Werewolves by Dr. Bob Curran, Interview
By Michelle M. Pillow, www.michellepillow.com (Originally published in Paranormal Underground Magazine)
Werewolves by Dr. Bob Curran, Interview
By Michelle M. Pillow, www.michellepillow.com
Dr. Bob Curran is a writer and broadcaster living in Northern Ireland, and a cultural educator for several governmental organizations. He has approximately 38 books to his name mainly on the subjects of history and culture. His title, Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts, is currently in bookstores.
Q: In your book, Werewolves, you delve into a world that has fascinated people for centuries all over the world. What are some of the other cultures, aside from our own, that the idea of the werewolf prevalent?
Dr. Curran: I think that the idea of the werewolf has to be linked with the idea of shapeshifting in general and that brings in a number of cultural elements. However, if we stick with the idea of the wolf or perhaps even the bearand assuming that “our own” you are referring to American/European cultures – we can look to Scandinavia. Here wolves are prevalent and there are ideas of people taking on the attributes of a wolf or the bear. Wolf-warriors as well as men who wore the bear shirtwere considered to be especially ferocious and skilled in the arts of warfare. This appears in Ireland as well with the notionof “The Wolf-Men of Tipperary”. In places like parts of South America too you have the ideas of were-jaguars and in South Africa; there were certainly were-lions. And in Japan, of course, there is the tradition of were-foxes who are sometimes considered to be powerful and skilful magicians. The transformation of man into animal, then, is common in many culturesbecause fundamental questions about the nature of humanity are the same.
Q: We’re all familiar with the idea of the full moon turning people into werewolves. Where did that idea come from?
Dr. Curran: The idea of the full moon being able to trigger the transformation into a werewolf is pretty spectacular in cinematic terms and is always very dramatic but it has no basis in folklore. It is largely a device used to create suspense and drama by film-makers and writers. However, there are some interesting connections with the full moon which can be linked to werewolf tradition. The first is that the moon was the symbol of the Roman goddess Diana the Huntress who hunted by moonlight with a pack of hounds. It is quite possible that the earliest werewolf or wolf-man traditions arose out of prehistoric hunting rituals and this, in more classical times, may have been transferred in part to the Cult of Diana. Thus, under Diana’s guidance and under her symbol of the moon, the ordinary man was transformed into the great hunter. There is a second connection too which comes from a slightly later time. As medicine slowly began to develop it was noticed that the rays of the moon often agitated or excited people who were mentally disturbed. Indeed some experimentation was carried out in French asylums and the words lunacy and lunatic come from the French “la lune” meaning the moon. This uncertain behaviour may have found its way into werewolf myth and was seized upon by writers and the cinema. But there is no folkloric evidence of anyone being turned into a werewolf by the light of the full moon, just as there is no basis for the killing of a werewolf only by a silver bullet. In most werewolf stories, a lead bullet will work just as well.
Q: Are there other, lesser known, werewolf beliefs that don’t involve what we know associate with werewolf lore, ie silver, full moon?
Dr. Curran: There were a number of werewolf beliefs which are not so well known. For instance, in many Christian countries, such as France or Spain, a child born on Christmas Day was certain to become a werewolf or a vampire; a child born with hairs on the palms of its hands likewise and the illegitimate child of a priestwere all destined for werewolfery. Some of these have transferred to other cultures – for example a child born on a Buddhist holy day is more open to the attentions of demons that may turn him or her into a creature of the night.
Q: Why do you think that the werewolf has never been as popular as, say, the vampire in the human imagination?
Dr. Curran: The vampire may attribute some of its success to Bram Stoker’s Dracula which is a modern classic. However, I think that some of the questions which the werewolf motif addresses are slightly more difficult for us and much more frightening in a real sense. The vampire addresses questions about death – what would it be like never to die or to remain forever young. The idea of the werewolf addresses a different question – that is, is there some remnant of the beast within us. That for many of us is a very frightening question but one which at the same time fascinates us. Does it mean, perhaps, that we are part beast? Therefore I think the idea of the vampire – the questions regarding the dead hold no real threat – are much more popular and the werewolf is shifted to some shadowy place where the answers don’t have to be fully addressed.
