Most folk think they know the werewolf legend. You get bit by a werewolf and then become one. Yet how did the first werewolves begin? Its like the chicken and the egg dilemma. The best place to look is sixteenth century France. Between 1520 and 1630 there were 30,000 cases of lycanthropy. That’s a whole lot of baying at the moon. Reading through the various cases, I noticed some trends emerge.
The Dark Lord
It’s no surprise in a devout Christian country that the devil would be blamed for any wrongdoing. In two legends, a figure dressed all in black approaches the victims and tempts them. In 1502, Pierre Burgot was trying to gather up his sheep when he ran across an ominous horseman all in black. The stranger called himself “The Lord” and asked Burgot to obey him. In a second meeting, The Lord commanded that Burgot denounce God.
Another case involved a boy called Jean Grenier. He ran away from an abusive father, finally meeting the Lord of the Jungle in the woods. The man was tall, dressed in black, and sat upon a horse. (Puts a whole new meaning to tall, dark and handsome.) This Lord kissed Grenier with icy lips. On their second meeting (and it seems the nasty part of the deal happens at the second meeting) the Lord scratched a tattoo onto the boy’s thigh, marking him.
Curse of the Werewolf 1961
Apparently the Dark Lord carries around vials of werewolf ointment. In both the above cases, this is what caused the transformation. In the case of Burgot, he met a man called Michel Verdum (possibly a friend of the Lord). He commanded Burgot to strip naked and rub magic ointment on his body. During the process, Burgot saw his arms and legs transform, becoming hairy and lupine. Verdum also became a werewolf and together they ravaged the countryside.
The boy lycanthrope, Grenier, had a similar experience. The Jungle Lord gave the boy ointment and a wolf skin. After anointing himself, the wolfskin transformed Grenier into a werewolf. One view of the lycanthrope is as a skin walker.
The Beast of Gevaudan, published by Basset, 1764 (color engraving). Musee Nat. des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Paris, France
Apparently, the favorite food of werewolves is children, raw and crunchy. Burgot tore apart a seven-year-old boy and abducted a four-year-old girl. He and Verdum ate up every last bit. Grenier attacked and ate fifteen children, including one from a cradle.
The werewolf of Caude (1598) was tried for killing and eating a boy of fifteen. There was also a werewolf who used a tailor shop to lure children (because so many kids desperately yearn to hem and stitch).
Finally, the Hermit of Dole (Gilles Garnier) munched down on several children in 1573. Another werewolf, Gilas Garner, attacked children with paws and teeth, eating flesh from their legs and belly. Bottom line, it did not pay to be a teen in medieval France.
Werewolf by Lucas Cranach
In none of these cases do further werewolves multiply by excessive bites. The legends seem clear that some mingling with the dark forces causes lycanthropy, not some disease.
I am not a card-toting Lego nut. Honest. Not me. But events have conspired to induct me into Legodom in a big (and somewhat expensive) way. It’s called Lego Monster Fighters and it’s damn cool. Finally, after Star Wars, superheroes, and Lord of the Rings, Lego turned its attention to the most enduring pop culture there is: Horror.
Let me go back a bit. As a pre-teen I was a Lego nut. Admittedly. Back in the day (this would be the early 80s) there were no elaborate Lego kits. The one I recall was this moon lander kit. Mostly I just jimmied parts together to make interesting things
Why did I stop with the tiny plastic bricks. Basically life. I could mark the official end as the year I got my driver’s license. With freedom came girls and traveling. Legos didn’t fit in very well.
Fast forward twenty-five years and I now have a five-year-old daughter. True, she’s been playing with Duplos since she was one or two, but things really took off this year. First she created her own Lego Hulk. Then I bought her the Lego Avenger’s kit (which took me hours to assemble). Finally her birthday was only a short time later. When I saw that Lego had gone to the monsters, I had to bite. You see everyone in my family (daughter, wife, myself) are unabashed monster nuts. So here you go, the assembled Lego kits for three of the Monster Fighter sets.
