It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.
Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.
When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.
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.