Moonlight and Silver Bullets

I have a new academic chapter out! “Moonlight and Silver Bullets: Twentieth Century Racial Purity in Werewolf Films” has been published in All Around Monstrous: Monster Media in Their Historical Contexts, edited by Verena Bernardi and Frank Jacob. It’s out from Vernon Press now.

I love werewolf films. It’s a good thing I do, because there are a lot of them. Over 300 at last count – the first one dating from as early as 1913. But here’s the thing: go out into the street and accost ten random strangers. Ask them first how they would recognise a werewolf. Then ask them what kills a werewolf. Odds are, you’ll get the same answers from all ten people. Werewolves turn at the full moon, and they can be killed with a silver bullet.

Yet if you go back and look at werewolf mythology – and it’s been around for thousands of years – you’ll find that silver and moonlight make up tiny fractions of that mythology. Seriously, they may as well be footnotes they’re that minor in the scheme of things. So why have these minor elements of the myth come to be so widely held? Well, go back to the werewolf films and see when things begin to change. Up until the period around WW2, there’s a lot more variation in imagery. Enter The Wolf Man in 1941, and suddenly things begin to coalesce. Not all at once, but that’s the turning point. It could be that this was just a great film that made a lasting impact. But WW2, sadly, was also a time when eugenics began to rear its ugly head, specifically with regard to the nasty spectre of racial purity. And quite apart from werewolves, both moonlight and silver have long associations with purity. How do you recognise a werewolf? His mixed and beastly nature shows under pure light. How do you kill a werewolf? Hit him with a purity bullet, and it might kill him, but his dead body will turn back to its uncontaminated human form.

It’s very very nasty, and it may well be unconscious on the part of film makers and consumers, but the correlation – especially in the context of the times – is there.