It had only been a matter of weeks since I’d first seen the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” that near 15-minute masterful marriage of monsters and music, of ferocity and fun. It was my gateway drug to horror, teaching me in its way that horror should inspire screams as frequently as it inspires smiles. It had only been a matter of weeks and I think my dad was already grifting around town for a new VHS copy, because the copy I’d watched at least two times a day for two weeks straight was on its last four legs.
I would return from time to time to “Thriller” and its Rick Baker-produced VFX but not for a while. And not because Dad couldn’t finagle a VHS copy from somewhere in town. If “Thriller,” to most of us, represented the future of horror, Dad’s next hat trick would take me back in time instead.
Dad handed me a weathered videocassette case with a white sticker stuck to its spine. The title read “The Wolf Man.” And he shook it in front of me like fishing bait as I sat there on the couch, staring at the television, apparently having seen it all that early Saturday morning. And as he teased me with the case, the videocassette’s plastic guts rattling around within its frame, he told me that he’d got it from a friend at a house party the night before. Perhaps I hadn’t seen it all, I admit. But I was about to see what comes next.
The Wolf Man (1941) found me at the perfect time in my life. When I saw the film as a child, I was old enough to have graduated from picture books to the point that I was already losing interest in reading. The stories of fiction novels were too sprawling and drawn-out for my attention span. Somehow, I sensed the pretense and artificiality of fiction. There was no dread there. There was no terror there. There was no peril.
But after a few viewings of “Thriller,” my dad told me about this affliction called lycanthropy, in which a real life man will imagine he turns into a real life wolf when the moon is full. I thought he was trying to scare me … until my next visit to the public library. I asked the librarian if she had any books on legends, on lore, on werewolves, on lycanthropy. I left with five books that day – all nonfiction. And like that: I was a reader again.
But I wasn’t reading the mystery novels of the Three Investigators with its calculated deduction that would certainly reach a pat solution for a crime. I wasn’t reading Tolkein’s The Hobbit with its assured happy ending. I was reading about the real world, I constantly reminded myself, and it was a world in which I lived.
And although I understood that The Wolf Man wasn’t based in any universe of reality, what frightened me more than the possibility of a man turning into a wolf when the moon is full was the notion that he’s doomed to kill the thing that he loves the most after his transformation was complete, according to the lore that I read, even according to the 1941 film, but suddenly: the dread was real. The terror was real. There was peril. As a child, to have that trusted paradigm of the world fractured into a new one – terrifying. Mournful. Like the death of your first dog.
I became fascinated and horrified all at once – with my overactive imagination – with the possibility that I too could transform into a werewolf. But what frightened me from sleeping was the idea that I would hurt someone close to me – my parents, my siblings, my friends. Why couldn’t the legend tell that werewolves were fated to kill their elementary school teachers instead? What a joy it would be to stalk into my first grade classroom between popcorn reading and recess and eviscerate my homeroom teacher. “Diagram that sentence, Mrs. Thompson.”
So today, I remain most fascinated with – of all the monsters – werewolves. What I immediately understood of them as a child – especially after The Wolf Man – was that they were sometimes superhumanly strong, could be ferociously violent, and looked the most menacing of all the monsters, whether walking upright or down on all fours. But what ultimately makes the werewolf more frightening than most of the other monsters that I would discover in my youth is the nature of their kills, the target of their monstrous behavior.
As a child, I didn’t understand then that the real world was filled with all manner of flesh and blood monsters that could do more damage than any fictitious monster on the silver screen. For some of them, only the television set was closer to me in proximity. The real monsters could be living right next door. But when I saw it as a child, The Wolf Man taught me true terror, and it had nothing to do with the origin story that had birthed it or the physical appearance of the creature or even the orchestrated score in the background that signaled danger was lurking nearby, that you’d better cover your eyes …
… Because the loss of those closest to me was the greatest terror. Whether at the hands of a supernatural werewolf or the hands of fate, here was a horror that would haunt my dreams, long after the credits rolled on Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man.
It’s a terror that we never really outgrow, do we, even as the sun comes up and makes idle promises to chase the monsters away?