Douchan Gersi (1947-2015), explorer, adventurer, actor, and producer/director of the TV series Explore (shown on PBS and the Discovery Channel), had quite a bit to say about werewolves in his book Faces in the Smoke.
In a small village somewhere in Haiti, Gersi came upon a group of men carrying a coffin with a “werewolf” in it. The coffin contained only a little man in his fifties, wearing pajama bottoms and a shirt. The man had a crucifix driven into his chest, another driven into his forehead, and his hands and feet had been nailed to the coffin. A couple of villagers claimed to have seen the man, named Sophocle, change from werewolf to human, so he was slain in this weird fashion.
A week or so later, in the town of Saint-Marc, Gersi struck up a friendship with the mayor, the chief of police, and the local army commander. The mayor had been educated in Paris, and the other two in the USA, so they were not backward villagers. Gersi told them of Sophocle the unfortunate werewolf, “concluding with a remark to the effect that I was amazed at what people living in the back country could believe in. The mayor looked at the men sitting at our table and then at me and said, very seriously, ‘You shouldn't laugh about that. Werewolves really do exist!’”
Whereupon the three important men of Saint-Marc told Gersi the following: One night, the same trio was driving through the town, the commander at the wheel and the mayor and the police chief with him in the front seat. They were looking for a street vendor, hoping to buy a late dinner. At an intersection they spotted a glow shining several feet above the macadam of a side street. Food peddlers in Haiti carried a pan of burning coals on the top of their heads, so they assumed that was what they saw.
When they turned down the cross-street, however, the car’s headlights lit up something that was not only not a peddler, but not even human: “it was completely covered with long, black hair and had a long, hairy tail. Its head was the head of a huge dog, with red, luminescent eyes, and a glow emanating from it.” [Gersi p. 192]
The creature ran off on two legs. The commander gave chase, and the police chief pulled out his pistol and shot at the thing. “It stopped, turned to face the car for a few seconds, and then crossed the street, running on all fours, and vanished between two houses. Despite their search, they could not find the beast again.”
Even before this eye-witness sighting, the officials knew such beast-men existed, because they had been called out to local villages to examine their mutilated victims. The manner of these violent deaths convinced them that werewolves were not the product of imagination or superstition.
"I began reading the local newspapers more carefully,” finishes Gersi, “and found that, indeed, more often than I would have thought, there were many official reports of people who had seen werewolves, as well as reports of murders supposedly committed by werewolves."
Gersi’s story is a rare example of modern werewolfery. For some reason I found myself mulling over it and over legends of lycanthropy from medieval and early modern Europe. I had the curious image in my head of old “Sophocle” puttering around innocuously in his cottage when suddenly an angry mob of villagers broke in and killed him.
I had a vague memory of several old werewolf stories where witnesses chased after a horrible predatory monster, lost it momentarily in the trees or shrubbery – then found some bedraggled fellow who was obviously the bloodthirsty shapeshifter in human form.
Ye Olde Wer-Wolfe
It is said that he was hunted down with mastiffs, and that at the moment they were closing in on him he metamorphosed before their eyes from the shape of a wolf into that of a man . . . What probably happened was that the men and the dogs pursued what they thought was a wolf into a woods or thicket. More likely they never saw a wolf at all.
So Bernhardt J. Hurwood describes the capture of Peter Stubbe (or Stump, Stumpf, Stube, among other variants), an infamous lycanthrope of 16th century Germany. There is no doubt Stubbe was a serial killer and cannibal, and he was so practiced at necromancy and sorcery that, as described in his trial manuscript (1590):
“The Devil gave him a girdle which, being put around him, he was transformed into the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body and mighty paws.” [Otten, p. 69]
It was fortunate for his pursuers that he turned into a mortal man when they caught him, but poor timing on Stubbe’s part. Did they really see a wolf – or something like one – when searching for the local monster?
