Human behavior is often weird and scary. And, unless real monsters actually walked the Earth in days of old, all monster myths are most likely inspired by some truly terrifying things people did to their fellow humans. Rape, torture, murder, cannibalism and trophy collecting are not just products of the imaginations of horror writers. People have been brutally killing each other since the dawn of time. Violence is part of the natural world, no matter what the new age hippies try to tell you. Humans are animals, and no matter how many civilizations we erect, how many Starbucks we build, or how many PTA meetings we attend, the truth is humans are the scariest things on the planet. Humans like to kill things and each other, and whenever possible, they like to blame these icky feelings on someone else. Scapegoating is a national pastime in many cultures around the globe and it has been that way since before the Romans started nailing Christians to crosses.
On October 31, 1589, Peter Stumpp, the Werewolf of Bedburg, was executed for killing and cannibalizing 18 people. Stumpp’s trial and execution is one the most famous cases of reported lycanthropy in European history, and it has fed the imaginations of writers ever since. Werewolf trials occurred simultaneously with witch trials, but the sheer volume of executed witches places these atrocities at the forefront of our dark past, and often overshadows the werewolf hunts that also took place in Europe and colonial America. Peter Stumpp was caught, sentenced to death, brutally tortured and executed after he confessed to killing 14 children, two pregnant women and their fetuses, which he later described as “dainty morsels.”
He admitted to killing and eating parts of his victims, but claimed that he only did these terrible things while wearing a magical belt given to him by the Devil. When he wore the cursed object he transformed into a wolf-like creature with sharp teeth and super-human strength. When he removed the belt he would revert to his normal human form. This type of werewolf, one changed through the use of a magical belt, is called a Boxenwolf, and doesn’t require the bite of another werewolf to achieve transformation, but it does require a pact with the Devil.
Stumpp was a cannibal and claiming to be a werewolf may have made it easier for him to deal with his own insanity. Blaming the Devil makes it easier to sleep at night I suppose. Stumpp also had sex with his daughter and a female cousin, and claimed that he had sexual relations with a succubus, which was another gift from the Devil. Is it just me, or was Peter Stumpp batshit crazy?
Clinical lycanthropy is a rare form of mental illness in which the patient believes himself to be transforming into something animal-like, and is classified as a form of schizophrenia due to how it manifests, with the first criteria being delusions.
I have a special place in my heart for the mentally ill. My father was a therapist, but before he earned his master’s degree in counseling, he started at the bottom of the crazy ladder by “driving the van of retards” (his words…and my mother’s), then he lived in a group home, then he worked nights at the hospital doing crisis intervention, and then he worked on the psych ward, and then he became a licensed therapist with a specialty in hypnotherapy. No shit. My dad was a hypnotherapist. Guess who was one of his early test subjects. Yep, me. In grade school. I was a great test subject, because I suffered from night terrors, and he used hypnosis and basic relaxation techniques/meditation to help me fall asleep at night. My nightmares were so bad that I was afraid to go to sleep, and had panic attacks when confronted with bedtime.
Because I was taught to respect as opposed to fear mental illness, and view it as a medical condition that can be treated with medication and/or therapies, I gained an appreciation and a simultaneous fascination with madness. I grew up in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. And, the town crazies, at least the ones with a diagnosis, were very familiar to me because of what my dad did for a living. They liked my dad, so they would talk to him when they saw him in public. They liked me too. Sometimes a little too much.
When I was about 13 or 14, a man who I knew to be a schizophrenic, and who preferred to medicate himself with booze as opposed to taking his prescribed medication, followed me home from school one day. I’m not sure what his plans were, but he would always try to engage me in conversation when we would see him around town. I liked him. And, I had done some reading about schizophrenia in the school library and knew it was something he couldn’t control. Like I said, I have a special place in my heart for the mentally ill. Anyway, once I was safely inside the house with all the doors locked, I called my dad. He called the police, but made sure to get there before they did. While I watched from inside, my dad tried to talk to the man and explained the situation to the police. He never followed me home again.
Although I was genuinely afraid that afternoon while that man stood outside the house pacing back and forth, as if arguing with himself about what to do next, there was a part of me that still felt compassion for him. His illness had taken control. An illness without a cure. Would he have hurt me? I don’t know. I’m also glad I had the sense not to find out.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, theorized the existence of libido, “an energy with which mental processes and structures are invested and which generates erotic attachments, and a death drive, the source of repetition, hate, aggression and neurotic guilt.” Lawrence Talbot is Freud’s wet dream. A truly tragic character, he is a textbook example of how repressed memories and emotional abandonment in childhood can lead to mental instability that manifests itself in inappropriate behaviors in adulthood.
