SATANIC SINEMA: SATANISM & “THE WOLF MAN”
I watched The Wolf Man again the other day, the seminal film that transformed the werewolf myth into the stuff of American popular culture, because it is almost Halloween after all.
This is not a movie featuring any Satanists, devil worshipers, demons, or even much black magic–although watching Lon Chaney Jr. pick up on women like a bull in a china shop is a little obscene I guess.
Anyway, art and media don’t need to slap the devil all over everything to be Satanic. In fact, the unwitting Satanism of a movie like this is usually more valuable than explicit devilry.
Also they’re probably never going to put Paimon on a stamp or anything, so there’s something to be said for cultural penetration.
Yes, I certainly love this movie. Although it’s, um, admittedly really racist and sexist–no more so than the average Hollywood production circa 1941, I guess. But certainly no less so either.
Still, I think it’s got a lot to offer. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak gimmicked this one up, and the studio cast Creighton Chaney, the looming, broad-faced son of ’20s star Lon Chaney, changing his name to “Lon Chaney Jr” for the purposes of this film/all eternity.
Chaney plays a Welsh expat engineer bitten by a werewolf after returning his ancestral home. Frankly, Chaney as a Welshman is by far the least probable part of that scenario. But this is a guy who starred in a movie called Pillow of Death, so let’s not get hung up on details.
Werewolves weren’t much of a horror staple before The Wolf Man. Universal made Werewolf of London six years earlier, but since no moviegoer could ever have cared about the possibility of something tragic happening to star Henry Hull it flopped.
There aren’t many werewolves in classic literature either–mostly they were just a folk myth. In Eastern Europe, werewolves seemed to be a species of witches, and thus were the servants of Satan.
Convicted cannibal Peter Stumpp, a 16th century German farmer and at the time the world’s most famous alleged werewolf, confessed under torture that the devil gave him a magic belt that turned him into a wolf. Thus solving the eternal question, “What do you get for the man who has everything?”
Historian Maia Madar writes that in the 1651 trial of an infamous Estonian werewolf, the defendant similarly claimed the devil–a “man in black”–granted him the power to turn into a wolf with a garment.
The middle Irish history book De Ingantaib Érenn even holds that Saint Patrick once turned an entire family into werewolves as punishment for their pagan ways. This seems like the ultimate case of threatening with a good time, but fine.
The Wolf Man doesn’t feature any witches or devils, but it does bash the viewer over the head with pentagrams every five minutes or so. The symbol is an omen of doom in the film, but conversely also a mark of protection.
Like the wolves of St. Patrick, the fortune tellers who bring the werewolf curse to town in the movie are admonished for their pagan rites.
And when Chaney takes on some of their stigma, he becomes an outsider too–in one memorable scene the accusing stares of the villagers drive him out of a church. Similar things happen to me when I show my face at 24-Hour Fitness.
Screenwriter Siodmak, a German Jew who fled Europe to escape the Nazis in 1937, said in a 1999 interview for the Writer’s Guild of America that the movie was about him.
He too had been “forced into a fate I didn’t want” and made a pariah by social and political forces that branded him monstrous–not with the pentagram but with a similarly ancient mark.
That’s all well and interesting, but the thing about the movie that strikes me as a Satanist is how flexible our ideas about myth and history really are.
In The Wolf Man, a werewolf’s weakness is silver. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world will repeat this trivia and believe that it’s real folklore–but no, Siodmak just made it up for the movie.
It is true that people sometimes believed silver was a cure-all ward for evil spirits. But the church just killed historic werewolves like Peter Stumpp by burning or beheading them, like any other witches.
We think of myths and legends as ancient things, but it’s actually very easy to create new mythology out of whole cloth in a short time.
Siodmak also said in an interview in the book Science Fiction & Horror Heroes that a lot of people believed the oft-repeated poem in the movie–“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”–is real Welsh or German folklore.
But nah, he just made that up too. That’s Hollywood.
And of course, we know from our own experiences that much of what people believe about Satan and Satanism is, similarly, just Hollywood spin, pop culture, urban myth, and assumption.
Oftentimes Anti-Satanists will try to bludgeon you with narrow, outdated, or silly ideas about the devil and what they imagine Satanism to be, trying to rely on the strength of convention. But when we see how flimsy convention actually is, it turns out to be a paper tiger–or wolf, I guess.
A new idea can assume the gravitas of an old one with proper application. Beliefs change radically over time, but believers usually assume they remain consistent. And the suggestion of historicity can be as compelling as the real thing.
Those all seem like cynical conclusions, and yet I don’t find them discouraging or disillusioning. In the right hands, these can be guidelines for breaking down damaging beliefs, and creating better expectations.
At one point in The Wolf Man, a frustrated priest played by Harry Stubbs declares, “Fighting superstition is as hard as fighting Satan himself.”
To which I would say: Maybe it’s time to consider that one of those things could lend a hand against the other.