Allen Varney, writer and game designer



Werewolves in fiction, film, and folklore; how they've changed;
and what to do if you find a wolf skin in your roommate's closet

by Allen Varney

[Originally published in InQuest. Copyright ©1995 Wizard Press. Reprinted by permission.]

You're shopping, a sales clerk mouths off to you, and you suppress a righteous urge to yell "The customer is always right, you jerk!" Later some idiot cuts you off in traffic, and you shout, "I should run you off the road, you idiot!" You take in an evening movie, and when Arnold blows away a dozen bad guys, you clench your fist in vicarious release. As you drive home through dark suburban streets, the moon peers out from behind a cloud bank. Your fingers gnarl like tree roots, black claws extend and click against the steering wheel, your nose and jaw melt together like wax and extend into a fanged muzzle, and from within your broadening chest rises a glorious and terrible hooooooowwwwwlll....

Why did you become a werewolf? In times past, the reason varied. You rubbed a witch's salve on your body, or you wore a magic belt, or you had a disease, or another werewolf bit you, or -- the old standby -- you made a deal with the Devil. ("If I condemn my soul to eternal torment, you'll make me big, hairy, mindless, and cannibalistic? That's a deal!")

All these reasons are obsolete. Now we know the true reason.

You became a werewolf because you're like everyone else. Within you, within everyone, lurks a savage beast that sometimes breaks free.

"But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men."
-- John Webster, The White Devil (1612)


"Throughout the ages [the wolf] was known as the savage plunderer and swift pitiless marauder of the shepherd's grazing flocks, not sparing to attack child and maid or even the solitary wayfarer by the wood ... the wolf has ever been the inevitable, remorseless enemy of man." So wrote the excitable Reverend Montague Summers in his massive 1933 volume The Werewolf, an exhaustive nonfiction study of furry people through the ages.

THE ANCIENT WEREWOLF: Summers and other scholars have shown that in ancient times wolves were a big deal all over Europe, most of Asia, and the Americas. In Greece and the Baltic region, cults worshipped the wolf as a powerful but fickle deity. Germans believed that after death, honorable ancestors became wolves. But other cultures wouldn't come near a wolf, even in the afterlife. As Summers says, "In classical authors the wolf is the eternal symbol of ferocity and inordinate evil appetite, hard by which rides cruel devouring lust."

Actually, little evidence survives that wolves ever attacked humans, except during hard, hungry winters. But humans certainly believed in wolf attacks, and in the heady realm of folklore, belief amounts to reality. Throughout the ancient world voracious wolves inspired legends of the werewolf, a human who transforms into a wolf (were means "man" in Old English).

The ancient legends share only two points: The werewolf is evil, and it has a taste for human flesh. Other than these certainties, nobody got their stories straight. A werewolf could be male or female. It might become a wolf permanently, through enchantment, or assume wolf form at will. The werewolf might or might not need a wolf skin to change. In Germany, the skin of a hanged man worked just as well. Europeans believed that sunrise forced the werewolf to resume human form by taking off the skin. If he hid it in a cold place, he shivered all day, and if anybody found and destroyed the skin, this would destroy the werewolf.

Did the werewolf need a full moon to change? No. Did he fear silver? No. These beliefs came later -- much later. Some cultures had it that werewolves fear clear or running water, but again, no one agreed on anything.

Well then, if you couldn't scare the wolf, could you cure it? Unfortunately, werewolf cures sound about as convincing as those for hiccups. Elliott O'Donnell passed along a Belgian exorcism recipe in his 1912 book Werwolves (note the older spelling of "werewolves"):

"[A] werwolf is sprinkled with a compound either of 1/2 ounce of sulphur, 4 drachms of asafoetida, 1/4 ounce of castoreum; or of 3/4 ounce of hypericum in 3 ounces of vinegar; or with a solution of carbolic acid further diluted with a pint of clear spring water. The sprinkling must be done over the head and shoulders, and the werwolf must at the same time be addressed in his Christian name."

