Nothing creates the mood for a werewolf movie like reading a book about real werewolves. The Howling was released the year I was finishing high school. At that time my humble circumstances allowed for very few visits to the movie theater, and certainly never to see horror films. I grew up watching B-films in black-and-white on television, but paying extra to see what was slightly unseemly in a theater stretched the limits for a good Christian just a bit. College was on my mind, and it was while in college that my horror film interest blossomed. All of which is to say, I’ve never seen The Howling before. I remember the movie posters, but the film had to wait until werewolves clawed their way back into my mind. Most of the classic movie monsters have their basis in religion, but The Howling doesn’t really delve into the origin of werewolves as much as it wonders what to do about when their numbers start to become a problem. Those who know about such things note that the special effects were cutting edge for the time, but CGI has spoiled us all.
Although the film doesn’t inquire into werewolf origins, it still gives a nod to the religious. The film’s werewolf population lives in a colony that has a “ritual center,” and since the cover for the colony is a retreat center for a psychologist’s patients, we find seekers amid the crowd. One of the inmates, Donna, explains that before joining the colony she had tried all the new religious movements, without success. And the one character who knows how to dispatch werewolves runs an occult bookstore in Los Angeles that is visited, in a shock-comic moment, but a pair of nuns. The message, so typical of the early 1980’s, is that all religions are just about the same. People are seekers, and any religion will do in a pinch.
In a way, this downplaying of the religious element in werewolves is not unexpected. As society was becoming more obviously secularized in the sixties and seventies, religion was becoming just one of many options available on the path toward self-fulfillment. In The Howling, becoming a werewolf was another. Ironically one of the old-timer werewolves laments the loss of “the old ways.” The werewolf colony lives on cattle that are farmed as politically correct sheep for the wolves, and it just doesn’t satisfy. The same might be said for religions. Accommodations, so necessary to survival in an evolving society, inevitably change the old ways of religion. Religions themselves transform over time. The Howling may not be scary, or believable, but it does serve as a kind of paradigm for worldviews that are undergoing transformation. Shifting shape, after all, is a sure symbol that one is still alive.