Musings & Meditations

Women Who Run with the Werewolves: Introduction

An excerpt from Women Who Run with the Werewolves (1995)

I am like the she-wolf.
I broke with the pack
And fled to the mountains
Tired of the plain….

Poor little tame sheep in a flock!
Don’t fear the she-wolf, she will not harm you.
But also don’t belittle her, her teeth are sharp
And in the forest she learned to be sly.

Alfonsina Storni, 1882–1938
Argentine poet

Even the most repressed woman has a secret life, with secret thoughts and secret feelings which are lush and wild, that is, natural. Even the most captured woman guards the place of the wildish self, for she knows intuitively that someday there will be a loophole, an aperture, a chance, and she will hightail it to escape.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves

Women Who Run with the WerewolvesI, like so many others, am a child of Famous Monsters of Filmland. First published in 1958, Famous Monsters magazine featured the great monster movies of the thirties, forties and fifties. At the top of the heap were the classic horror films of Universal Studios—Dracula starring Bela Lugosi; Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff; and The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. Thanks to Famous Monsters and its esteemed editor, Forrest J Ackerman, affectionately known as Forry by millions of fans, kids like me grew up surrounded by monster movie classics. Although my first love is and always will be the vampire, my diversion into werewolf lore is really no diversion at all, but another opportunity to indulge myself in my lifelong love off all monsters great and small.

After deciding to edit this collection stories, I sought out Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run with the Wolves. The power of Estés’ message and its resounding impact are attested to by the success of her book. Women Who Run with the Wolves has sold millions of copies, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, and has been translated into some twenty-seven languages. Estés’ primary message is that the Wild Woman—“the wild, natural, powerful force within each woman filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing”—is an endangered species. Throughout the book, Estés stresses the importance of reclaiming the Wild Woman, for without her, women become “over-domesticated, fearful, uncreative, trapped.”

The title of Estés’ book came from her study of wildlife biology. In wolves, Estés sees a metaphor for the history of women:

Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity of devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength…. They are experiences in adapting to constantly changing circumstances: they are fiercely stalwart and very brave.

Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors.

Even in the most wounded woman and the most damaged of psyches, the Wild Woman exists. She can never be completely destroyed. She may go into hiding, but she continues to live on. The Wild Woman, like a rabid or injured wolf, compensates for the loss of her natural, healthy state:

There is no way to fool the Wild Woman…. She is aware of the dark bundles in a woman’s mind that are tied round and round with ropes and bands. These spaces in a woman’s mind do not respond to light or grace, so covered over are they. And, of course, since the psyche is greatly compensatory, the secret will find its way out anyway, if not in actual words, then in the form of sudden melancholias, intermittent and mysterious rages, all sorts of physical tics, torques, and pains….

The central message of Estés’ book is that each on of us needs to retrieve the Wild Woman, to rediscover our wolfish selves. We, as women, have been cut off from our instinctual selves, and to retrieve and to nurture the Wild Woman, we must enter our own darkness; we must be prepared to encounter our rabid, distorted selves, to come face to face with our powerful, rage-filled selves. “A woman must go into the dark,” she writes, “but at the same time she must not be irreparably trapped, captured, or killed on her way there or back.”

The “beast within” is a classic theme in werewolf literature and folklore. The notion that we have a dual nature is a common one, and beast images exist throughout the world in all cultures. The Northern and Eastern European image is the wolf; while in Central America, it may be a jaguar or a puma; the bear in Russia; and the hyena in Africa. The supernatural lore of humans turning into animals and animals into humans is a universal archetype. These totemic beliefs date back to ancient history, when the power of the animal spirit may have been called upon for its skills and attributes. A wolf, for example, could be called upon for its hunting skills, cunning and strength. Over the millennia, this image of the human animal has metamorphosed and transmuted into what has become common fare for horror novels and monster films.

Lycanthropy—the medical condition associated with being a werewolf—is very similar to what Estés is describing. The origins of the word lycanthropy come from the Greek lukanthropialykos meaning wolf, and anthopos meaning human. The name for both a psychiatric condition and a supernatural one, lycanthropia is one of the oldest diagnoses in what is thought of as psychiatric literature, with records of individuals being diagnosed as lycanthropic as early as the fifth century A.D. Early diagnoses of lycanthropy described any kind of animalistic behavior on the part of the patient, with symptoms including fits, delusions and aggressive behavior.

