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I Was a Child-Age Werewolf: A Memoir

Pretty much everyone agrees that there are very few pairings on this earth better than horror movies and pizza, but how many can honestly say that their very introduction to horror literally came from pizza? I can. It was 1992, and being just four years old at the time, my interests hadn’t yet ventured too far outside the realm of Saturday morning cartoons and the scatological gross-out kids’ fare that was, believe it or not, quite popular at the time (Garbage Pail Kids being the most enduring example, but there were also Toxic High School, Madballs, Savage Mondo Blitzers, and several others). I may have already been predisposed to developing a horror obsession given my strong preference for the villains in those cartoons as well as my general interest in all things weird and disgusting, but I had not yet been fully introduced to the world of horror until this fateful dinner out at Pizza Hut in 1992.

For those of you who may be either too young to remember or too old to have participated, Pizza Hut during this era was very much a big deal. I would estimate that about half of the kids in my class held their birthday parties at Pizza Hut, and it was the go-to place for post-game celebrations if you were forced to join a sport like I was (and I suppose also if you voluntarily joined a sport, although I frankly didn’t hang around the kids who did that). The schools even had a program called Book It! that encouraged us to read books by rewarding us with a free personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut, so it was just a part of everyday life for a kid growing up in the ’80s or ’90s.

In any case, while Pizza Hut never fully capitalized on the kids’ meal toy craze that McDonald’s and Burger King perpetuated, they did run themed promotions that were definitely catered towards their target demographic of children. This particular one in 1992 was centered around the Universal Monsters. There weren’t toys to be collected (otherwise I would almost certainly still have them all), but there were souvenir cups and napkins. Yep. Not that exciting to most kids, and I suppose that lack of excitement was compounded by the fact that the Universal Monsters were from the ’30s and ’40s and therefore not exactly contemporary pop culture. But me? I was instantly obsessed. My horror obsession in general can be traced back to those Pizza Hut cups. At the time, however, there was one monster in particular that captured my imagination to such a degree that it would dominate my little four-year-old mind for the next year or so:

To this day, I don’t know what about this Wolf Man cup had such a profound impact on me. This may be a little T.M.I., but now in my adulthood I am indeed quite a hairy fellow with dark, thick body hair pretty much everywhere except for my back and a rather bushy beard to boot, but it’s not like I could have known that’s how I’d turn out when I was only four. I don’t know. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Beauty and the Beast the year prior, so perhaps having my first big-screen experience be a movie with a hairy beast creature imprinted something on my psyche regarding this. I have no idea, though. Maybe there is some psychological reason why werewolves were the source of full-fledged obsession for me back then, but I’m not here to analyze myself like that. I’m just here to give a little autobiographical account of the trajectory of this childhood werewolf obsession.

The very first werewolf memory I have following the acquisition of my favorite cup is of walking downstairs to the living room one night where my dad and his friend were watching TV. The only reason I even stopped there on the way to the playroom next to it was because I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a werewolf on the screen. They were flipping channels during a commercial break from the game they were watching, and I just happened to walk by right as a flash of lycanthropic activity flickered by. I immediately asked what they had just clicked past, and my dad obliged by going back to it just for a moment. I have only the foggiest memory of the clip itself because I was only able to see it very briefly since they were eager to get back to the game (and also because, again, I was four years old). The way I remember it is that there was a gray werewolf fighting some sort of brown bear-like monster in a setting that was not unlike the Fortress of Solitude from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, hazy, remote, and adorned by giant sparkling crystals. That’s how I remember it from the probably ten seconds of footage I was allowed to watch before they went back to the game. For literal decades I had no idea how to track down that movie and began to fear that I’d distorted the memory so much in my mind that what I remembered was not something that actually existed.

It was clear from my insistence on using my Wolf Man cup at every single meal as well as the urgency with which I pestered my dad about that tiny fragment of a werewolf movie I’d seen by chance that I should probably be exposed to more werewolf media to satiate my budding obsession. But since I had never seen a horror movie at this point, I guess my parents didn’t want to risk giving me nightmares and keeping them up at night, so instead of showing me any movies, my dad brought out two of his cassettes (as in music cassettes, which I’m afraid I probably have to clarify at this point in time) and had me listen to some songs he thought I’d like. And he was right, of course, because the songs he introduced me to were Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising,” two songs that I bet are still on any curated Halloween playlist you’ll find to this day even though neither is actually about monsters (but I digress). I have to tell you, up until that point in my life, I wasn’t even interested in music, and these songs spoke to me. So in a way, my interest in pizza begat an interest in werewolves, and my interest in werewolves begat an interest in classic rock music. It all started with pizza.

