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A werewolf at the window can be frightening... (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2003).

Werewolf!

On a July night in 1958 Mrs. Delburt Gregg was getting ready for bed in her Greggton, Texas, home when she glanced out the window. Thunderstorms were on the way. When a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the countryside she saw a horrific sight outside her open window. It was a "huge, shaggy, wolf-like creature" that was clawing at the screen and glaring at her with "baleful, glowing, slitted eyes."

This account comes not from a horror movie, but from an interview with the Gregg in a 1960 issue of Fate magazine. What did she see? The description sounds like a werewolf, but they don't exist, do they?

The root of the word werewolf goes back to the old word wer which means man. A werewolf is therefore a man-wolf: part human, part beast. Though most people today associate werewolves with Hollywood movies and especially with actor Lon Chaney, Jr, the idea that a creature exists that can change from man to a wolf and back has been well-embedded in legend and folklore for more than two-thousand years.

An ancient Greek myth tells the story of Lykaon. Lykaon is a man that serves the King of the gods, Zesus, human flesh. Zesus is so angered at Lykaon that he turns him into a wolf. Later, a Greek cult would be build on this myth. Adherents believed that one could turn oneself into a wolf through human sacrifice.

Why were werewolves so feared? In Europe the wolf was the predator that most concerned man. Stories of attacks on people are common in medieval literature. Although many scientists believe modern wolves are little threat to man and simply have a bad reputation, others suggest their ancestors, not scared of man's firearms, may have been much more aggressive. Certainly the Beast of the Gevaudan was one such animal.

The Beast of Gevaudan

In the summer of 1764 a woman tending cattle in a mountainous region of France called Gevaudan had a frightening encounter. She saw a horrible beast the size of a cow or donkey approaching her. The beast looked like a gigantic wolf. Fortunately for the girl, the cattle used their horns to drive the animal away.

Just one month later, however, the animal struck again. This time the victim was a little girl who did not escape, but reportedly had her heart torn from her body. Other human killings followed. In October two hunters managed to shoot the creature from a distance of only about 30 feet. The wounded creature slunk off into the woods, but did not die. Within a few days it was back to its murderous ways.

The ability of the creature to survive such an attack seemed supernatural. Soon the people in the countryside were certain that the animal on the loose was not just a wolf, but a werewolf, or loup-garou.

The Beast of Gevaudan appears in a period woodcut.

After a vicious attack on two more children, King Louis XV sent a troop of his cavalry to rid the region of the monster. The commander, Captain Duhamel, sent his troops over the countryside looking for the beast. Though they spotted the creature on a number of occasions and shot at it, they never could find the body. The beast disappeared for a while and the calvary withdrew, thinking the creature must have died of wounds inflicted by the shots. The soldiers were not gone long, however, before the monster returned and the killing started again.

Eventually a large bounty was put on the beast attracting hundreds of professional hunters into the area. Though over a hundred wolves were killed, none proved to be the monster. It continued to roam freely and kill throughout the summer of 1765.

In June, 1767, the Marquis d'Apcher organized several hundred hunters into small bands and set off into the countryside to try and find the beast. The Marquis' plan worked and a small group found the monster. One of its members, Jean Chastel, spotted the beast and fired his gun twice at it. The second shot apparently hit the animal in the heart and it fell dead.

The creature was later examined. Within its stomach was found the collar bone of a young girl. By some estimates the monster had been responsible for the death of sixty people. The body, after being displayed in the streets and later sent to Versailles, was buried in the countryside.

A modern analysis of the examination report supports the idea that the creature was simply a very big wolf. However, the story of the Beast of Gevaudan, along with other similar incidents, undoubtedly helped fuel the folktales about werewolves. This was idea not mitigated by the fact that Chastel, the hunter who had finally killed the beast, had used silver bullets.

In the Mind

Incidents like the Beast of Gevaudan seemed to give the occasional wolf almost supernatural powers and people began to connect the idea of a werewolf to satanic powers. This was strengthened by theological writers, like St. Augustine, who wrote about witches having the power to change men into wolves.

The truth is that change probably only occured in the subject's mind. People who testified that they had turned themselves into wolves often used a salve that they rubbed on their bodies to make the transformation. This salve, rather than having the capability to change the physical shape of the person, was a hallucinogenic (often containing the plants belladonna or nightshade) This tricked the subject's mind into thinking he'd been changed while he actually lay in a coma or ran on a drug-induced killing spree. In 1598, when authorities found Jacques Roulet crouched over the body of a mutilated and dead teenager, he testified that he'd rubbed his body with an ointment which changed him and he'd done the crime as a werewolf.

Some werewolf hallucinations may have been accidentally inflicted. The diet of medieval peasants often included bread infected with the Ergot fungus. Chemicals in the fungus are similar to LysergicAcid Diethylamide (LSD) which is a powerful hallucinogenic and psychoactive drug. People who ingest food contaminated with Ergot report having horrible visions that include being attacked by, or turning into, vicious animals.

Mental illness may also account for some people who reported changing into werewolves. One famous case from 1589 involved a man named Stubbe Peeter. Peeter was convicted of a series of murders and cannibalism. He claimed he'd made a pact with Satan and was given a girdle that turned him into a wolf. Peeter was probably what we would consider a mentally-ill serial killer today, but in the days before modern psychology his story of transformation and satanic power might have been very believable. The psychological condition of believing you are a werewolf is known as lycanthropy.

It is possible that other medical conditions also aided the werewolf legend. Individuals that suffer from the genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis or other similar diseases may grow hair all over their bodies, especially on the upper torso and face. Someone not knowing about this condition might easily mistake such an affected individual for a werewolf.

Fear of werewolves was very real in the middle ages. Records show that in France alone between the years of 1520 and 1630 over 30,000 people were suspected of being werewolves. Like in the more familiar witch trials, many people found themselves accused of being werewolves, then investigated and even tortured into confession.

Modern Werewolves

So are werewolves gone - vanquished from everywhere (but the movie screen) by a modern understanding of drugs and mental illness? Not quite.

Actor Lon Chaney, Jr in his role as the Wolfman from a publicity still for the 1941 motion picture.

In the fall of 1989 a woman traveling along Bray Road near Dalavan, Wisconsin, reported seeing a figure hunched by the side of the road. As she passed it, she looked out and saw a face that was "...long and snoutly, like a wolf." The figure also had grayish-brown hair and big fangs. The driver continued on and reported the encounter to a local paper.

A few years later in 1991, on the night of October 31, a driver navigating down Bray Road hit something she hadn't seen. When she stopped the car to look back she saw a dark, hairy form running toward her. She raced off in her car, but the creature leapt onto the back trunk. Fortunately the car was slippery and it fell off.

Are these modern werewolves? Or just pranksters? Or maybe just very large and weird dogs? No satisfactory explanations for the sightings have yet been found.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2003. All Rights Reserved.