Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Embracing the Wolf Within

A man returns to his ancestral home to bury his recently deceased brother. There, his estranged father welcomes him with trepidation, and the locals treat him with mistrust. When he falls for the owner of an antique shop who sells him a silver-headed cane, he believes his fortunes are looking up, but it is not long until he is bitten by what he believes to be a wolf. Warnings of his new ailment fall on deaf ears, and on the next full moon, his rampage kills several people. He awakens the following day with no recollection of what has occurred, but the memories of his crimes slowly return, horrifying him. On the night of the next full moon, he begs his father to restrain him in any way that would stop him from becoming what he cannot control, but that attempt proves futile, for he is able to break free from his restraints and mercilessly pursue his love. Realizing that his son is doomed to become a werewolf and kill innocent people as long as he lives, the father bludgeons him over the head with his own silver-headed cane. The movie ends with his father and love watching in horror as his corpse returns to human form.

This is the story of the Wolfman, and what I always found tragic about Larry Talbot wasn’t that he was a good man succumbing to lycanthropy but that he could never accept it.

• • • •

Whether it is the werewolf’s dual nature or that one side of this duality is a state of raving mania, I do not know, but in this myth, I found a mirror to my own struggle with bipolar disorder—a struggle that, like Talbot’s, has no recourse or cure, a struggle that, like Talbot’s, is unrelenting in its intensity and cruelty, a struggle that, like Talbot’s, is unleashed onto the world over and over until I am wholly consumed by it and worn down into normality . . . only for it to reappear yet again under circumstances of which I have no control of. And like lycanthropy, it was thrust upon me, and I must live with it, or else I cannot hope to survive, even though time and again, I am told that the chances of that are slim to none.

But this is nothing new.

The story of the Wolfman is oft repeated throughout fiction, a template for how lycanthropy is dealt with and what a lycanthrope must be. However, in my childhood, I came across one that stood out from the rest, and that left a profound impact on my impressionable mind which, up to that point, could only see werewolves as instigators of suffering and victims of their own condition.

• • • •

A professor is offered a teaching post at the preeminent school for witchcraft and wizardry, only for a disgruntled colleague to publicly out his “condition.” In anticipation of a public outcry, he promptly resigns and goes into hiding. Though the wizarding world he occupies is one where magic is the mundane, lycanthropes such as himself are still met with prejudice out of fear for their violent “transformations.” Yet, in spite of his experiences, he opts to turn spy against his own kind and work against the return of the Dark Lord—a dark lord who offers lycanthropes like him an acceptance that the wizards and witches he is risking his life for do not.

When an unafflicted woman falls for him, he resists becoming involved out of fear of turning her into an outcast such as himself but eventually succumbs to the temptations of a love he had never known and weds her. After it is revealed that his bride is with child, a friend confronts his former professor for endangering himself in what is essentially a suicide mission—only for the lycanthrope to reveal that he thinks his family would be better off without him. However, this friend pleads with him to stay with his family, and so he returns to his bride, who gives birth to a “healthy” boy. When the final battle looms, and the world that shunned him is about to be overtaken by the Dark Lord, the lycanthrope leads a desperate last stand that leads to victory at the expense of his life and that of his young wife. In his final moments, the lycanthrope laments that his child is now all alone in this world and that he would never know who his father was. Yet, in spite of all this, he is still content with the fact that his son will know what his father and mother died for and hopes that one day the boy will understand.

We are told that the lycanthrope, Remus Lupin, is posthumously awarded the wizarding world’s highest honor, the Order of Merlin, First Class, becoming the first of his kind to do so, his life and death paving the way in lifting the stigma on werewolves.

• • • •

It’s no secret that Remus Lupin’s arc in the Harry Potter series was a metaphor for any illnesses that came with a stigma, and that’s why growing up, there was something refreshingly sobering about the arc laid out for him across four novels and five films. Though he meets his end during the final battle, his story concludes on a note as happy and realistic as anyone suffering from an incurable mental illness could hope for—not by finding the cure to his condition, as is the case in the few happy endings you tended to find in werewolf stories before this, but being able to work through the physical, psychological, and emotional turmoil of this condition before coming to accept it. However, what I find most compelling is his character and resolve, not buoyed or defined by his illness, that allows him to avoid the path so many of his kind succumbed to and instead paves the way for others’ acceptance of him and the acceptance of his kind.

That’s not to say Ms. Rowling palliates the severity of lycanthrope or glosses over the trials and tribulations in handling and dealing with the affliction. Even though it’s made clear to young readers that Lupin’s condition is severe and puts those around him at risk, none of his friends and family shun or resent him for it, and at no point do they treat him any differently because of it. Throughout the series, it’s made clear that, lycanthrope or not, Lupin is allotted the respect and reverence a man of his abilities and deposition deserves. What’s more is that when the subject does come up, the other characters discuss it with nuance and care, making sure that his condition is approached with the respect needed to actually be able to help someone.

That may not be as revelatory as it once was not so long ago, but coming from Lebanon, where mental health is stigmatized to this day, the notion that one can learn to overcome their mental illness, not by concealing it from others and actively suppressing it, but by accepting and working through it, was one that would have been inconceivable in the past. But that possibility was first laid out to me in this series, and it fundamentally changed the way I viewed others and eventually myself. In the Arab world, those suffering from mental illnesses are forced to hide their conditions either out of fear of public humiliation or outright ostracization—sometimes of their own accord, but often at the behest of their friends and even families, who pressure them to act like a “normal” person would. When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a similar response was expected from me, and I knew I could either surrender to the fear and self-loathing that Larry Talbot gave into, or I could work through and eventually accept it as Remus Lupus had, in hopes of one day becoming the man I knew I could become, untethered by my illness and the stigma that my society would hoist on me for it.

Years have passed since then, and though I have a long way to go, I’ve chosen the path that I would have never known existed had it not been for these characters, lycanthropes that once haunted my childhood . . . before inviting me into a pack that I’m ashamed to admit I once shunned.

In the end, I always return to this notion, this solace that in all of these movies, lycanthropy has no cure. The beast within cannot be vanquished. It cannot be restrained. It can only be tamed.

And one day, hopefully, embraced.

Raja Abu Kasm

Raja Abu Kasm is a mess masquerading as a mess. When he’s not writing fiction (or at least what he passes off as fiction), he’s trying to figure out why no one appreciates the minutiae of pop culture trivia. You can find them on Twitter @RajaAbuKasm.