Driven by the full moon, I’ve been moving through the Universal classics at a steady pace, including 1941’s The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr., as well as its sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and the farcical Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The transformation of the character of Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) into the Wolf Man was groundbreaking back in the 40s, and it still looks great on screen today.
Of course, modern movies employ heavy CG work, often leaving practical effects in the dust. That’s why we are treated to shots of a shirtless Taylor Lautner morphing mid-leap into his baby-mind-raping teen wolf form in the Twilight movies.
As effects have gotten more sophisticated, scenes of werewolf transformation have become more fantastical and less realistic. But what would a more “realistic” transformation be like?
What would a real Wolf Man be like?
The Answer: Just like you and me… unless we had a few weeks to change.
While werewolves are popularized in horror movies and (sadly) teen romance fiction, their legends stem from real psychological disorders. In fiction, lycanthropy is the condition in which a human being transforms into a non-human creature. This can be anything from a hyena to a tiger, but thanks to Hollywood, the most common transformation is into that of a wolf.
Of course, tales of transformation are as old as human civilization, and it is actually mentioned in the Book of Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar turns into an ox and a bird. These tales also go hand-in-hand with vampire folklore, which include transformations into wolves and bats. In fact, while Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula features the first transformation of the title character into a bat, the film’s second sequel Son of Dracula (also starring the Wolf Man himself, Lon Chaney Jr.) has a character use the term werewolf interchangeably in reference to the vampire.
These stories feed into the concept of the duality of the human mind. We see this theme running through many stories – from Batman’s struggle with Two-Face as his own mirrored opponent to another well-known Universal monster: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some werewolf tales also attribute the transformation to something other than a bite from another werewolf. Pre-dating The Wolf Man, the main character in 1935’s Werewolf of London is transformed by exposure to a flower. Stephen King used the same vector in his novella Cycle of the Werewolf, upon which 1985’s Silver Bullet is based. Even corny B-movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf take alternative explanations, in particular regressing the human mind to a more primitive state.
Clinical lycanthropy, first studied in the 1850s, deals with psychological patients who believe they turn into wolves rather than people who actually do make the change. These cases can now be associated with a variety of psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychomotor epilepsy, and dissociative personality disorder.
So if a lycanthrope is just an insane person…
Could someone ever physically transform into a monster?
Full-body transformations are not unheard of in science. In fact, many animals go through some form of this, as opposed to mammals like us starting off as smaller versions of adults and simply growing up. Metamorphosis involves a major change in a creature’s physical appearance that happens over a defined, often relatively short, amount of time. The most common creatures to go through metamorphosis are insects.
There are two types of metamorphosis in the insect world. Incomplete metamorphosis occurs when smaller insects grow and molt, leaving their old shell behind. This results in larger adult versions of juvenile insects that look basically the same aside from their size. Complete metamorphosis involves an insect going through multiple stages of a life cycle, with each stage looking quite different from the other. The most common example of this would be the life cycle of a butterfly, which starts as an egg, hatches into a larva (what we call caterpillars), develops into a pupae (sometimes called a chrysalis or cocoon), and emerges as an adult butterfly.
Amphibians also go through their own version of metamorphosis, with the most common example being tadpoles growing up to be frogs. In this sense, there is no pupae stage, but the change happens externally while the tadpole is active. These metamorphic processes result from a complex series of hormones driven by the internal DNA of the organism.
Of course, all of this takes time and doesn’t happen during the course of a jump. A butterfly can spend one to two weeks in its chrysalis. Tadpoles, on the other hand, can spend months developing into adult frogs.
The process also takes an enormous amount of energy. In particular, caterpillars are nothing more than eating machines, which consume up to 27,000 times their original body weight and can increase their size by 100 times. To put this in a human perspective, it would be like a six-pound baby eating 81 tons of food in a couple weeks. That’s roughly equivalent of this baby beating reigning Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog competitive eating champ Joey Chestnut 11,000 times in a row. The baby would also grow to be 600 pounds in a matter of weeks, which is enough to get the kid his own reality TV show.
Of course, even if the metamorphosis in the Wolf Man progressed at the same pace as a caterpillar into a butterfly, he might not be ready for the next month’s full moon, so…
Couldn’t it happen faster?
Not really, at least not at the level the modern CGI animation would let on. Long before Jacob Black ripped off his shorts by bursting free with his wolfiness to mark his territory all over Bella’s front yard, we saw the rubbery CGI transformations in An American Werewolf in Paris, which legendary make-up artist Tom Savini called “a piece of shit.”
Even if there were a biological process that would allow such a massive transformation to take place so quickly outside of a pupae stage, it would be excruciating. In this sense, Rick Baker’s groundbreaking werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London was probably one of the most realistic ones ever committed to film. If the nerve endings in the body deteriorated, the Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) transformation in David Cronenberg’s The Fly might be similarly realistic, especially since that process took weeks in the movie’s timeframe.
Sometimes Hollywood can swerve closer to reality, like with The Fly II as well as the initial transformation of Michelle Williams into Natasha Henstridge in Species. Those both featured prominent pupae stages, though they only lasted a couple hours or a couple days.
Perhaps one of the more realistic monster transformations in movies are the adorable Mogwai in Gremlins After all, this involved the creatures eating before they went into their chrysalis, though it’s unclear how their life cycle told time by only initiating the transformation after midnight.
In the end, the old-school Hollywood effects depict more realistic werewolf transformations than we see in digital effect-laden blockbusters. However, it would take much, much longer. And they’d have to eat. A lot.