Lon Chaney Jr. and Beyond

Yesterday it was vampires so today it’s got to be werewolves. And, despite the fact that he seems to have been the only actor to play Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy AND the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. is forever connected in my heart to werewolves. That 1941 movie played so often on TV when I was growing up I could turn the sound off and recite the dialog.

Werewolves and other shape shifting creatures find homes in various mythologies and tap into the essential idea of a ‘beast within’ all humans. The Navajo Skinwalkers are said to transform themselves into wolves and other fierce beasts. Werewolf legends and folk tales are ubiquitous throughout Europe.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Lycaon, the King of Arcadia, is turned into a ravenous wolf when he tries to prove that Zeus is not a god by serving his own son to the visiting god for dinner. This is a completely insane idea. It leads me to clinical lycanthropy — which is a psychiatric delusion that one has actually transformed into an animal.

What came first the werewolf mythology or the psychiatric delusion? Eggs & chickens aside, it’s a fun question to ponder. Then there’s the full moon question. In the classic movies it’s a critical part of the equation. Do I believe it’s important? I’m not sure, but I have a moon phase App on my iPhone.

Werewolves have come a long way in recent years. Even if you don’t spend much time on popular culture, the True Blood, Underworld and Twilight werewolves are hard to miss.

And there are other werewolf stories out there. A few years ago I read Victor Pelevin’s novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. It’s a revelation, a true transformation of the werewolf mythology. If you’ve never read his work, you might want to start with his collection of short stories entitled, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories.

High art or trashy movies, werewolves are wonderful fodder for artists and who can resist singing along with Warren Zevon’s classic song?


  1. Beth M.

    Having lived in upstate NY for a few years, in the American Indian Mohawk Valley region, I had always heard of the mythical shapeshifters (or skinwalkers to the Navejo). These legends of humans who could turn onto all fours and become animals were fascinating. One of the most interesting American Indian beliefs is that while shapeshifters were in animal form they were more intelligent. As an animal lover I can’t help but appreciate that! Just remember if you ever encounter a shapeshifter never look at them straight in their glowing eyes or they will steal your skin!

    • Candy

      The warning about looking into their eyes is a classic! I love it…. The eyes are the window of the soul. They give all sorts of magical creature an opening. Better watch out!