Tag Archive | "Lon Chaney Jr."

Bad Moon Risin’

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Werewolf

As a kid born on Halloween, devil-eyed Dracula did not frighten me.  Neither did Frankenstein’s monster, that conglomeration of corpses that stalked the countryside in search of victims.  But one look at the Wolfman on the small screen or even as a Halloween mask would raise the shivers right up my spine and send me diving beneath the covers.   To this day, I can’t explain why his particular monster struck the fear of God into me.  But I can explain a bit about lycanthropy: the process by which a human being is transformed into a vicious half-man, half-wolf.

 

Lore surrounding lycanthropy first sprang up in old Eastern Europe, home of the Caucasian and Carpathian mountains.  Wolves numbered among the creatures that inhabit these dark, gorgeous, and often foreboding ranges; they are, in fact, the territories’ most efficient predators.   Travelers were warned against venturing off the roads and into these rugged places, where they might encounter wolves.  Who first transmogrified the ancient Greek Minotaur into the Wolfman, I don’t know, but it was a successful adaptation.  In Greek mythology, a bloodthirsty creature named the Minotaur was imagined to have the body of a man and the head and shoulders of a bull.  This monster would trap its victims in its lair: a labyrinth from which none but a lucky hero escaped.  Once trapped, the Minotaur would then make a meal of his victims.  Gulp!

 

The Wolfman is, as his name suggests, a being with the head of a wolf and the body of a man, albeit an unnaturally furry, wolf-like body.   Under the curse of one who trucked with Satan, a man would be doomed to turn into a lycanthrope, also known as a werewolf, as the moon rose full in the night sky.   Under this celestial orb, a normally rational human would grow fangs, hair all over his body, and long, sharp nails. Worse, he would lose his mind, seized with the urge to kill until the sun began its blessed rise.   Strange as it may seem, there is some truth behind this legend.

 

The full moon affects a great number of living things on Earth, as well as the environs that support life.  It commands the tides and smaller bodies of water.   Female crabs, for instance, ovulate during the full moon and are thus prized by hunting sea creatures and gourmands alike for their roe.   Comprised of 70% water, the human body also feels the effects of Earth’s sole natural satellite.   A gentleman I once knew claimed he could not sleep during a full moon, even when his windows were draped with black curtains.  Worse, he suffered from terrible headaches during this lunar phase.  Years later, his doctor discovered that he had more than the usual amount of water behind his eyes.  Under the moon’s influence, these pools would swell and cause intense cranial pressure.

 

Before modern medicine, people who suffered with similar migraines during the full moon, who ran around holding their heads, howling with pain, and generally frightening the dickens out of their communities were institutionalized.  When the link with the full moon was discovered, the term “lunatic” was coined.   Now, some of these people were, unfortunately, deranged in the genuine sense of the term; some of these had been born with a murderous bent (think: the triple X chromosome discovered by modern science as the cause behind much violent criminal behavior in men).

 

Escaping from the institutions, some of these lunatics took refuge in the forests, where it was relatively safe and where they were forced to live off the land.  Without benefit of barbers, haberdashers, or other modern comforts, the lunatics lived like animals, their hair, beards, and fingernails growing long and unkempt and their clothing torn into shreds on shrubs and low-hanging branches.  Upon occasion, they would stumble upon and attack hapless souls who’d lost their way.  Those who escaped spread tales of the ferocious “wolfmen.”

 

Lycanthropy, however, is not limited to stories of this nature.   There exist people who are truly convinced that, under the light of a full moon, they are transformed into wolves.  The annals of psychology and law enforcement include many such cases, in which persons thus convinced have attacked and killed, in the most brutal manner, innocent souls.   Wolfmen seem to have a particular fondness for a certain type of human victim, but you will never drag it out of me, at least, in print.  It is far too horrific to relay.

 

In the 1950’s, some enterprising fiend in Hollywood remembered well the popularity of the ’30’s films, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, whose spin-offs continued to pump box office coffers.  Perhaps this person was spurred on by the growing threat of McCarthyism, which promulgated that some men and women were not what they seemed on the surface, posing threats to our society (alleged Communism).  Seeking a new-fangled monster that would pique and hold the public’s interest, the Wolfman was thus born.

 

Of course, every evil phantasmagorical being had to have its Achilles Heel.  In the Wolfman’s case, it was a silver bullet.  Shot straight through his heart, a bullet fashioned of pure silver would chase the demon from the werewolf’s soul and return him to a state of normalcy.  Of course, the bullet also killed him but hey, those were the breaks … and interestingly enough, a warning for those who, under the yoke of McCarthyism, broke from the norm.