It was enough that there was no question whatsoever what I was going to be for Halloween that year. The Pizza Hut promotional tie-in was done in October, of course, so there was precious little time in between discovering werewolves and wanting to be one. This was solidified when I watched the TV special Witch’s Night Out a day or two before going shopping for my Halloween costume, since one of the characters in that delightfully trippy (in the most ’70s way imaginable) special dresses as a werewolf and ends up getting turned into one for real by the titular witch. That appealed to me very much for some reason.

Witch’s Night Out (1978)

The werewolf costume I picked out wasn’t exactly the best, but it was the only one they had at the store, so that’s what I went with. The mask — if you can even call it that — was actually just some fake hair and pointy rubber ears that you put on your head. More like a hat than a mask, really. But I wore it along with some plastic fangs (which were really vampire fangs, but only a snotty little brat like me would have noticed) and black paint on my nose. It wasn’t an elaborate costume at all, but it didn’t stop me from fully immersing myself in the character. For the first part of the night, I refused to even answer to my name and would only speak in growls like some toddler method actor. I remember also that the weather was absolutely perfect that Halloween, really crisp and cool with all the leaves on the ground just the right shades of red, yellow, and orange. When I think about autumn, Halloween 1992 is still the precise memory that comes to mind to this day. And it helped that my mom also allowed me to place this particular Halloween decoration in my bedroom window that year:

From the 1983 Beistle line: still the most iconic Halloween decorations of all time, I think.

As I mentioned earlier, Saturday morning cartoons were my main interest prior to this newfound love of all things lycanthropic. And one of my favorite cartoons was The Real Ghostbusters. Yes, I fully realize that this somewhat contradicts my earlier assertion that those Pizza Hut cups were my introduction to the world of horror, since this series incorporated a plethora of monsters both established and original to the show. But I guess when I was that young I didn’t view The Real Ghostbusters as being remotely a horror series (even though in retrospect I think it’s actually more horror-centric than the Ghostbusters movies), and it didn’t even register with me that there might be a correlation between horror and the monsters and ghosts featured on the show. I just viewed it as a cartoon, and cartoons existed in their own universe that had absolutely no bearing on anything else, as far as I was concerned. That perception changed a bit when I came across this particular Real Ghostbusters action figure at Kay-Bee Toys very shortly after my interest in werewolves began:

Complete with squeeze-and-howl action, as you can see.

So that was my first werewolf toy. And toys were a big deal to me, of course. To be perfectly honest, I was invariably more interested in toys than I was in the movies and shows from which they were derived. I’m not even sure I ever watched a full episode of some of the cartoons of which I nonetheless collected the action figures. So once I realized that there were werewolf toys I could get that could provide me with my lycanthropic fix, I now started looking exclusively for werewolf figures of any kind, regardless of the toy line. I had the Monster in My Pocket werewolves — both the little rubber one and the larger plastic Howler — as well as a random assortment of other werewolf figures I don’t even remember. One that I do remember is this one I got from Suncoast Motion Picture Company which I later (much later) found out was in fact exclusive to that store. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992 just as my werewolf obsession was in full gear, and Suncoast had this figure from the movie that I obviously had to have despite not seeing the film and not even realizing that this wasn’t technically even a werewolf:

But close enough, right?

