Out of the Celluloid Closet

How The Wolf Man Understands Transmasculinity

Whenever someone asks me why I’m not on testosterone, I tell them it’s because I’m terrified of turning into the Wolf Man.

This is in keeping with my way of gently deflecting complex questions I can’t answer by talking about movies. It’s the only way I have, sometimes, of getting at painful truths when it feels too raw to look them in the face.

It’s also just honest, though it might appear flippant: I’ve never been on hormones for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with fear. There’s the fear that it will change my body—something I already hate—into something I’ll hate even more. There’s the fear of getting severe acne again, something I dealt with as a teen and young adult that deeply impacted (and still impacts) my self-confidence. There’s the fear of becoming dependent on something I might not always have access to, especially in today’s transphobic legal climate.

But most of all, there is the fear of being taken over by coarse, thick, unruly hair.

In my family, there’s a lot of hair happening. On my father’s side, our bodies are dense forests of hair. Already on my body there are patches of hair where there “shouldn’t” be. I’ll wake up to find a black, curly hair sprouting on my shoulder, on my chest, on my stomach, under my chin. Every time a new one appears I wince, and think, “if this is how fucking hairy you are without testosterone, imagine what taking it will do.” I look in the mirror and longer see myself, but the melancholy-eyebrowed image of Lon Chaney, Jr., the man most famous for bringing the Wolf Man, in all his hirsute glory, to life.
The case of Chaney Jr. is an interesting one: in some ways, he was predestined to play this role, as the son of one of the greatest horror actors of the film industry’s early, silent days. His father Lon Chaney Sr. made his name, however, not by being hairy, but by using a diversity of costumes, prosthetics, camera tricks and filters to create the grotesques he played onscreen. In the space of only a few years, Chaney played the Jewish caricature Fagin in an adaptation of “Oliver Twist,” Quasimodo in the first Hunchback of Notre Dame film, a vampire, a ventriloquist, a carnival performer, an evil doctor, an old woman, and an amputee¹. He died in 1930, at 47, before the first great wave of Universal sound films, those iconic “creature features” we now think of as heralding the true arrival of modern horror.

Related: Moving Beyond the “Bury Your Gays” Trope: Reclaiming Queerness in Horror Films

But his son, Lon Chaney Jr., was there to pick up the slack, albeit in a different way. He would play a variety of creatures, but not with the devilish glee found in his father’s performances. When Chaney Sr. took on the role of a “monster”², it was with grim intentionality. He delighted in playing difficult, fucked up men, and even the characters he played who were sensitive and tortured—rather than evil—managed to still feel a little bit offputting. The agency and the power are always there. He was, after all, a man at the very top of his field. Horror didn’t have the same campy, B movie connotations it would come to have by the late 30s, when Chaney Jr. started acting.

The father looms large in every son’s life: there is both the fear and the desire to repeat his history in one’s own life.

During the silent era, horror was a main event. It was an exciting, technologically advanced genre, something that showed off the true power of film as an art form. Chaney Jr. got the scraps, and he took those scraps dutifully, always with the same pained expression on his face. When you’re watching him, you call to mind the opening monologue of the “Sopranos” pilot, where Tony laments about entering the mafia after its golden years are past. “I came in at the end,” he says. “The best is over.”

¹ Many of these as dual roles in the same film.

² Sadly and stupidly, often Chaney’s “monster” roles are just characters with disabilities.

³ Interestingly similar to Frank Sinatra’s family accounts of how he acted after Ava Gardner’s death.

 

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