By the Light of the Moon
The moon is for lovers and loons. Astrologers track its movements. Werewolves sprout razor-sharp claws and ugly tufts of fur under the spell cast by its pockmarked face. Some claim the moon affects sanity and fertility—often on the same night. The moon is an ever-present symbol in myth, song, poetry and fiction. It seems people have always been over the moon over the moon.
In Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed young lovers, Juliet entreats Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon.” Yet astrologers embrace the waxing and waning orb. They say the moon’s position in the zodiac when a person is born influences personality and fate, and they perceive great significance in lunar events. For instance, a lunar eclipse, occurring when the moon travels into Earth’s shadow, cues endings. A couple that breaks up during such an eclipse is done for good.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson refers to horoscopes as “horrorscopes.” Yes, the moon is a very powerful force, its gravitational pull bullying the oceans into tides and its reflective surface illuminating dark nights. But are people born during a waxing moon more ambitious, as astrologers believe? And are those born under a waning gibbous moon (one still more than half full) destined to serve humankind? Most scientists would say only lunatics believe such claims. And the dictionary bears them out: Lunacy derives from the Latin luna (“moon”), reflecting the ancient belief that the moon’s changing phases cause temporary insanity.
From the idea of celestially engendered craziness, i.e., lunacy, arose whisperings of supernatural monsters—werewolves, their transformations catalyzed by lunar beams. It was during the full moon, people said, that cursed men endured the painful shift into wolf form, and some serial killings were believed to be the work of werewolves. In the sleepy town of Bedburg, Germany, in the 1580s, a deranged farmer named Peter Stubbe raped, murdered and ate 15 women. He was convicted of being a werewolf and gruesomely executed. Two decades later in France, a teenager named Jean Grenier confessed he was a cannibalistic werewolf. The judge concluded he was not a shape-shifting brute—but only because his victim’s dress was not torn in typical werewolf-attack fashion.
Scientific investigation into the correlations between insanity and sexual violence did not start until the late 19th century, with German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal 1886 book Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study. But modern science has not completely forsworn werewolves. People who believe they can turn into wolves have their own psychopathological classification: clinical lycanthropy.
John Milton coined the word moonstruck in the 1674 edition of his epic poem Paradise Lost, about humankind’s first lovers, Adam and Eve. The sanctity of their love is destroyed when Eve eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the pair learns about the guilt that comes from sinful lust. Milton lists the miseries “th’ inabstinence of Eve / Shall bring on men,” among them “moaping Melancholie / And Moon-struck madness.”
The characters in the 1987 film Moonstruck are driven to the brink of insanity by Cupid’s ill-aimed arrow, but they also reference Milton’s subject matter. Loretta (Cher) agrees to marry her boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello), but then falls in love with Johnny’s brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Meanwhile, Loretta’s parents, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) and Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), are having marital troubles. After Rose discovers Cosmo’s adultery, she asks Johnny why men chase after women; he responds, “God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back.”
Helpless in the grip of primordial bloodlust, werewolves can kill the things they love. Werewolf Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), in the 1941 film The Wolf Man, attacks Gwen, the girl of his dreams. In Glen Duncan’s 2011 novel The Last Werewolf, the lycanthropic protagonist, transformed into his fanged alter ego, kills his pregnant wife. (Considerate werewolves chain themselves in dungeons before the full moon rises.)
The movie Moonstruck features a werewolf of sorts in the temperamental one-handed bachelor, Ronny. Though Ronny does not morph into an actual beast, he is driven by animalistic passion. Loretta—the object of his desire—accuses him of being a wolf who “chewed off [his]own foot” to escape the trap of the wrong love.
Such fictional representations pay libelous disservice to real-life wolves, who by and large are a loving, loyal species. A mother wolf stays in the den for the first few weeks after birthing her pups, while the father provides food for them all; wolf couples usually remain together until one of them dies. And the age-old image of a wolf howling at the full moon, its cry evoking primal urges, is simply a myth. Wolves don’t howl at the moon.
Much of the action in Moonstruck takes place under a gargantuan full moon that dictates the love lives of an Italian American family. “The moon brings the woman to the man,” says one character. In the eyes of an old bachelor, a young woman looks “as fresh and bright and full of promise as moonlight in a martini.” And when protagonists Loretta and Ronny consummate their love, that old devil moon rises over New York City. Dean Martin’s 1953 rendition of the song “That’s Amore” plays over the film’s opening credits, summing up the romantic power of our illuminated satellite: “When the moon hits your eye / Like a big-a pizza pie / That’s amore.”
In his 1980 novel Still Life With Woodpecker, Tom Robbins muses about the moon for hundreds of pages. He promises countless times to reveal the “purpose of the moon” but finally concludes it’s merely an object, the “color of dishwater,” assigned value by the lovesick. It has no more meaning than a pack of Camel cigarettes, which Robbins uses to symbolize his main characters’ love. Well, okay—but somehow a pack of smokes doesn’t seem nearly as seductive.
Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of fertility, was represented by the moon. The infertile reportedly offered bulls’ testicles at her temple. Today the moon is still thought by some to influence conception—no bull castrations needed. In 1971, “earth-energies explorer” Louise Lacey began experimenting with a new form of birth control she called lunaception. She described a method by which a woman could prevent unwanted pregnancy by aligning her menstrual cycle with the phases of the moon, supposedly ensuring that she would be fertile only around the time of the full moon. Lacey claims that “tens of thousands of women have successfully used lunaception.” It is not approved by the FDA. It did, however, receive a shout-out in Tom Robbins’s Still Life With Woodpecker. In a complicated plot involving displaced royalty and aliens from the planet Argon, a redheaded bomber nicknamed the Woodpecker promises to teach the princess Leigh-Cheri the secrets of lunaception. With memories of an abortion and a miscarriage troubling her mind, Leigh-Cheri quickly takes to the method—and to the strange, self-described outlaw, the Woodpecker.
The word menstruation comes from the Greek mene (“moon”). Ironically, it’s because of the menstrual cycle—or, rather, male idiocy about it—that no woman has ever set foot on the moon. For years, a testosterone-dominated National Aeronautics and Space Administration was hesitant to send women into space, partly because NASA scientists believed menstrual fluids might, under weightless conditions, flow the wrong way and inflame a woman’s abdomen. That’s why the first woman in space was a Russian: Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. (Granted, she was sent up between her periods.) Not until 20 years later did the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, don a puffy suit for a trip aboard the space shuttle Challenger. During a preflight press conference, Ride was asked whether conditions in space would affect her reproductive organs—and if she wept when things went wrong. Despite the bias, Ride’s journey was a success, and NASA’s menstrual worries proved groundless. By that time, though, NASA had suspended moon missions. So far, women have made it to the moon only in science fiction—as in Fritz Lang’s technologically prescient silent film Woman in the Moon (1929).
Psychologists long surmised a trip into space might be too much for a fragile mind to handle. Despite such worries, and despite Hollywood’s depictions of “space mad” astronauts like those in the 1998 film Armageddon, men have gone to the moon and back without going crazy. That’s not to say space travel is mentally risk-free: In 1965, when Ed White became the first American astronaut to leave his spacecraft and float into the vast nothingness, his commander, James McDivitt, had to plead with White to return to the ship. In the grip of a phenomenon called space euphoria, White was really spacing out.
White’s experience aside, astronauts are more likely to go crazy after a spaceflight than during. The second man to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, confessed that he struggled with depression and alcohol abuse once back on terra firma. And in February 2007, six months after Lisa Nowak had gone into space for almost 13 days, she drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando—without even stopping for a bathroom break—and attempted to kidnap the girlfriend of a fellow astronaut.