Mom warned me not to watch The Wolf Man. She said it would give me nightmares. I argued that it was just a movie. Make-believe. There was no such thing as a Wolf Man. I weakened her resistance with my flawless logic, but I needed to whine some to close the deal.
“Okay,” she surrendered. “Okay. But don’t blame me if you get nightmares.”
My father was a cop, working the graveyard shift that month, so Saturday night was just me and Mom and the monsters. It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother might be afraid of getting her own nightmares.
It was 1960. I was ten-years-old. Movie monsters scared me, but I could almost always put myself in their shoes. Except for Dracula. I couldn’t relate to him at all. He didn’t seem to have a good side: he chose to be evil. But the Frankenstein monster didn’t ask to be stitched together from grave-robbed body-parts. He didn’t ask to be wired with electrodes and sparked and jolted into being. He had no idea what to do with himself. And Larry Talbot: The Wolf Man. He was thrown into his situation by the unexpected bite from a gypsy werewolf. It wasn’t his fault.
I had seen all of the Universal Pictures monster movies—two or three times, each. In those days, television aired all sorts of great movies, with relatively few commercials. Some of the movies were mistakenly billed as monster movies, even when there were no monsters. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example. Quasimodo, the hunchback, wasn’t a monster; he was a tragically disfigured human being, with a human soul and a remarkable sense of morality and courage. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was another monsterless monster movie. Dr. Jekyll was a man, not a monster. Mr. Hyde was also a man—albeit an eviler and uglier version of Dr. Jekyll. Monster or not, Jekyll and Hyde scared the bejabbers out of me. He/they confused me. Dr. Jekyll was supposed to be a “good man,” but he chose to become the evil Mr. Hyde, so he could do horrible things to a pretty barmaid. I was doubly confused, because I adored Spencer Tracy movies: Boy’s Town; Captains Courageous; The Old Man and the Sea. Spencer Tracy convinced me that he was Father Flannigan and Miguel and Santiago. I wanted to be the mayor of Boy’s Town. I wanted to be the Cuban boy helping the Old Man before and after his bout with the great fish. But Jekyll and Hyde left me uneasy and worked on levels beyond my ten-year-old reach. Those very things I didn’t understand, I pondered the most.
The Wolf Man contained just a couple of incongruities: 1) Claude Rains as the biological father of Lon Chaney, Jr. and 2) Lon Chaney, Jr. getting an attractive girlfriend. I could somewhat reconcile the first incongruity: with the supposition that Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) could have inherited his size and bloodhound looks from an ancestor. But the second part was impossible to swallow—Chaney becoming a werewolf was far more credible than his stab at a romantic lead.
My mother turned on the extra light in the family room as the opening credits rolled for The Wolf Man. The leading actors were introduced with snippets from the movie. I was by now familiar with the standard spooky music leitmotifs, recycled in all Universal monster flicks. I could tell by the musical warning system when something frightening was about to happen. But this time, I promised myself I would not close my eyes during the scariest scenes.
The movie takes its time before getting to the werewolf shots, but you know you’re in for it when Larry Talbot’s feet begin growing hair. The camera follows his en pointe feet walking through ground fog and into a graveyard, where an unsuspecting gravedigger lights his pipe and pauses to listen to a bloodcurdling howl. The next shot introduces the Wolf Man: his close-up face covered in thick hair and his bottom jaw jutting with long nightmare fangs. Before you can catch your breath, the Wolf Man lunges out and sinks his teeth into the gravedigger’s jugular vein.
During a commercial break, I went to the kitchen to fetch a handful of Ritz Crackers. As I was about to return to the family room, I turned off the light and looked out the window over the sink. A full moon took the upper-right corner of the window and a Wolf Man’s face slowly rose from the bottom-center. I was paralyzed with fear. My first attempt at calling out produced only a faint whisper: “Help.” The sound didn’t travel. I filled my lungs and tried again, but my second attempt came out at the level and tone of a relaxed conversation.
“What?” my mother called from the family room.