In his book, The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf, Adam Douglas describes the case of a forty-nine-year-old woman who was convinced she was turning into a wolf:

During the twenty years of her marriage, she had been troubled by urges toward bestiality, lesbianism, and adultery, as well as by an obsession with wolves which led her to think and dream about them constantly. Eventually she acted on her impulses, tearing off her clothes at a family gathering, and adopting the mating position of a female wolf in front of her mother. The next day, after sexual intercourse with her husband, she spent two hours growling, scratching and gnawing at the bed…. Her delusions persisted for a few weeks and she was able to describe them in some detail: “I am a world of the night: I am a wolf woman of the day…I have claws, teeth, fangs, hair…and anguish is my prey at night…the gnashing and snarling of teeth…powerless is my cause. I am what I am and will always roam the earth long after death…I will continue to search for perfection and salvation….”

This woman, who had for years repressed inner compulsions and desires, found herself in a psychic and spiritual state in which she literally believed herself to be out at night, running with wolves.

Estés describes the Wild Woman as having “real teeth, a true snarl, huge generosity, unequaled hearing, sharp claws, generous and furry breasts.” This image of the Wild Woman as both nurturing mother and feral beast has its roots, like the vampire, in the traditions of the ancient goddesses. In myth and folklore, dogs and wolves, both carrion eaters, were believed to carry the dead in their bodies to their mother, the Goddess. Sometimes, she was a god herself—a bitch goddess such as the Vedic Sarama. As the Huntress—Artemis, Diana, or Anath—the Goddess is also accompanied by dogs. In Celtic tradition, the Goddess Hel, ruler of the land of death, gave birth to lunar wolf-dogs who at the flesh of the dead and carried souls to paradise. These dogs came to be known as the Hounds of Hel, and later, the Hounds of Hell. They accompanied the Goddess and assisted her in guarding the gates of the afterworld.

In wolf-guise, thse goddesses are all variations on the Dark Goddess, the Devouring Mother. She is death personified, and to enter the realm of her darkness is to enter death itself.

Early images of the Goddess also included the wolf-god as her male consort. Males who were dedicated to the worship of the Goddess in her wolf form are often associated with early man-wolf imagery. As Christianity made inroads into pagan and Goddess-worshiping cultures, wolves and their man-wolf images became associated with the Devil. In the years between 1520 and 1630, an estimated thirty thousand cases of werewolves were recorded in France alone. Werewolves, the Devil’s creatures, were believed to aid and abet witches in their “evil deeds.” Many women were accused of “riding a wolf,” the implication being that they were on their way to a witch’s sabbat. Although some women were accused of being werewolves, the majority of women condemned during this time were accused of being witches. Mostly men were accused of being werewolves. The persistence of the archetypal image of the Goddess and her wolf consort may explain, at least in part, why werewolves are, more often than not, men.

The classic female werewolf has a lot in common with the classic femme fatale. One of the earliest werewolf stories to appear in English is an often-reprinted excerpt from the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Captain Frederick Marryat. A young man, Krantz, tells the tale of his father’s marriage to a Nordic woman named Christina. The father’s first wife died in mysterious circumstances, and he has sworn not to harm Christina in any way. One day, in their father’s absence, Christina kills Krantz’s brother and sister and eats their remains. When Krantz’s father realizes what has happened, he kills Christina, only to be killed later by the avenging spirits of the North who had accepted his oath to bring no harm to her. Thus, Christina—beautiful though cruel and cold, much like the femme fatale of romantic literature—became the model for female werewolves in the stories that followed.

Many nineteenth-century werewolf tales featured women who were the exact opposite of the Victorian convention of frail womanhood. In “The Man-Wolf” (1864), written by the French writing team of Erckmann-Chatrian, a nobleman’s lust for a female werewolf leads him to murder his wife, marry the werewolf, and father a generation of wolf-children. “Olalla” (1855) by Robert Louis Stevenson is the story of a family presumed affected by madness and degeneracy. Both stories portray women who are driven by something deep within their psyches to strike out at the world. In Clemence Housman’s play, The Were-wolf (1895), a young woman who wears white furs and is known as White Fell appears in a Nordic village. She is described as “a powerful, independent woman, a prototype of the barbaric heroines of many epics to follow, a fur-slinging, axe-wielding huntress descended straight from Hyperborea.”

