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L Is for Lycanthrope

Wolfman1 "I’m sick of the whole thing. I’m gonna get out of here." – Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man

When I was a kid, werewolves really made me think. There was a certain kind of emotion that a good werewolf film called up in me – a mixture of pity, fear, and hopeless envy — that I found hard to understand.

That last element in particular. After all, why on earth would one envy a werewolf? All the best werewolf movies (first and foremost The Wolf Man, but also The Werewolf of London, the later Universal sequels, and the Hammer excursions in the genre as well) drilled home the fact that werewolves were unfortunate creatures – cursed beings who were better off dead than alive.

And yet… wouldn’t it be great if one could actually be a werewolf oneself?

IReturning to the werewolf classics of my late-night-local-TV childhood today (easily done thanks to the Universal Wolf Man Legacy DVD, which packs four of them in along with all the obligatory extras) I find myself more conscious of their flaws (slow pacing and some outbreaks of hokey dialogue chiefly) but clearer on what it was about these films that was so attractive to me as a kid. I now think I understand why it was I envied the Wolf Man as much as I did, even though by the logic of the films I shouldn’t have at all.

The reason? Kids see an entirely different Wolf Man than adults do. An adult watching the original Wolf Man understands that Larry Talbot, once bitten, is a man who suffers the classic adult problem of the terror of the involuntary. He’s a nice guy who can’t help becoming, on occasion, the bad beast he – at least in part — really is. To become an adult is to learn that there are aspects – problematic aspects — of ourselves that we can no more control than Lon Chaney can control his lupine alter ego.

But this isn’t what a kid sees in the Wolf Man. To a kid, Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot isn’t all that interesting a character before he gets bitten. But once he does – once he starts agonizing over his hairy legs and waking up guilty and miserable after a night of Gypsy-killing – he becomes evidence for a certain kind of suspicion that kids have about the world: that it is really a very different place than the adults say it is. Werewolves – and this goes even for the ones created by John Landis – are adults who are not in control. They demonstrate in a very visceral way a fact that most kids secretly suspect, and which they are in equal parts frightened of and fascinated by: the grown-ups don’t know what’s really going on in the world any more than they do.

A frightening idea? Sure. But when you’re ten years old, a strangely intoxicating one too. It’s what made me, at age ten, love to look in the mirror each morning to check and see if maybe — just maybe — I’d grown a set of fangs over the course of the night.

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