The World of the Werewolf

Shapeshifters are a constant in human culture, especially the belief in humans with the ability to transform into animals. The most popular of these is the werewolf.

But how far back into history does the belief in werewolves go? Where did this idea originate? And what does the idea of the werewolf say about us?

Let’s start with the etymology. Most of the terms we associate with this creature are essentially compound words. The word werewolf is derived from the Old English werwulf, which is in turn related to the Middle High German werewulf. The “were-” prefix simply means “man”; the term can be literally translated as “man-wolf”. This template appears in Old Frankish as wariwulf, in Anglo-Norman as garwulf and in Old Norse as varúlfur. Another commonly-used term follows the same structure. The word lycanthrope comes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος (lukánthropos), again meaning “wolf-man”. Lycanthropy can refer to the act of transformation or the ability itself.

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“The Werewolf Howls”, Mont Sudbury (published in “Weird Tales”, 1941)

In Histories, the Greek writer Herodotus recorded that a tribe of men with the ability to turn into wolves roamed Scythia, and in Satyricon (a work of prose dating from circa 60AD) by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the character Niceros tells the story of his friend who became a wolf. They were walking in the woods when his friend had the sudden compulsion to remove all his clothes, urinate in a circle around the pile of garments and then flee into the woods in the form of a wolf. However, many early werewolf tales of the Classical world had a recurring theme – the consumption of human flesh and the consequent punishment for such a transgression. In the myth of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia has his own son killed, cooked and served to Zeus, in order to test the god’s omniscience. To punish Lycaon for the crimes of murder and cannibalism, Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf. The Roman author Pliny the Elder also writes of a man who turned into a wolf after tasting the entrails of a child, but returned to human form ten years later.

Perhaps the association between werewolves and great cultural taboos, like cannibalism or infanticide, is what made alleged werewolves such prime victims for early modern moral panics in Europe. Before the fourteenth century, the belief in werewolves was not widespread, but in the wake of the witch trials, so-called “werewolf panic” took root and “werewolfism” became a common accusation in witch trials. Furthermore, werewolves were deeply entrenched in the pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Germany; you might be familiar with the Viking berserkers, warriors who wore animal skins in order to take on the fierce traits of the creature, channeling the animal’s spirit. Early Germanic tribes had their equivalent, the Tierkrieger – literally “animal warriors”. What better way for the church to inspire loyalty in the flock all across Europe than by portraying a physical manifestation of the old pagan ways as the ultimate enemy?

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Copy of a woodcut depicting a berserker (1872)

The best known examples of werewolf trials took place in France and Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries. Gilles Garnier was a reclusive hermit living in Dole, France. In his testimony, he said he had recently married and found it difficult to provide for his new wife. While out hunting in the forest, a spectre had materialised and given him an ointment which would turn him into a wolf to make it easier to hunt. At trial, he confessed to having murdered and eaten four children between the ages of 9 and 12. He was arrested after a group of workers witnessed him eating the body of a dead child. Garnier was burned at the stake in 1573, following the testimonies of more than 50 witnesses. A later French example – that of Jean Grenier – took place at the turn of the 17th century. In 1603, 14-year-old Grenier was accused of kidnapping and murdering infants, and claimed to have been initiated into devil worship by his friend. A young woman had been assaulted by a creature in the woods; Grenier claimed to have taken the form of a wolf in order to maul her. Seven years later, he was visited in prison by the demonologist Pierre de Lancre who said Grenier had grown long, sharp teeth, could only howl like a wolf and would eat his own filth.

One of the better documented German werewolf trials was that of Peter Stumpp (or Stumpf), a farmer accused of witchcraft and lycanthropy. Known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, Stumpp stated under torture that he had practised witchcraft since he was twelve and had been given a magic belt as a gift from the Devil. He believed that the belt enabled him to become a wolf. He confessed to killing and eating fourteen children and two pregnant women, as well as the women’s fetuses. One of the children was his own son. In 1589, Stumpp was executed by having all his limbs broken on the wheel and then being beheaded, along with his daughter and his mistress who were both flayed. Stumpp’s story was the inspiration for the song “The Werewolf of Bedburg” by Macabre, and he is referred to in The Exorcist: “Well, there’s William Stumpf, for example. Or Peter. I can’t remember. Anyway, a German in the sixteenth century who thought he was a werewolf”.

