As I researched this topic, I found it very interesting thatunlike vampires and Frankensteinalmost every culture around the world has some type of transformation or shape-shifting mythology (typically with animals indigenous to the area). Many of these mythologies go back to antiquity.
In earlier history, shapeshifters were most commonly deities (gods or goddesses) with the magical ability to transform. In Japan they have Kitsune, a fox shifter who is typically benevolent but often a trickster. Korea and China have similar fox shapeshifter myths. In Africa, deities shift into lions or leopards. In South America they transform into jaguars. Some gods/goddesses in Greek, Roman, Norse, etc. mythology can choose their forms.
Another frequent myth seen for shifters in earlier history is humans who were transformed into something by a god or goddess as a punishment. In Greek mythology, Arachne was transformed into a spider. In Roman myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, King Lycaon was changed to a wolf by Jupiter (some attribute this as the beginning of werewolf mythology). But in these cases, the person changed had no power to return back to human. This theme continued in later European folklore. The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast both involve transformation into animals as a punishment.
Enter the Middle Ages where the werewolf mythology became prevalent. Most of the people executed for being werewolves in this time period were later found by historians to be serial killers. The werewolf mythology also closely follows witch folklore and persecution. In fact, shifter mythologies were not all that prevalent in North America until brought over by European colonists at the same time as they brought their fear of witches.
Based on what I could find, not a lot seemed to change about shapeshifter folklore for quite some time. Up to the 1940s (and even later) they were truly seen as monsters eliciting terror and revulsion. Early books and movies about werewolves have the happy ending being the death or defeat of the creature.
In my research, I couldnt find a specific trigger for the change in perception of shapeshifters and werewolves as monsters to the view of them today as sympathetic and even heroic. Even books written in the mid- to late-1900s still use a more classic example of shifters. For example, in C.S. Lewiss The Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace is shifted into a dragon but more as a learning moment or punishment, not at will.
I would argue that shapeshifters we see today both in literature and movies, unlike their earlier counterparts, become the hero of most stories in the last 10-20 years by changing these aspects:
- ability to change at will (rather than being trapped in the animal form)
- more reasoned thinking (more human attributes, previous monsters went total animal)
- usually good and are solving the problem (even if the problem stems from them)
- frequently have an entire subculture to support them / live with in peace
- more often than not, shifting/were-hood is not a punishment, but a lifestyle