Since my parents must have realized I wasn’t going to stop pestering them about wanting to watch werewolf movies, they did finally relent. It was December at this point — which I know because there were Christmas decorations up in this memory I’m about to recount, and we were not one of those annoying families that put up Christmas decorations before then — so my obsession had been brewing for about two months already, and I guess they could see it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. So my dad did what any reasonable parent of a four-year-old child would do in the situation, and with the extra enticement of telling me beforehand, “Guess what? This movie even has ‘Bad Moon Rising’ in it,” he sat me down and showed me An American Werewolf in London. Yes, the seminal horror-comedy that revolutionized makeup effects might be an ideal introduction to the werewolf genre, but uh…maybe not for a four-year-old. Because of my dad’s lax attitude towards showing R-rated movies to a toddler, that holds the distinction of being my first horror movie. Although I’m not quite sure it should fully count, seeing as how I did not get through the whole movie. It wasn’t because I was too scared to watch it, mind you. Like I mentioned earlier, I was still at an age where I was far less interested in actually watching movies than I was in playing with toys based on them, so I honestly just wasn’t very interested in it until the iconic transformation scene, which — if you haven’t seen it — doesn’t happen until more than halfway through the movie. And after that scene, I became less interested again once I saw that this was a quadrupedal werewolf. Sorry to say, I was (and to some extent still remain) bipedal or bust when it comes to my werewolves.

Although you are certainly entitled to question the psychology of a four-year-old child who sees this and thinks, “Meh, kind of boring.”

Having seen An American Werewolf in London and been totally unfazed by it, my parents didn’t think there was any risk of me being scared by the 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy Teen Wolf, which honestly has more to do with basketball than werewolves, so that was the next step. Yet for reasons that I’m still unable to explain, I started freaking out during the transformation scene in that one. Yes, I saw Rick Baker’s groundbreaking work in An American Werewolf in London — roundly regarded as the greatest werewolf transformation scene in cinematic history (and rightfully so, even if I personally lean towards The Company of Wolves, but that’s neither here nor there) — and didn’t flinch, but I was scared by Teen Wolf of all things. I came to my senses and finished the movie, though, and it became something of a childhood favorite of mine, my strange aversion to the transformation scene aside. I especially liked the part where he — in wolf mode — danced on top of a moving van to the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA,” and that actually got me into the Beach Boys. Yes, all of the first three bands I got into — CCR, the Beach Boys, and Warren Zevon — were because of werewolves.

Unfortunately, that was the last werewolf movie I saw during this period of my life. I don’t remember what the explanation was or if one was even given, but An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf remained the extent of my experience watching werewolf movies even though the overall obsession continued. I distinctly remember asking to rent The Wolf Man at Easy Video (our local video store in Sayreville, New Jersey), but I was told it was old and in black and white, therefore I would be bored by it. If they only knew that old black-and-white movies would become basically my favorite thing when I was older, maybe they would have let me. Frankly I suspect it wasn’t that they truly thought I would have been bored by it, but that they would have been bored. In any case, this was around the time I started living vicariously through the horror aisle at Easy Video, and I made it a point to peruse their selection whenever I went to gaze intently at all the covers (horror VHS covers were and still are the best covers ever produced for any movies, of course). One that I vividly remember is the cover for Howling V: The Rebirth, because at the time I thought it was the coolest looking werewolf I’d ever seen:

To be clear, I don’t still feel that way.

So in lieu of getting to actually watch any more werewolf movies, my next course of action was to check out any book I could find at my local library that had to do with werewolves. Of course, I was still only four years old, so my options were fairly limited as far as what I was able to read. But I was blessed with the gift of what I now realize in retrospect was an astonishingly good selection of horror-related books in the children’s section, several of which were nonfiction books about the history of horror films. Come to think of it, my local library in Rahway now also has a more than decent horror section, so maybe it’s a Jersey thing. Anyway, the books that I remember the most included the much celebrated (and now very valuable) Crestwood House Monsters series, known colloquially to a generation of monster kids as “the orange monster books” due to their distinct orange hardcover bindings. There was of course a werewolf entry in that series, so that was the first that I checked out, although I did eventually check out the entire series.

But the book that was the most influential to me at that time was Denis Gifford’s invaluable 1973 A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which had more than enough information on and photos of werewolves to keep me satisfied. I’m not exaggerating when I say I checked that book out somewhere in the vicinity of 100 times. Along with browsing the shelves in the horror aisle at Easy Video, that book was how I learned about horror as a kid. It was my bible. For the longest time, I couldn’t remember what the name of it was when I first started feeling nostalgic about it as an adult, and no matter how specific I made my Google searches, I couldn’t find it. I finally figured it out a few years ago and was disappointed (but unsurprised) to see that it was quite expensive. But as luck would have it, I happened upon a former library copy of it only just about two months ago, and needless to say I am now the proud owner of it after having checked it out from the library dozens upon dozens of times all those years ago.