Here’s the long view of “The Vampyre Castle”. Lego has come a long way since the moon lander series. This has a trap door, a secret room concealed with moveable stairs, and a Lego coffin.
Here’s a view of all the monsters. The werewolf comes from a different set (“The Werewolf”) where he launches out of a tree at one of the monster hunters. Check out the front of that car. The monster hunters have all the cool rides.
Finally we have “The Crazy Scientist and His Monster”. It has a “glow brick” that lights up with a Lego gear system (how very Steampunk). The figures for all the sets are astounding. I’m told that these sets aren’t available everywhere just yet. But they’re coming.
One of my favorite restaurants I frequent is Lucha Libre near the airport in San Diego. They make a mean chocolate mole sauce and astounding salsa. The theme of this tiny taco shop is lucha libre (thus the name). If you’re not familiar with this odd Spanish term it means “free fighting” or basically Mexican wresting.
The wrestlers of Mexico often don masks when they fight. Remember Nacho Libre, that movie with Jack Black? Same deal. However, the history of this “sport” involves secret agents, musicals, aliens, and monsters.
The first famous masked wrestler was El Santo (The Saint). Way back in 1942, El Santo changed wresting by wearing his trademark silver mask. Yet he was not constrained by the limitations of the ring. By 1958, El Santo branched out to make movies. He rode the wave of Hammer horror films as well as the James Bond films.
You can view many of El Santo’s movie posters at El Año de El Santo (The Year of El Santo). I’ve included some favorites here.
Santo against the Bad Brain was Santo’s first film.
Santo is only referred to as El Enmascarado (the masked man) and has nearly no lines in this film.
Santo and Dracula’s Treasure
This 1968 “classic” features El Santo inventing a time machine. (He was a man of many talents). They travel back in time to face of with Dracula. This movie is most famous for the version you can’t find: Santo en El vampiro y el sexo. That was the same film but with an overabundance of nude scenes.
El Santo is teamed up with Blue Demon. They fight all the monsters (from left to right): Vampire Woman, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, and Cyclops.
Here’s the complicated plot to “Los Montruos” (1969), see if you can follow it. A mad scientist takes control of the monsters and sics them on the wrestlers. That’s pretty much it.
I sense some copyright infringement here with Marvel. Too bad the movie was made almost 40 years ago in Turkey.
El Santo teamed up with Captain America (which I could totally see, by the way) to take on Spider-man (who is apparently a villain). This gem came out in 1973 in Turkey. Completely unlicensed, the Turks felt they could lift any character to use in their films.
I am a monster nut. I’ll own that. My first published book dealt with vampires in film and television. I grew up on the Toho crew. I have action figures for nearly every major Universal monster (including the second Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Creature Walks Among Us).
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my four-year-old daughter has taken a liking to the classic monsters. By this I mean the big five: the four Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Woflman) and also zombies. Recently, while watching the Hex Girls on Youtube, my wife stumbled upon the Monster High videos. My daughter was hooked. But this got me thinking. The cartoon/merchandise features the big five monsters, all with the familiar quirks akin to each one. But I knew that many of these were off base from the true legends of these creatures.
The five classic monsters (plus a gorgon)
So after hours of research, I present to you the five most egregious errors we make about classic movie monsters.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man
I admit, after looking through countless books, I found that most of the traditional legends line up with our common associations. The link of werewolves to the moon dates back to 1214 where Gervaise of Tillbury reported cases in Auvergne of men turning into wolves during the full moon. There is some controversy about the silver bullet. Some believe it was all made up by Universal for the Wolf Man movie. But historians know that in 1767, the Beast of Le Gevaudan was killed with bullets from a melted silver chalice.
The only thing I can say that most likely not part of original folklore is the pentagram on the hand as a mark of the werewolf. This was probably concocted by the Universal folk for the film. A pentagram has traditionally served as a symbol of protection (even from werewolves).
