Scribbler’s Saga #5 – Werewolves and Shapeshifters

Posted: November 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

What follows next negates very easily by the carefully expedient of the writer sticking his or her fingers in ears and humming very loudly until it’s all over. Many literary subjects, like werewolves and shifters, have very little relationship to the nuts and bolts of our reality and require a tantrum worthy of a five-year-old saying “because I said so!”

I really don’t want to go too deeply into the psychology, anthropology and religion surrounding the legends and metaphors of werewolves and the closely related shapeshifter. I think certain PhD candidates put in their class work just to be able to read the papers created in the field. None are as vicariously thrilling as “he’ll rip your lungs out, Jim.”

A werewolf has been likened to the representation of the human dark side that violently explodes leaving neighbors to say, “He was so normal.” Some shamanic traditions exploit the metaphor to adopt perceived qualities of the animal used in the ritual. And there must be hundreds of thousands of academic words written highlighting the ancient beginnings of the metaphor that ask salient questions like could the first Classical Greek werewolf have been one of Circe’s goofed experiments in transformation magic before meeting Odysseus?

I just care about milking all kinds of metaphors for their entertainment value. Any high-falutin’ metaphorical constructs in my work will just have to sneak in through the back door. Sometimes the different aspects of my writing get in the way of each other. For instance, I can’t wear my Science Fiction Writer hat too tightly on any story with a werewolf.

Writing science fiction requires having paid attention in my K-12 science classes between the exploding methanol burners and other hijinks involving burning magnesium. I did, plus I get to look things up on Wikipedia. A human to wolf, dog, or any other animal transformation results in a huge red flag based on a scientific principle known as Conservation of Mass.

The best way to explain Conservation of Mass without resorting to equations is to state simply that in a closed system the mass of material at the beginning of a process must equal the mass of the material at the end of the process. For purposes of clarity and precision Energy can be thought of as Mass in most circumstances. When ice melts the resulting water has the same mass.

How does this bit of inconvenient science lawyering affect the werewolf or shapeshifter story? In some iterations of the story, none at all. The classic wolfman presented to us by Lon Chaney posited a six-foot hairy wolf suit that represented a midpoint between wolf and man. Probably, the filmmakers didn’t want a real wolf on their set and thought the machinery looked fake.

This wolfman doesn’t have to worry about gaining or losing mass between human and animal forms. However, if we apply concepts like Natural Selection, the six-foot wolfman loses the ability to hide among other regular wolves. The scared villager regulator committee with pitchforks and torches shouldn’t have too much trouble killing the six-foot wolfman.

Many storytellers prefer werewolves and shifters that exactly mimic the animals into which they change. A perfect wolf or whatever gets to maul unsuspecting Londoners in Mayfair and then visit with the Queen. But, wolves don’t tip the scales the same way humans do.

Case in point, I currently weigh 191 pounds hung on a 5’11” body, but a quick hit on Wikipedia’s wolf page says full-grown male wolves average between 95-99 pounds. If I were to get bitten and change into a werewolf, we must ask the ugly question – where does the 92 pounds I would lose go?

Werewolf Me has the same reason to get the mass back returning to human form that I had to lose the mass changing into a wolf: protective camouflage. If I didn’t look how I did before wolfing out, the people in my life would notice I’m suddenly vastly lighter to the tune of being asked if I had recently contracted cancer. This doesn’t count as being able to hide among humans, expect an even shorter lifespan than usual. If I were to emulate Sam Merlotte from True Blood and turn into a hawk in order to escape, the problem becomes proportionally greater.

The opposite problem of a smaller human gaining mass in order to become a wolf is equally perplexing from the pseudo-science presented in this post. How does Vern Troyer (Mini-Me) who likely never weighed 99 pounds in his life gain the mass to fit in with the wolf pack? Similarly, the problem of a were-animal larger than the human undergoing the change comes into hilarious focus when we posit, say, a human to Gray Whale transformation. Again using me as an example, how many fish do I have to eat to make the gap between my 191 pounds and the 36 short tons of the whale?

Could this massive disparity be one reason why it seems no one has ever created a story, myth or theological construct of a were-whale…in 150,000 years of human storytelling? Now that I’ve had the idea…were-whale goes into my creature folder in my note taking app. Get to it eventually.