If you find little worth in the prospect of sprinkling water on and chatting with a frenzied man-eating beast who is about to disembowel you, O'Donnell agrees: "[A]s to the success or non-success of these various methods of exorcism I cannot make any positive statement.... As far as I know, once a werwolf always a werwolf is the inviolable rule."

THE MIDDLE AGES: When Christianity arrived in Europe, priests condemned pagan wolf worship and equated werewolves with Satan. Theologians, fresh from the important argument over the number of angels that can shimmy on a pinhead, debated long and hard whether the werewolf actually assumed literal wolf form, or whether Satan merely deluded his victims with illusion. No less an authority than St. Augustine announced the consensus, "that the Devil creates no new nature, but that he is able to make something appear to be which in reality is not."

Once the Church said werewolves were Satanically evil, that must have pretty much shut down the werewolf legends, right? Quite the opposite -- it opened the floodgates. Werewolf scares spread across Europe like the plague. Unlike people in our own enlightened time, medieval Europeans had no Communists, Islamic terrorists, or malevolent hackers to get hysterical over, so they made do with witches and werewolves. In central France between 1520 and 1630 there were thirty thousand reports of loups-garoux (the French term for werewolves), often followed by lynchings or confessions under torture. Weirdest of all are the many accused people who confessed freely, without torture, to all kinds of horrible wolfy acts that proved they were evil and could they please, please be punished.

Werewolf epidemics continued in the Renaissance. The biggest headliner in werewolf history is undoubtedly Peter Stubbe, whose sensational story obsessed Europe like a sixteenth-century version of the OJ Trial. In 1589 in the duchy of Westphalia outside Cologne (now northwestern Germany) a series of wolf attacks led hunters to a man named Peter Stubbe, who happened to be walking in the area where the wolf had supposedly vanished. Under torture Stubbe confessed to having made a pact with Satan, who gave him a belt that turned him into a wolf. Stubbe said he'd spent 25 years killing his son, other children, and livestock, eating the bodies, and committing incest with his sister and daughter. The authorities broke him on the wheel, pulled off his flesh with hot pincers, and then -- just to make sure -- cut off his head. They burned the sister and daughter. No one ever found the belt.

THE MODERN VIEW: Scholars today look for a convincing origin of the werewolf legend. Some torture victims said they had become werewolves by rubbing an ointment, a witch's salve, on their body. This leads some writers to speculate that the salve was hallucinogenic, like the Devil's Weed, a paste of datura root that Carlos Castaneda discusses in Chapter 6 of The Teachings of Don Juan (1968). But the salve figures in only a small portion of werewolf accounts.

Medical doctors with too much time on their hands have tried to blame werewolf legends on the old standby, porphyria. This metabolic disease can cause anemia, sensitivity to light, mental disorders, and other symptoms that lead some writers to propose it as the source of vampire legends. Porphyria may also turn the victim's skin brown and physically disfigure him. In 1964 British neurologist L. Illis wrote in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, "These features fit well with the description, in older literature, of werewolves."

The trouble is, the man-beast is a universal legend. In regions where the wolf is unknown, the biggest predator around takes its place, so that in India and western Asia they have a weretiger; in Japan, a werefox; and in Africa, werelions, hyenas, leopards, and crocodiles. Just try to blame a were-crocodile on porphyria! The true explanation for werewolves seems obvious: Wherever ancient societies lived in fear of some animal, they fantasized about becoming that animal.

Some people still fantasize. The werewolf curse was also known as "lycanthropy," and today psychiatrists use this term for a rare mental disorder, "a severe type of depersonalization" that causes the sufferer to believe he can become an animal. "The origin of 'lycanthropy' cannot be traced to a point in historic time or to particular civilizations," writes psychologist Nandor Fodor. "It is in the human psyche, in human experience, that the 'lycanthropic' fantasy is born.... the transformation represents self-denunciation for secret deeds or desires."

