In France between the 16th and 17th centuries, there were more than 30,000 documented cases of people claiming or appearing to be werewolves. This was during the era of massive werewolf hunts that took place across Europe, coinciding with the more well-known witch hunts. There were a number of real-world explanations that likely prompted the wolf hunts. For example, hypertrichosis is a genetic disorder that causes people to grow hair over their entire bodies. In rare cases, people with this condition can actually resemble werewolves.
Another explanation for the collective werewolf hysteria that swept through Europe and the U.S. at that time was that people afflicted with rabies could, in rare instances, display werewolf-like tendencies. Finally, while ordinary wolves in the wild rarely attack humans without provocation, hybrids of dogs and wolves could be especially aggressive, in some instances even going after people. This helped foster the notion of the existence of werewolves. It's estimated that as many as 30,000 people were branded as werewolves and that many were investigated and even tortured for their accused deeds [source: Louisiana State University]. As with Salem witch trials, it could be that the Europeans were seeking a way to explain the seemingly unexplainable. For example, one French case involved the finding of several "half-eaten" children. Locals decided a werewolf's paws and teeth must have caused the carnage and targeted a man named Gillas Garner. He was sentenced to death.
Like Garner, werewolves usually were depicted as evil. Some portrayals have been much more sympathetic, however. Some films and books contain werewolf characters that are in a constant struggle to come to grips with their lycanthropy (the ability to morph into a wolf). It's this struggle that evokes compassion and sympathy. The phenomenon of a sympathetic werewolf goes back to the publication of "Eena" in 1947, which was also innovative for its depiction of a female werewolf. More recently, the character of Remus Lupin, in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, is completely benevolent. And the character of Oz in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is another sympathetic werewolf character. It's Oz's battle to get a grip on his lycanthropic urges in order to become a better person that makes him such a likeable character.
If not sympathy, then empathy is warranted. Scientists might have finally discovered the genetic mutation that causes the disorder called hypertrichosis [source: Live Science]. The extremely rare disorder has been known to run in families, and scientists have come close to tracing it before. By testing a man and his family in China, they were able to match certain genes on the family's X chromosomes with those of members of a family in Mexico who have the disorder to trace it to a gene involved in hair growth.
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