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Woodcut of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512)

It makes sense that our ancestors’ fears should manifest as a wolf, as wolves were far more numerous across Europe in the past. The wolves of England were hunted to extinction during the reign of Henry VII, but the last wolf in Scotland is believed to have been killed in 1680. However, the wolf population of mainland Europe continues to grow; excluding Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, there are 12,000 grey wolves across 28 European countries (relevant study here). The difference is that we now understand the behaviour of wolves and modern lifestyles mean we are far less likely to clash with local wolf populations.

The werewolf of today has been relegated to the realm of fiction, but for our ancestors it was believed to pose a very real threat – not just to their physical safety, but their spiritual and moral integrity too.

My sources, where you can find out more:

Haunted Files #1: The Bell Witch

This is the first installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

It was during a blistering Tennessee summer in 1817 that John Bell first witnessed the unusual phenomena which would plague his household for the next four years. Outside his home, an apparition of a dog with a rabbit’s head materialised. Bell took his shotgun and fired at the creature, but it disappeared.

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The Bell homestead, Authenticated History of the Bell witch (1894)

So begins the legend of the Bell Witch, a folktale native to the town of Adams in Robertson County, TN. First told in its entirety in the book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894) by Martin Van Buren Ingram, it is the strange tale of how the Bell family fell victim to a powerful entity which invaded their home and farm. It bore many characteristics of a poltergeist – the witch allegedly knocked on walls and pulled sheets off beds, even going so far as to pull hair, scratch skin and stick pins in its human cohabitants. There was particular emphasis on John’s daughter Betsy. The witch taunted her and her fiance so relentlessly that Betsy eventually broke off her engagement. According to some accounts, the entity was especially violent towards her; in others, the witch seemed to be fond of the young woman and wanted to protect her. The witch’s behaviour was at the extreme ends of the spectrum. She could be kind, calling John Bell’s wife Lucy “the most perfect woman to walk the earth”, but she also expressed a desire to kill John, who she referred to as “Old Jack”. In 1820, she succeeded. John Bell passed into a coma, having consumed an unidentified liquid which the family found in a vial beneath his bed. His son fed a little to the cat, which died instantly, and then threw it onto the fire where it burst into bright blue flames. The witch declared that she had given John “a big dose” of it and “fixed him”.

In Ingram’s account, the poltergeist claims to be “Old Kate Batts” and Kate seems to be the title that stuck, as the entity appeared to respond positively to being referred to by that name. According to the Guidebook for Tennessee (1933), Kate Batts was a deceased neighbour of John Bell who felt he had cheated her out of land. The witch would converse articulately and often included details only the person asking would have known. One visitor, John Johnston, asked the ghost to tell him what his Dutch grandmother would say to her slaves if she thought they had done something wrong. The witch replied in his grandmother’s accent: “Hut tut, what has happened here?”, then went on to imitate his mother and father in England. She is also reported to have once recited verbatim a sermon being delivered thirteen miles away.

In 1821, Kate left the Bell homestead, but vowed to return in seven years’ time. As promised, she did resurface briefly in 1828, but, after the family ignored her, she appeared to vanish entirely.

The Bell witch has inspired many adaptations, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not a direct retelling of the legend, The Blair Witch Project features its own fictional myth which was explored in a mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch. Many academics have questioned whether the tale of the Bell witch, as recounted by Ingram, truly reflected the beliefs of Robertson County’s residents in the nineteenth century or whether it too was largely historical fiction. Fiction or not, the legend continues to evoke fear today.

In 1934, Charles Bailey Bell, John’s grandson, published an account of his family’s experiences. He reported a prophecy given by the witch that she would return in 1935. In 1937, the new owner of the Bell farm began to hear something rubbing against the walls of the house and faint music. Speaking in 1977, Bonnie Haneline stated that she used to explore the caves on the property as a child, with the permission of the owners. She recalled one occasion in 1944 when she went down alone with a lantern. The lantern was blown out, so she lit it again. After she crawled further, the lantern was extinguished once more and, terrified, she fled. Police later found two fugitives concealed in the cave, and Haneline credited the witch with saving her life by keeping her away from the criminals.

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The entrance to the cave, (c) The Historic Bell Witch Cave Incorporated, 2010

The strangest tale by far was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, in 1987. The owner of a nearby gas station, H.C. Sanders, ran out of petrol at night, not far from the entrance to the Bell witch cave. As he started walking back to town, he saw a rabbit emerge from the forest. He walked faster, but the rabbit managed to keep pace. After a mile, he sat down on a log and the rabbit seated itself beside him, saying: “Hell of a race we had there, wasn’t it?”