 

Cursed by an evil gypsy, Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed, in my estimation, the most compelling Wolfman on film.  From the 1970’s on, Hollywood enjoyed a resurgence of werewolves dodging silver bullets on the silver screen.  Perhaps the most jarring of these films was An American Werewolf in London.  In the then-new genre of film that was neither comedy nor tragedy, but lying somewhere in that uncomfortable “gray area,” the gore in this movie was graphic and the soundtrack pure camp.  In the opening sequence, where the lycanthrope rips the throat out of his victim to leave the poor man to bleed out his life, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rousing hit, Bad Moon Risin’, warns the viewer to beg, borrow, or steal a pistol loaded with silver bullets.

 

As a genus, wolves also got a bum rap from folklore, which no doubt laid the foundation for the public’s buying into the legend of the Wolfman.  Fairy tales of old warned of the cunning and viciousness of wolves; Little Red Riding Hood was the most famous of such tales.  The story was a handy device for warning children against inimical strangers.  And this author also believes it to be a morality tale, cautioning young girls against “wolves” of the human variety.

 

In our own time, there are those who spread the notion of wolves as creatures to be feared and obliterated from the Earth.  By nature, wolves are neither blood thirsty or sneaky … or rather, no less blood thirsty or sneaky than any other predator created by the hand of God.   As canines, they are highly intelligent.  Because they live in packs, they are social in nature; each pack boasts a dominant Alpha male as well as a matriarch.  The primary function of the adults of both sexes is to produce the most viable offspring and ensure the survival of the pack by protecting its members, strengthening its borders (territory) against other predators, and hunting for sustenance.

 

The previous Republican administration has worked systematically to annihilate wild wolves from America’s landscape.  President George W. Bush signed as well as renewed sanctions through which aerial hunters, in helicopters and small planes, were empowered to pick off as many wolves as they wished in Yellowstone National Park — including nursing mothers and young pups.  Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin continued this heinous practice within the boundaries of her native State.

 

The excuses for this horrific slaughter include the grossly inflated claims that wolves prey upon the cattle of wealthy ranchers who, not so coincidentally, have historically been major contributors to Republican political campaigns.   Although wolves hunt cattle because mankind destroys more and more of the predators’ natural territory and thereby, robs them of their more natural prey such as deer and rabbits, the numbers of cattle taken by the canines is minimal.

 

Defenders of Wildlife, a peaceful, well-established environmental group whose name pretty much says it all, recently offered the latest crop of outraged cattlemen a monetary sum for each steer or cow taken by wolves: the exact same sum paid out by the cattlemen when they’d purchased the animals.  This group consisted of all of eight cattle ranchers.  Only one came forth to collect his money, leading those of us who respect wildlife and who question uncaring authority to wonder about the veracity of the cattlemen’s claims.

 

As for wolves attacking humans, these cases are extremely rare and have usually involved a rabid wolf.  By and large, wolves shy away from human beings, perhaps through racial memory.  Perhaps they remember the days of the great fur trade that went unchecked in our Northern territories and extended into Canada, in which their kind were hunted mercilessly for their warm, thick pelts that fetched a pretty price.   

 

The intelligence and social nature of wolves was driven home to me several years ago when I had the good fortune to pet a fully-grown she-wolf at a Native American pow-wow in Northern New Jersey.  From a distance, I mistook her for a large German shepherd and loving that breed, I approached her only to receive a delightful little shock.  The wolf was on a leash, just like a dog, sitting quietly by her master’s side.  With reverence, I asked if it would be all right to pet the animal, which the man explained had taken two years for his permit to “own her” to be validated.  From the many nature documentaries I’ve seen over the years, I knew not to look directly into her eyes, for to do so is to challenge the wolf: a creature far more powerful than I.  And yet, I was compelled to look as I stroked the beautiful creature’s coarse, silver and white coat.

 

In the golden eyes that gazed back at me, I read tolerance and mutual respect.  I may have read amusement as well, but my vision was blurred; I found myself crying, for the experience was unexpected and profound.  The animal’s ears were larger than my hands; her clawed paws seemed enormous.  And when she smiled, I saw her sharp white fangs.  She could have overpowered me easily.  And yet, she sensed in me no malice and graciously allowed me a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I will never forget.  Not bad for a kid who once had the stuffing scared out of her by the brutal Wolfman — and who no doubt will again, this Halloween!

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