“Help,” I repeated as before.
“I can’t hear you. Come in here.”
The Wolf Man ran off.
“HELP,” I finally shouted, and my mother came running to my rescue.
“What is it?” she said, startled and panicky. “What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
When I told her I had seen a werewolf, she got an I told you so look on her face. “That’s it for the Wolf Man,” she said. “Let’s see what else is on TV.”
It took some doing, but I eventually convinced her that I had indeed seen a face in the window, and it looked to me like the Wolf Man—she could draw her own conclusions as to who or what it was. She was by now a little frightened. She called the police station and asked the dispatcher to contact her husband.
Dad came by about ten minutes later and quizzed me like any cop. Then he and I went out to the backyard to look for clues. He shone his flashlight under the kitchen window and discovered fresh footprints. The prints were smaller than Dad’s but they were definitely big enough to have been left by an adult male. “Well, they’re not paw prints,” he said. “I think you saw a prowler. There’ve been reports of a prowler in the area.”
“What’s a prowler?” I asked.
“A weirdo who likes to look in windows,” he said. He lowered his voice. “Let’s not tell Mom about this. We don’t want to scare her. I’ll drive by a few times tonight and make sure everything’s okay. Next week I’ll buy us a big dog.”
Dad had connections at the Pound and was able to bring home a good-natured, full-grown German Shepard-mix. I renamed the dog: Larry. As soon as we set Larry loose in the backyard, he began marking his territory, strutting around like a conquering hero. (He also left a few items that would become my daily responsibility to remove.) Larry was welcomed to our family, and he basked in the attention.
Saturday night The Invisible Man was scheduled to air. I made a plea to watch it.
“Your father won’t be here,” my mother said. “And you remember what happened when I allowed you to watch The Wolf Man.”
I was prepared to counter her objections. “This is different,” I said. “I can’t watch someone who’s invisible. How can I be afraid of something I can’t see? And besides: Larry will protect us.” Case closed.
I suggested we have popcorn with the movie. Jiffy Pop was the latest gimmick, appealing to the no fuss, no muss school. I’d seen the TV commercials in which a “handy” disposable frying pan is shaken briskly over a burner while a disk of tinfoil blooms up like the dome of a hydrogen bomb detonation. I just had to try this thing out.
I followed the instructions to the letter but it didn’t work like it was supposed to. The dome grew less than half the size of the commercial demonstration, and when I pierced the foil with a steak knife, fumes of burnt popcorn filled the kitchen. “Rats,” I said.
The telephone rang and Mom answered. She had a habit of holding the phone’s receiver about two inches from her ear. This made it possible for me to hear the sound of the caller’s voice, but I could never make out the words. “Hello,” she repeated. I expected to hear Dad’s baritone but heard instead a thin, raspy voice. Mom looked worried. “Who is this?” she demanded. Larry stared at her, cocking his head in that comical way of dogs. “How do you know my name?” she said. The timbre and rhythm of the caller’s voice made me sick to my stomach. My mother lost all the color in her face; she looked terrified. She hung up the wall phone. Her hands were shaking as she lifted the receiver back up and dialed the operator and asked to be connected to the police.
We were relieved when Dad got home. Mom whispered in his ear the disturbing words of the caller (spelling things out would no longer work with me).
“Did you recognize his voice?” Dad asked, as cop and husband.
“It sounded familiar, but I was too upset to concentrate.”
I could tell by the look on my father’s face that he was imagining punching the lights out of the faceless caller. But his prime concern was to comfort my mother and play-down any real threat.
“He knew my name,” Mom said. “How did he know my name?”
“The phonebook,” said Dad. “We’ll get an unlisted number next week. That’ll take care of it.”
“But the phonebook lists me as missus. It doesn’t give my first name.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. An unlisted number will put an end to it. These guys are almost always harmless little cowards. It’s just some weirdo getting his kicks.”
“Like the prowler?” I asked.
“What prowler?” asked Mom.
