The Monster's on the Loose!!!: Non-Chaney, Pt. 1: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad... Something?

"Werewolf, werewolf, come and get me!"

Those were the words I chanted in complete darkness one evening as my school chum Mark Kiehl and I were each tucked tight in our sleeping bags on the floor of the downstairs family room area in my parents' house in Eagle River, Alaska. Mark was staying for a sleepover with myself and my brothers, and after a day of rambunctious play in the woods surrounding our home and most likely watching something goofy on television that evening, we were too wound up for bedtime but were, of course, under the then-usual parental orders to keep it down. But the late evening was filled with whispered jokes and rampant giggling, and because we were kids, and because I was, as I am now, ME, the darkness always brought about talk of monsters.

And thus, while we continued our course of giggling and joking, a discussion about werewolves ensued. I had to show my pal that I was not afraid of werewolves in the least, when the truth was, living in the woods in Alaska in a winter where sunlight was only seen for a few rare hours a day, I was completely petrified of them. And so, to prove my worth, I created the chant, "Werewolf, werewolf, come and get me!" Following my earnest repeating of my brave incantation, in which Mark joined me, there was a pause... a long silent pause... and then...

Following that pause, there were different paws. The kind that came bearing tiny, sharp kitten claws needling into my youthful chest. There was a small thunk on my body and then instant pain. I had completely forgotten the newest addition to our family, a kitten that was now occupying our house, a cute little tortoiseshell that we had named, inventively, Tort. AND I SCREAMED! And then Mark screamed. Not yells, not manly noises of desperate fear like "Arrgghh!" or "Awwww!" but a pair of full girly style screams, high-pitched and ear-shattering. 

Tort the kitten, of course, went flying. Then, there was the sound of hurried footsteps from upstairs where my parents slept, and then those same footsteps down the stairs, and then there was a light coming on in the hallway adjacent to the open family room where the two of us were camping out for the evening. There were some grunted words of disapproval from my father -- possibly betraying that the speaker was close to being on his own trip to Sleepy-town -- a stern warning that my dad had no intent of actually following through with but boy did he mean it, and then the clicking of the light switch to the off position followed by the sound of footsteps out of the basement area and up the stairs, across the upstairs hallway, and back to the master bedroom. Fully reprimanded, we didn't care. We had been giggling the entire time. We continued giggling and saying stupid, meaningless, childish jokes to each other – illuminated like a medieval text by more monster stuff, most likely – until we finally drifted off to sleep for the night.

Of all the classic horror monsters, the one with whom I have perhaps the deepest personal history – aside from Bigfoot, whom I consider more of a by-product of the modern age despite having old roots himself in native cultures – is the werewolf. Before the creatures created by various mad scientists, the vampires and their attendant bats, assorted aliens of all shapes and sizes, and Godzilla and his kaiju lot, and especially King Kong took over my life, I had rather a close relationship with werewolves. Or at least I imagined that I did.

Growing up in Eagle River, Alaska in the mid-1970s, we lived in a neighborhood largely unencumbered by such fancy, modern niceties as street lighting or even paved roads in much of our area (in our neighborhood, at least; don't even get me started on when they oiled the gravel roads to keep the dust down and we had to ride our bikes through it). Our neighborhood was more woods than housing development, with the thick spruce and birch forest of the Chugach Mountains threatening to grow in around us on all sides. There were often a couple or three acres between homes, and sometimes much larger swaths between homes, though we had good friends as neighbors to our right and also across the street. But since we played in these woods all day long, sometimes at night, and especially in the long Alaskan winters, werewolves turned safety concerns on their ear. The thought of creatures borne of claw and fang or one turned to such a fate by a potentially rabid bite from another such creature was constantly in my mind, if not the minds of my friends. 

Apart from the moose that came through quite often and the bears that we saw maybe once a year or so, one imagined all manner of things out in those woods. By "one," I mean me, specifically. I can't speak for all of my friends, but I know several of them were as swept up in this madness as I was, but I am speaking here of my personal fears and demons. The problem for me was not only werewolves; Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Yeti or whatever you wanted to call him (except for Skunk-Ape, which I still maintain is a stupid name), I was already beset on all sides by giant, furry humanoids, spawned in my mind, like most horrors, by the appearance of such creatures in any number of cheap horror films, but especially from episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man. But let's save the Bigfoot variety for another future installment of The Monster's on the Loose, because there are definitely a couple or three about Bigfoot on their way. Besides, out of all of the monsters (not counting dinosaurs, which I don't consider to be monsters because they were real living creatures), werewolves really got to me full force first.