Another famous lycanthrope was Gilles Garnier, of Dole, France, who was put on trial for murder, sorcery, and werewolfery in 1573. Witnesses claimed to have seen something “in the form of a wolf” attack several young children, and once the beast was “hindered” from eating a girl by three brave locals. They must have been close enough to see whether the monster was human or animal. However, during his last attack, upon a boy of the village of Perrouze, “the said Gilles Garnier was then and at that time in the form of a man and not a wolf.” [Summers, p. 227]
Again a lupine beast was seen, but when captured, the perpetrator was conveniently human.
Then there’s the 1584 case of Perrenette Gandillon, a female of the species:
“Benoist Bidel of Naizan [France], a lad some sixteen years old, and his younger sister were attacked, whilst plucking wild fruit, by a huge wolf without a tail.” Several peasants ran up and fought off the beast; too late for Benoist, who died from his wounds. The shaggy killer, however, was mortally injured as well: “the animal . . . in its last throes crawled behind a thicket, where when it was followed they discovered no wolf but the dead body of Perrenette Gandillon.” [Summers, p. 229.]
Jacques Roulet, 1598: “some countrymen came one day upon the corpse of a boy of fifteen, horribly mutilated and bespattered with blood. As the men approached, two wolves, which had been rending the body, bounded away into the thicket. The men gave chase immediately, following their bloody tracks till they lost them; when suddenly crouching among the bushes, his teeth chattering with fear, they found a man half naked, with long hair and beard.” [Baring-Gould, p. 81]
I’m starting to see a pattern.
As mentioned elsewhere in this book and in I Heard of That Somewhere, reports of “dogmen” have been increasing over the past 20 years. Researchers use the word dogman instead of werewolf because, although the creatures are bipedal and very wolflike, there is no evidence they are people who transform into lupine monsters. And yet –
Dogmen appear to have no fear of human beings whatsoever. They are often seen lurking around houses and mobile homes and peering into windows. Perhaps they watch us as we watch television. They may know quite a bit about certain individuals.
Let’s say a dogman, usually Ninja-like when skulking about human habitations, is less careful one night and gets seen by the locals, who gather quickly to chase the monster. It lopes toward a house or cottage it has watched before, where some poor Schmoe lives alone. It trots up to the house then vanishes into the darkness in whatever fashion dogmen use to elude humans. To the approaching mob, however, the beast has run back home to hide. So they kick in the door and find the owner, who has obviously just changed back into human form. Then the poor guy is dragged out of bed and killed in some painful fashion. That would be a dirty trick. Those sneaky werewolves!
Heck, a werewolf or dogman doesn’t even have to be involved in a case of mistaken identity. The Land Beyond the Forest by Emily Gerard was the book about Transylvania and its folklore that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. Ms. Gerard reports that the Romanian word for werewolf is prikolitsch. Apparently it didn't take much to get those Transylvanian peasants stirred up:
"This superstition once proved nearly fatal to a harmless botanist, who . . . was observed by some peasants, and, in consequence of his crouching attitude, mistaken for a wolf. Before they had time to reach him, however, he had risen to his feet and disclosed himself in the form of a man; but this in the minds of the Roumanians, who now regarded him as an aggravated case of wolf, was but additional motive for attacking him. They were quite sure that he must be a prikolitsch, for only such could change his shape in this unaccountable manner, and in another minute they were all in full cry after the wretched victim of science." [Gerard, p. 322]
The botanist, fortunately, gained his carriage and fled before the peasants caught him. One wonders if pitchforks and torches were involved.
Baring-Gould, Sabine. Book of Were-Wolves (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1865).
Gerard, Emily. Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania, Vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010 ).
Gersi, Douchan. Faces in the Smoke: An Eyewitness Experience of Voodoo, Shamanism, Psychic Healing, and Other Amazing Human Powers (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, 1991).
Hurwood, Bernhardt J. Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghouls (New York: Ace Books, 1968).
Otten, Charlotte F. (editor). Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture (New York: Dorset Press, 1986).
Summers, Montague. Werewolf (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1973 ).