4 The Mummy
Boris Karloff as the Mummy
Mummies are a staple for monster themed parties and kids playing with rolls of toilet paper. But not all mummies are bandaged and scribbled over in hieroglyphics. There are mummies all over the world. Basically any place extremely dry will create a mummy. And for the sake of argument, we’ll define a mummy as something with most of the internal organs still present. Those are the squishy bits that tend to dissolve during decomposition.
The strangest mummies I found were the Incan mud mummies. These date back to 5000 BC, rivaling Egypt as the first to mummify. Basically, the Incans would disassemble the body, organs and all. They used heat to dry the skin. Then the body was reformed using feathers, clay and glass. Everything was covered in a white ash paste. Finally, the skin was refitted on the body.
Then there are the bog mummies. This type of mummification might have been accidental (oops, I fell into a peat bog) or a form of sacrifice (slipping a deceased relative into the bog to bring him or her closer to the gods). Either way, the body became preserved in the frigid stagnant water loaded with tannic acid. Sometimes not everything survived the years in the bog. Take the bodies found in Florida. Here only the brain was preserved (along with the skeleton) from bodies 7000 to 8000 years old.
Finally, we have the Chinese mummies. Western China is basically one ginormous desert. In addition to the sand, heat, and wind you get bonus pits of salt. These were used a cemeteries as well as areas of sacrifice. One young woman was found partially dismembered with her eyes gouged out. There was also a baby boy, apparently buried alive.
The strangest finds have come from the Takla Maken Desert. Over the past thirty years, archeologists have found many mummies, but all of them have been caucasian, not Chinese. And these shriveled folk had a thing for clothes, many being buried with multiple outfits. The most famous mummy is “The Man with Ten Hats.” You guessed it, he was buried with ten hats.
A Voodoo zombie
Real zombies don’t eat people. In fact they don’t do very much at all. Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. Most were little more than slaves working on sugar plantations in Haiti. They were dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.
A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.
It was George Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead, released on October 2, 1968, that forever changed the image of the zombie. Romero never refers to his walking dead by the word zombie. Instead each of his films calls them the living dead. Despite this technicality, modern moviegoers made the connection. When Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, was released in 1978, it was distributed internationally as Zombie (or Zombi).
From the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre
Traditionally, vampires looked nothing like Edward Cullen or Lestat. A more apt description would be a ruddy-faced overweight man with long fingernails, his mouth and left eye open, with a linen shroud as clothing. (Not really going to sweep you off your feet, is he?) The biggest transformation to this myth came with the 1931 film version of Dracula staring Bela Legosi. Here the monster is shown as debonaire and charming. Much of this depiction came from Bela Lugosi’s performance and the original stage play.
Additionally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula could walk in daylight (although he prefers night). It was left to two subsequent movies to introduce death by sunlight. In Son of Dracula (1943), Lon Chaney, Jr. Plays Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backward). He simply fades away when struck with the sun’s rays. In Return of Dracula (released in 1944, only a few months after Chaney’s performance), Lugosi returns as Armand Tesla. In the end, he dissolves in the sunlight.
The problem most people make with this monster is his name. Frankenstein is the doctor. The tall green guy with bolts in his neck is simply “The Monster.” In the Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she called the creation Adam. In one of the play adaptations of the novel, the creature is billed as simply “________, played by Mr T. Cooke.”
This time we can’t completely blame the Universal picture for the confusion over the monster’s name. This happened in Shelley’s time. (It’s what you get for not naming a central character, writer’s take note). Yet once Universal cast Karloff as the “Unnamed Monster”, the audience stuck the monster with the doctor’s name. This is despite the fact that in the opening credits, it’s Karloff who is unnamed, appearing as a question mark.
Opening credits for Frankenstein
I hope all this has cleared up some misconceptions about our favorite monsters. It doesn’t change how these creatures have evolved. It’s natural to think of vampires dissolving in the sun, zombies eating brains, and that hulking monosyllabic fellow as Frankenstein.