Regardless of the truth behind the unexplained phenomena, the Bell witch legend is widely held to be “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and for good reason.

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For more on the Bell witch:

Why “The Witch” is the best horror film of this century

It’s a bold statement to mark any film out as “the best” in its genre. What makes a film superior to all others? There’s no formula for greatness, no checklist, but perhaps the strength of The Witch lies in the fact that it is anything but formulaic. It’s a horror flick, a coming-of-age story, a historical drama and a tale of man’s fight to overcome nature. Any other film with such a broad spectrum of characteristics might have felt cluttered or confused. But the intent of The Witch was not to be all things to all people, only to be the director’s faithful vision of the paranoia of New England’s early Puritan settlers.

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And it is painstakingly faithful, from the clothes to the dialect. Even the buildings and sets were constructed using traditional 17th-century methods, and it was shot utilising only natural daylight and candlelight. Every detail is meticulously designed to immerse the viewer. I remember seeing it last year at the cinema and being thrown for a moment when it ended – it was like we had travelled back in time. After 90 minutes spent with these characters, you understand what it felt like to be adrift in a vast wilderness, at the mercy of forces beyond understanding. In a touching scene, the protagonist Thomasin finds that her brother Caleb can’t remember what it was like to have glass in the windows; you come to understand their homesickness for the shores of England and their dwindling faith in God.

The film culminates with the statement that “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.”

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I think this plays a profound role in the film’s atmosphere. The conversations between the characters feel authentic; the stakes feel appropriately high. The witches of this film are neither charming and inoffensive, nor are they evil in a cartoonish, contrived way. They are viewed through a Christian lens throughout much of the film – they sign the Devil’s book and he becomes their master, they shapeshift into animals and beautiful temptresses. They are exactly as early modern Christians believed them to be. However, there is a parallel drawn between the patriarchal religion of the family, under which Thomasin is silenced and subservient, and the amoral, animalistic freedom of the witches. They represent those things which mankind will never conquer – the natural world and death. If civilisation, law and dogma are coded as masculine in this film, then the feminine is the wilderness which lingers on the periphery.

Everything in this film is supposed to make you feel uneasy by hearkening back to your ancient psyche, to your ancestors. In the final scene, the witches gather at the behest of Black Phillip, a goat who is revealed to be an incarnation of the Devil. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the paintings of Francisco Goya. I’ve included Aquelarre (The Witches’ Sabbath) as a comparison, but you could argue that another of his works El Gran Cabrón (The Great He-Goat) is another possible inspiration.

On the most basic level, it is simply a well-constructed horror film. There are no glaring plot holes, no plotlines are left dangling and it doesn’t rely on cheap jumpscares. I can only think of one instance where a loud noise/impact is used to provide the scare; the rest of the film is devoted to the building of eerie tension. With a soundtrack of dissonant scraping string instruments and intermittent creaks and rattles, it’s the kind of film that will have you looking over your shoulder as you watch – just in case.

I’ll argue fiercely with anyone who calls this film “boring”. I think it was brave of the cast and crew to make it, because it is so distinct from the mainstream horror genre.

That’s why, so far, it’s the best horror film of the 21st century to grace the screen.

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Lunar Files #2: The Cannock Chase Werewolf

This is the second installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like  creature) cases.

Cannock Chase is an area of dense woodland and countryside in Staffordshire, England. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it encompasses 26 square miles of land.

I’ve visited on several occasions and I can testify to its beauty. However, if local folklore is to be believed, Cannock Chase is home to more than just flora and fauna.

Stories of a werewolf lurking in the vast expanse of forest have circulated since at least the 1970s. In 1975, a group of paranormal investigators witnessed a “snarling beast” rearing up on its hind legs before heading into the bushes out of sight. According to a supernatural survey, the Fringe Weird report, the Chase has been the setting for 20 encounters with an unknown wolf-like creature.