This has been one of my personal Holy Grails.

My family went on a vacation to Orlando in early 1993. We were ostensibly going to visit family, but if you’re a kid going to Orlando, you obviously want to go to the theme parks. I had little interest in Disney World, though. Universal Studios was where it was at for me. The Universal Monsters were there, so why wouldn’t it be? I was hoping to encounter the Wolf Man walking around so I could get his autograph, and while that didn’t happen, I was still content getting the Frankenstein’s Monster’s autograph after he approached me from behind as I was sitting on a bench holding my new Stay Puft Marshmallow Man plush (I was about to say “stuffed animal,” but he’s not an animal).

The highlight of the day for me was seeing Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, a live stage show featuring Beetlejuice and the Universal Monsters performing renditions of oldies songs. I was already familiar with most of the songs through hearing them on the car radio at some point, but I’d never heard them sung by monsters, and that was a crucial distinction for me. The Wolf Man got to do Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” which I believe was even the first solo number in the show, so I didn’t have to wait too long for my guy to get his big moment. It instantly became a favorite song of mine. Again, most of the music I loved as a kid was directly because of monsters.

Unfortunately, I contracted either a stomach flu or severe food poisoning during that trip, which was bad enough that I even had to be hospitalized overnight so they could monitor my fluid levels. I remember chugging blue Gatorade all night with my Stay Puft beside me. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, as I’m sure you can imagine. But I still regarded it as worth it to see the Universal Monsters, and especially the Wolf Man. Other people might have magical childhood memories of going to Disney World and seeing Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Snow White; mine are of the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Dracula.

Later that same year, I started watching Batman: The Animated Series solely because there was an episode with a werewolf in it when I happened upon it while flipping channels. Of course I knew of Batman at the time since he’s basically like Santa Claus in terms of pop culture visibility among children, but superheroes didn’t interest me so much with the exception of Superman II (which I used to watch constantly), so I didn’t watch it when it first started airing even though most of my classmates and friends did. Had they told me there was a werewolf in it, I would have started watching it earlier. Anyway, I wanted to bring this up specifically because the episode in question, “Moon of the Wolf,” is widely regarded as one of the few bad episodes in an otherwise excellent series. Leave it to me to have that one be the one to get me hooked on the show. Such was the depth of my werewolf obsession.

It’s still a cool looking werewolf, though.

At some point during this period, it finally happened. Exactly what my parents were worried might happen if they let me watch werewolf movies. I had a nightmare. Well, let me backtrack a bit: I had a lot of nightmares as a kid, even before I started obsessing over werewolves, monsters, and horror. I’ve just always been haunted by bad dreams. But I finally had a nightmare involving a werewolf. In the dream, I woke up in the middle of the night to find that my parents and brother were not in their rooms, so I went downstairs to look for them. They were nowhere to be found. I was alone in the house, which despite being part of a dream, was a startlingly accurate and vivid depiction of my house. It was one of the more convincing dreams I’d had up to that point, which was probably why it stuck with me as it did. I walked past the empty, deathly quiet living room to the front door and opened it. There outside in the middle of the street was a werewolf with his back turned toward me. He was wearing all denim just like Michael J. Fox did in that scene on top of the van in Teen Wolf, which you would think might detract from the fear of it, but as I established earlier, Teen Wolf was the werewolf movie that did scare me. I stood there in the doorway frozen in fright just watching the werewolf crouched over in the middle of the street, and when he eventually turned around and saw me, he darted toward me with ferocious speed, and that’s when I woke up from the dream crying and screaming. Explaining to my mom what the bad dream was about probably confirmed my parents’ initial concerns, and while they never forbade me from liking werewolves (or horror in general), they were definitely less inclined to encourage that particular interest after that.

That dream haunted me for quite a while to follow, and it still sticks out in my mind as one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had, nightmare or otherwise. I realized while explaining it just now that it wasn’t even particularly scary, but again, it was just how real it felt. My interest in werewolves started to wane at some point later that year (though not immediately after the dream), and I developed plenty of other obsessions that I cycled through for the rest of my childhood (and let’s be honest, up to this day).

