Brazil, Werewolves, and the Legacy of Colonialism

The werewolf, though perhaps not as famous worldwide as his companions Dracula, the Mummy, or Frankenstein’s monster, features far more heavily in Brazilian pop culture than those other classic monsters, appearing everywhere from TV shows to soap operas to films of varying genres.

This is particularly remarkable given Brazil doesn’t have wolves.

A week-long series on horror and folklore around the world that examines what popular stories and tropes can tell us about a society’s greatest fears, grimmest challenges, and darkest fantasies.

A scene the Brazilian werewolf movie Good Mannners.

A scene from the 2017 Brazilian werewolf movie Good Manners.Good Fortune Films Urban Factory

The werewolf, though perhaps not as famous worldwide as his companions Dracula, the Mummy, or Frankenstein’s monster, features far more heavily in Brazilian pop culture than those other classic monsters, appearing everywhere from TV shows to soap operas to films of varying genres.

This is particularly remarkable given Brazil doesn’t have wolves.

The closest animal Brazil has is the lobo-guará or “maned wolf”—which, though it carries the name “lobo” (wolf in Portuguese), is not actually a member of the wolf genus at all; it’s more similar to a fox (though it’s not technically a fox either). It’s an omnivore whose primary food staple is a tomato-like fruit called a wolf apple. It’s not considered a great predator or even very dangerous, and it’s certainly not an animal likely to inspire a nightmare creature like the werewolf.

Yet werewolves pervade Brazilian culture; reports of attacks by and sightings of werewolves occur with curious frequency. And not just recently either: In the late 1700s, a local administrator named José Cavalcante de Albuquerque, who oversaw the Lower Amazon village of Vila Franca, was accused of being a werewolf by a priest named Domingos de Lira Barros.

So why is the werewolf so prevalent in Brazil?

One reason this entity has invaded Brazil’s folklore is, of course, colonialism, as the werewolf is very present in Portuguese folklore and was likely a colonial import. But colonialism alone doesn’t explain why the werewolf has become so deeply integrated in its national consciousness. Rather, it’s the werewolf’s anthropomorphic, hybrid nature that has made it such a durable cultural figure and enabled it to merge with native mythology.

Even if the wolf itself is not available in our fauna repertoire, the concept of a man and savage, dangerous animal hybrid is easy to assimilate into Indigenous cultural superstitious beliefs. The werewolf tends to represent the relationship between human and animal. Its habitat is nature, normally a rural area; the idea of the creature as a supreme predator encounters a fertile place in Brazilians’ relationship with its forests—especially the Amazon. The werewolf reminds us that humans, despite all of our civilized affectations, are still animals at our core. That our urban surroundings have a rural ancestry. That there is a beast within us.

A maned wolf

The maned wolf, which resembles a fox but is technically neither wolf nor fox, is the only wolfish creature in Brazil. Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In Brazil, that idea of the hybrid also echoes the country’s colonialism experience, in which Europeans invaded not only the land but also the existing social and cultural structures, creating a new, hybrid society and culture that incorporated extremely different realities and religious beliefs. The werewolf is a metaphor of Brazil’s own folklore. It reminds us that Brazil is still based in native culture but has Portuguese influences.

The 2017 Brazilian horror film Good Manners, written and directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, evokes all of these themes. Although Brazilians tend to go to the movies to watch popular North American blockbusters with much far more frequency than national productions, Good Manners received critical acclaim in Brazil as well as internationally. The film won Best Brazilian Film, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography at the Festival do Rio, one of the biggest film festivals in Latin America. It also won the Félix Award for Best Fiction Film, dedicated to films that present LGBTQ themes.

The film tells the story of Clara (played by Portuguese actress Isabél Zuaa), who is hired by the pregnant and single Ana (played by Brazilian actress Marjorie Estiano) to work as a nanny. Ana is a rich white woman who doesn’t work and receives money from her father while Clara is a Black woman who needs the job to economically survive in a big metropolis like São Paulo, where the movie takes place.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

An unexpected romance between them breaks the obvious initial critique of social structures and racial inequality to introduce a new layer of commentary about lesbian relationships—a divisive issue in a country with the world’s largest Catholic population. Suddenly, Clara’s character mutates from an overworked employee (with all the inherent sociopolitical complexities) to a nursing figure who is protecting her love during pregnancy.

Divided into two acts, the ending of the first part presents Ana dying while giving birth to a baby werewolf and Clara adopting the boy as her own. The birth of a monster serves as a metaphor for the perils of having sexual relations outside of marriage, but that morale gains even more complicated dimensions when a priest is pointed to as the possible (or probable, depending on the interpretation) biological father.

The second act shows Clara’s life as she raises the now-7-year-old werewolf boy, Joel (curiously played by a young actor named Miguel Lobo, the equivalent of Michael Wolf in a literal English translation). When the monster inside the boy is released during the full moon, the privileged boy of wealthy (read: aristocratic) origin becomes a predator feeding on the lower social classes—a metaphor that can even be extended to the relationship between Brazil’s Portuguese colonial masters and its native people.

Yet it is precisely the moment when the boy’s monstrous werewolf form is fully revealed that Good Manners truly ties together all of the disparate threads of Brazilian culture, history, and identity.

A scene from the 1941 movie The Wolf Man.

A scene from the 1941 movie The Wolf Man.Universal Pictures

Dutra’s and Rojas’s werewolf borrows heavily from Universal Pictures’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man and more contemporary visual references, such as director John Landis’s 1981 An American Werewolf in London and director Neil Jordan’s 1984 British film, The Company of Wolves. But it also draws from anthropomorphic elements found in Brazilian folklore as well as local reports describing werewolves’ appearances since the 18th century—reports that were themselves likely influenced at least, in part, (especially early on) by the Portuguese Iberian wolf.

All of these references come together to form an entity that is not exactly part of Brazil’s native mythology, which existed there long before the European’s arrived in 1500, but still somehow feels genuine to Brazil.

Brazilian folklore today is not an inheritance of its native people, nor is it an appropriation of any other culture—be it the European colonizers or its continental neighbors. It is a mixture of all of this and more, including the culture of the African slaves who bled to build the country.

When Dutra and Rojas offer the viewer all these polysemic possibilities in Good Manners, they also leave a reflection about the title in the air. After all, what are these “good manners” the title refers to? It could be interpreted as implying that if you stray outside of accepted social conventions, you will end up dead (at least metaphorically if not literally). Or maybe it’s simply an appeal for young 7-year-old monsters to behave in public and avoid killing people.

But it also suggests one more interpretation that perhaps the directors weren’t planning: that Brazil’s culture, like the werewolf itself, is also a hybrid—and in a post-colonial interpretation, it is the product of a very violent invasion and genocide of its native people, one certainly not carried out with “good manners.”

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