Over three decades later, the Stafford Post published an article in April 2007 with the input of the West Midlands Ghost Club. WM Ghost Club stated that they had received dozens of calls from people with strange stories and spooky sightings of the beast. An early report was that of a local postman, who saw what he believed to be a werewolf near the German War Cemetery on the site. At first, he assumed it was a large dog, but as he got closer, it stood up on its hind legs and fled. A second report from a scout master detailed a similar incident. He also witnessed some sort of canid prowling near the bushes; he too thought it was a peculiarly big dog. When he got into his car and slammed the door, the creature rose to its full height on two legs and ran into the trees: “It just looked like a huge dog… it must have been about six to seven feet tall. I know it sounds absolutely mad, but I know what I saw.”

According to the Stoke Sentinel, in June 2006, a lupine creature was seen dodging traffic on the M6, a main motorway here in England. More chilling is a tale related by the unnamed journalist: a 17-year-old in Eccleshall allegedly sold his soul to the Devil via a ouija board in order to gain the ability to transform into a werewolf. He later committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. This was in 1975, coinciding with the first werewolf sighting. Unfortunately, the reporter did not disclose a source.

Among the reports from residents in the vicinity of Cannock Chase, the war cemetery is a recurring location of sightings, leading some investigators to suggest a supernatural connection. On the other hand, there are multiple proponents of an alternative theory, based on the geography of the Chase and past cases of animal mutilations, that the so-called werewolves are a subterranean species emerging from the old and disused mines in the area and surviving by hunting deer and small wildlife.

Whatever you believe about the alleged werewolf of Cannock Chase, you might join me in vowing not to go wandering through the woods alone, under a full moon.

Further reading:

Lunar Files #1: The Michigan Dogman

This is the first installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of reported werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Wexford County in Northern Michigan has a population of around 35,000 people, but it seems that one inhabitant – the focus of a legend which dates back at least 130 years – is more sinister than you might expect. Said to tower at seven feet tall, the creature is a terrifying combination of man and canine. It has the head and claws of a canid but the torso of a man. It gazes upon its prey through amber eyes and howls a piercing human scream. According to the myth, which is said by some to date back to early Odawa settlements in the Manistee area, the Dogman is a creature of habit that hunts in ten year cycles.

The first recorded Dogman sighting took place in 1887, when lumberjacks working in rural Wexford County caught sight of a bizarre creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog. In the following decades, more and more witnesses reported seeing something unnatural out in the woods along the Manistee River. In 1938, in the township of Paris, a young man called Robert Fortney was attacked by five wild dogs while fishing. The horrific part of his testimony was that one of the dogs stood up on two legs to maul him. The creature – or creatures – was seen by witnesses throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with these sinister sightings, but it’s worth noting that much of the publicity and continued media interest the Dogman receives today should be attributed to The Legend, a song recorded by local DJ Steve Cook of WTCM Radio in 1987 – the centenary of that first account. It was intended as an April Fools’ prank, a treat for his loyal listeners, and he has stated that the beast in the song “was kind of an amalgamation of all these creatures I’d heard as a kid and heard stories about.” However, what began as a joke became a sensation. The radio station received dozens of calls from people claiming to have encountered a creature like the one described in the song. It was then that Cook decided to investigate further and realised just how far back into history the stories went.

In 2007, a film, widely referred to as The Gable Film, surfaced. Upon first viewing, it appears to be a home movie, featuring clips of a man chopping wood, a dog running in the woods and a child playing. However, the final 20 seconds show a strange lumbering creature on all fours approach the cameraman. The beast appears to collide with the cameraman and a flash of teeth is shown, then the video cuts out.

The film was eventually discovered to be a hoax. On a TV series called Monster Quest, Steve Cook explained how the film was made, adding that the supposed creature was actually an actor in a Ghillie suit.

In a way, the popular image of the Michigan Dogman as it exists today belongs to Steve Cook. Those reports and accounts, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, might never have been connected without him. He considers himself a sceptic, because he’s seen the legend evolve – people have taken the tale inherent in the song and, perhaps, blown it out of proportion. Maybe the fame of the song has caused some bias among alleged witnesses.

Then again, Cook accepts that the legend is “an avenue” for people to explain sightings that they might not otherwise understand. There is still a lingering sense of fear in interviews with witnesses, as seen on documentaries like Monsters and Mysteries in America. The terror that people felt – whether or not they truly faced the Dogman – makes the final line of The Legend especially eerie. What if there is some truth behind Steve Cook’s simple tune about a local myth?

And somewhere in the northwoods darkness a creature walks upright
And the best advice you may ever get …
Is don’t go out at night.

 

For more about the Dogman:

You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.