What could be more inappropriate than allowing your rage to transform your id into a monster that rampages through the countryside (and London) ripping, tearing, murdering, and eating everyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in your path? If you had the ability to control this transformation and continued to kill people, that would make you a true monster. But, if like Lawrence Talbot, you were cursed with this terrible illness and not only despised your own actions, but sought to put an end to the curse, would you still be considered a monster? Not in my opinion, but I’ve been called crazy a few times, too.
Crazy is the New Black: The Wolfman
There are several versions of Lawrence Talbot’s story. The first time I encountered Lawrence (Larry) was in the 1941 Universal film, The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. I loved this movie when I was a kid. A Gypsy curse, fortune telling, lycanthropy, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, pentagrams, and a werewolf transformation involving nothing but makeup and lap-dissolves. What’s not to love? I mean, seriously this film set the standard for 20th century werewolf tales and inspired writers, filmmakers, and TV producers to take the legends of old and turn them into the iconic monsters we love so much.
Modern audiences would most likely find this version kind of cheesy and not very scary. To be honest, I enjoy watching The Wolf Man now because of its canonical importance, nostalgic value, and the fact that it makes me laugh hysterically. Besides, CLAUDE RAINS and BELA LUGOSI. We’re talking Universal monster movie gold here.
Here’s the basic premise (I stole from IMDb):
When his brother dies, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to Wales and reconciles with his father (Claude Rains). While there, he visits an antique shop and, hoping to impress Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the attractive shopkeeper, buys a silver walking cane. That same night he kills a wolf with it, only to later learn that he actually killed a man (Bela Lugosi). A gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) explains that it was her son, a werewolf, that he killed, and that Larry is now one himself.
While we feel sorry for Larry for finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time…although the fortune teller might say otherwise, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Talbot doesn’t inspire a whole lot of empathy. I mean, sure I feel bad for the guy, but the level of tragedy he experiences pales in comparison to the 2010 Universal film, The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro.
Here’s another basic premise (I stole from IMDb):
Though absent from his ancestral home of Blackmoor for many years, aristocrat Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to find his missing brother at the request of the latter’s fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt). He learns that a creature has links to an ancient curse turning people into werewolves when the moon is full. To save the village and protect Gwen, he must slay the bloodthirsty beast, but he contends with a horrifying family legacy.
Sounds a bit more compelling, doesn’t it?
In this version, which takes place near the tail end of the Victorian Era (post Jack the Ripper), Lawrence Talbot is a celebrated actor who has lived in America since childhood. When we first meet Lawrence he is performing Hamlet on the stage, which we later find is part of a London tour, conveniently placing him near his ancestral home, Talbot Hall in Blackmoor, Northumberland.
After receiving an unexpected visit from his brother Ben’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe, he returns home. Lawrence learns of Ben’s disappearance soon after he goes missing, but by the time he makes the train ride from London to Blackmoor, his brother’s corpse has been found in a ditch near Talbot Hall. He arrives too late to save his brother, and memories of his dark past are stirred up when he must face his father for the first time since childhood.
Like most people confronted with the mysterious and violent death of a loved one, Lawrence wants answers. But that’s not all he seeks. He is also desperate for the love and acceptance of his father, an emotionally crippled man full of dark secrets and brimming with alpha male testosterone. Lawrence never fully recovered from his mother’s death. When he meets Gwen, who not only looks remarkably like his mother, but also seems to embody many of her rare feminine qualities, he finds himself almost immediately attracted to her. Ben and Lawrence are emotionally and sexually attracted to a woman who reminds them of their mother. While Lawrence has repressed the exact details of his mother’s death, he still blames his father and hates him for sending him away at the age of nine.
Poor young Lawrence witnessed something so terrible that he had a mental collapse. He was sent to an asylum, presumably after he recounted what he saw the night his mother died. Due to the fantastic nature of his story, he was believed to be insane and treated as such until he accepted the story that was fed to him over and over: His mother committed suicide. She did not die at the hands of his father, who killed her because he is a monster. Once Lawrence was “healed,” he was shipped off to live with his aunt in America. Much like our dear friend Oedipus, Lawrence desires to be back in the arms of his loving mother and wishes his father were dead in her place.
