I have loved werewolves since I was a child, especially the dramatic transformation, which most filmmakers portray as painful and shocking. I would love to see more werewolf transformations portrayed as pleasurable or exhilarating. Some of the best werewolf transformations are from Rick Baker, who pioneered the amazing transformation in An American Werewolf in London (although I wasn’t able to see this film until I was grown up), and the transformation of Michael Jackson in Thriller. As a child, I remember watching a television show called Manimal. The hero of the show could shapeshift into a variety of animals in order to save the day. I loved this show when I was ten-years-old, especially the transformation footage that involved bubbling skin, cutaways, and elaborate prosthetics. I think the hero of Manimal appeared to be focused during his transformation, but I never got the sense that he was in pain.
Manimal was cool, and I watched Thriller every chance I got on MTV, but I think Disney’s The Shaggy Dog proved to be the most important adolescent werewolf in my formative years. I know this sounds unlikely. No one thinks of The Shaggy Dog as a werewolf movie, except for me (but check out the tagline on the poster). Even if the movie plays for laughs, it uses all of the horror themes from The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. and I Was a Teenage Werewolf with Michael Landon. The adolescent protagonist from The Shaggy Dog, Wilby Daniels, encounters an ancient curse from Lucretia Borgia that transforms him into a hairy beast. Larry Talbot in The Wolfman encounters a gypsy curse from a werewolf played by Bela Lugosi. While Larry Talbot ultimately gets beaten to death with a silver-headed club to break the curse, Wilby Daniels only needs to commit a brave and selfless deed in order to break the curse, which amounts to saving the neighborhood French girl from the Cold War espionage villains.
If you watch The Shaggy Dog carefully, keeping an eye out for similarities to werewolf films, a surprising number of parallels emerge, including Annette Funicello saying to Wilby, "There's something different about you lately," as if the presence of the dog curse imbues Wilby with a new, sexually-charged vitality, a werewolf motif that also shows up in Wes Craven’s Cursed. The Shaggy Dog functions as a great coming-of-age puberty metaphor (so does the werewolf myth); awkward, misfit Wilby starts to inadvertently sprout hair and gain the attention of the neighborhood girls, transforming into something fantastical (or is that something damned?).
However, it's the father/son relationship in The Shaggy Dog that really spoke to me as a young adolescent. From the outset of the film, the narrator establishes that Wilby’s father, Wilson Daniels, a respectable mailman, hates dogs. Wilson keeps a shotgun in the closet to shoot at the neighborhood dogs who invade his front-yard territory. The father, played brilliantly by Fred Macmurray, perfectly embodies the banal patriarchal father of suburban America. From the perspective of this dog-hating (dog-o-phobic) retired mailman, there could be nothing worse than his own son becoming a dog.
There is a pivotal scene when Wilby has to "come out" to his father as a dog. Perhaps this is why I loved this film and watched it countless times as a teenager. I identified with this need to confess my “difference” to my father. The film establishes early on that Wilby and his father are having problems in their relationship. Wilson does not understand Wilby's fascination with pets and rockets and other weird things that Wilby keeps down in the basement. Like many kids with complex fathers, I could also identify with this; I felt that my father didn't understand me or my interests. Wilby, in his dog form, approaches his father, who is reading the newspaper, so he can't see the dog approach at first. Wilby asks his father if he can confide in him. Wilson assures Wilby that he cares about him and that Wilby can tell him anything. To confirm this, Wilby asks his father to shake on it. Wilson looks away from the newspaper and sees that his son is a dog! Later, the father laments, "My own flesh and blood--a dog! Somehow I failed him!" As a young “proto-gay” boy, already feeling alienated by the homophobia around me, the connection between being gay and being a boy-dog (a cursed beast) was cemented in my brain, albeit unconsciously.
Wilby is not explicitly gay in the story. However, the actor Tommy Kirk is gay. I have often wondered if he picked up on these themes and (consciously or unconsciously) wove them into his performance, which allowed me as a viewer to identify with the implicit sense of gay alienation represented by the “cursed beast” and his portrayal of an awkward gay teenager (Kirk would later be fired by Walt Disney after it came to light that Kirk was involved in a homosexual relationship).
In addition, I think the film supports this kind of psycho-sexual reading, mainly because the film includes a surprisingly developed Freudian subtext, complete with a comic psychoanalyst. What would the Freudians say about transforming into a dog? The Freudian psychoanalyst in the film interrogates Wilson about how he came upon information about the espionage. When Wilson tells the psychoanalyst that his son is a shaggy dog, the psychoanalyst comes up with an elaborate theory related to Wilson’s own dog-o-phobia and repressed desire to be a dog himself. Similarly, The Wolfman includes an attempt to explain away the cursed beast with modern psychiatry.