"The boy cried 'Wolf, wolf!' and the villagers came out to help him."
-- Aesop


Secret deeds and desires always attract storytellers. Werewolves have figured in fiction at least since the Roman writer Petronius, a friend of the Emperor Nero who included a werewolf story in his Satyricon. In the Middle Ages, Marie de France (flourished 1160-90) wrote the lay of Bisclavret, which stars an intelligent werewolf whose virtuous service ends with his regaining rightful form. Thomas Malory includes a tantalizing reference in his Morte d'Arthur to "Sir Marrok the good knyghte that was betrayed with his wyf for she made hym seven yere a werwolf."

Centuries later came the seminal nonfiction treatises De Lycanthropia (Leipzig, 1591) by Wolfeshusius -- you think I'm making this up, don't you? -- and Dialogue de la Lycanthropie (1596) by the Franciscan monk Claude Prieur.

Closer to modern times, the first big werewolf story was embedded in the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Frederick Marryat (1792-1838); the story is sometimes reprinted alone. After Marryat, werewolf tales fell into a reliable pattern of following fast whenever a vampire story became popular. In 1848, the year after the "penny dreadful" serial Varney the Vampyre made a sensation in London, the enterprising hack writer G. W. M. Reynolds (1814-1879) produced Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in 77 chapters for Reynolds's Miscellany. In Chapter 1 Wagner gains eternal life in return for accepting Satan's lycanthropic curse. Satan shows up several times later in the story, trying to bargain for Wagner's soul. Why didn't he think of that in the first place?

In Victorian times, as in the old days, writers never got their stories straight about werewolves. They still hadn't twigged to the full-moon or silver ideas. But they did have a common theme: The werewolf represented a human's divided nature, the conflict between virtue and vice. For this reason, Stephen King considers the quintessential werewolf story to be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94). Even though Jekyll never actually sprouts hair and turns into a beast, he still gives way to Hyde's bestial nature.

The last excellent werewolf novel on the theme of divided nature was The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by Guy Endore (1900-70). After World War II, many horror writers began to skip the divided part and assume that people are rotten to the bone all the time. King says that in reading Robert Bloch's Psycho (1960) we have the sneaking suspicion that Norman Bates is a werewolf full-time.

With human psychotics stealing the werewolf's theme, showing that anyone can conceal a beast within, the hairy guy had to move in new directions. In this century we've seen an unprecedented approach: the werewolf as a pathetic victim.

"He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf."
-- Shakespeare, King Lear


"Even a man who's pure of heart and says his prayers at night
Can become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

Maria Ouspenskaya, as the spooky gypsy woman Maleva, recited this famous couplet in the film The Wolf Man (Universal, 1941), starring Lon Chaney, Jr., as the hapless werewolf. The screenplay, by Curt Siodmak, is the first work to establish the werewolf's well-known vulnerability to silver weapons, and the first that links the creature's transformation to the full moon.

(The moon still figures in modern urban legends. Some people mistakenly believe that the moon determines women's menstrual cycles, or that thefts and violent crimes rise during a full moon.)

Like most Universal horror flicks of the 1940s, The Wolf Man (and the earlier Werewolf of London, 1935) treated its monsters as victims worthy of pity. Intolerant humans were the true monsters. This set the pattern until 1981, when The Howling and An American Werewolf in London reinvented werewolf films as horrific spectacles laden with special effects. The Howling attitude mirrored that of other monster films of our time: If you're a monster, you're evil and should be punished. Parallels with the American legal system and general societal attitudes are left as an exercise for the reader.

"Live with wolves, howl like a wolf."
-- Russian proverb


Laurel and Hardy, peanut butter and jelly, vampires and werewolves. Though linked in the popular imagination to their more famous bloodsucking peers, werewolves have always been the less popular half of the duo. People don't respond to the savage inner beast the way they do to sexy, cosmopolitan immortals.

Sure, wolves have a certain sexiness. An aggressively amorous man is still called a wolf, and just imagine why the wolf wanted Little Red Riding Hood. But the werewolf's big problem is that wolves just don't scare us any more. The modern city-dweller never hears "ar-rooooo!" unless he lives near a fraternity house. People in cities have bigger anxieties. When crazy cultists can fill your subway car with nerve gas or blow up your airplane, who worries about wolves?

