An American Werewolf in London: The Rhetoric of Space

“How could there have been witnesses? It was so dark. We were running and I fell and Jack went to help me up and this thing came from nowhere” – David Naughton, An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Although she would never agree, my mom got me into horror.

After I had reached an appropriate age, of course, when looking for movies to watch on television, my mom recommended I stop on some classics when they appeared: The Lost Boys (1987), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Halloween (1978), and An American Werewolf in London (1981). We still watch and make constant references to all of them, but An American Werewolf in London has always had a special place in that repertoire. She saw the movie with some friends when it was in theaters, and she still remembers everyone’s reaction to Jack as he reappears throughout the movie in a more and more deteriorative state. I finally bought the movie after I moved away to finish my degree, and the DVD has travelled with me to my current home and received many, many more replays. I was excited when my readers on social media voted for this film to be the subject of a blog post. However…it took a lot of work and scrapped drafts to land on a focus.

Let’s start with the story, just in case you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it or you want a recap of this juicy horror comedy:

We meet David (the protagonist) and his best friend, Jack, when they are dropped off by a sheep farmer in the English countryside, one of the many stops of their backpacking vacation across Europe. They come upon a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, the name and sign of which (featuring a severed wolf head on a spike and a full moon in the background) gives them pause. Once they enter, they receive an icy reaction from the other patrons. Jack inquires about the five-pointed star painted on a wall, which rouses even more hostility from the locals. David and Jack decide to leave, prompting one of the most famous lines in a werewolf film from one of the villagers: “Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors.”

Since this is a horror movie, Jack and David don’t listen. They soon become lost on the dark and foggy moors, now accompanied by a strange sound that seems to follow them. When they eventually decide it’s time to run, David slips and falls on the wet grass. Jack reaches down to help him up, and that is when he is attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed, and David is afflicted with an injury from the creature when trying to help his friend. David wakes up a few weeks later in a hospital in London. Shortly after, Jack returns as a gory apparition of himself. He warns David that he is now afflicted with the curse of the werewolf, and he must take his own life before he harms others.

Alright…time to use my degree.

If you’re not familiar with rhetorical analysis, it’s basically this: observing what is present in a text (as well as any external factors influencing it) and uncovering patterns and themes to create an argument for the significance or implications of the text. One recurring theme I noticed while watching this movie once again was the role of space in the horror aspects of the film. Like in The Shining (1980) and Saw (2004), spaces play a stronger role than simple setting. The size, location, and influence of defined spaces play a major role in the disposition of the characters and influence what they do next. In American Werewolf, both of David’s transformations occur in interior spaces, both private property. Once the transformations are complete, he moves into open spaces in his werewolf form.

When in open spaces, the characters are vulnerable not only to the threat of the beast, but also to the consequences of their fear. Once David and Jack are out in the open, they become vulnerable to the presence that the villagers dare not explain to them. This is of course made worse by not listening to the warnings they did receive and stay on the road, another defined space. In this way, the spaces in the film act in one of two ways: protection from evil, or random exposure to it.

A couple years ago while watching this movie, I noticed something intriguing (and almost comical) about the scene in Piccadilly Circus near the end of the film after David’s second transformation. The scene is famously chaotic and disturbing (fun fact: director John Landis was a stunt man for a while before he got into writing and directing, and he is one of the stunt performers in this scene). However, aside from the act of biting someone’s head off and flinging it into the street, the werewolf does very little damage. The chaos of the scene (car accidents, people being hit by cars, etc.) is a result of the onlookers’ own engagement in the pandemonium, and the werewolf manages to get away without directly harming anyone else. Piccadilly Circus is a famous cultural center in London. With the appearance of this new and terrifying presence, the routine and expectations of the square are disrupted and dissolve into a tangle of injury and death.

The title itself suggests some degree of invasion. This tension is felt the second David and Jack enter The Slaughtered Lamb. The atmosphere automatically changes from a raucous congregation of friendly company to collective, silent attention drawn to the newcomers. The Americans notice this right away, as does everyone in the viewing audience. It is not unusual for horror films to reflect cultural or political tensions, and it is not unlikely that The Slaughtered Lamb is representative of the expectations and values of this estranged region of England.

The Slaughtered Lamb in particular acts as a place of emotional significance where there are unspoken rules that are expected to be followed. Later in the movie, David’s buttoned-up physician, Dr. Hirsch, visits the same pub in an effort to gain more insight into the incident from that night. He is similarly met with silence and resentment, especially when he announces he is a doctor from London. The people of this part of the country, most likely given their unfortunate associations with such a horrific figure and the curse it carries, do not welcome outsiders of any kind. Furthermore, they go out of their way (to the peril of others) to keep their secrets as buried as possible. When they feel their spaces and the secrets lurking within are invaded by newcomers, their instinct is to push them out.

Maybe that rhetorical analysis works, maybe it doesn’t, but one thing is certain: I absolutely love this movie. It was one of my first encounters with horror comedies, and it therefore changed my perspective of the horror genre irrevocably. This film is a beautiful blend of terror, love, comedy, suspense, and bloody action. This movie set a new standard for monster movies, from the stunning transformation scene (the first of its kind to use new-age special effects) to the engaging script and sympathetic characters. This movie is still a lot of fun to watch after all these years, and the towering praise it continues to receive is well-deserved.

Until next time,

Jordan

P.S. Beware the moon

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