“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from
uneasy dreams he found himself transformed
in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Imagine you could change your shape—or even better—become someone or something else. Though it may sound incredible, this happens to countless creatures that transform their body parts into a different creature. The process is called metamorphosis. It’s how the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and how a tadpole becomes a frog.
Many insects, amphibians, and crustaceans change their shape. Take the caterpillar. Hormonal changes prompt it to form a chrysalis, where it liquefies into biological goo before remodeling a new body from the constituent cells. The process is extraordinary. Almost all its organs are remade, and a new being emerges with a new brain, eyes, legs, and wings.
Metamorphosis is one of nature’s marvels. What changes is not just a physical transmutation but also a way of life. Caterpillars swap a terrestrial for an aerial existence, while tadpoles transform from vegetarian aquatic beings into terrestrial air-breathing carnivores. It’s as if these animals mutate into different species.
Creatures of the Night
The ancients saw something magical in this process. No wonder it gave birth to legends of supernatural shape-shifters, such as werewolves in Europe, shape-shifting foxes in Asia, and skin-walkers of Native American myth who morph into coyotes, wolves, foxes, and birds.
Shape-shifting has inspired a profusion of fictional characters, like Tolkien’s Beorn (who transforms into a bear), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who turns into a bat or a dog), and the X-Men’s Mystique (who can alter her appearance into anyone she wants). JK Rowling’s Harry Potter has a whole host of witches and wizards that can shape-shift into animals, including Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, Professor McGonagall, and Peter Pettigrew. In fact, any wizard can do it after a gulp of polyjuice potion. There are even shape-shifting aliens—cue Men in Black.
Judging by prehistoric cave paintings of half-human, half-animal creatures in France, we can speculate that belief in human shape-shifting has roots in early hunters’ desire to take on the spirit character of some animal or other. The fleetness of the stag, the cunning of the fox, the perspective of an eagle in flight—it suggests a conviction that human senses could be magically heightened by wearing an animal mask.
The Beast Within
There may be no single reason why shape-shifting has a hold on our imagination. But stories about vampires and werewolves are as popular as ever. I believe shape-shifters mirror the human condition: our capacity for violence; our sexuality; and the dark side of our nature beneath the veneer of civilization.
Shape-shifting is well suited to explore what can happen when we lose control of our primal instincts. I wrote in “The Dark Side of Human Nature,” about Robert Louis Stephenson’s tragedy, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll is an outwardly respectable man. But he has impulses that are unacceptable to society, and so he creates potion that transforms him into a brutish creature called Mr. Hyde who indulges in a variety of vices, including murder. Unable to control his dark alter ego, Jekyll kills himself in desperation.
Think of Remus Lupin (Harry Potter) and Bruce Bannerman (The Hulk). These stories are about humans fighting the beast inside, and they warn what we become if we lose control. The implications are clear: humans have savage urges that must be repressed. Perhaps that’s why the concept of shape-shifters is so deeply embedded in our subconscious. It’s the notion that monsters live among us undetected, waiting to pounce. They look like us and behave like us…until something triggers their metamorphosis. It’s a reminder of how savagery so easily intrudes into our ordered world.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.