Like most folks who are interested in the macabre, my story begins as a child watching movies I probably shouldn’t have been watching. By the age of six, I had walked the halls of a 12th century fortress with the Castle Freak, attempted to behold the visage of The Unnamable, and creeped through the crypts of Resurrection Cemetery during The Return of The Living Dead. Yet it was not the unspeakable horrors of Lovecraft nor the ravenous undead of Romero and O’Bannon which caused countless sleepless nights, no, that distinguished honor would fall upon another dweller of the dark:
Fuckin’ werewolves, man! What is a mere human to do against a man-sized wolf beast? I’m just a kid! Where am I going to get a gun and a silver bullet? Why aren’t all bullets silver just in case? Monster Squad was supposed to be a safe choice! And Gary Busey stars in Silver Bullet, for crying out loud. I mean, compared to Castle Freak, this was Child’s Play, right? NOPE!
**(Chucky has nothing to do with this post, I was just having fun with horror titles at this point.)**
Now this were-possum may not look like much now, but this guy was nightmare fuel for my younger self. Where am I going with this? This post is an attempt by me to understand why I and so many others throughout history have feared the werewolf. What isn’t to fear? The pure personification of the beast that lies dormant within us all is pretty terrifying. We’ll briefly visit some of the supposed origins of the legend and highlight a couple of interesting cases.
Before Lon Chaney Jr transformed on the big screen in 1941, there was a more infamous Wolfman that roamed the countryside a few centuries earlier. For one of the more famous and documented cases of Lycanthropy, we visit the Germanic village of Bedburg in the mid to late 16th century. Peter Stumpp, now known to history as the Beast of Bedburg, allegedly began to dabble in the occult as early as the age of twelve. Here’s a quote from an English translation of the original account, which was written in High Dutch. (link included here to the entire transcript)
In the towns of Cperadt and Bedbur near Collin in high Germany, there was continually brought up and nourished one Stubbe Peeter, who from his youth was greatly inclined to evil and the practicing of wicked arts even from twelve years of age till twenty, and so forwards till his dying day, insomuch that surfeiting in the damnable desire of magic, necromancy, and sorcery, acquainting himself with many infernal spirits and fiends, insomuch tat forgetting the God that made him, and that Savior that shed his blood man man’s redemption: In the end, careless of salvation gave both soul and body to the Devil for ever, for small carnal pleasure in this life, that he might be famous and spoken of on earth, though he lost heaven thereby.
The Devil, who hath a ready ear to listen to the lewd motions of cursed men, promised to give him whatsoever his heart desired during his mortal life: whereupon this vile wretch neither desired riches nor promotion, nor was his fancy satisfied with any external or outward pleasure, but having a tyrannous heart and a most cruel bloody mind, requested that at his pleasure he might work his malice on men, women, and children, in the shape of some beast, whereby he might live without dread or danger of life, and unknown to be the executor of any bloody enterprise which he meant to commit.
The Devil, who saw him a fit instrument to perform mischief as a wicked fiend pleased with the desire of wrong and destruction, gave unto him a girdle which, being put around him, he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like unto brands of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body and mighty paws. And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appear in his former shape, according to the proportion of a man, as if he had never been changed.
Stumpp stood trial for his innumerable misdeeds on October 28th, 1589, including, but not limited to, the murder and mutilation of many young men, women, children, and cattle. Stumpp was tortured via “the breaking wheel”, beheaded, and burnt to ashes. The wheel was erected as a reminder of Stumpps crimes and as a warning to those of the waxing moon.
Next on our journey of wolf-inspired wonderment, we visit the Edwardian Castle of Bungay, constructed by Roger Bigod in Suffolk Country circa 1100.
However, it is Roger’s son, Hugh Bigod, whom serves as the inspiration for one of the legends of the spectral wolf, Black Shuk.
Remembered as Bigod the Bold, young Hugh would raise an army against King Stephen in 1136. He was besieged by royalist forces at Castle Bungay and awarded the title of Earl of Suffolk from the King in order to secure Bigod’s future loyalty. Hugh would rebel again shortly after, a frequently occurring theme throughout his life. By the mid 12th century, King Henry had confiscated the property from Hugh, only to return it in 1163 when Henry deemed Bigod no longer a threat. The Earl would spend years adding to the stone keep of Bungay and, you guessed it, rebelled yet again. This time, Henry would make short work of the rebellion and Hugh Bigod was exiled to Palestine, where he lived out the rest of his days.
It was rumored that Bigods ruthless and bold spirit could never rest and returned to the countryside of Suffolk in the form of Black Shuk, the Hound of Hell. Sightings of the large, dog-shaped beast persisted throughout the centuries. To this day, there many local residents who will not visit the ruins of Bungay after dark.
Our last stop brings us to Ireland as we visit the tale of the Man-Wolf told by the gentlemen pictured above: Giraldus Cambrensis, more commonly referred to as Gerald of Wales. Most known for his works on Welsh history and geography, Giraldus Cambrensis also wrote a history of the people of Ireland, known as the Topographia Hibernica. In 1185, as preceptor to Prince John, Cambrensis accompanied the Prince on his journey to Ireland in order to study the island. Although he recorded and observed many Irish customs, Giraldus was accused of not being able to separate fact from fiction. It is in this work of Irish customs that we find one of the first accounts of Irish werewolfery. It’s label as fantasy or fact is up to you, the reader.
In Geralds retelling of The Man-Wolf, a priest and his young companion are approached in the woods between Ulster and Meath by a large wolf in the shape of the man; however, unlike the previously mentioned beasts, this particular Wolf does not seem malicious at all and seeks salvation from the curse that plagues him and his wife. This is one of the first written examples of Christian concepts combating the curse.
Much older cases exist such as the stories of the wolf-man legions of the Roman Empire, the dog-man phenomena of Central Asia and of the skin-walkers in the woods of North America. The fear of being knocked down a notch on the food chain, of being prey, is unsettling to the settled. For time immemorial, the Wolf has stalked man in the shadows of his own mind and it shows no signs of letting up. So before the next full, I’ll leave you with the following piece of advice: Should you encounter the Beast of Bedburg, Black Shuk, or the Man-Wolf of Ulster Woods, be sure to kick it in the ‘nards.