Although we each have our own, personal associations to this metaphor [possibly involving 3 little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, a Russian boy named Peter, even Kevin Costner…or Sarah Palin?], the received meaning of the phrase for several centuries has been, that one has fallen on hard financial times. [Everything old is new again.]
Since many of these scenarios end with the scary, intrusive wolf being shot dead, it’s a wonder that more bailiffs and repo men don’t get blown away on the beleaguered householder’s doorstep. One could argue that, by doing the dirty work of the householder’s creditors, these “heartless mercenaries” become de facto Silent Partners, who are prepared to destroy the lives of the debtor and his/her family. In many recent lost-his-job-and-went-on-a-killing-spree-including-himself stories, this Silent Partner dynamic is obvious.
But, even for those fortunate enough [for now] to remain solvent, the wolf-at-the-door is an archetypal symbol of threat. To understand why, let’s go back to Vienna, to the 300-year-old Spanish Riding School, for another animal story [attributed to Freud]. The Lippizaners are the horses that do “ballet” [high-level Dressage moves] to Mozart, whose shows are a notoriously hard ticket; but whose rehearsals are open to the public. I like to think that it was while watching such a rehearsal [perhaps seeing a groom leading two high-spirited stallions around the arena] that Freud asked a friend, “Which would you choose–to be pulled apart by two horses, or to be charged by two horses?” If you’re like most people, you would choose to be charged. The usual logic behind this is, “If they’re coming at me, I can try to jump out of the way.” Freud used this metaphor to illustrate the defense mechanism of projection. Rather than feel “torn apart” by two powerful, opposing impulses [such as the urge to act out antisocially vs. the desire to “be good”], an individual externalizes [projects] the impulse to behave badly onto a scapegoat [or wolf], and then tries to “jump out of the way” of it [saying, “That is so not who I am!”]. The problem with this temporary fix, is that the wolf can circle around behind you [called in psychoanalytic parlance–like a B movie title–“The Return of the Repressed”], and thus overpower your good intentions, causing you to act out antisocially, willy-nilly.
So, sometimes, the Big Bad Wolf at the door is not a sinister stranger. It’s an unacknowledged part of ourselves.