If were-beasts are to be governed by a semblance of science (not recommended, see my lead sentence), how does the writer explain a werewolf or other were-beast without bending the science in ways that don’t grow back? I’m pretty sure that the apparent Conservation of Mass violations are my only objections to werewolves being real. The wonders of stem cells and lizards that regrow tails suggest that everything else about growing hair and sharp teeth are at least plausible. We would need a road map; I have suggestions.

A) Invent some kind of extra dimensional space in which to store the extra mass.

Certainly for someone going normal human to wolf, the storage space solution allows me to store 92 pounds and get them back when I wake up wondering what the Hell happened. But, I have yet to explain the Mini-Me or were-whale problem. The first time I change into a whale I would have to gain 36 short tons that would then go into the storage attic for retrieval later.

From where or, as would be more dramatically interesting, from whom would the were-whale acquire the extra mass in blubber? Would someone missing their blubber come looking for it? Certainly, a decent story hook to have to fight for the extra blubber, but ludicrous science.

One last thought about the storage attic, the minute writers start talking about extra-dimensional space there is a possible conflict with the other big usage of extra-dimensional space: hyperspace. It being the era of genre blender literature, werewolves on starships can be a tempting prospect. Until those starships bump into the whale blubber stored in out of the way corners of hyperspace. KA-BLAM!

B) The mass as a wolf remains exactly as it began during the human form.

I actually like the thought that mass doesn’t change during the transformation, at least for the normal circumstances of a guy that weighs slightly heavier than the average wolf. In the hypothetical case of me, that means that I pack 92 extra pounds into a standard wolf body.

This matters because wolf packs are commonly depicted as having the same kind of organizing structure as, say, a certain publishing house where Jack Nicholson was employed while he slowly became a wolf (Wolf, 1995). Like wolves, the executives peed on each other and very nearly punched it out. While small humans can generally fight even using a few more brain cells than the big bully, it’s unclear without spending decades out photographing wolves in the wild if the small wolf ever wins the rumble.

So, a 191-pound wolf wins the fight against the 99-pound wolf that doesn’t know what hit it. The heavier wolf would have nearly double the density of the smaller wolf because the greater mass is shoehorned into the same space. The heavier wolf would also be proportionally stronger because much of that extra mass would likely be distributed in muscle.

Unfortunately, I still can’t answer the Mini-Wolf problem. A Little Person turning into a werewolf under this particular idea would remain small proportionally to the rest of the pack. This is a victim that doesn’t even know he’s dead, yet. So, not a great idea in all cases.

C) The transformation gains and loses mass accordingly, but the character must replenish with food.

This choice of literary rule could explain the werewolf’s insatiable hunger. He or she would constantly eat to regain the human weight, not just as a wolf but as a human, too. Mini-Wolf would also eat tons of food to manage being a regular-sized wolf. Sounds good…not!

While it is true that certain characters, like Lois Lane, spent too many decades in print being completely oblivious that a single pair of horn rimmed glasses separated Clark from Kal-El, most people in a werewolf’s orbit would notice that – “Hey, Joe! You’ve been eating nonstop since you got that scratch on your arm!” Eventually, someone makes the correlation to finding all those ripped up villagers and cue the regulator committee.

All of my ideas flow from the basic premise that if we apply science in the form of Conservation of Mass, we must also apply science in the form of Natural Selection. If a werewolf, were-tiger, or were-whale can’t hide long enough to reproduce, then it’s likely that Evolution will simply treat these literary metaphors as genetic dead ends.

D) Since most writers assume that lycanthropy is a magical curse, then it follows that magic could alter the perspective of the observer.

Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere! In wolf form the werewolf steps on a scale and tips at 99-pounds. In human form the werewolf stands on the same scale and tips at 191-pounds. At least, from the perspective of the possible victims that just can’t believe that their loved one will rip your lungs out, Jim. A bubble of illusion surrounds the werewolf changing how the other people in the room see him or her, especially bathroom scales.

If you, Dear Reader, really need to science lawyer your next werewolf/shapeshifter story with item D, I won’t stop you. However, your story will essentially function in an indistinguishable fashion than the one written using the proposal contained in my lead sentence – ignore any scientific basis for werewolves and write your story!

You may wonder why it is now 1,760 words later and the whole point of my post can be summed up with such circularity. One, I need to write stuff regularly and this is what I picked. Two, you can think of this post like a math test at school where getting a right answer without showing your work still fails the question. So anyway, here endeth the lesson.

The writer acknowledges Warren Zevon and his awesome songwriting for Werewolves of London, even though I probably haven’t abused Fair Use…yet.

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