It has been almost a month since ‘Company of Wolves’ and, now that I am back from my holidays, I thought it would be good to reflect on the conference. As is so often the case being an organiser, I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I wanted. Instead I want to concentrate on the figure of the wolf which haunted the conference – appearing for a moment on a slide, in the agonised howl of the werewolf, decorating a cupcake, or in an adorable fuzzy version before disappearing back behind the its shadow-version, the werewolf.
The chance to see wolves at the UKWCT helped to bring home the difference between the Big, Bad wolf of our imagination and the real creature. On our arrival the wolves at the centre came forward to greet us and we were given a talk about communication amongst wolves. The talk clearly demonstrated the subtlety in the relationship between wolves in a pack; there is a huge amount of play involved in lupine relations and dominance is not as clearly demarcated as is often presumed. Following the presentation, we were able to hear the wolves howl. This experience was awe-inspiring. We had picked a glorious, autumnal day and there was an uncanny quality to hearing wolves howling in the brightly lit, English countryside. The uncanniness was exacerbated by the knowledge that once wolves did roam the British landscape. When the wolves had first arrived at the UKWCT, they were kept inside during the night to prevent the sound of their howls carrying to the local communities. Understandably, it was feared that the negative connotations of these noises may disturb local people. After consultation however it was discovered that those who lived nearby learned to enjoy the sound and were happy for the wolves to be outside during the night.
I did wonder whether as fans of horror, the Gothic and the macabre, the delegates may not have negative responses to the sound either. As Stacey Abbott argued in her keynote, ‘Creatures of the Night, what music they make’: The Sound of the Cinematic Werewolf, lupine howling has long been the soundtrack for Gothic movies. Wolves abound in Bram Stoker’s Dracula starting first as a way of signaling Harker’s descent into the dark heart of Romania before ‘invading’ Britain in the form of Count Dracula who leaps from the Demeter in wolf-form. The Gothic quality of wolves has found itself into many classic vampire movies and the wolfish howl signals the transformation of the werewolf starting first as the anguish of the human before becoming the celebration of animal unleashed. Given the delegates familiarity with these Gothic texts perhaps the sound of wolves howling is a signal that we are returning to familiar territory and an imaginative space which we know all too well.
The visit to the wolves was juxtaposed with Garry Marvin’s keynote, Cultural Images of the Wolf and the Wolves’ Re-emergence in Europe, which concentrated on the relationship between man and wolf. His paper made clear that when you speak of wolves it is impossible to strip away the cultural interpretations of the wolf – be they positive or negative. The wolf is always as dangerous as humans want it to be. What Marvin’s work highlighted was that creation of the ‘cultural wolf’ or the wolf of the imagination had a direct affect on our treatment of the animals themselves. The zenith of wolf slaughter was shown to be in the claiming of North America when the wholesale destruction of wolf packs was encouraged: every good cattleman and rancher carried a bag of strychnine in order to poison carcasses and kill wolves. The wolf’s reputation as an outlaw was brought to its bloody conclusion with the introduction of bounties. Individual wolves became notorious through vastly inflated accounts and, when caught, their deaths were recorded as moments of celebration.
Marvin’s paper was met with sombre discussion about how the human imagination and our fear of monsters can be translated into crimes against animals. Having only a few hours before been greeted by wolves to suddenly see images of them about to be dragged apart by horses was shocking and disturbing. In a conference that, amongst other things, closely considered the werewolf, it became clear that it was the ‘were’ that made the wolf monstrous and not the wolf that made the monster. Behind the werewolf is not the wolf itself but humanity’s fear of the wolf.