Embracing the werewolf

Elizabeth Donald
4 min readMar 28, 2022

How often are nonconformity and defiance of social norms dismissed as madness by those focused on maintaining the status quo?

Last month’s exploration of madness in fiction focused on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I read many years before. This time we’re focusing specifically on themes of madness and nonconformity.

I chose to explore Stephen King’s theory of Jekyll and Hyde as a werewolf story, which he detailed in Danse Macabre. King’s overview of the horror genre was not exactly academic, but it was surprisingly nuanced for a piece intended for the general public and not the literary world.

The theme of the book centered on his belief that horror as a genre feeds on societal fears and socioeconomic issues to get at the things that truly terrify us. Children might be afraid of the thing in the closet, but adults fear abandonment, professional failure, loss of a loved one, disease and other complexities that are harder to encapsulate in a single monster. The most effective horror finds the pressure points within the human psyche and turns them into something that can eat you.

In Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll has intentionally made himself into the werewolf to defy the hypocritical restrictions of Victorian society. Jekyll is forced by propriety to maintain the Apollonian* veneer of order and restraint. By transforming himself into Hyde, Jekyll frees his Dionysian side and doesn’t feel the need to mortify any of his tastes — he can simply indulge them without the societal backlash that would impact his life as Jekyll.

Robert Louis Stevenson is up to something more than that, however. He introduces us to the story through Utterson the lawyer, as Apollonian a character as you can imagine. By introducing Utterson the way he does, Stevenson is telling us that Jekyll isn’t unique: everyone has the Apollonian and Dionysian sides and we simply choose to hide them — to bury the werewolf — because of our need to conform to what society deems as normative behavior.

For example, Utterson is described as having a taste for vintages, but he only drinks gin in private. He enjoys the theater, but never attends, as they are hotbeds of sin. He refuses to indulge in his lower tastes, and Apollo is pleased. Jekyll feels this same constraint, but creates the…

Elizabeth Donald

Journalist for more than 25 years, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at patreon.com/edonald or visit donaldmedia.com.