On the Trail of the Werewolf

Some people have accused me of Misanthropy;
And yet I know no more than the mahogany
That forms this desk, of what they mean;-Lycanthropy
I comprehend, for without transformation
Men become wolves on any slight occasion.
– Lord Byron

How real are werewolves?

Werewolves. People who shapeshift into howling, bloodthirsty wolves by the light of the full moon. As Lord Byron noted, this affliction is also known as lycanthropy. It’s a superstition that dates back centuries and has been popularized by books of fiction and dozens of films. Virtually every culture on the planet has lore and traditions of were-creatures.

But is there any truth to the werewolf legend?

In medical terms, lycanthropy is applied to people who suffer from the delusion that they transform into wolves. And physically there is a genetic condition called hypertrichosis in which a person, male or female, is mostly or even entirely covered in thick dark hair. All 32 members of the Aceves family in Mexico have this rare condition, for example. Some of them have become skilled acrobats and travel with a circus. Fajardo Aceves Jesus Manuel even bills himself as “Wolfman.” The family is currently under study by The Center of Biomedical Research in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Undoubtedly, throughout the centuries people with this genetic disorder have inspired the werewolf legend. In times past, they would have been shunned by society, even cast out by their own families. We can imagine that they would have sought refuge in the forests, surviving as best they could, like primitives… or animals… perhaps even killing to stay alive.

These tragic circumstances are a far cry from the werewolf tradition, however, in which a human literally transforms into a wolf.

So again we ask, is there any truth to the werewolf legend? There have been reports.

The Ohio Man Dog

On August 27, 2005, a truck driver named Scott called into the Coast to Coast radio show and told host Ian Punnett of his strange sighting. While driving, his truck’s headlights illuminated a strange scene: some kind of beast was crouched on the side of the road eating a deer. He described it as looking like a cross between “an ape with a dog’s head” and the werewolf from the horror film Van Helsing.

The Beast of Wisconsin and Michigan

In her book The Beast of Bray Road, Tailing Wisconsin’s Werewolf, Linda Godfrey chronicles the many encounters with The Dog Man, a werewolf-like creature that has been seen in the backwoods of northern Michigan and Wisconsin at least since 1936.

  • In 1938, a man named Robert Fortney of Cadillac, Michigan encountered a werewolf-like creature near Paris in Mecosta County, according to an April 25, 1987 article in the Record-Eagle by reporter Sheila Wissner: “Fear gripped Robert Fortney as he shot and killed one of five dogs that lunged at him as he stood on the banks of the Muskegon River in 1938. But fear escalated to cold terror as the only dog that didn’t run off reared up on its hind legs and stared at Fortney with slanted, evil eyes and the hint of a grin.”
  • Another story comes second-hand from an old lumberman. Two of his friends had been fishing on Claybank Lake late one day. They spotted something swimming in the water, which they at first thought was a coon hound that one of them owned. As the creature neared, however, they saw that it had a dog’s head but the body of a man! According to the tale, the fishermen had to actually beat the creature away with their oars to prevent it from climbing into their boat.

The Beast of Gévaudan

A ferocious, man-killing animal terrorized south-central France in the mid-1760s. It was described as looking like a wolf, but of enormous proportions (the size of a donkey or cow), leading villagers to speculate that it was more than a mere wolf, rather a werewolf – a loup-garou. The huge creature was responsible for many gruesome deaths, children and adults alike. Those who fought it with guns and knives said it seemed impervious to weapons.

The beast’s attacks became so terrible and frequent that King Louis XV sent a troop of light cavalry to the area to slay it, but it always escaped, despite being wounded. A large reward was offered for the creature’s death, and finally in June 1767, a group of hunters set off after it. One of them, Jean Chastel, managed to shoot it directly in the heart… using silver bullets. The Beast of Gévaudan was dead. (Source: Unexplained! by Jerome Clark)

Hellhound or Werewolf

In August, 2003 I received this story from a reader:

“This really happened to my friend. She said that about four years ago her cat wanted to go out because her litter box was broken, so they took the cats out to use the ‘bathroom.’ Her yard is very long and at the end are woods, so she took her cat to the woods to use the bathroom, when she heard a growl. She looked up to see two red eyes staring at her in the woods, and her cat hissed and jumped out of her arms and ran into the woods. Then she heard it scream. When she heard that, she was frozen with fear and then the thing started to run after her. She forced herself to run, so she started to run with all her might. She looked back to see what it was. She explained that it had a hound’s face with a big body; its front legs were longer than the back ones, and it ran like a gorilla. She finally got to her porch and ran inside, then she slammed the door shut and looked out. It was gone. Some say it was a hellhound or a werewolf.”

Other miscellaneous facts:

  • England’s King John (reign, 1199-1216), a most unpopular monarch, was thought by the citizenry to be a werewolf. This was no doubt a demonization of a ruler they detested. Some time after his death, monks claimed to hear noises from his tomb, furthering the werewolf legend. They dug up his body and relocated it to unconsecrated ground.
  • According to a medieval cleric, you can become a werewolf by stripping naked under a full moon and rolling around in sand.
  • In 1682 in Fahrenholz, Germany, several people were accused of being able to transform themselves into wolves and were put on trial.
  • Some researchers contend that modern sightings of werewolves might actually be of another cryptozoological creature: Bigfoot.

Wagner the Wehr-Wolf

Do I have a werewolf ancestor? In 1846, a short book (of fiction, supposedly), known as a penny dreadful, entitled Wagner the Werewolf or Wagner the Were-Man was written by George W. Reynolds, a contemporary of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, and at the time more widely read that either of them. According to the “story,” Wagner was a German peasant who entered a pact with the devil, thereby gaining eternal life. The only catch was that he would become a werewolf every seven years. This also resulted in a series of supernatural adventures, with the beautiful murderess Nisida at his side. Ultimately, he gained salvation from some passing Rosicrucians.

Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts is a great book to find out much more about these legendary beasts of the night. With so many accounts through-out history of Werewolves, could there indeed be truth to these creatures?

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