I continued to have nightmares regularly, although they would only truly disturb me on rare occasions. I finally started watching horror movies for real when I was 12, since that was the first year I decided not to go trick-or-treating for Halloween but still wanted to celebrate it in some way. And I’ve been watching horror movies obsessively ever since. No movie has ever scared me as much as the childhood nightmares and fantasies they inspired sight unseen, though. The nightmares persisted, but they were no longer about werewolves or monsters. No. Now they were about people. And those nightmares were way worse than the ones I had when I was a little kid. The monsters and demons and ghosts and creatures of the night became my friends. In my mind, they always were. After all, they never hurt me. They only fueled my imagination. Maybe the werewolf in my dream all those years ago wasn’t running towards me to attack. He was out there all alone at night, and so was I. Maybe he just excited to see me like I was excited when I first saw the Wolf Man on that cup at Pizza Hut.

As I’ve reminisced over the years about my childhood werewolf phase, there’s one thing that I still haven’t been able to recover. I finally found the books I checked out so often from the library. I’ve watched all of the movies I peaked at in the horror aisle at Easy Video. But I still have not, for the life of me, been able to figure out what that movie was that I caught about ten seconds of on the TV when my dad was flipping channels during the commercial break of the game he was watching. At one point I thought maybe it was Conquest (1983) after I saw a clip from it involving werewolf-like creatures, because the aesthetic of that movie is similar to how I remember the mystery movie in my memory. But after I watched the movie, I knew that definitely wasn’t it, and what would a basic cable station be doing showing a Lucio Fulci movie during primetime in 1992 anyway?

When I randomly watched My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989) a few years ago (well, maybe not so randomly; I was on a John Saxon kick), I thought for a moment that the scene at the very end where the two werewolves in the movie fight each other was what I was remembering. Something about it reminded me of my memory. But there was a lot that didn’t fit, and more importantly, there’s a lot from my memory that wasn’t in the scene. Again, it’s totally possible my memory has distorted it to the point that what’s in my head is something that doesn’t actually exist. And maybe My Mom’s a Werewolf really was the movie that was on TV that night. That and Conquest are the closest I’ve come to finding it, but given how vastly different those two films are, surely the movie I’m actually searching for is something else entirely.

My hope is that one night when I order a pizza and sit down to watch some random werewolf movie, there it will be. A gray werewolf fighting a brown bear-like creature in a hazy, remote cavern of crystals. That sounds like the translation of giallo title, now that I’m typing it. I don’t know. My guess is it probably doesn’t exist as I remember it, but then again, I’ve found other pieces of my childhood I had considered lost to the past. So who knows?

I wish I had a better way of wrapping this up. I didn’t outline this article before I started writing it, because I figured the words would just flow from my fingertips like they do whenever I write something autobiographical. That’s exactly what happened, but now I don’t know how to end it. Do I go back to the werewolf in my dream? Do I continue to harp on the mystery movie I can’t find? Do I go full circle (or full moon?) and say something else about the Pizza Hut cup that will tie everything together? Truly, I don’t know. What I know is that there’s this strange sense of sadness I’m feeling right now. These are mostly all very happy memories for me, and I was giddy the whole way through this article, but now there’s this unsettling sort of emptiness. Halloween is this Sunday, and this is supposed to be my featured article for the holiday this year. It’s the dead center of autumn, furthest from both summer and winter, and in that space the living and dead are supposedly closest. It’s a time of transition and transformation. Werewolves might be the ultimate Halloween trope regarding transformation, but what if being a werewolf isn’t a transformation at all? What if the full moon doesn’t transform a person into a werewolf, but instead just reveals the werewolf that’s inside them all the time? For a lot of people, the appeal of Halloween is that it’s the one time of year they get to be someone else. For me, it’s the one time of year I get to fully be myself. I don’t transform for Halloween; Halloween just reveals me. And when it’s over, I have to go back to pretending to be someone else.

I’m trying not to focus on that, though. It’s Halloween for now. And I guess what I’m trying to say is, to all the werewolves and monsters and demons and ghosts and creatures of the night…I want to thank you falettinme be mice elf again.

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