It begins as a gooey lesion on his forehead. He reaches into the wound under his ripped skin, grimaces in agony, and pulls a bullet from his skull. The flesh begins to pulsate, throb, bubble, and turn a sickly gray; his eyes roll up in exquisite pain. Claws emerge from his fingertips, and a slimy mouth and nose thrust slowly, so slowly outward from the rest of his face, as sharp canine teeth burst through his gums.
Eddie Quist has transformed into a werewolf.
This scene is from Joe Dante’s 1981 film The Howling, and is as delightful as it is disgusting; it’s one of the many brilliant film sequences depicting the lycanthropic transformation. Werewolves reveal the inner beast lurking in all men, and have been a beloved subject in folklore and entertainment for centuries.
In 2013, Eric Diaz, writing on Nerdist.com, ranked filmic werewolf transformation scenes—the worst being the goofy, fluffy, Chewbacca-ish morph of Oz in the 1990s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the best being David Kessler’s shift, aided by robots and sophisticated prosthetics, in the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London. There’s one thing that is the same in every one of the ten scenes: The werewolf in question is a man.
Transformation scene from Joe Dante's 1981 film The Howling.
Where are all the great female werewolves? Other than the occasional few over the years, there is a marked dearth of them represented in literature and film. When envisioning famous male werewolves, there’s certainly no lack. We can point to young Bertrand Caillet from the famous 1933 horror novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore; Scott Howard from the 1985 movie Teen Wolf; Remus Lupin of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-verse; Wilfred Glendon of the 1935 film Werewolf of London; Lawrence “Larry” Talbot of the 1941 film The Wolf Man; and Jacob Black, the hunky teen werewolf from Stephenie Meyer’s 2005–08 Twilight books (and subsequent films).
There is a certain irony here, because many of the first werewolves to be outed in society from the 16th through the 18th centuries were actually women. Just as our American ancestors had their Salem Witch Trials, Europe had its Werewolf Trials, and a large number of the so-called “werewolves” tortured and burned at the stake were female.
Still, many of the tales that have trickled down from this period of history to the present day focus on celebrated male werewolves who ravaged villages, the most famous of whom may be the German farmer Peter Stumpp (sometimes written as Stubbe or Stumpf). That gentleman made a dastardly deal with Satan himself in order to become a werewolf, murdering and consuming the flesh of good Christian villagers, even his own kin. He was tortured ruthlessly, and his mistress and daughter were flayed alive and killed alongside him.
We remember Stumpp, yet so many of his female peers are long forgotten. In the 17th-century werewolf trials of Estonia, women were about 150 percent more likely to be accused of lycanthropy; however, they were about 100 percent less likely to be remembered for it.
Woodcut depicting the execution of Peter Stumpf in Cologne in 1589. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
There’s also a pronounced lack of female werewolves in popular culture. Their near absence in literature and film is explained away by various fancies: they’re sterile, an aberration, or—most galling of all—they don’t even exist.
Their omission from popular culture does one thing very effectively: It prevents us, and men especially, from being confronted by hairy, ugly, uncontrollable women. Shapeshifting women in fantasy stories tend to transform into animals that we consider feminine, such as cats or birds, which are pretty and dainty, and occasionally slick and wicked serpents. But because the werewolf represents traits that are accepted as masculine—strength, large size, violence, and hirsutism—we tend to think of the werewolf as being naturally male. The female werewolf is disturbing because she entirely breaks the rules of femininity.
To be fair, there are a few examples of literary female werewolves from the past, such as White Fell, the femme fatale from Victorian author Clemence Housman’s 1896 novel The Were-Wolf. But the majority of werewolf women in popular culture are much more recent inventions. The Twilight Saga’s Leah Clearwater plays a somewhat interesting (but ultimately very minor) role in Meyer’s books. It is revealed that she is probably sterile, and an anomaly among the pack members, who are all male. Debbie Pelt appears in several seasons of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood, which ran from 2008 to 2014, as a pathologically jealous female werewolf and an antagonist of the series. She’s usually seen in her human form, and occasionally as a majestic white wolf, but never as anything in between those two forms.
Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld, an urban fantasy novel series of thirteen books written from 2001 to 2012, stars female werewolf Elena Michaels, a complex and sympathetic character straddling human and werewolf worlds (she’s also the sole female werewolf who has abnormal control over her transformations). Grace Brisbane is the smart and extremely likable main character of the young adult series The Wolves of Mercy Falls, written between 2009 and 2011 by Maggie Stiefvater, and she becomes a werewolf at the end of the first book. Like both Debbie and Leah, Grace is either a teenage girl or a full wolf, and never an amalgam of the two.
