I first encountered one of my favorite werewolf stories in Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance by Leslie A. Sconduto. It’s the poem Bisclavert, written in the late 1100s by a woman known as Marie de France. It was the first story about the ‘noble werewolf’ archetype, rather than about the vicious and feared monster. In it, a knight is cursed by his wife who hasn’t been faithful to him. He is brought back to human life by the love and trust of the King he once served. Queerness aside (untrue, I will harp on the queerness of this story for the rest of my life), I’m drawn to the reliance and faith that the king has in regards to the knight, and the way he is saved by the King’s recognition.
When people ask me why I love werewolves, though, I often just tell them that shape-shifting is sexy. It’s my go-to when I don’t think they want to go too deep into things. It’s not a lie: I think werewolves are hot, in the same way vampire-lovers are attracted to vampires and The Shape of Water fans are far from the first to love fishmen. I love werewolves so much that I’ve been…informed that even my non-werewolf stories are about packs and shape-shifters. When that gets pointed out, I think about Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin: “All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.” Whether that is true for every writer, it’s certainly true for me.
All stories are about (were)wolves. And werewolves are shapeshifters. Shape-shifting is sexy.
Except not every story is sexy, is it? There are so many aspects of our lives, every day, that are so utterly removed from ‘sexy’ that the transitive property of that equation doesn’t work. You can’t even properly say that all werewolf stories are sexy. Werewolves live a life of cages, physical, mental, and spiritual, barriers that keep them from living like ‘humans’. As a writer, I always want to know why I’m working on a project, or why I’m drawn to certain media. I do it to study craft, and to make sure I’m telling a story I think is worthy of telling.
After stripping the veneer of sexiness from werewolves, I had to admit why they still drew me in, and what I found was a story about my own mental illness.
I’ve had ADHD and anxiety most of my life, although I wasn’t diagnosed until my thirties. Before that, I was told that I couldn’t have either of those things, that it must have been depression. My eventual diagnoses were often treated as behavioral issues, like many (especially marginalized) sufferers experience: they were mythical states of being more likely to be ‘laziness,’ ‘challenging authority,’ and ‘just not paying attention’. I remember being sure what was wrong in my head, how I’d lose time or watch time stretch out impossibly and being told my anxiety attacks were my being ‘dramatic’ or overly sensitive. Having my truth constantly dismissed didn’t do much for the anxiety, obviously.
That is probably why the focus in my stories was never after the transformation, but the before. For me it has always been the day or week before a transformation, the build up while the character is unable to voice what’s happening underneath their skin. Stories about people who desperately want to shift and change and claw out of their skin but are instead stuck in bodies that are too small, too tight. There’s mounting fear leading up to the transformation, and the werewolf finds relief in wolf form, or in the joyful emptiness of the morning after. My stories often star characters that have a single mind, except for during the transition where the feral and the human, the anger and fear, all fight for dominance. There are a dozen unfinished stories about werewolves in my files. Stories that read equal parts like queer coming-outs and desperate pleadings. Characters that hoped someone would see what happened the days before the moon rose, when their brain worked too fast and their heart beat too loud, and maybe, if they got lucky, that tension popped, changed, and they didn’t have to feel it anymore.
Werewolves became a go-to for me because their existence is a cycle not unlike my anxiety. Talking about anxiety, in prose, was a way for me to not only confront my own brain, but to attach some level of artistry to the pain. In An American Werewolf in London, the SFX might be exquisite and beautiful in their artistry, but it’s still a moment of physical panic and pain. This made sense to me, this felt like the way the inside of my head felt, and so I leaned into it. Made it a part of who I was as a storyteller, because my anxiety is part of who I am as a person.
Even now, I see the way that my werewolf stories have evolved, as my relationship with my own anxiety has evolved. Stories about lycanthropy, ones that center around the curse, are about curing it, killing it, or coming to peace with it. The noble death of the beast, the defeating of it, used to appeal to me more than it does now. I wanted to be fixed, you see, before I knew that I was trying to fix myself. If I couldn’t be fixed, my anxiety had to be defeated—had to be entirely taken out of the equation.
But if the only option is to kill your leading werewolf…was that saying that I couldn’t live with my mental illness? I was growing tired of killing the beast.
Once I came to understand lycanthropy as anxiety made flesh and fur, however, those endings weren’t as satisfying as they once were. As I got therapy, and coping skills and medication, I started to investigate other options, other endings. What if it wasn’t always a curse? What if the curse was not knowing what to do with this other side of who you are, if it was the fear of not knowing which face you’d see in the mirror, instead?
Which led me down the path of the third kind of story. What does it mean to come to peace with the werewolf, and what does that look like? Is it shortening the moments of transformation so that you easily flow from one mind state to the next? Is it in the way that we weather the storm because we are no longer afraid of what our anger and anxiety will do to those around us? Maybe it’s giving your lone wolves packs that can teach them strategies to not lash out at the ones they love.
Healing and peace can be as complete as the human and wolf sides being indistinguishable. It can be rocky, too, where the full moons are still harsh and terrifying, but you’ve found someone who will leave a folded set of clothes and some water for you when you wake up the morning after. At one point in my life it was odd to discover how many techniques from therapy about calming yourself down come up in werewolf stories; nowadays it seems obvious.
I still sometimes ‘cured’ the werewolf in my stories, although not nearly as much as I once did. Those tales tended to be just for me, tales that were fantasies about no longer having to keep this lunar-cycled beast at bay with breathing exercises and yanking myself out of ‘feral’ spirals of unhealthy thoughts. I dabble in it, but I don’t really wish for it anymore—there’s a chance that one day I won’t have this anxiety-monster inside of me, but I refuse to erase it from existence. It’s a part of me, and I live with it daily. Or, you know, once a month under the light of the full moon.
© 2020 Danny Lore