Linda S. Godfrey. Real Wolfmen, True Encounters in Modern America. Foreword by Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Penguin Group (USA), 2012
Old Fortean phenomena never die, though they may lose their media coverage. Almost the only weird phenomenon which is no longer reported is of servants’ bells that ring by themselves, and this is obviously because no-one has servants’ bells any more. I had thought that werewolves were extinct, so to speak, since the last book to express a belief in their existence was the one by Montague Summers, which appeared in 1933, and is now unobtainable; also, whilst John Keel, in Strange Creatures from Time and Space, 1971, gave credence to many bizarre stories, he regarded werewolf tales as being ‘of dubious origin’.
I was wrong. In fact, this is Godfrey’s third book on the subject, not counting two general cryptozoological works with sections on werewolves. In 1991, as a newly hired reporter, she heard some odd stories, and her editor told her to see what she could learn about them. So she contacted Jon Frederickson, the animal control officer for Walworth County, Wisconsin, who showed her a file marked ‘Werewolf’. Most of the incidents had occurred on a two-mile stretch called Bray Road near the small town of Elkhorn, and she was able to interview some of the witnesses.
Typical was the narrative of high school student Doristine Gipson, who on the night of 31 October – note the date – was driving along Bray Road when one of her front tyres bounced. “Hoping she hadn’t hit someone’s pet, she stopped to have a look. No sooner had she stepped out of her blue Plymouth Sundance, however, than a large creature charged out of the cornfield at her, running on its hind legs.” It had dark brown fur and pointed ears, and “It was no dog; it was bigger than me.” She drove off quickly.
This is the commonest type of account throughout the book: a creature that looks like a wolf, but walks on its hind legs. Now, many mammals, such as bears and some breeds of dog, can stand on their hind legs, but they seldom take more than a few bipedal steps, if any. Also, wolves are almost extinct in the United States, though packs of them do still roam in parts of Canada.
So it is perhaps not surprising that this or these creatures were taken to be werewolves. Godfrey wrote an article about them for the local newspaper, The Week, which appeared on 31 December 1991, and arouse considerable interest. “The Lakeland Bakery made werewolf sugar cookies, taverns offered Silver Bullet beer specials, and The Week sold scores of werewolf T-shirts.”
Her first two books included the word ‘werewolf’ in the title, because “It howls”, i.e. it helped to sell them, but she said that the term was ‘problematic’. So, in Hunting the American Werewolf, she used the term ‘Manwolf’ in the text itself. It seems that she had not realised that were was simply the Old English for ‘man’ (related etymologically to the Latin vir and the Irish fir), so that werewolf and manwolf mean the same thing.
In 2003 Katie Zahn, then fifteen, “heard an urban legend about a base where scientists created experimental animal hybrids that escaped, killed the scientists, and still roamed at large.” Confirmation, apparently, came whilst she and three friends were looking for a haunted bridge in the Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area near the Wisconsin -Illinois border, and were chased by a canine-like biped, which “held its ‘arms’ out straight as it ran.” It stopped when they got in their car.
Most of these sightings are on roads. There are two possible reasons for this. Far more people travel on roads than through the undergrowth. Also, the creatures will be there able to find road kill. “Even anomalous creatures like fast food.”
She provides a map of sightings: the biggest clusters are in Wisconsin and the neighbouring state of Michigan, are scattered more thinly across New England and the southern states, with none at all in the north-west. This is at least partly reporting bias: Godfrey lives in Wisconsin and writes for papers there. In some cases witnesses contacted her after they heard her speak about the subject on local radio.
She notes that “there will always be hoaxers, jokers, and scammers trying to get attention, a few bucks, or just a perverse thrill”, but she thinks that most witnesses are genuine, remarking that seven witnesses passed lie detector tests for the History Channel TV show Monster Quest. But the other day I was told that lie detector tests are 60% reliable, in other words totally valueless. She also makes the acute understatement that polygraph tests “are quite difficult to give to deceased witnesses.”
Are these flesh and blood creatures? One “was no phantom: it left tracks.” Yet, in 1977, a hunter in the area of Saginaw Bay on Lake Michigan encountered a seven foot tall creature that “left a path of broken branches”, which shows that it was solid, but yet it “appeared partially translucent”. So far, not one of them has been captured, nor even photographed. By contrast, two kangaroos, which had probably escaped from a private zoo, have been captured in Wisconsin in recent years, and though bears are rare, there are plenty of photographs of them. A Canadian confronted with one such beast fired a gun into the air, but it did not seem to care; then he raised his digital camera, and it ran off. This, she says, raises the question “why it would fear a camera more than a gun.”
On the other hand, there are a number of reports that, if true, indicate that the beings were supernatural. A woman in the south-east awoke one night and saw “two dog-faced creatures standing almost shoulder to shoulder beside my bed.” They were covered in dark fur, and reminded her of Anubis. When they left she immediately fell asleep again. “There was no sign the next day that anything had broken into the house”, so how did they get in? (Several witnesses have remarked that the entity looked like Anubis, though it seems that they were not students of Egyptology, but had seen the Anubis character in a 1997 TV cartoon show called Mummies Alive!. Two separate men have averred that “it did not look like a Bigfoot”, without explaining how they knew what a Bigfoot looks like.)
In 1971, more than fifty people reported seeing a wolfwoman roaming Davis Avenue in Mobile, Alabama. She had the top half of a woman and the lower parts of a wolf, a cross that could not exist. Of course, it might have been a human prankster, of whom there have been several, such as a woman who used to run around a local park at night in a werecat costume.
A story from Illinois in the 1930s, which she heard from a researcher who heard it from the witness, who was his great-grandfather, related how he realised that every full moon something was stealing from his traps, and when the trapping season was over, from his chicken coop. So one full moon he waited for it, and was confronted by a hairy weirdo. So he fired rock salt at it, and hit it with the barrel of the gun, whereupon it ran off and did not return.
Traditionally, of course, werewolves transform at the full moon, but this is the only such report here. Since few of the cases are dated, however, there is no way of checking this. Godfrey thinks that the concept derived from Hollywood, specifically the Lon Chaney Jr. film The Wolf Man, 1941, though I doubt this.
There are also ‘self-identified lycanthropes’, such as a man who wrote to her saying that, whilst on a camping trip aged five, he was bitten by a large dog, and now as an adult regularly transforms, having videotaped himself doing so. “I asked him to send me the tape, but he didn’t. They never send the tape.”
Some sightings have occurred at what are termed ‘window areas’, that is, where a variety of anomalous events have been reported. In certain places, such as Tomahawk, Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes Naval Station in the same state, UFOs have been reported as well as wolfmen. One remote viewer has asserted that werewolves are aliens who are “waiting patiently for our race to demolish itself so that they may inherit Earth.” There are also reports of what Jenny Randles termed the Oz effect, for example, a group of boys went into an abandoned missile silo in Wichita, Kansas, and were spooked when “all the crickets and frogs had suddenly gone silent”, this being immediately prior to the appearance of a big dog that rose up on its hind legs. Another witness reported that “all the birds and squirrels had gone silent”, although I have never noticed squirrels making a noise.
Make of all this what you will. -- Gareth J. Medway