Female werewolves made frequent appearances in the pulp fiction magazine of the early 1900s. Writers such as Greye La Spina, Seabury Quinn, H. Warner Munn, and Jack Williamson contributed to werewolf lore and magazines such as Weird Tales, Strange Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and others that appeared in the years between the mid-1920s and the late 1950s. Princess Tchernova, the principal character in La Spina’s Invaders from the Dark, is a classic femme fatale. She has sharp, white teeth, green eyes, red lips, and highly polished fingernails. La Spina writes “even the princess’ slinking, sinuous walk…by its resemblance to the tireless gait of the wolf, would have betrayed her real personality to an expert.”

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the werewolf will be forever associated with the Universal Studios’ movie The Wolf Man in which Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed the sympathetic werewolf, a victim of circumstance. “Whomever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself,” Maleva (the old gypsy woman, played by Maria Ouspenskaya) tells Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot. The film ends with the elder Talbot, Larry’s father, bludgeoning a wolf with a silver-tipped cane. Talbot’s father then watches in horror as the wolf man’s body transforms in death to that of his son, Larry. With the success of The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot became the prototype for the werewolf as tragic hero, a sympathetic beast who is also a victim.

As with so many successful films, The Wolf Man was followed by a number of imitators. Among them were films that featured women as werewolves. In She-Wolf of London (1946) and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), young women fear that they have inherited a family curse of the werewolf. As grisly murders take place, they are sure that they are responsible. Both, however, are redeemed in the end. Ostensibly a vampire movie, Blood of Dracula (1957) has much more in common with the werewolf motif: When a young woman is recruited for an experiment that brings about physical and psychological changes, she becomes hairy, with a heavy brow and ferocious teeth and an insatiable need for human blood. Her only salvation is her ultimate death.

Other werewolf movies portray women in more licentious ways. The transformation of women into beast correlates with their sensual arousal in films such as Cry of the Werewolf (1944) and El Festin de la Loba (1964). In The Howling (1980), Elisabeth Brooks portrays a werewolf who is also a classic vamp, the sexually insatiable women who ruins and destroys men in the midst of her frenzied bloodlust. This equation of women’s sexual urges with bestiality is not limited to werewolves—in films such as Cat People, Attack of the Cobra Woman, and Lair of the White Worm, women’s sexuality is characterized in terms of animal behavior, with cats and snakes seeming to provide the most popular comparisons.

Not always a tragedy, the transformation into a werewolf often represents freedom and a return to nature. In Wolf, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer) is completely unhappy with her life, her relationship with her father, and is still grieving the death of her brother. She meets and falls in love with Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) who is, by that time, well into his transformation into a wolf. By the end of the film, it is clear that she is not at all afraid of the likelihood that she, too, may be a werewolf, but is instead drawn to the freedom that the transformation represents.

The idea that animal transformation is freeing appears from time to time in werewolf literature and is most often used as a symbol of ostracism, the means by which an individual is kept apart from society. For Estés, freedom is the essence of transformation. The Wild Woman as creature, or criatura, lives a life with innate integrity and natural boundaries. Despite the risk of confronting the criatura—who is the death goddess, the maiden in descent, the crone—we all benefit from listening to her wisdom.

† † †

Whether bestial or gentle, murderous or chivalrous, the werewolf has represented an inner-self, a soul, if you will. And it is this definition of the werewolf that finds its counterpart in the Wild Woman that Estés encourages women to embrace in order to become complete human beings. Embracing the she-wolf within, however, carries another kind of risk as well. Joan Crawford put it perfectly in her closing remarks in the 1939 comic drama The Women: “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society outside a kennel.” The association of socially unacceptable behavior with the behavior of wolves, dogs, and other canine creatures, is really quite familiar.

Being a bitch is not something nice girls are taught to aspire to. Even so, when we look inside and release our anger, our rage, our desire, our need, the risk of being called a bitch is always right around the corner, the word always on the tip of someone’s tongue. Whether we release our rage or keep it tightly bound, the potential to become what society fears and despises is always with us. As Estés reminds us, “No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.”

† † † The descriptions of the individual stories in this collection have been omitted.

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  1. […] “Introduction,” Women Who Run with the Werewolves […]

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