But the way that werewolves took over my life for this period that now seems so brief in retrospect wasn't what you would think. The source was a far more innocent spring than a outwardly fiendish horror flick.

The Three Little Pigs (1933, Walt Disney)

Technically, it was regular ol' ordinary cartoon wolves that first got me to the werewolf stage. One particular wolf, in fact: The Big Bad Wolf. I would maintain that he was far from ordinary, of course. He talked, he wore a top hat, and he also wore patched-up pants with green suspenders. Regular wolves did not dress like that. No, this is not just any Big Bad Wolf from the fairy tale books. This was Walt Disney's version of The Big Bad Wolf. At numerous points in my childhood, I had occasion to see the Walt Disney cartoon from 1933 of The Three Little Pigs, the Oscar-winning short that had the world singing along to Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The song, of course, is sung in laughing derision at the wolf in the story by the titular pigs, or at least two of them, who learn a hard lesson and have to be saved by Practical Pig, the smartest and only industrious one of the trio.

And somewhere between watching that cartoon and reading the book version, I created my own answer to "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" I was. Despite all the logic that I could muster, I was the one who was afraid. If the image of a sneering, snarling God had not gotten into my psyche first, haunting my dreams in my early childhood by continuously grinding me to a pulp within the cruel gears of the machineries he used to control the universe, then Disney's Big Bad Wolf would truly represent Ground Zero of my Fears and Neuroses. I created my own monster from a mere cartoon character who, yes, was supposed to be big and scary, but only in an early 1930s, Great Depression sort of way. In fact, the cartoon and song were so popular at the time of their release they were seen as a tonic towards boosting the spirits of the millions of Americans (and others) caught in the wake of economic disaster. The Depression itself became "the Big Bad Wolf".

But I was living forty years later, and I had somehow brought the Big Bad Wolf to full life in my own mind. This Big Bad Wolf didn't have a care for mere little piggies; he was instead a ravenous monster set upon my own destruction and devouring. On our property in Eagle River, we had a house that was built pretty much into the side of a carved-out hill, where the top floor, which wasn't completed until a couple years after the basement was finished, sat a few feet above where our front yard was on the other side, and the original basement had its own separate entrance on the original side facing out from the hill. We had a long, gravel driveway in the front of the basement entrance side of the house, and our entire property was composed of woods whose mostly birch trees, in the winter, displayed threadbare branches that seemed rather haunting in the moonlight to me. Meanwhile, the other primary tree in the forests there, the spruce, could hide any mystery fully behind it due to because they never lost their needles due to a changing of season. Spruce were curtains of portent waiting for a thousand phantoms to make their grand entrance onto the stage of my demise. And behind those spruce were also creatures like the Big Bad Wolf.

To get up to our house from our lower driveway, you had to climb a long, wooden set of stairs. (The upper driveway, whose horrors were unceasing for me, will become a major player and villain in the second part of this article, so just you wait and see.) The lower driveway that ran from the then (and still, having just visited the place freshly) almost entirely unpopulated and hilly street behind us, sat far below the basement level of our house, enough so that there was a fairly high area beneath the porch for storage or many other purposes, though we mainly used it as a handy pirate or monster cave in various fantasy adventures.

We played all over our property, in every possible corner of the woods surrounding us and in the small fireweed field in the back lower part, and even off the sandy cliff behind our house, where we used to see how far down the hill we could jump before we reached the street. (That hill seems so tiny now.) When we weren't playing all over our own property, we were extending our adventures to our neighbors' property, the Wachsmuths, who were our friends and neighbors in Anchorage and moved to Eagle River and had a house built next door to us at the same time. And in the name of American imperialism, when we weren't playing on our property and the Wachsmuths, we were running through acres and acres of the mostly wooded, sparsely populated areas surrounding us, claiming those lands for ourselves.

It is amazing we never killed ourselves or anyone else in those days. We were fairly reckless about climbing high into spruce trees and bounding down the steepest of hills. And of sledding down impossible angles, and even down a good portion of the mountain behind us at some points. We ran into moose rather often, and learned the ins and outs of dealing with those creatures safely; black bears, we saw quite rarely, but they happened onto our street only a couple of times. But somewhere in the midst of all this actual danger – even though we never had a run-in with real wolves, just foxes – I developed a fear that the Big Bad Wolf was right behind me anytime that I went up those steps that extended from the lower driveway.