Soon after Lawrence arrives in Blackmoor, he begins his investigation into his brother’s death. Against his father’s wishes, he examines the body, which is so terribly ravaged that…well, it’s worth watching the film just to see the look on Benicio Del Toro’s face. It’s one of those moments in horror where you know something really awful has happened, but instead of reacting the same way the character does, your brain interprets the horror as something inappropriately comical and despite how gruesome the situation might be, you laugh out loud.
After the shock of seeing his brother’s mangled corpse, Lawrence seeks refreshment in the local pub, which immediately made me think of The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Apparently, pubs in the UK are a great place to learn about werewolf lore. And the locals will most likely interpret your lack of knowledge as a sign that you’re going to be the werewolf’s next victim.
Despite the intentional humor of American Werewolf, there are still some pretty chilling scenes that bore deep into my subconscious mind, where fear and sexuality meet up in some very weird ways.
ANYWAY. Lawrence hears the local bumpkins talking about werewolves, their hatred of Gypsies, distrust of Sir John Talbot, and their belief that Lawrence’s mother was not only a Gypsy, but a whore to boot. You know, pointing fingers and making wild accusations. Scapegoating. But, in this case, they aren’t too far off the mark. Except for their beliefs about Gypsies. Oh and, the rumor about the late Mrs. Talbot having questionable morals. Because, as everyone knows all of Victorian (and our current) societal problems can be directly linked back to foreigners (and anyone who isn’t White) and overt female sexuality.
Truly, nothing warms the heart or makes you feel more at home than when you overhear some local jackass talking shit about your dead mother as you mentally prepare for your brother’s funeral.
After the funeral, and again, against his father’s explicit instructions to stay in the house, Lawrence continues his investigation into Ben’s death by visiting the nearby Gypsy camp. Shortly after he arrives at the camp, so do some of the local bullies. They threaten the Gypsies and blame Ben’s horrific death on an elderly trained bear. Lawrence isn’t an idiot. He doesn’t think the bear hurt anyone, but he’s sure that something is up and the Gypsies might have some insight. As he begins questioning people in the camp, some major carnage happens. Did I mention there’s a full moon?
Unlike the men from the village, Lawrence grabs a weapon, protects women and children, and chases whatever has been slashing its way through the camp with a shotgun. He’s a pretty good shot, but the creature is too fast. He stalks the beast to a misty stone circle where he quickly loses his bearings due a complete lack of visibility. This is a really intense scene that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You feel Lawrence’s fear and adrenaline mounting as he tries to find the creature he’s been chasing. When the beast attacks Lawrence, you anticipate it with your nerve endings, but you don’t see it coming until it’s too late. Just like Lawrence.
Almost mortally wounded, Lawrence receives battlefield surgery Gypsy style in a scene that always sends chills through me. Watching someone getting stitches is one thing, but watching them get stitches in a bacteria-ridden Gypsy vardo with a hooked needle to essentially reattach their head to their neck and shoulder takes you to completely new levels of body horror, Mysophobia, and trypanophobia. Realistically, even if he survived the injury, the ensuing infection would have probably killed him. But that wouldn’t be a very satisfying end to this story, would it?
Lawrence not only survives the attack, but over the course of a month he has a complete recovery that raises some questions for his doctor and an Inspector from Scotland Yard, Aberline, who comes to Blackmoor from London to follow up on Ben’s murder. Aberline is aware that Lawrence spent time in an asylum as a child and insinuates that his ability to portray so many characters on the stage may stem from a deep-seated mental illness like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. Without coming right out and saying it, he suggests that Lawrence may have had a hand in the carnage at the Gypsy encampment. Again, Lawrence is no dummy. He knows what Aberline is getting at and asks him to leave.
After Lawrence’s miraculous recovery, he and Gwen get to know each other a little better.
So, I mentioned that the doctor is a little more than concerned about the fact that Lawrence not only healed quicker than medical science could explain, but also, he doesn’t seem to have any scarring, disfigurement, or signs of an injury that should have permanently crippled if not killed him. Those darn Supernatural Forces laugh in the face of Science. Which apparently, the villagers don’t find funny. They show up to a) prove that he is a werewolf, and b) kill him once they have their proof.