Q: Are you suggesting in this book that in some respects there is little difference between men and animals?
Dr. Curran: I have to be very careful in suggesting that there is little difference between us an animals as this is not everybody’s belief and I wouldn’t want to offend. Personally I do believe in evolution rather than a sort of Adam and Eve type story and I think that in many respects there’s probably little difference between ourselves and the animals in many respects. This, I think, lies at the heart of the werewolf myth and gives a sort of “tension”to the belief.
Q: Why are we so fascinated by the notion of “wildness”? Are we repelled by it as well? Is it from this tension that the idea of the manwolf arises?
Dr. Curran: With regard to the above I honestly believe that there is still some element of the hominid hunter in all of us – a race memory if you like – and that it is this which gives us our fascination with the “wild”. On the other hand, as civilisation had gown up around us and we have become more “cultured” we have sought to put that “wildness” behind us. Society has laid down rules and parameters that we can’t cross if we are to call ourselves “civilised” and perhaps some of us test these from time to time – though things such as cannibalism – which leads us directlyto the heart of the werewolf belief. And of course we are both fascinated and repelled by this.
Q: What is there to be said about werewolf trials, like witchcraft trials?
Dr. Curran: In the earliest days – i.e. the early medieval period – the werewolf was considered to be a noble creature. In many of the ancient prose poems – such as the Lais of Marie de France- it is portrayed as a noble knight who had been turned into the guise of a wolf by evil magic. Even in his wolf form, he tends to be heroic and brings himself to the attention of the king or monarch. Eventually the magic wears off or is cancelled and he is well rewarded by the sovereign. In 1484, however, Pope Innocent VIII commissioned a manual for witch-hunters as part of a war on witchcraft – The Malleus Malificarum- compiled by two senior Inquisitors, Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. This detailed a number of things which witches could do – one of which was to transform themselves into the guise of animals such as wolves. This again sparked old fears of the beast living amongst communities – perhaps at the very heart of the community and linked the werewolf to malign purposes. A series of trials in France around the end of the 16th century/beginning of the 17th only strengthened such an impression and the werewolf was connected to diabolic magic. Later, as medicine began to make tenuous advances, the French trials – particularly that of Jean Grenier at the beginning of the 17th century – were examined in the light of new thinking. Physicians such as Dr. Johann Weyer began to suggest that the alleged werewolves might be suffering from a mental condition brought on by their circumstances – many of the accused lived on the periphery of society – and thus an idea of the werewolf as “victim” began to emerge. But the idea of the connection between the beast-man and the witch still remained to some extent.
Q: Was the idea of the werewolf simply a device of the Church in order to maintain control?
Dr. Curran: I think that the notion of Church power had a lot to do with the development of the werewolf tradition. At the time Innocent began his war on witchcraft, the Church itself was in a difficult position with its power weakened. It had confidently predicted the end of the world and the return of Christ in 1000 A.D. and when that hadn’t happened a lot of the faithful began to take its promises and predictions less seriously. Besides which it was under attack from what might be described as early Protestant critics who questioned the conduct and authority of the Papacy. Innocent needed to consolidate the power of the Church and to do this, he needed an enemy – witches and werewolves. So in many respects the werewolf crazewas indeed, as you suggest, part of an attempt to reinstate Church control.
Q: How have cultural impressions of the werewolf changed throughout history?
Dr. Curran: As I stated above, perceptions of the werewolf have changed across the centuries. Initially the creature started out as a “noble beast”, then it became connected with witchcraft as the Church struggled to reassert its authority and then with the medical researches and thinking of such men as Johann Weyer, it became something of a “victim” of other circumstances – e.g. the full moon – which has translated into many of the books and films that we have today.
Q: In your book you discuss the history of the werewolf. What do you think the future holds for the werewolf ideal?
Dr. Curran: I think there are interesting developments for the werewolf ideal. Not long ago I read how animal genes were being used by genetic scientists to treat certain medical conditions in human beings. What does that fusion of human and animal hold for us all? I think the future of the werewolf may lie in the field of genetics. This might give a sort of scientific twist to the idea of the werewolf and would certainly spark off a few more books and films in this genre – perhaps moving it into the realm of science fiction.
