooth and Claw".
In the Harry Potter series (1997–2007), the most prominent werewolf is Remus Lupin, who is portrayed as struggling with his curse and terrified of infecting someone. The series also includes a werewolf villain, Fenrir Greyback, who fits more with the older image of werewolves. The Potter books, while showing the intense threat to humans transformed to bloodthirsty monsters pose to the population, essentially use werewolves as a metaphor for marginalised groups who have been discriminated against in modern society.
Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna have as their protagonist a completely positive and heroic werewolf, who is in complete control of transformation from human to wolf and back, and completely retains his normal mind while in wolf form - being thus able to use the wolf form to fight evil, in the manner of superheroes endowed with a superpower. An earlier Anderson novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions, with its semi-medieval settling, featured a more traditional werewolf - a young girl transformed against her will and in wolf form perpetrating acts which she does not remember when returning to human form. Even so, she is depicted sympathetically as a victim, and a solution is found by taking her far away from the influence of evil magic, to a location where she would not change again and where she could get happily married.
Several werewolf characters have been featured in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; the most prominent is Captain Angua von Überwald of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. The Discworld series features a few werewolves that subvert expectations, including a character named Lupine who transforms into a human-like form every night of the full moon, but otherwise remains a wolf.
In the Animorphs series, the characters can also morph into wolves.
A very popular modern subgenre consists of stories that treat werewolves as separate race or species (either science fictional or magical) or as persons using magic in order to deliberately transform into wolves at will. Such current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involves lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease by the bite of another werewolf. The form a werewolf takes is not always an ordinary wolf, but is often anthropomorphic or may be otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf. Sometimes the beast form of the werewolf will have some physical characteristics borrowed from an animal species other than the wolf, as can be seen in the boar-like werewolf of the film Wild Country (2005). Many modern werewolves are also supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will cause burns.
Despite the recent upsurge in the motif of heroic werewolves, unsympathetic portrayals of werewolves as monsters also continue to be common in popular culture. This is especially true in films, which are only slowly incorporating trends in written fiction. There are very few werewolf films outside the horror genre.
In the movie War Wolves, recently shown on the Sci-Fi channel, lycanthropy does not have an influence on the "victims'" alignment. Instead, it is up to the individual to choose whether to use their abilities for good or evil. Both the heroes and villains in the movie are werewolves from the same military unit.
In the TV series Creepshow, there is a story called "Bad Wolf Down" where outnumbered soldiers gain the ability to become werewolves to take out their Nazi pursuers. There is also a Christmas special that is an adaption of the book Shapeshifters Anonymous.