When the lynch mob shows up outside Talbot Hall demanding blood, Sir John Talbot comes to his son’s rescue and threatens to kill anyone who trespasses on their land again. Before Sir John comes outside, the villagers grab Lawrence (it takes three to subdue him), and in the struggle he sustains a minor injury. A cut on the lip that sends Gwen into nurture mode.
Clearly, there is mounting sexual tension between these two characters. But, since there is a lot of taboo wrapped up in their feelings, and this story is set in Victorian England, they dance around each other as if they are made of glass. Psychologically, that may not be far from the truth. Especially for Lawrence. His brother’s death has forced him to return to his childhood home that he has avoided his entire adult life. His chosen profession is as an actor, a career in which he literally pretends to be someone he is not. The ghosts of his past still haunt Talbot Hall. He’s attracted to Gwen, but he must be experiencing some level of guilt for having lustful thoughts about his brother’s fiancee. And, he is aware of the physical changes in his body. He is freaked out about the fact that all signs of his injury are gone. When Gwen administers first aid and they are only inches away from each other, he recognizes that his appetites have become heightened. His yearning to touch her is palpable, but he’s afraid he might do something to hurt her.
Lawrence’s fears continue to mount. He knows something terrible is going to happen. He’s experiencing an increase in what Freud referred to as libido. He’s had sexual relationships with other women, so he isn’t afraid of touching Gwen. What has him concerned is the weird connection his brain is making between fucking, fighting, killing and eating. As the full moon rapidly approaches, Lawrence’s sense of propriety is quickly eroding away. The werewolf is about to emerge, and it terrifies him. Fortunately for Gwen, Lawrence truly cares for her well-being and sends her away before he or anyone else has the chance to harm her.
Soon after, Lawrence goes through his first transformation. He basks in the light of the full moon in all his skin-flaying, tendon-ripping, face-biting werewolf glory. I mean, he tears the shit out of all those nosy neighbors and leaves a trail of carnage through the forest and onto the property of Talbot Hall. When he awakens with a murderous rage hangover, he has no memory of the atrocities he’s committed, but fortunately his father is there to get him up to speed and let him know that he’s done “terrible things.”
Next stop, the asylum.
If this film were a history of mental illness in European cultures, it would fit perfectly with Freud’s theories of mental illness. However, it’s a horror film and we’re talking about literal monsters. In the world of The Wolfman, werewolves are real and when left to their own devices, they kill anyone who happens to be in their path of destruction. It doesn’t matter if you believe in them or not. They are a fact and a very real threat to modern living in 19th century England.
Several characters refuse to accept the truth that werewolves exist, even when they are witnessing their manifestation. Unlike Peter Stumpp’s neighbors who wanted to believe that the Devil was at work, and supernatural forces made him kill and eat 14 children, science and logic are at the core of the accepted belief system in Victorian England. The doctors and staff at the asylum and Inspector Aberline refuse to believe that werewolves can exist in their world. That’s pure nonsense, crazy talk, tales of superstition shared among backward cultures. These men only believe in what they can see and quantify.
One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in the asylum, when Lawrence is able to exact revenge on the people who tortured him. After Sir John Talbot visits Lawrence and finally tells him the truth about the night his mother died. The repressed memories are unleashed, and Lawrence relives that night in his mind. Everything he believed was true. Sometimes, having your beliefs confirmed isn’t a good thing. Lawrence’s father is much worse than he ever imagined. Not only is he the monster that killed Lawrence’s mother and brother, he’s also responsible for turning Lawrence into a werewolf.
Lawrence is so overwhelmed by this information that his mind shuts down and he falls into a deep sleep. When he awakes, he finds himself strapped in a wheelchair by the orderlies of the asylum and prepped for a demonstration prepared for his doctor’s colleagues, the police, members of the press, and other community leaders to prove that werewolves don’t exist. He insists that Lawrence suffers from a mental illness, delusions that are related to the trauma he experienced as a child.
Caring more about the plight of his fellow humans than the asylum staff, Lawrence attempts to warn them that they are in danger. The moon is full and he will transform at any moment. When the doctor and Inspector Aberline finally see Lawrence’s transformation they are unable to completely process the facts before them, and they are momentarily crippled by their mind’s desire to shut down. The doctor meets a well-deserved violent end at the hands of the creature he refused to believe in.