Julia Oldham, Werewolf and Her Sister, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Julia Oldham, Werewolf Driving her 1969 Datsun Roadster, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
The female werewolf is indeed becoming more popular, but there are still crucial differences and prejudices at work. A quick internet image will find popular female lycanthropes in their human forms much more often than their wolf or part-wolf forms, whereas the same search for male werewolves will result in many images in all stages of their transformation, however horrific. Many of Armstrong’s Otherworld covers depict beautiful, thin women in erotic positions, and rarely show wolves. This is significant, because it highlights society’s expectation that women remain hairless and normatively beautiful—even when they are werewolves.
Lycanthropy has clearly been stolen from women over the years, and yet, while the condition is indeed connected to many supposedly “masculine” traits, the state of werewolfism is also very similar to menstruation. According to most werewolf narratives, the wolf cycle follows the lunar month, and is characterized by behavioral and physical changes caused by chemical fluctuations, much like the menstrual cycle.
Think of it this way: During menstruation, tissue is produced and then expelled from the walls of the uterus to an abject space, the vagina, which is neither entirely outside nor inside the body. Similarly, a werewolf’s transformation involves production and expenditure of tissue, and a confusion of inside and outside, as the surface skin of the human-phase werewolf ruptures, turns inside out, and grows hair.
This uncanny similarity is not typically broached in stories about male werewolves, however. One reason might be to prevent men from having to consider their own menstrual cycles and radical, fleshy femininity as they imagine themselves as werewolves.
Julia Oldham, Transformation 1, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Ginger Snaps, a 2000 Canadian film directed by John Fawcett, does intertwine lycanthropy, menstruation, and sexually transmitted disease through its main character, Ginger, who is attacked by a werewolf when she gets her first period. As she begins her transformation, she menstruates heavily, grows hair from her bite, and becomes sexually aggressive. She passes lycanthropy to others through unprotected sex, and begins to murder humans and dogs in her neighborhood.
The character Ginger is pretty revolutionary, if also campy and grotesque, but she’s also completely unsympathetic; through her werewolfism, her sexuality becomes aggressive and violent, and she loses any human qualities she once had. Crucially, throughout much of the film, Ginger remains girlish and sexually alluring; the viewer doesn’t see Ginger-as-Werewolf until the final moments of the film, right before she is killed by her younger sister. Yet again, a woman is denied her physical wolfness.
A particularly poignant female werewolf character can be found in issue 40 of Alan Moore’s 1985 comic series Swamp Thing. Phoebe, a woman struggling with a sexist husband named Roy and a raging case of PMS, is seen buying feminine pads in a grocery store. She returns home to a small gathering of friends, and after listening to one too many of Roy’s obnoxious and offensive comments, she painfully and juicily transforms from a beautiful woman into a huge, powerful werewolf. Her wolf form rips out of her body through her orifices, leaving a human skin behind, and she is poised to kill Roy.
She spares him but goes on a wild rampage, destroying an adult bookstore and a supermarket. Touching minds with Swamp Thing, she declares, “I am woman. I seek release from this stifling place that has been built for me,” and in the ultimate act of frustration and rage, impales herself on a knife display that cheerily advertises, “Here’s good news for housewives!” Dying, Phoebe again becomes a human woman and asks Swamp Thing to bring her body outdoors, where she can expire peacefully.
Illustration by Laurence Housman from Clemence Housman's The Were-Wolf, 1896. Photo via Project Gutenberg.
Illustration by Laurence Housman from Clemence Housman's The Were-Wolf, 1896. Photo via Project Gutenberg.
If Ginger and Phoebe are any indication, female werewolves who show their true werewolfishness can expect little more than a violent, tragic end.
However, lycanthropic ladies may yet have their heyday. A 2015 entry on the blog Nerdy Werewolf celebrates 22 recent “Lady Werewolves from Film & TV,” which is very promising. There are various such lists, evidence that there is at least interest in the female werewolf. Again, though, the images of the characters that are often mentioned are largely of beautiful women in human form. Some of the lists bear titles like “Top 20 Sexiest Female Werewolves of All Time,” and obviously focus on the hot human bodies of werewolf women.
We are used to seeing both women fall in love with hairy, bestial men, from the monstrous prince of Beauty and the Beast to Tom Selleck. And it works for same-sex couples, too: In T.J. Klune’s sweet, punchy coming-of-age werewolf novel Wolfsong (2016), feisty wolfishness is a joyous component of the blossoming romance between two teen boys, Ox and Joe.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a future when men will be comfortable swooning over the sexiness of huge, hairy, monstrous women. It is worth holding out hope, however, that in our ongoing werewolf renaissance, it’s certain that many more films, books, and TV shows starring female werewolves are being written and produced. That means more possibilities for women to reveal their inner and outer wolves—hair, teeth, and all—with pride.
Idee di Pietra in Gstaad, Switzerland