I don't know how the notion got into my head of being scared of the Big Bad Wolf on a personal level. I had seen the character on The Wonderful World of Disney, of course, and we had a Little Golden Book that told the Disney version of The Three Little Pigs. Naturally, my brothers and I were entranced by the artwork, so all three of us read that book many, many times in our youth. But I don't remember being scared of of the BBW when I was really, really small. It took a gymnasium showing at Eagle River Elementary one night to do the trick. In a town where there were no local movie theatres, mind you, having a local school host a movie night was a big deal. Especially for me, who was already figuring out at an early age that I had a more than normal connection to and perception of the movies. This particular night, the school showed a feature called Namu, the Killer Whale, a fictional film with a semi-nature documentary feel to it, the subject matter of which stuck in my mind (quite obviously, if you know of my love for ocean life as well). On the program with Namu were a few selected short films, including a couple of cartoons. Among them was Disney's The Three Little Pigs.

Seeing TTLP on an actual screen (I would not say "big screen" in the usual terms, because it was a standard pull-down screen that any school multi-purpose room had, though certainly far bigger than our comparatively tiny television set at home), and hearing the constant churning click of the film projector, was a revelation to me in what must have been either second or third grade for me. (Just before fourth grade, we moved to another school, Homestead, where one night I remember seeing a different set of Disney films, like The Shaggy Dog, which also has a semi-werewolf theme to a certain comic extent.) The sensory overload of attending these movie nights with the series of films and shorts, and the smell of fresh buttered popcorn, were nirvana to my young mind, and since I perceive my movie fandom as being composed of a series of "Aha!" moments, these nights were some of the earliest of those. The sensation of seeing films like Namu has never been out of my mind (nor has the next feature we saw in that gymnasium: The Man Called Flintstone, along with a Canadian cartoon called The Great Toy Robbery), but something weird clicked for me with The Three Little Pigs. The Big Bad Wolf truly came to life.

Seeing the creature on the screen, drooling and licking his chops with a leering grin and a fast but loping walk throughout the cartoon registered in my brain, and the brief sideways glances the wolf would make at the camera whenever he strode onto the screen were aimed directly at me, more and more each time he did it. It was also his penchant for using disguises, for employing phony voices and accents, the sneaky way he hid behind trees and cornrows, and did anything he could to get at the pigs, including displaying his awe-inspiring power of blowing down buildings (except those entirely made of brick and stone), that made him a formidable opponent in my young mind. (He is even shown as a "carpetbagger" for a few seconds, a reference that I did not understand as a child.) All of these aspects combined to make this BBW a monster to be feared. No matter that he is handled by cartoon's end with a major dose of appropriately dispensed comic justice that leaves him naked (by wolf terms, left only in his fur, dragging his burnt rear on the ground) only meant we could be back for revenge and dinner later.

And somehow, I became convinced he had followed me home, and was lurking about the woods surrounding our abode. I also connected him only to moments when I was alone, even in the daytime, or if I was the last in line in the darkness. I had no fear of him (or even thought of him) except for in those particular moments. Before we built the top half of our house, we most often parked in the lower driveway that came off the nearly empty and wood-filled street behind our house. Those long wooden steps at a relatively steep angle were not exactly built for speeding up them with smaller, stubbier legs (I would have no problem now in the leg department), and if it were the middle of the day and I were playing with my friends and brothers, I had no worries at all about moving up and down them. But left on my own, even in the daytime? Turning my back on the woods and the small fireweed patch where the wolf could be lying in wait to climb the stairs? Heaven forbid...

I had two options. The first was becoming very practiced in carefully going up the stairs backwards so I could watch behind me, though there was always a lot of stumbling and scraping of elbows, hands, and shins on the rough wood of the sides of the steps. And a lot of splinters. The other problem with this method was that it was not very efficient. The second option was to actually go with the run up the stairs, and when I got to those moments, I had a procedure. Exceedingly fearful each time, I took a first step onto the stairs, almost like testing the water, while I would look carefully around in every direction. And then -- I would bolt! Bolt as fast as my scrawny legs could carry me up each step. This meant, of course, that I could never go fast enough. I invariably felt like my feet were stuck in quicksand and so I would often stumble when trying to speed up even more, because I could feel the hot, panting breath of the Big Bad Wolf on my neck and hair, as he slathered his wet tongue up and around his razor sharp canines in preparation of making me his next meal.

