Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Icons of Horror: Werewolves, Witches, and Mummies (Oh My!)

...An introduction to 3 of the most popular icons of horror. 

No one can say with complete certainty when the first tale of the werewolf was told. What seems indisputable, however, from a reading of Elliott O’Donnell’s Werewolves (1912), Montague Summers’s The Werewolf (1933), Basil Copper’s The Werewolf in Legend, Fact and Art (1977), Charlotte F. Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture (1986), and other clinical and anecdotal histories, is that virtually every culture has a variant on the werewolf legend as part of its mythology and folklore. Indeed, accounts of human transformation into feral form (and, in some cases, vice versa) are just part of a larger body of myths concerned with shapeshifting into a variety of animal guises. In general, these stories range from marvelous accounts of unusual powers humans acquire by changing form and nature to cautionary tales in which the wicked backslide into a bestial state.

Although the werewolf legend is thousands of years old, its most popular version dates only to the middle of the twentieth century. Robert Siodmak’s screenplay for the 1941 film The Wolf Man reduced the legend to bare essentials: The werewolf is a hapless victim who, once bitten in human form by another werewolf, changes into wolf form during the days of each month when the moon is full, between the hours of moonrise and sunrise. The human who is a werewolf usually is unaware of the supernatural side of his life, or at very least of his behavior after his transformation. As a werewolf, his sole purpose is to slaughter other creatures (especially humans), sometimes (but not always) for sustenance. Any injury he sustains as a wolf persists after his reversion to human form. The werewolf can be repelled only by wolfbane, and can be killed only by a silver bullet. Once killed, the werewolf immediately reverts back to his human form.

Most of the werewolf lore Siodmak put into his screenplay was taken from folktales or werewolf fiction that itself was derived from folk legend. However, the movie’s impact cannot be underestimated. Reaching a larger audience than perhaps any werewolf narrative of the preceding century, it codified werewolf lore in the same way that Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula created the template for all vampire fiction written in its wake. However, the cinematic werewolf deviated markedly from the literary werewolf, which had by that point enjoyed a rich and varied life for nearly 2000 years. Universal, the studio that produced The Wolf Man, had ten years earlier produced the film adaptation of Dracula, and Siodmak’s werewolf is easily identifiable as a vampire in wolf’s clothing. In literature, the werewolf has a distinctly different pedigree and speaks to different concerns and ideas than the vampire does. The canonical werewolf sprung from the film The Wolf Man was largely cut loose from the rich literary tradition that has made the werewolf one of the more fascinating and complex icons of horror literature.

The classic witch is easy to depict, but the icon in all its variety is difficult to define. We imagine a woman, old and baleful, perhaps with a long, warty nose and one clouded eye. She is accompanied by a familiar, a supernatural helper in the shape of an animal, especially a black cat. She meets others in a coven, usually a group of thirteen, to call upon the devil to work magic. This magic is always harmful, usually involving herbs, recited spells, or a doll that symbolizes her victim. She often ends up getting burned at the stake.

Even in the witch trials of medieval and early modern Europe, male as well as female witches were condemned, and in England and its colonies, they were not burned, but hanged or pressed to death. Both fiction and fact include witches who are young and attractive, good as well as bad witches. Their power can come from the devil or demons, from a benevolent goddess, from  their ancestors, from study of books to gain knowledge of the right words and herbs, from items with supernatural power, or from being qualitatively different, supernatural creatures themselves. From a modern perspective, the witch may be an innocent victim of superstition, a master of the powers of suggestion, or perhaps someone with abilities that should be studied by a parapsychologist. Moreover, those who fight witches—the ‘‘witch doctors’’— often become confused and identified with what they fight, in part because their powers seem similar.

The main criterion, in fact or fiction, is of course that the person is called a witch. However, an old, unattractive woman with supernatural powers would still qualify, even without the label; so would a young child who works destructive magic. Satanic worship is so closely associated with the term ‘‘witch’’ that it alone could lead to accusations of witchcraft. The themes witches represent—their psychological resonance, their social implications—vary as widely as the witches do. A witch, in one short story, may evoke disgust as the abject, reviled ‘‘other,’’ while in another, she or he is the inciter of uncontrollable desire. One story of a witch may evoke our sympathy for an innocent victim of persecution, while another may chill us about how easy it is to be corrupted by power. Even the lessons of historical cases of witchcraft have changed as various eras reinterpreted them in the light of different values and beliefs. At the core, though, there still lies a figure who is like us because she or he is human (or seems to be), and also not like us because he or she is said to really have powers that most of us have fantasized about. As Stefan Dziemianowicz writes in his editorial introduction to 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, ‘‘It is this dual nature that makes witches so fascinating—and so frightening’’.

The Mummy
The mummy itself is not much of a horror icon. There is nothing innately monstrous to be found in well-preserved corpses from the ancient past. Mummies, unlike freshly decaying human remains or bits and pieces of bone, convey something of the essence and personality of a long-dead human being. We look upon a mummy’s desiccated but often still-recognizable face and see a once-vital and distinct individual. The mummified have attained certain immortality and they live again in our imaginations. For many, mummies fascinate more than repel.

Our horrific connotations lie not so much with the mummy itself, but in associated fears. The mummy serves, of course, as a general reminder of our own mortality and our fear of death, but this alone is not enough to make it a monster.

Lifelike as they are, mummies appear to have the potential for reanimation. With our western acculturation to the concept of ‘‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’’ mummies defy what we see as a natural cycle. And if the mummy defies the natural order, then it slips into the supernatural realm where the dead may walk and talk again. Reanimation of the dead can also be ‘‘weird science’’ and prompt a connection with the ‘‘Frankenstein syndrome’’: man must not scientifically tinker with the unknown.

Even though it is based in incorrect cultural indoctrination and misplaced beliefs concerning ancient Egypt, the fear of magic or curses is also attached to the mummy. By breaking some sort of burial (in other words, religious) taboo vengeance from beyond the grave is invoked.

Mummies have also acquired entirely artificial horrific associations, with possession or reincarnation linking the long-dead with the presently alive. This aspect of mummy-fear is often directly related to a storyline of love that lasts beyond the grave, and that has a subversive, unspoken sense of the erotic and necrophiliac.

Although the mummy was eventually cast in the roll of monster, it has never been an entirely effective one. We lack a solid psychological link to it as a scary creature. Its fear factor comes almost entirely from circumstances surrounding it or cobbled on to it. Nevertheless, the mummy deserves investigation as, at least, a catalyst if not a true icon of horror. 

Any corpse with well-preserved flesh is considered a mummy. Mummification may be deliberate or accidental. Extreme cold, dryness, and lack of oxygen are all natural conditions that may result in mummification. Intentional exposure to chemicals—embalming—as practiced by the ancient Egyptians produced the ‘‘bandaged’’ mummy that is now iconic. There are a handful of non-Egyptian mummy tales, but the vast preponderance of horror literature and film dealing with mummies is based on the Egyptian model.



S. T. Joshi, ed.
Greenwood, 2006

Extended entries on 24 iconic figures from the world of horror and the supernatural discuss the essential features and enduring significance of these subjects. Other topics include: Aliens, Devils, Curses, Ghosts, Monsters, Sea Creatures, Sirens, Sorcerers, Vampires, and Zombies.

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