Q: What inspired you to write about the subject?
Dr. Curran: I think I’ve always been interested in where these “horrors” have come from and like you why they have such a hold on the human mind. I’ve done the same with vampires and, as you see above, zombies. I think werewolves was the next logicalstep. And it came out when the Wolf-Man film appeared to there was a great deal of interest in the subject and I was responding to that.
Q: Do you have a favorite werewolf myth or story?
Dr. Curran: Not really. I went to see the Wolf Man film and enjoyed it although this was probably from a filmic point of view as I’ve seen the 1941 version a number of times. But I’ve been reading a number of stories on werewolves and some of them are very good. All myths of course are fascinating and I try to read as many of these as I can.
Q: Do you believe werewolves really exist? How so?
Dr. Curran: I honestly don’t know whether they exist or not. As I said earlier it’s not whether they do or do not exist, it’s why people would want to believe in them. As to their existence I suppose again that it comes down to what you mean by “werewolf” If you’re talking about a person who can actually change his or her shape into that of a wolf, I’m not so sure, if you’re talking about a savage individual who displays wolf-like characteristics, then that’s another matter. Such individuals may very well exist. And, of course, there are individuals who, suffering from a mental condition, may well believe themselves to be werewolves and behave accordingly. So we have to determine what we mean by the word.
Q: What cultures throughout history have werewolf myths? Are they similar or vastly different?
Dr. Curran: As I said above, the basic tension between the beat and the person within us appears in many cultures, but in different forms. I’ve already mention the berserkers of Scandinavia who were renowned for their ferocity and this motif has also appeared in Irish folklore with the Wolf Men of Tipperary whose services in battle were allegedly sough by a number of ancient Irish kings and who demanded payment not in money but in the human flesh of a young child. In Japan we have the were-fox who is cleaver and scheming – almost a Trickster like entity but not really ferocious. So the notion of the werewolf is sometimes mediated by the cultural mores of the society in which it appears.
Q: Why do you think readers, and society in general, are fascinated by the werewolf?
Dr. Curran: I think many readers are fascinated by the idea of the werewolf because it suggests primal power and uninhibited wildness. Our society has imposed my cultural constraints and barriers which a “civilised person” must adhere to and I think many of us strain against those imposed limitations. The idea of the werewolf typifies that tension and we are drawn to it – both fascinated and repelled by it at the same time.
Q: What are your favorite werewolf shows, movies and books?
Dr. Curran: Again, enjoyed the Wolf Man film and some short stories – the Night Creatures collection by Seabury Quinn for example – but with a whole number of things going on I don’t get all that much time to sit down and read or watch movies for pleasure too often.
Q: Have you ever had a paranormal experience?
Dr. Curran: No, I haven’t had a paranormal experience. All the “uncanny experiences” I’ve had, I’ve always been able to explain. I took part in a number of radio/tv programmes on ghost-hunting and didn’t see anything. There was a belief in the part of the world where I came from that only one member of a family could see ghosts and so forth and this doesn’t seem to have been me. My brother though, is supposed to have seen a ghost – the spectre of an old woman who previously owned a house where he lived in England.
Q: If given the chance, would you become a werewolf?
Dr. Curran: I doubt if I’d become a werewolf. I suppose I’m too mild mannered to become a ravening predator. Although I suppose there’s something of the beast in every one of us.
Q: What does the future hold for you? Any new books in the works?
Dr. Curran: There’s a lot of work still on. Two new books from Career coming out this year and next – Dark Fairies and Man Made Monsters. Also a series of books for young people coming out in England, new books coming out in both Australia and America – one on the papacy this year and one on bushrangers next Also the development of my community work which is very important to me. Oh and I used to script comics so I’m getting back into that a little.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Curran!
If you’re interested in checking out this, or other titles by Dr. Bob Curran, please visit the publisher website, www.newpagebooks.com. Interview by Michelle M. Pillow, www.michellepillow.com