The return of the werewolf

Suddenly, they are everywhere, in bookshops, on television and in the cinema. Kate Youde offers the <i>IoS</i> bluffer's guide to the lycanthrope

Fur is fashionable again. While vampires dominated last year, it is now the turn of the werewolf. And not just at full moon. Publishers are capitalising on the growing interest, with some, including Mills & Boon, launching new imprints. BBC's Being Human is enjoying a second series due to the popularity of its lycanthrope, George, and the genre has received a Hollywood boost as The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 horror classic, opens this Friday.

Bob Powers, co-author of The Werewolf's Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten, thinks the beasts' current popularity may be because "they reflect a lot of the same struggle people are going through during this recession". Maybe, Bob. But what are their key characteristics?

Werewolves change on every full moon

Transformations of humans into werewolves have historically coincided with a full moon. But Bob Powers claims it is actually more of a three-day event, including the day before and after a full moon.

You can kill them with a silver bullet. Can't you?

Werewolves are commonly said to be vulnerable to silver bullets. According to Brad Steiger, who wrote The Werewolf Book: An Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings, the first film to introduce the concept of a silver bullet in the heart to rid one of werewolves was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Previously, werewolves were depicted as having an aversion to other silver objects. In Kat Whitfield's novel Bareback, which is due for cinematic release under its American title Benighted next year, silver bullets are used as a last resort.

How old are werewolf legends?

There is much disagreement within academic circles. In Gaius Petronius's Latin text Satyricon, usually dated around AD60, dinner guest Niceros tells how a travelling companion stripped off, urinated on his clothes and turned into a werewolf while they were in a cemetery. Andrew Laird, Professor of Classical Literature at Warwick University, said use of werewolves as dinner conversation would suggest such tales may date back even further.

Don't they have, like, super powers?

Werewolves are credited with having super strength, a heightened sense of smell, a capacity to heal quickly, fast-growing hair and fingernails, and a tendency to mark out their territory with urine.

And you become a werewolf from being cursed, right?

One folktale says people fell under a curse for their sins, while others made a pact with the Devil to be a werewolf. Ancient tradition suggests sorcerers could also transform. Mr Steiger said: "Throughout history, self-professed werewolves have mentioned a 'magic girdle', which they wear about their middles, or a 'magic salve', which they apply liberally to their naked bodies. Others tell of inhaling or imbibing certain potions." Another old tradition said being born on Christmas Eve would result in becoming a werewolf because birth on that "sacred night" was seen as an act of blasphemy. "Those born on that night are condemned to be werewolves unless they prove themselves to be pious beyond reproach in all thoughts, words, and deeds," said Mr Steiger.

I heard you got it from being bitten or scratched

Nina, the girlfriend of werewolf George in BBC 3's Being Human, is coming to terms with her new identity after inadvertently being scratched by him. Her involuntary transformation follows a Holly- wood tradition that Mr Steiger says was created by Universal Pictures back in 1941 when Lon Chaney Jr was the hapless victim. In the upcoming remake, Benicio Del Toro will be bitten by a werewolf.

Is it passed from father to son?

This is what's troubling George in one of a new series of novels to be launched this Thursday to tie in with Being Human. In BBC Books' Being Human: Chasers, George is asked to father a child. Bob Powers says someone could indeed be born a werewolf to a werewolf father and human mother. Apparently, female werewolves are unable to stay pregnant during transformation.

Whatever. They're pretty butch though, aren't they?

Werewolves are depicted as being athletic and strong – see beefy Jacob Black (played by Taylor Lautner) in the Twilight film New Moon – although they are not necessarily large in their dormant state. Damarchus, an Olympic boxer from Arcadia in 400BC, is said to have turned into a wolf at the sacrifice of Lycaean Zeus.

So, why don't werewolves and vampires get on?

New Moon, the second film in Stephenie Meyer's vampiric series, pits the creatures against each other. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) is the pin-up bloodsucker while Lautner, as Jacob Black is the shape shifters' poster boy. Powers says there may have been a "turf war" centuries ago but no such problems exist now.

With all that hair and teeth, they're pretty scary

Actually, at the moment, they are sexy. For Michael Rowley, sci-fi and romantic fiction buyer at Waterstone's, werewolves are the "ultimate bad boys". He adds: "They're wild and untamed. There's something illicit and exhilarating about them that speaks to the beast within us all." Expect more heartthrob action in MTV's proposed TV version of 1985 film Teen Wolf, which starred Michael J Fox.

But they don't exist really?

Bob Powers says they do. He claims there are between 70,000 and 100,000 US werewolves and that they often build "safe rooms" where they strap themselves in with "fifty pounds of raw red meat" during transformations. "Suffice to say the condition of lycanthropy has been a part of my life," he added. "Someone in my life contracted the condition and I wanted to help."

Isn't Richard Keys a werewolf?

Probably not. The Sky Sports presenter suffered taunts of "werewolf" from football fans at the start of the 2006 season when the introduction of high-definition TV highlighted his rather hairy hands. He was soon seen on screen with noticeably smoother paws.