Today our main worry about wolves is that there aren't enough of them. Wolves are, or were, the chief predators of many ecosystems around the world. People have hunted them to the brink of extinction in many regions, and in those places nature's system has broken down. Now scientists have begun careful programs to reintroduce wolves into some areas, such as a highly publicized and controversial effort in Yellowstone Park.

Treat wolves as monsters? Yeah, and then you can scare people with the spotted owl or the snail darter.

"Some Bavarian peasants, having caught a wolf one evening, tied it to a post by the tail and went to bed. The next morning nothing was there! Greatly perplexed, they consulted the local priest, who told them that their captive was undoubtedly a werewolf and had resumed its human form during the night. `The next time that you take a wolf,' the good man said, `see that you chain it by the leg, and in the morning you will find a Lutheran.'"
-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary


The werewolf loped into roleplaying games when players found the delights of sitting around a living room and discovering their inner beast.

Early werewolf adventures follow the standard they'll-rip-your-throat-out model. For instance, "The Rescue" by Lynn Willis, in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu rulebook, calls werewolves "despicable and godless creatures." (Yeah, Lynn, but would you say that to their face?) But as attitudes toward wolves changed, the move from fighting the enemy to playing the enemy became a natural step.

Stellar Games' Night Life (1990) let players become werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and other monsters, but it lacked atmosphere and a developed background. For atmosphere and background by the bucketload, gamers had to wait two years for White Wolf Game Studio's Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

The second of Mark Rein-Hagen's Storyteller game series, published the year after the hit Vampire: The Masquerade (weak sister, remember?), Werewolf casts players as Garou, doomed warriors of Gaia, the Earth. Thirteen quarreling tribes of werewolves fight the imminent Apocalypse of global environmental devastation. Functioning as the Earth's immune system, the rural Garou strive tragically against the corrupting force known as the Wyrm, often personified by the evil megacorporation Pentex. (Casting werewolves as environmentalists was not entirely a new idea; Whitley Streiber's 1981 novel The Wolfen stars Native American werewolves with a back-to-nature attitude.)

A mythic tone permeates Werewolf, and it's all very solemn and sacred in a Native American style. But some players undoubtedly like the game because, of all the Storyteller creatures (described in Vampire, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling), werewolves are absolutely the best at kicking ass. They're awesome, dude! A Garou can shapeshift into human or wolf form, or become a monstrous "Crinos" (wolfman) that's hell on paws: 800 pounds, faster than anybody, claws and fangs out to here, heals damage instantly, and, if you weren't scared yet, it teleports. Garou can "step sideways" into a parallel spirit dimension called the Umbra, then return to mundane reality somewhere else. Who needs Scotty?


So, comes the trading card game craze. Vampire was first to make the jump from RPG to cards, becoming Wizards of the Coast's Jyhad (recently renamed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle). Naturally the weak sister followed, and in 1995 Mike Tinney and Stewart Wieck of White Wolf adapted Werewolf as the card game Rage.

In Rage you command a sept (pack) of Garou led by an alpha, who makes attacks in the free-form turn sequence. Each werewolf card shows the Homid (human) form on one side, the Crinos on the other. Stylish Equipment and Gift cards slip under the Garou on the left and right sides, and damage from combat cards goes on the bottom. Garou take lots and lots of damage in this game. Blood sprays, and flesh gets torn away in chunks. It's unsettling, but it skillfully mimics the action of the roleplaying game. Rage even offers a political dimension. As in Jyhad/Vampire, some cards grant votes in "moots" (meetings) that can have dramatic effects on play.

An expansion set, The Umbra, added rules for stepping sideways, fighting and binding spirits, and building places of power called caerns. And White Wolf had a fan club for the game, Garou Nation.

Unfortunately, the Rage rulebook is poor even by the weak standards of trading card games. You can't figure out much of the background without knowledge of Werewolf. This sent curious Rage players back to the source, temporarily boosting sales for the RPG even above Vampire. The weak sister came out on top at last! For werewolf fans, that's something to howl about.

