Where did werewolves come from?

Deborah Hyde examines our fascination with vampires and werewolves, and where the ideas came from...
03 November 2014

Interview with 

Deborah Hyde


Debra Hyde is the editor of Skeptic Magazine, and an expert in the history of folklaw. She is particularly interested in 'supernatural predators', like vampires and werewolves, which crop up in stories from a variety of cultures, as she outlined to Chris Wolf HowlingSmith...

Debra -  Scepticism includes a lot of areas.  It can include cryptozoology for example - people who believe they've seen something like the beast of Bodmin Moor or Big Foot. Perhaps people who feel that they've been abducted by aliens or even fairies as would've been more fashionable a hundred years ago.  We're interested in an evidence base for things.  We're interested rather than in our perceptions which I think we've seen this evening can be so frequently faulty.  We're interested in the evidence to see what's real and what isn't.

Chris -  What about these consistent stories of Beasts of Bodmin and vampires and all that kind of thing?  Where do they come from?

Debra -  Vampires were probably a misunderstanding of normal processes of decomposition.  They just happened at a specific time in history.  It was a couple of centuries ago really and the reason that the stories came out when they did was political.

Chris -  What is a misunderstanding of the process of decomposition?

Debra -  Our ancestors, for very, very good reason didn't understand decomposition the way we do.  We can study these things scientifically and safely, but years ago, you wouldn't keep corpses around for the very good reason that they were a hygiene problem.  So, for example, when a body goes into rigor mortis, as is perfectly normal, leaving it out for a little while, you would realise that actually, the flexibility comes back.  So, if people saw a body that had regained its flexibility, they might think that it was actually still quite life-like, that it hadn't passed over to the other side.  What if it had failed to decay?  What if you didn't have bones in a coffin anymore?  What if you actually had flesh?  And if you've got somebody buried in winter for example, the ground is very hard and it's very cold.  You can in effect, put people in a freezer for 6 months.  It's not necessarily that unusual that they wouldn't be a skeleton yet.  But it would be quite unusual and quite scary for people who didn't understand this, that there were other variables at work.

Chris -  But where did this whole idea of this fetish for sinking your teeth into someone's neck come from?

Debra -  That was much later and we understand it, we understand that if a creature has its blood taken out, that it dies.  It was thought that there was a life force attached to it.  Literally, the blood being taken out is a bit more of a literary trope that comes later with all of the romantic literature.

Chris -  What about werewolves?  I've seen the Were-rabbit - Wallace and Gromit.  That's really good but what about the werewolf?

Debra -  Well, that's a really interesting thing that you should mention a were-rabbit because when I do a slideshow, I show a list of all of the animals that can potentially turn into were-animals in folklore, commonly throughout the world.  I have creatures like hyenas and tigers, and cats and jackals.  Is there anything that you can think that actually unites those types of creatures?  What's a similar theme?

Freddie -  Freddie from Little Downham.  They're all four-legged and they're all sort of, in the same, sort of , cat family, with maybe few exceptions.

Debra -  There are cats.  They're definitely a lot of cats.  Are there any other similarities between those kinds of things, the habits of those creatures, the kinds of things they do?

Charlie -  Charlie.  I'm from Caldecott.  They all have big teeth, sharp teeth.

Debra -  They do.  They have big teeth and big teeth are for hunting.  That's the thing about all of these creatures is they're apex predators.  They're incredibly powerful. And it seems that if people want in their minds to think of somebody turning into an animal that nobody would take that great power and turn into a were-hamster.

Chris -  What is the sort of modern day equivalent because obviously, those things came along because obviously, those things came along because people were troubled by not actually understanding the basis of the science that was going on?  Have people now reinvented new threats and new sorts of equivalents based on their more modern understanding of the world around them?  Has the interpretation moved on?

Debra -  I think it would be a mistake to assume that just because we live in a technologically based society that people still don't have these kinds of beliefs.  There are very prevalent New Age beliefs, people who believe in angels and things like that.  The thing that's interesting to notice, if you go into history, that so many of these creatures are very dangerous and they're quite random.  And so was life.  An awful lot of people died prematurely in historical times.  It's very easy for us to forget the effect that antibiotics and vaccinations, and safe midwifery processes have had, that it's had on human death rates.  In medieval times, there was about a 1 in 10 chance that you would die giving birth.  It's very, very unusual now.  These days, if you talk to people about supernatural creatures, they're quite often likely to believe in lovely things that help them out because our lives are benign and safer.

Chris -  Any questions?  Georgia...

Georgia -  Do you think these beliefs are good for people to have or do you think they're more damaging?

Debra -  It varies.  It's very noticeable in history that when there are random environmental factors, when there are wars, when there are epidemics, when there is mad inflation or something like that, that people get very panicky and they're likely to scapegoat other people.  It seems to be tremendously satisfying for groups of people to look to blame one person and then to perform a ritual to get rid of that person or to get rid of that effect that's happening.  Now, it doesn't actually work, but it makes people feel better temporarily.  You can see that with witch hunts and things like that.  So, sometimes it's not particularly nice, but it makes people feel temporarily better even though they can be wrong and they can do very terrible things.  In some ways, I think that belief in the supernatural has been very useful for hygiene type purposes - keeping corpses separate from people.  We don't bury the dead under the house.  With a few exceptions, we bury them in graveyards and things like that.  So, the sense of contagion that we have which can feed into supernatural constructs is also actually very good at avoiding disease.