Aberline is made of stronger mettle, because he forces himself into action to deal with the reality of a werewolf running amok on the streets of London. And I suppose you could consider him a hero of sorts in this tale, but I was too busy rooting for Lawrence to care.
After Lawrence kills most of the asylum staff and escapes from the mental institution, he whoops it up and kills a whole lot of people in London. Aberline is committed to stopping him, but soon realizes traditional methods won’t work.
The next morning when Lawrence wakes up hungover again, he has a better sense of his Fate. He knows he has to put an end to the curse. He has to return to Talbot Hall to avenge the deaths of his mother, his brother, and ultimately himself. But, before he resigns himself to an untimely death, he goes to the one place he knows he can hide, regroup, and find a little human compassion.
Yes, it’s true. I am a monster sympathizer. Judge me if you must, but Lawrence Talbot is an excellent example of a monster we feel sorry for and wish we could help. Fate has dealt him a terrible hand, and no matter what he does, his story will have a tragic end. Traumatized as a child, he witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the true villain of this tale.
As an adult he seeks the love stolen from him when his mother died, but doesn’t find it until he meets Gwen. Even if Benicio Del Toro didn’t play Lawrence Talbot, I would still feel sorry for this character. However, I’m a sucker for a handsome man in Victorian garb, especially if he transforms into a tragic monster of myth and legends.
If by the end of this tale you don’t feel sorry for Lawrence Talbot, there is seriously something wrong with you. Yes, he’s a monster, but he did not choose his fate. And, all he ever wanted was to be loved and accepted. Who can’t relate to that? A life of hurt, betrayal, and tragedy is bound to end badly. Lawrence never had any hope of a happy ending.
I waffled over talking about yet another version of Lawrence Talbot. I’m not going to talk about him extensively, but I think I should at least mention him in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen a single episode of the Showtime masterpiece, Penny Dreadful, SPOILER ALERT.
One of the main characters has a secret that we don’t find out about until the final episode of the first season. In hindsight, there were plenty of clues, but when all the pieces fell into place, it was a glorious revelation. Prior to this wonderful surprise, this character has a lot of other personality quirks that make him incredibly interesting, mysterious, but totally likable. If he chooses to befriend you, you have a reliable friend and ally. Unless you betray him.
Like I said, I’m not going to talk about him too extensively because I will probably write about him in another post. I’ve considered dedicating an entire post to the cast of Penny Dreadful. What I will say is this, when we’re first introduced to this character he’s working as a sharp shooter in traveling wild west show like Buffalo Bill Cody’s. I thought that was pretty cool considering that Penny Dreadful is like porn for people obsessed with Victorian literature and culture. And monsters. First and foremost, Victorian monsters.
Anyway, we are led to believe his name is Ethan Chandler all through season one and two. It’s not until near the end of the second season that we learn his true name. When I heard it spoken, I literally raised my hands over my mouth in a gesture of mock surprise with my mouth forming a perfect O. I felt pure delight. Actual giddiness. The revelation that the mysterious Victorian werewolf character, who I already adored, is actually one of my favorite werewolves was like an extra special treat. Think what you will, but stories about werewolves in Victorian England make me happy. And Lawrence Talbot’s story is one of my favorites. Penny Dreadful‘s take on the story is fascinating and fresh. And I love the fact that when Ethan/Lawrence is in his human form, there is no doubt that he is one of the good guys. His relationship with Vanessa is a complicated one, and their sexual tension is maddening.
Outwardly, they seem like a great couple. They trust each other, care deeply for one another, accept each other’s flaws, and let me tell you, their flaws aren’t things you could easily ignore. But hey, he’s a werewolf, and he’s trying to deal with the guilt of killing a whole bunch of people and yeah, eating them. And she is a witch coming into her true powers and, oh yeah, Lucifer wants to make her his bride. A relationship would be difficult at best, and sometimes when Vanessa has sex it brings out the demon in her. Literally. Like I said, the sexual tension between them is pretty intense. So much so that sometimes Ethan has to channel his energies elsewhere.
For those of you who have been following along with my series, “Fictional Characters I Would Totally Fuck,” this is the first installment of my now monthly blog series. If you haven’t been following along, back in February I challenged myself to write a blog post a day about some of my favorite fictional characters and why I think they are totally fuckable. That was no small task. Out of 29 days in February, I managed to write 21 posts. Still not too shabby if you ask me. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this post and have a chance to read others. I’m having a great time writing them and look forward to your feedback.