Misunderstood Monsters | The Curse of Survivor’s Guilt in ‘An American Werewolf in London’
By Matt Konopka
Welcome fellow monster kids to Misunderstood Monsters. This is where I, Matt Konopka, sink my fangs into all sorts of beasts, ghouls, and creatures from above while I search for the humanity behind their frightening exteriors. From monster favorites such as The Wolf Man to obscure monsters like the whistling Shadmock, there is more to these fiends than bad hair days and gooey tentacles. Within them all is a piece of ourselves.
In just two years, over six million people have died from Covid-19. By contrast, the flu kills roughly 450,000 people per year. Putting this devastation into words isn’t easy. The problem for our society is that we haven’t even tried. Many of us are experiencing trouble sleeping, a feeling of isolation, irritability…it’s not a coincidence. These are symptoms of survivor’s guilt. What we’ve been through — and are still going through — is a trauma that cannot be denied. Yet no one wants to acknowledge the pain festering deep inside. Look closer and we can see ourselves in David (David Naughton) from An American Werewolf in London.
In conceiving this tale about two friends who are attacked by a werewolf, leaving one dead and the other (Naughton) doomed to a life of carnivorous lunar activities, writer/director John Landis sunk his claws into The Wolf Man for inspiration. There are references to Lon Chaney Jr. and the pentagram which “Universal Studios maintained as the mark of The Wolf Man,” but Landis’ film shares deeper ties than that. Curt Siodmak, the writer of the 1941 movie that started it all, was a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution. Through Larry Talbot, Siodmak infused the same terror which he had experienced in Germany, such as being made out to be a monster and being marked as other, similar to the yellow stars Jews were made to wear as a means of segregation. Landis’ film continues the themes set out by Siodmak, this time focusing on the survivor’s guilt within the Jewish community from having witnessed such horrors.
Failing to “keep off the moors” and stick to the road, David and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are attacked by a vicious werewolf that makes mangled meatloaf out of the latter. David’s guilt over running away sends him back to his friend, only to have his fate sealed when he is bitten by the beast. The attack isn’t in any way David’s fault, but the death of a loved one has a funny way of making us feel somehow responsible. We tear ourselves apart with a veracity matched only by the werewolf, wondering if there’s something we could’ve done differently that would’ve changed things.
The nightmares and visions that David experiences afterward are side effects of the curse, but they’re also symptoms of the guilt eating away at him. Guilt haunts us the way Jack haunts David. The longer David’s shame over leaving his friend behind festers, the more grotesque Jack becomes. His flesh washes away until he’s no longer human, a horrific metaphor for David’s agonized mind. Landis exposes the wound of Holocaust survivors and the grief at having seen the atrocities committed by the true monsters. David’s lycanthropy is an externalization of all the terror that Jews have endured, personified by the bludgeoning horror of his Nazi creature nightmare in which they murder his family and force him to watch as a raging fire consumes everything.
While Landis intended to capture the pain of the Jewish community, his werewolf is such a powerful portrayal of survivor’s guilt itself that it stands on all fours as a fierce reflection of what incomprehensible grief does to us.
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. A pair of loved ones become sick from Covid, both go to the hospital and both are put on oxygen, but only one ever wakes up to discover that the other has passed. It’s a similar anguish that David experiences as he awakens from a coma to learn Jack is dead. Countless families have been through this recently, and just like David, their torment goes ignored. No one notices the warning signs. Love interest Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) tries, but even she laughs away David’s slipping sanity. The villagers who saved David by killing the werewolf refuse to tell the truth, leading to even more suffering. That’s been the common practice lately. Depression, fear, anger…ignore it all lest we as a society finally have to face what is happening.
Landis boils various symptoms of survivor’s guilt down to a single scene which sees David restless in Alex’s apartment, unable to eat, alone and frustrated — all of it a prelude to that iconic transformation scene. The survivor’s guilt plagues David and the symptoms of a ravenous disease converge, from a feverish sweat setting his body on fire to the popping of bones with an excruciating pain that bursts forth in the form of a monstrous wolf. David can’t accept Jack’s death or the disease he doesn’t believe in (sounds familiar), yet at that moment, the truth overwhelms him until he no longer resembles the person he is but rather resembles the terrible emotions he has within. In a desperate plea for us to see the agony eating him alive, David reaches out to the camera urging us not to look away. The werewolf scares us, but the torment behind those eyes is what’s truly frightening.
David/The Wolf is no more a monster than anyone who’s been consumed by the grief of outliving their loved ones. There’s nothing bloodthirsty about his rampage through Piccadilly Circus in the film’s chaotic conclusion; David is confused, a terrified soul who no longer feels safe in a public space. When I look around at the state of people today, I see much of the same. We’re all just scared humans wondering if we’ll succumb to the jaws of the wolf. We claw, we bite, and we scream, but there’s no simple answer on how to deal with what we’ve witnessed. Nothing is going to erase images of freezer trucks full of bodies or bring back the countless souls that have been lost. What we can do is acknowledge the pain and the grief, those creatures which tear us up inside. That final image of David dead in the alley, vulnerable in his nakedness, is a necessary gut punch to warn us of the danger in a society when it dismisses mental health.
Like David, we’re caught under the glow of a lonely blue moon, begging the world to hear the howl of our pain before that moon grows full. 🩸
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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