Monday, January 11, 2016

The Werewolf of Walnut Grove: Far-Out Frights [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I Was a Teenage Werewolf
I'll admit I never watched Little House on the Prairie as a kid, but I do remember my two sisters did. Instead, I watched old SF clunkers like Space 1999, Logan's Run, and of course The Man From Atlantis. All of which I find teeth-grindingly dull or silly these days. But that was TV in the 1970s. You took what you could get. Before Star Wars, science fiction and horror TV executives were few and far between: Gerry Anderson, Gene Roddenberry, Irwin Allen, and Dan Curtis. We sought out these names knowing they at least "got it."

So it should be no surprise that I missed the few forays into the weird that Little House did, like "The Lake Kezia Monster" (Episode 110, February 12, 1979), which showed that even the Ingalls couldn't get away from the '70s fascination with the Loch Ness Monster. They never encountered a UFO, but one episode did get me to sit down and watch. It was Episode 129, "The Werewolf of Walnut Grove" (January 7, 1980), written by John T Dugan (who also wrote Episode 110) and directed by William F Claxton.

Now as all good fanboys know, Michael Landon, star and producer of Little House, before his stint on Bonanza starred in a B-movie called I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), directed by Gene Fowler Jr. It was the inspiration for the Teen Wolf movies and now the TV show. I suspected that this episode of Little House was a gentle poke at that film. Would Landon don his furry make-up again? I had to see.

"The Werewolf of Walnut Grove"
The plot of the episode is far from great gothic material. A large student named Bart is bullying the teacher of the school, so Laura and Albert devise a plan to scare the bully straight. To do this, they create werewolf make-up and a papier-mâché rock. They lure Bart to the barn where Albert is wearing his Landonesque make-up, escapes his shackles, and picks up the rock to crush his victim. The plan fails when Carrie, Laura's little sister, blabs. Bart's behavior is amended when all the kids in the school thrash him. The result is laughs not chills.

On the plus side, the teacher Miss Wilder, mentions S Baring-Gould's non-fiction volume, The Book of Werewolves (1865). This unfortunately is the only werewolf information that works historically. Little House is set in the 1870s to 1880s. Being conservative, saying a sixth season episode is in the 1880s, all that follows is still inaccurate. First off, in a conversation as the young ones prepare their trap, Clarence mentions Transylvania. Such ideas came from Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in 1897, and even more so from the 1931 film made by Universal. (Bart should have said, "Where's Styria?") Any werewolf lore in the 1880s would have been grounded in Baring-Gould's book or older material. All the big werewolf novels had yet to be written, including Gerald Biss's The Door of the Unreal (1919), The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglass Kerruish (1922), and Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris (1933).

Man-Shaped Monster
Stories like Capt Marryat's "The Werewolf" (1839) or Alexandre Dumas' The Wolf-Leader (1857), which would have been available to the Ingalls, feature men who turn into wolves. The werewolf is essentially 'wolf shaped.' This is another anachronism, the man-wolf, such as Landon played in 1957 and as Albert looks when wearing his make-up. This idea of a 'man-shaped' monster was first done by Robert E Howard in "Wolfshead" (Weird Tales, April 1926), but didn't really catch on until Endore's novel was filmed as The Werewolf of London with Henry Hull in 1935. We simply have to accept that this concept of the lycanthrope is a reference to Landon's film and not accurate historical information.

John T Dugan, who wrote both episodes, was aware of the current interest in cryptoids and monsters, and appealed to his 1970s audience's frame of reference rather than being strictly accurate and therefore too obscure. Dracula was at least ten years away from the Ingalls' time. The Surgeon's Photo of the Loch Ness Monster was five decades in the future, but they were known to mom and dad and the kids sitting there in front of the TV. Inaccurate as these 1970s icons are, they are fun and fascinating, whether it is Kolchak: The Nightstalker or Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of... Having lived though the decade of hippies to disco, these Little House episodes make me look back and laugh. Not until Chris Carter's The X-Files would TV take such an interest in the unexplained again. The truth is out there. And it is in Walnut Grove.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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