Chris -  Ginny and Hannah...

Hannah -  Can we have a final volunteer to help us make some ectoplasm?

Callum -  I'm Callum from Streatham.

Hannah -  Wonderful!  Thank you very much for joining us on the stage, Callum.  Ginny, you've got here a lovely perspex bowl which is nice and clean for the moment and you've also got some PVA glue, so the kind of glue that you get in your school art class.

Ginny -  Okay, so Callum, what I need you to do is just put a little blob of that in the bottom of the bowl.  So, this is just standard PVA glue.  Just tip some into there.  Yeah, that will do.  Stop there.

Hannah -  So, that's probably about half a tablespoon, would you say, Callum?

Callum -  I would say that.

Ginny -  Good.  Now, just because it's a bit more fun, we've got some green food colouring.  Do you want to tip just a little drop in there and give it a stir around?

Hannah -  Callum, what's it looking like now?

Callum -  It's looking like snot.

Ginny -  It's a nice bright green colour isn't it?  I'm just going to add a little dash of water. And can you stir that in for me?  Have a feel of the kind of texture of it.  What does it feel like?

Callum -  It's quite runny, but still quite thin.

Ginny -  Yeah, sort of gluey but quite runny glue because we've stirred in a load of water.

Hannah -  It's kind of dripping off your fingers there wasn't it Callum?

Callum -  Yeah.

Ginny -  So now, what I have here is spray starch.  Have you ever seen this before?

Callum -  No.

Ginny -  Do I take it you don't do a lot of ironing at home?

Callum -  That is correct.

Ginny -  Those of you who do do ironing may have seen this before. You spray it on your shirts and then you iron them and then it makes it nice and crisp, and fresh.  So, it's just the sort of stuff you might find in laundry cupboard at home.  I'm going to spray some in the bowl and I need you to stir it in for me.

Hannah -  So, what's happening as we're stirring in the starch?

Callum -  It's starting to thicken the liquid.

Ginny -  I'm going to put a bit more in, give that a good stir...

Callum -  It's starting to thicken even more.

Ginny -  Can we see it's almost going kind of stringy as I pick it up?  Let's put some more in,  keep going.

Hannah -  Wow!  That's transforming before our very eyes.  Callum, what's happening there?

Callum -  It's starting to combine together and become stronger and harder.

Ginny -  So now it's started sort of pulling away from the side of the bowl, hasn't it?  We've got a big oozy lump.  Do you want to get your hands in there now?

Callum -  Yes.

Hannah -  It's now coating Callum's hands and just stringing down.  Callum, how does that feel?

Callum -  Quite cold!  Quite soapy.

Ginny -  Sort of slimy, isn't it?  But look, if you pick it up really, really quickly and sort of roll it around between your hands, you can actually almost get it to form a sort of ball and then as soon as I let go, it goes back to being liquid.  Can you see that?  Okay, let's try adding a bit more.

Callum -  It's kind of jelly-like.

Ginny -  So, the more starch we've added, the more solid it's become and it's gone from being entirely liquid to being this kind of stringy gloop that you can actually sort of roll around in your hands.  It's almost like flubber.  If we kept spraying the starch in, it would get firmer and firmer, and firmer as you go.  If you try this at home, you can experiment with adding different amounts of starch to make a firmer or a wetter slime.

Hannah -  Callum, can you come up with some idea for why you think this might be happening?  Why do you think adding starch to glue might make it more solid and slimy-like?

Callum -  Is it something to do with the chemical reaction that is taking place?

Hannah -  Ginny!

Ginny -  Very good answer!  What you have is PVA glue.  It's a long chain molecule.  So, if you imagine every row in this room, if you held hands with the people next to you then each of you would be a polymer, long chain molecule like PVA.  What's happening when we're adding starch is that it's joining those molecules up.  So, then if you imagine, you're still holding hands with the people next to you, but if a few of you reach back and grab the hand of the person behind you so that all the lines are joined up - now originally, when you were just holding the hands of people next to you, if I'd ask you to move, you could quite easily have moved - one row could've gone left and the next row could've gone right.  That's why the PVA can move around.  The molecules can slide over each other.  When we add the starch and it causes those molecules to join up like when you joined hands with the person in front or behind you, the molecules can't slide over each other as easily.  They're what we call cross-linked and that makes this harder, stretchier material.  Now, they can still slide a bit because they haven't cross-linked all that much.  But the more starch we add, the harder it'll get for them to move around because the more of you would be holding hands with the people in front of you.  That makes a harder, firmer, mixture.  That's actually the same thing they do to rubber.  To make the rubber for your tires and things, they add sulphur and that crosslinks the rubber molecules, making it firmer so you get nice hard bouncy tires.  You wouldn't want tires that were made out of something like this slime.


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