Lore: Maleva the gypsy woman

Any character in a horror movie can spout off exposition. But only those special few with expert-level monster knowledge can propel a plot across the midpoint. Yet just how much do the experts know? We evaluate their most famous claims against the legends and traditions that inspired the movies. Today’s victim: Maleva the gypsy woman.

The cinematic werewolf is a Hollywood invention, so it’s fitting that the Van Helsing of werewolves is just as much a creature of Hollywood, and an offensive ethnic stereotype to boot.

I speak, of course, of Maleva the gypsy woman, created by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, introduced in The Wolf Man (1941), and brought to life by Maria Ouspenskaya. Maleva also appears in the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), but she falls through the plot holes at the end of the script, and we never find out what happens to her.1

Go now. And heaven help you.
Go now. And heaven help you.

Her story in The Wolf Man goes like this. She’s part of a traveling caravan of fortune tellers. Her son Bela, a werewolf, attacks Lawrence Talbot, the scion of the local lord of the manor, and transmits the curse of the werewolf to him. Maleva warns Talbot about what he has become. But how good is her lore? Let’s take a look.

Is the bite of a werewolf infectious?

“Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.”

—Maleva the gypsy woman, The Wolf Man (1941)

No. Maleva might be thinking of a different monster. Vampires spread vampirism through their bite, but werewolves gain their monstrous attributes from sorcery that they perform themselves, almost always willingly, or as a punishment for a serious transgression against the church or social order. Excommunication or banishment can do the trick. An ostracized person becomes a warg, an Old English word that means both “outlaw” and “wolf.” But if you go by the folklore of Eastern Europe, there isn’t much of a distinction between vampires and werewolves—the same word can mean either or both—so maybe that’s where Maleva is sourcing her info. Nevertheless, let’s call this one false.

Is silver lethal to a werewolf?

“A werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet, or a silver knife, or a stick with a silver handle.”

—Maleva the gypsy woman, The Wolf Man (1941)

Sort of. Witches are thought to be susceptible to silver but otherwise immune to injury once they’ve shapeshifted into animal form, but they tend to go as hares or cats. It’s unusual for them to transform into wolves. To the degree that werewolfism is a kind of witchcraft and that werewolves are warlocks who specialize in the practice, we can back up Maleva’s assertion here, but the folklore on the matter is far from settled. Sometimes the only way to return a werewolf to normal is to lop off one of its body parts. Maybe with a silver axe? But who keeps a silver axe lying around?

Does the full moon trigger a werewolf’s transformation?

“He is dangerous only when the moon is full.”

—Maleva the gypsy woman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

In rare cases, yes. Gervase of Tilbury seems to think so, based on his Otia Imperialia, which he wrote in the early thirteenth century. We’re impressed with Maleva’s command of the literature. But the vast majority of werewolf lore contradicts her, and Gervase of Tilbury, on this point. Werewolves can almost always change at will, by night or day, regardless of the phase of the moon, by smearing on a magic ointment or putting on a magic belt or skin. And those poor souls who are unwilling werewolves are usually stuck in wolf form.

Is the pentagram the mark of the werewolf?

“Take this charm—the pentagram, the sign of the wolf. It can break the evil spell.”

—Maleva the gypsy woman, The Wolf Man (1941)

No. The pentagram is a magic symbol, and it does grant protection from evil spirits, but it’s more closely associated with the ceremonial rites of the wealthy, landed, and classically educated, not the witchcraft of the great unwashed. So to characterize the pentagram as the sign of the wolf is at best disingenuous, because changing into an animal is unspeakably vulgar, and ceremonial magicians would never be so uncouth. An inverted pentagram, like an inverted cross, can be a sign of devil worship, but we don’t think that this is what Maleva is referring to, and we suspect that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

1. An all-new Maleva played by Geraldine Chaplin made her debut in The Wolfman (2010), not that anyone noticed with all the CGI.