The really wonderful thing about a “queer reading” of The Shaggy Dog is the completely happy ending, unlike most werewolf stories. Wilby’s father reconciles with his dog-son, and once the curse is over, Wilson overcomes his dog-o-phobia and actually welcomes the shaggy dog into his home at the end. Very different from the end to The Wolfman in which the father beats his own son to death with a silver-headed cane.
Another notable thing about The Shaggy Dog as a werewolf movie is that the transformation is not painful, but rather a comic parody of classic werewolf transformations. Wilby’s transformation is very similar to Larry Talbot’s transformation in The Wolfman, which serves as another link between The Shaggy Dog and a werewolf film.
Reading the werewolf "curse" as a metaphor for gay transformation in a homophobic society, the issue of whether or not the transformation is painful becomes significant. Is this a negative metaphor for damnation or a metaphor for power and sexual awakening? The werewolf is always powerful. Even the shaggy dog performs heroic acts and saves the day.
Michael Jackson’s character “comes out” as a werewolf in Thriller by saying he's not like the other guys, he's "different,” right before transforming into a werewolf. Does Michael know he's going to turn into a werewolf on this date? Does he choose to transform? As a kid I always thought the moon caught Michael by surprise. He did, after all, run out of gas on accident, but I suppose he would know that full moon was coming. This confession of “difference” was followed immediately by the transformation, which includes groans of agony. This is clearly a painful transformation, and this was riveting to me as a young viewer who also felt “different” from the other guys. However, this “pain of being different” is complicated by the jump to the movie theater where Michael is gleefully chomping on popcorn as his on-screen persona is tearing Ola to pieces.
In another 80’s werewolf movie from my childhood, Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox's character is trying to “come out” as a werewolf to his best friend, who asks, “You’re not going to tell me you’re a faggot, are you?” Harry M. Benshoff in his seminal book, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the horror film, writes about this scene and how the film clearly portrays it is better to be a werewolf than a faggot. Something similar happens at the end of My Best Friend is a Vampire when the parents of the protagonist, who have suspicions throughout the entire film that their son is gay, discover, to their great relief, that he is a vampire instead.
In Wes Craven’s 2005 Cursed, the connection between being a werewolf and being gay appears in a slightly different configuration. The scene goes something like this: Bo, the homophobic wrestling bully who has been tormenting Jimmy the entire film, shows up at Jimmy’s door. However, Jimmy isn't gay; he's just nerdy and a target of the homophobic bullies. Bo comes out to Jimmy on the porch and tries to kiss Jimmy. Bo assumes that Jimmy is also gay, but Jimmy says again that he is not gay; instead, Jimmy says he is "cursed," meaning that he is a werewolf, and being a werewolf equates to heightened sexual attractiveness in the film. Bo replies that being gay feels like being cursed sometimes, which makes for a funny line. Jimmy clarifies that he is really cursed, meaning he is really a werewolf. This scene, along with Teen Wolf, makes a more explicit connection, which also shows up implicitly in The Shaggy Dog and Thriller, between homosexuality and the curse of the werewolf.
As a gay viewer, I can identify with the struggles of the character of Larry Talbot in The Wolfman. He feels like he has a monster inside him (literally) that he can't control. He doesn't want to be a werewolf. He tries to explain to his father, but his father doesn’t understand, which is very similar to the plight of adolescent Wilby in The Shaggy Dog. If you read the werewolf as a symbol for queer sexuality, on one level you can “read” the curse of the werewolf as a homophobic allegory.
As a gay horror writer myself, I want to overturn the "homophobic" werewolf story. Instead of demonizing and destroying the monstrousness of the werewolf, I want to create stories where the protagonist reconciles with the queer wolfishness within, which is actually what happens at the end of The Shaggy Dog. Even though horror stories have been used for demonizing and alienating difference (all kinds of difference--it all depends on how you interpret the symbol of the monster--xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, etc.), horror stories also provide an opportunity to overturn cultural assumptions, which is what a really good horror story should do--challenge our assumptions.The werewolf is a wonderful metaphor to explore the duality of the closet. A normal, straight man (or adolescent) by day, but when the moon comes out, he is unable to contain the hairy beast that must satiate its desires. Many gay men, especially in the recent past, have felt that their desire is an uncontainable beast that they must hide in their daily lives. Writing about queer werewolves, from my perspective, is writing about the closet, exploring the familiar duality of the closet, and destroying the closet for the sake of acceptance and openness, as opposed to the traditional werewolf story that ends in the destruction of the "beast." Queer werewolves of the world unite and be proud!