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A (Jewish) American Werewolf in London and the invisible other
Traveling abroad always has its challenges. Whether its a language barrier, a problem with power adapters, or just getting lost — there are all kinds of things that can go wrong. And while the internet has made a lot of things about travel easier, there's bound to be something that will inevitably go sideways. Which is perfect fodder for horror.
Allow me to share a brief anecdote before we talk about An American Werewolf in London. It's related, I promise.
A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Japan. We'd gone through a travel agent friend, we had contacts in Japan, we possessed official booklets with maps, my wife had spent months learning to read a few different languages — sufficed to say, we were as planned as anyone can be. We had plans on plans.
And yet, within 48 of us being in Tokyo, I was in the hospital. The long flight, mixed with exhaustion and eating foods I'd never had before turned my gastrointestinal tract into an inflamed monster that was devouring itself as my body temperature ballooned to 104 degrees.
The reason for all of this is because I have an autoimmune disorder called Crohn's Disease. Crohn's is a common condition among the Jewish people, so as a resident of the city of New York, I'm usually in good hands when my Crohn's flares up. But you know what Japan doesn't have a lot of? Jews! So Crohn's Disease isn't something they're used to dealing with. Hence why things got so bad and why I needed a hospital rather than a regular doctor's visit.
The thing is: you'd never know I have a potentially life-threatening condition by looking at me. Crohn's, like many incurable conditions, is largely invisible. And it's made all the more invisible while traveling to another country where the disease I have is virtually non-existent. The experience is alienating. You feel othered by the world around you, but in a way that is almost impossible to effectively communicate.
And that, in no small part, is what An American Werewolf in London is all about.
An American Werewolf in London is the story of David Kessler, his friend Jack Goodman, and their vacation backpacking across Europe. They don't get far before winding up being attacked by a werewolf along the moors in Wales. Jack is killed, but David suffers an arguably worse fate — he's bitten by the werewolf, dooming him to become a bloodthirsty monster himself upon the next full moon.
When David awakes in London, absolutely no one takes his werewolf fears seriously. And, in a city that he doesn't really know among a sea of strangers, there's no way for David to effectively communicate the help he really needs. Think about it from this perspective: if David had lost a friend or been bitten by a werewolf at home, he would have immediately had the support and understanding (at least somewhat) of the family and friends around him. Instead he's in London where he is a foreigner and truly knows no one. But because he doesn't fundamentally look different from anyone else in England, the things that make him different are invisible.
There's a very awkward scene from An American Werewolf in London that also factors in to this invisible otherness. While David is in a coma, one of the nurses in the hospital where he's being kept makes a point of saying, "he's Jewish, I checked." And while her invasion of David's privacy doesn't guarantee Jewishness (plenty of Americans are circumcised regardless of faith), there is another scene which makes this more explicit. Throughout the film, David has werewolf-fueled nightmares. In one of those nightmares, his family is attacked and brutally murdered by zombie werewolves in Nazi-like uniforms. That nurse comprehends David's Jewishness in that he is circumcised, but she does not understand even remotely the generational trauma and anxiety that comes of being Jewish.
An interesting fact about An American Werewolf in London is that it was first written by John Landis back in the 1960s. At that point, it would have been something like 20 years since the end of World War II at which point we had only barely begun to start healing from the Holocaust. Twenty years is no time at all for that level of shared trauma. Twenty years might as well be yesterday. You can feel that trauma in the subtext of An American Werewolf in London as David begs for help from the people around him.
When David finally does turn into a werewolf, it is a violent expulsion of all the anxiety, fear, and rage he has been feeling as a result of his friend's death and how lost he feels in a country that doesn't understand him. But it's also about that specific otherness that Jewish people all over the world feel when traumatic history is dismissed and misunderstood.
While the makeup and monster effects that are achieved in An American Werewolf in London are tremendous and groundbreaking, the film's greatest legacy is how it tells the story of David's trauma, both as an American in London, but also as a Jew just trying to get by in a world where anti-Semitism (which is often perceived as invisible by others) is ever present.
On today's episode of Every Day Horror presents The 13 Days of Halloween, comic creators, Vita Ayala and Danny Lore, join the show to talk about An American Werewolf in London. We talk about werewolves as a metaphor for rage, anxiety and depression. We talk about David's Jewishness. And we also talk about how the feeling of being othered is so infinitely understandable and why there ought to be more werewolf stories about that.