Damn it, I am scaring myself all over again...

There was a third option that I employed very rarely, and it made no logical sense to me whatsoever, but I would sometimes choose to simply ride my bicycle all the way around to the end of the block – by myself, through longer stretches of woods on either side – and then around to the more populated street that led to our other driveway, which I would then ride to safety to the top of our basement and walk down to your porch from there. So, I would spend more time getting to our house with exposure to the monsters of the forest to avoid going twenty feet up some steps because an imaginary cartoon wolf might sneak up behind me.

As long as we lived in that house, I never got over that fear of The Big Bad Wolf, but it totally went away once we moved elsewhere in town following my parents' divorce (I was thirteen). But before we moved, I shifted my attentions beyond a mere everyday-style cartoon wolf and began obsessing about an even greater threat to my being: the lycanthrope.

There are two particular werewolf moments – one literary in its source, and one cinematic (and it is not the one you might be thinking) – that influenced my werewolf obsession to the largest degree, but first, I want to get into a little bit of background in my lycanthrope experience. There were smaller influences, but they were no less notable for their repeated intrusion onto my boyish psyche.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf? (October 24, 1970)

Many kids of that time, since we were in an age just before the video/VCR revolution, got their first exposure to classic monster archetypes through shows like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? We were no different. We watch Shaggy and Scooby on TV every Saturday morning of our childhoods without fail, and to say that we were in some ways raised by the Mystery Machine team is not to exaggerate. There was an out, however, with Scooby-Doo. There was an eternal escape hatch, that allowed kids to release their fears by episode's end: the revelation that the monster was nothing more than a man in a costume.

"And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!" was a refrain we knew full well, and while I definitely voiced my displeasure from time to time that the monsters were never real (even today; the notion goes against my rules for horror films), I secretly liked finding out that a mask could be pulled off, and what seemed so frighteningly real a few minutes before was nothing more than the scariest monster in all creation: man himself. In some ways, I guess you could say it was part of why I grew to accept fantasy creatures as friends more readily than I did human beings from that point forward.

In the second and last of the original seasons of Scooby-Doo, Where are You?, in October of 1970, there was an episode called Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf?. I am fairly certain I probably saw it when it premiered, as I was already fully baptized in the ritual of Saturday mornings – rising with the dawn to crackle the TV to life; Sundays, too – but naturally, I can't be sure I saw the actual premiere. Regardless, I loved Scooby-Doo so much as a kid, even with the monsters turning out to be fake, because fake or not, the show still had monsters and ghosts and all manner of ghouls roaming around at night tormenting a funny teenager and his talking dog, both of them 'fraidy cats who still seemed to capture the monster by the end of the episode. (Sorry, but Shaggy didn't register with me as a stoner when I was a kid, because I didn't know what that was. Nor was he actually meant to be, no matter how it is seen now in the Age of Irony.)

The werewolf in Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf? is actually more of a wolfman (yes, I know it is a guy in a mask) type than werewolf. Across the board, most people (myself included) tend to use the term "werewolf" for shape-shifters with lupine characteristics, but there is sometimes a further breakdown into smaller subdivisions: werewolves vs. wolfmen. The first acts and looks more like a wolf, a man who has turned into a wolf but maintains most of the physical nature of the wolf, including shedding all human costuming and chiefly running about on all fours. The second is more like the Lawrence Talbot character played by Lon Chaney, Jr, in 1941's The Wolf Man, where he may get all furry in the face and body, but still mostly moves about as a man would in a bipedal fashion, and wears human clothing.

So, the Scooby-Doo lycanthrope has a full suit of clothes, though his feet are not shod and are open to reveal large canine feet with claws and fur, and he only runs about on two legs and opens doors and throws things at the other characters (such as barrels) using his hands. Of course, it is quite obvious he would considering he actually is just a man underneath a disguise, but the look is rather apparently based on the popular Chaney mold. Why the wolfman/werewolf is green is a question for whomever built the costume for the villain underneath the mask, because that is something I have wondered since I was a kid. still, the look works and it is far more effective than the werewolf in the other similar episode in the original two seasons (A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts, where they meet Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolfman, who is not really scary at all).

I had, as a kid, a modicum of fear built around some of the monsters on the Scooby-Doo show. The mummy episode with his chanting of "Coin! Coin...!" was a favorite in our house, and especially with our mother, who delighted in repeating it, in the same way that I loved saying, "Igua! Igua!" from Jonny Quest. The design of the ghost figures was always pretty frightening to me, and along with other villains like the Spooky Space Kook, the glowing sea diver, the Funland robot, the Creeper, Mr. Hyde, and the Ghost Clown, they remain some of the more evocative images from my youth.