[1999 UPDATE: Rage died along with (or even before) most other trading card games in 1996-7, but Five Rings Publishing, now a division of Wizards of the Coast, brought out a 1998 edition. At this writing, the game still commands a small following.]

Allen Varney, a freelance designer with extensive credits for TSR, West End, FASA, Steve Jackson Games, Hero Games, and others, is so glad to be back in his longtime home of Austin, Texas, that he feels like baying at the moon. More than usual, that is.


Books, stories, games, and sources about werewolves


  • Basil Copper, The Werewolf: in legend, fact, and art (St. Martin's Press, 1977).
  • Adam Douglas, The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf (1993). A study of the psychological condition of lycanthropy.
  • Elliott O'Donnell, Werwolves [sic] (1912; reissued, Longvue Press, 1965). Mostly a collection of horror stories masquerading as nonfiction.
  • Rev. Montague Summers, The Werewolf (1933; reissued, University Books, 1966). Stunningly erudite and boring, but has an impressive bibliography.


  • James Blish, "There Shall Be No Darkness" (1950).
  • Anthony Boucher, "The Compleat Werewolf" (1942).
  • Alexander Dumas the elder, The Wolf-Leader (1904).
  • Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris (1933). If you read one book from this list, pick this one.
  • Charles L. Grant, The Dark Cry of the Moon (1986).
  • Franklin Gregory, The White Wolf (1941).
  • Stephen King and Peter Straub, The Talisman (1984).
  • Jack Mann (Evelyn Charles Vivian), Grey Shapes (1937).
  • Robert R. McCammon, The Wolf's Hour (1984).
  • H. Warner Munn, The Werewolf of Ponkert (1925, collected 1958).
  • Byron Preiss, ed., The Ultimate Werewolf (Dell, 1991).
  • Saki (H. H. Munro), "Gabriel-Ernest" (1910).
  • Robert Stallman, "The Book of the Beast" trilogy: The Orphan (1980), The Captive (1981), The Beast (1982).
  • Whitley Streiber, The Wolfen (1978).
  • Thomas Tessier, The Nightwalker (1979).
  • Jack Williamson, Darker Than You Think (1940, expanded 1948).
  • Gene Wolfe, "The Hero as Werwolf" (1975).
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, The Godforsaken (1983).
  • Jane Yolen, ed., Werewolves (1988).


  • Wolf Blood (1910), directed by George Cheseboro and George Mitchell.
  • The Werewolf of London (1935).
  • The Wolf Man (1941). The Universal classic starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Four sequels: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
  • I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). Michael Landon as the young man-wolf.
  • Curse of the Werewolf (1961).
  • Wolfen (1981). Starring Albert Finney. Film debut of actor-dancer Gregory Hines.
  • An American Werewolf in London (1981). A charming mix of horror and comedy, written and directed by John Landis.
  • The Howling (1981). Directed by Joe Dante, co-written by John Sayles, make-up by Rob Bottin. Five sequels so far.
  • The Wolfman (1982). Forget it.
  • Wolf (1994). Jack Nicholson as the sexy wolf.


  • Werewolf by Night (Marvel Comics, 1971-4). A mediocre title (written for a brief time by Marv Wolfman), notable for artwork by Mike Ploog, whose fine paintings graced FPG's trading card game Guardians.


  • L. Lee Cerny and Bradley K. McDevitt, Night Life (Stellar Games, 1990). Three editions to date, a few supplements.
  • Mark Rein-Hagen, Werewolf: The Apocalypse (White Wolf Game Studio, 1992). Two editions, innumerable supplements, and a short story collection (When Will You Rage?, edited by Stewart Wieck).
  • Mike Tinney and Stewart Wieck, Rage (White Wolf, 1995). The card game inspired a couple of novels from White Wolf: Breathe Deeply by Don Bassingthwaite and The Silver Crown by Bill Bridges.