The following week Dad was off the graveyard shift and we were able to go places on the weekend. Saturday afternoon we went to Woolworth’s to shop and have lunch. In 1960 there were only about two-billion souls on the entire planet, so we would inevitably run into people we knew when we were out on the town. As soon as we entered Woolworth’s, we spotted Wally, our
Helm’s Bakery man. He had just made a purchase and was about to exit but he took time to exchange a few friendly words with us. Wally was a funny and kind man, who looked just like Victor Mature—he could have been his double. Wally showed my mom the perfume he’d bought for his wife and then he and Dad marveled over Willy Mayes. Before saying goodbye, he gave me the “shake-too-late” shtick and I laughed—as always.
We had BLTs at the lunch counter and then split up to shop individually. I was told to meet at the checkout in twenty minutes. I didn’t have any money, so I went to look at the fish tanks. I was off in an underwater kingdom when Dean Lewis, a classmate, tapped me on the shoulder. (Dean was double-jointed and could whistle real loud.) He asked me did I see the latest Twilight Zone.
“Execution,” I said.
“Yeah. That was neat, huh?” Without waiting for my response, he went on to explain that the episode begins in the 1800s, in the Old West, when a murderer escapes from being hanged— right before the trapdoor falls—because this twentieth century scientist captures him with a time machine and brings him to the future. The murderer then murders the scientist and then he is murdered by another crook, who gets into the time machine to escape but is instead sent back and hanged on the same scaffold that was built to hang the first murderer.
“Yeah. That was neat.”
Dean’s mom called him away and I went to look at the model airplanes I couldn’t buy. A little later I met up with my parents and tried to persuade them to give me the money for a “Flying Fortress” but was turned down with their favorite cliché: You think money grows on trees?
Outside the store, we met Dr. Conway, our dentist. He looked strange without his white jacket. He was nervous and seemed in a hurry, but he mussed my hair and said to me: “Stay away from those gumball machines, you hear what I’m saying?” His face changed, as if he’d suddenly remembered something, and he quick-marched into the store. I looked at my mother and saw the same look of terror she had as when she got the phone call from the weirdo.
“It was him,” she said, amazed. “That’s the voice.”
I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Our dentist—the man I had trusted to jab a giant needle into my gums—was the cowardly monster who had said horrible things to my mother. “What do you mean?” asked Dad.
“Dr. Conway is the caller.”
“Are you sure?”
Dad started to head back in to Woolworth’s but Mom caught him by the sleeve. “Don’t,” she said. “Please.”
“Hey, Conway,” Dad shouted at the door. “Come back out here. I want to have a word with you.”
“Please don’t. Let’s just get out of here.”
On the drive home, Dad pounded the steering wheel at every stop. At one stop the steering wheel made a cracking noise. “Oh, that’s great,” he said. “Just great. Now I need to get a new steering wheel—and a new dentist.” He was shaking his head. “That son-of-a-bitch. That mealy-mouth son-of-a-bitch.”
“Please calm down,” Mom said. “This isn’t helping.”
“Why don’t you arrest him, Dad?” I said.
“I can’t arrest him. I don’t have any proof.”
“He’ll get caught,” said Mom. “He won’t be able to get away with it forever.”
“That slimy bastard is a Scout Master,” said Dad. “A member of the Elks.”
Mom turned to face me. “You’re not joining the Boy Scouts,” she said.
“I never said I wanted to.”
“I should just wring his goddamned neck,” Dad growled.
I thought that was a great idea, and I said as much.
Mom said: “‘Revenge is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’”
Dad clammed-up. I couldn’t see his face. He was staring straight-ahead, gripping the steering wheel as if it were a barbell.
I understood what Mom was saying. I was learning right from wrong. Many years later, I would learn to pray for the serenity to accept the things I couldn’t change. But my ten-year-old self was imagining a scene in which a noble hunchback tosses Dr. Conway from a belfry—the wretched dentist screaming all the way down to a hard-landing at the foot of a tall cathedral: face-up, stone-dead, lying in a steaming puddle of molten metal.