Jonny Quest: Werewolf of the Timberland (January 7, 1965)

The Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, Jonny Quest, was a wonderland of thrills for me since I first discovered it as a child, and I was so very frightened of many of its episodes. Robotic spy devices that were built in the shape of a spider, giant crabs, sea monsters, snow monsters, pterodactyls, creepy gargoyles, komodo dragons, and that really horrendous invisible monster that is revealed to have one big eye!! Argh!!!

Quite the opposite of Scooby-Doo's outcomes (and predating that other Hanna-Barbera production by about a half-decade), Doug Wildey's exquisitely designed Jonny Quest usually let most of its horrors and terrors be exactly what you thought they were. It was not a show for skeptics like Scooby-Doo was. (There is a bit of an irony to the fact that in real life I try to approach almost everything, from the news to rumor to urban legend to religion, with a skeptical eye, but when presented with entertainment, I am pissed off if you ruin my supernatural fun with logic.) A few episodes of Jonny Quest played about with initial impressions and pulled the rug out slightly from you (as this episode under brief discussion here does), but for the most part, Jonny and his non-traditional family were supposed to actually be encountering the various beasties within these stories.

Believe it or not, the original series of Jonny Quest was only produced for a single season in 1964-1965, and then it ran for eons after that. Much like Scooby-Doo, it always seemed like Jonny Quest was on, year to year, on Saturday mornings, but there were only a scant 26 episodes from that first season. (Later episodes and TV movies were produced after the characters were updated for the '80s and '90s, but they had nowhere near the impact of the original show.)

In Episode #17, Werewolf of the Timberland, Team Quest goes to Ottawa to investigate a major fossil find (a rare form of petrified wood), but there are some criminals running an illegal gold-mining operation in the forest nearby who want to run people off from the area. To frighten outsiders away, one rather large fellow – with an outrageous French-Canadian accent, as they all have in this episode – has taken to dressing boldly as a wolf-creature called the Loup-Garou. His costume is made of wolf skins, and has a headpiece through which his own face sticks out through the jaws. In the opening scene, associates of the criminals are attacked by what they believe to be a werewolf, and so they confront the one they think responsible, but he claims to have been in all night. Is there a real werewolf at large in the woods?

Soon enough, Jonny and Hadji head out on their own and bungle upon the true plan. They find out the miners are smuggling the gold in hollowed out logs from a sawmill, and then mix them those logs in with the non-altered ones that are sent down the river. The boys get caught by the crooks but are rescued by White Feather, a stiff-talking Native American who is accompanied by an abnormally large wolf, whom he calls Gray One. From there it is a battle against the phony Loup-Garou and exposing his gang, while their dog Bandit gets the worst of a run-in with a skunk.

The episode has good atmosphere at the beginning, with a marvelous title card, and an opening scene that sets up the werewolf action perfectly, even if the victims only get away with some scratches. (Keep in mind, people would meet their doom on Jonny Quest, so it wasn't all goody two-shoes behavior.) Most of the episode gets so caught up in their dog Bandit's hijinks and the surprisingly complicated plot involving the criminal gang that the horror atmosphere from the beginning dissipates pretty quickly. That said, the final showdown between the Loup-Garou and the Gray One on the cliff above the river is pretty well conceived visually (see right).

I do wish the angle they had taken was in making us believe that it was perhaps White Feather who turned into Gray One, and then have it revealed they were just friends all along, as opposed to having them side by side the entire time. Instead, the title ends up being a lie, as the werewolf is nothing more than the hoaxer in disguise, which puts us solidly into Scooby-Doo territory, though we do find out in the first five minutes what that hoax is, so there is no big reveal. That reveal is merely a casual slide into the knowledge that there will be no big monster payoff in this particular episode of Jonny Quest for once, just a tease. 

Still, it didn't matter to me then. Jonny Quest had its hooks in me, which carried enough built-in fear and excitement from week to week that even the weaker episodes such as this would have me on the edge of the couch. It was clear that first wolves, and now werewolves, were haunting the woods around me and building up their presence in my fear index. But it would take a trip to the library and then an accidental viewing of a certain film one afternoon to turn my last winter in that neighborhood into one of the most frightening periods of my life.

To be continued in Part 2... COMING SOON!


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