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Beastly Madness

For those who believe in the existence of literal werewolves, the image of the hairy shape-shifting beast that is part-human and part-wolf, and that embarks on a marauding killing spree at the sight of a full moon, is no joke.

But if such creatures really exist, are they true werewolves of the type that have been so successfully portrayed on-screen time and again by Hollywood movie-moguls? Could they be deranged souls, afflicted by a variety of mental illnesses and delusions? Or might they have distinctly paranormal origins? Paradoxically, the answer to all three of those questions might very well be: “Yes.”

As readers of my books will know, I fully believe in the existence of a phenomenon that is responsible for reports of werewolves. But, I do not for one minute believe that people are morphing into savage animals by the light of a full moon. However we might (or might not!) term “the paranormal” or “the supernatural,” I’m inclined to conclude that these “things” – presumed by many to be shape-shifting werewolves – are actually nothing of the sort, but are entities in their own right that originate somewhere within those two unearthly realms. But, some cases of an alleged werewolf nature – while certainly no less intriguing – can be explained away in far more down to earth terms.

Lycanthropy is a rare psychiatric condition which is typified by a delusion that the afflicted person has the ability to morph into the form of a wild animal – and very often that of a berserk, killer-wolf. Moreover, people diagnosed with Clinical-Lycanthropy have shown signs of abnormal activity in those parts of the brain relative to perception of form. In other words, Clinical-Lycanthropes might very well really believe their bodies are mutating when they are overwhelmed by their delusions.

Of course, this does not fully explain why so many such people believe they are changing into a specific animal – such as a wolf – rather than just experiencing random changes in, say, their arms or legs. But, nevertheless, it is without doubt a part of the puzzle. And there is another aspect to this affair that may go some way towards explaining the inner-workings of the mind of the Clinical-Lycanthrope.

Linda Godfrey, a leading authority on werewolves in the United States, and the author of such books as Real Wolfmen, Hunting the American Werewolf,  The Michigan Dogman, Werewolves, and The Beast of Bray Road, says:

“One other medical explanation that turns up frequently in relation to lycanthropy is the ergot equation. A fungus that affects rye, ergot is now widely regarded as a possible cause of the bestial madness. According to this theory, it was not demonic influence but the ingestion of Claviceps purpurea (which contains a compound similar to LSD), which led to the demented behaviour. All it took was a cold winter in a particularly wet or low-lying area, and entire fields would be infected with the ergot fungus. Symptoms, confirmed by an outbreak as recent as the 1950s in France, include delusions of turning into hairy monsters, night terrors, a sense of alienation from one’s own body, frantic motion and convulsions, paranoia, and even death.”

If such issues fascinate you, I strongly urge you to read Linda’s work, since it collectively amount to what – in my mind – is the finest body of data on werewolves in-hand. Period.

Beyond any shadow of doubt at all, one of the most notorious serial-killers of all time was, a German farmer who became infamously known as the Werewolf of Bedburg. Born in the village of Epprath, Cologne, Stumpp was a wealthy, respected, and influential farmer in the local community. But he was also hiding a dark and diabolical secret – one that surfaced graphically and sensationally in 1589, when he was brought to trial for the crimes of murder and cannibalism.

Having been subjected to the torture of the rack, Stumpp confessed to countless horrific acts, including feasting on the flesh of sheep, lambs and goats, and even that of men, women and children, too. Indeed, Stumpp further revealed that he had killed and devoured no less than fourteen children, two pregnant women and their fetuses, and even his own son’s brain. Stumpp, however, had an extraordinary excuse to explain his actions.

He maintained that since the age of twelve, he had engaged in black-magic, and on one occasion had succeeded in summoning the Devil, who provided him with a “magical belt” that gave him the ability to morph into “the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws.”

The court, needless to say, was not impressed, and Stumpp was put to death in brutal fashion: flesh was torn from his body, his arms and legs were broken, and, finally, he was beheaded. The Werewolf of Bedburg was no more. Stumpp was not alone, however.

Equally as horrific as the actions of Stumpp were those of an un-named man who, in the final years of the 16th Century, became known as the Werewolf of Chalons. A Paris, France-based tailor who killed, dismembered, and ate the flesh of numerous children he had lured into his shop the man was brought to trial for his crimes on December 14, 1598. Notably, during the trial, it was claimed that on occasion the man also roamed nearby woods in the form of a huge, predatory wolf, where he further sought innocent souls to slaughter and consume. As was the case with Stumpp, the Werewolf of Chalons was sentenced to death, and was burned at the stake.

And while all of the above is intended to show that some reports of werewolves can be explained away in down to earth (but still highly intriguing) fashion, as the work of Linda Godfrey demonstrates, more often that not, that is far from the case…

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  • Yah, that’s some good lycanthropy stuff!

  • Raven Meindel

    Great stuff as always,Nick!
    Don’t know if I ever told you this but I actually used to know a fellow personally who was a classic clinical lycanthropy case. We remained friends for some time but lost touch over the years. I remember how he even used to call his young son a ” pup “. He had great strength and he even sported longer canines ( eye teeth ) than an average human. Strange fellow but a kind soul. Not a murderous beast.
    I’ve often wondered if some of the Dogmen are deliberate creations of science or perhaps military. Experiments in fear perhaps? Thing gone array? We may never know for sure, but it’s fun to ponder nonetheless. Kudos to you and Linda. Two of my very favorite authors and friends! All my best, Raven

  • Fantastic article. Nick. But what has also intrigued me is not just accounts about those like Stumpp (or Stumpf as it is sometimes written) but what Linda has termed “upright canids” that is wolf-like (or dog-like—depending on the witness) creatures that have evolved on their own. Not supernatural, nor paranormal…just a different sub-species.

    But then there are the Skinwalkers, too,,,which are altogether closer to what most people think of when they see the word “werewolf.” Not full moon oriented but certainly murderous enough….unlike the “upright canids” who are not known to attack humans. And there is a whole tradition among Native Americans that they live in another dimension from ours (what Robert Anton Wilson called “the universe next door) and only occasionally cross over. (Much like Bigfoot is said to do).

    And then there is that thing that Mark Shackelman encountered in Wisconsin in 1936 that was digging into a Native American burial mound.

    The thing that snarled “Gadara” at him and then walked away. Was this really a hint that this thing was inhabited by the Demonic Legion that Jesus was said to have cast into swine in the Biblical town of the same name?
    (If the Demon Possessed man who said :”I am Legion, for we are many” was using the name in its technical sense there would have been 6,000 demons in him. Which is a hell of a lot of demon—but maybe he was just high on Rye-Krisp).

    ONE thing is clear…you are right when you say no ONE theory can explain all the sightings.

  • Asphalt Prophet

    Hi Nick
    I was a werewolf for over twenty years. I can relate to Stumpp’s tale.

  • Travis Watson

    I think that, in addition to madness of varying sorts and incursions from the “Other Side” we need to look at other reasons for the formulation of the werewolf mythos. One of the ones I find interesting can be found in John Michael Greer’s Monsters: An Investigator’s Guide to Magical Beings. Greer includes a whole section on werewolves and notes that, in magical traditions, it is possible to shape an “etheric projection” into an animal form and either allow it to run while the worker is in trance or, more interesting, allow the projection to form a shell around the physical body of the worker. I think it very possible that these sort of magical working could create a definite perception of a change to animal form.

  • Speaking of military experiments, hadn’t been the aforementioned case of madness in a French town in the 50’s linked to a CIA experiment with LSD?

  • Maybe the persistence of the canid in the psychiatric delusions of shape-shifting is due to the co-evolution our two species have experienced for the last 20 thousand years. Because we bonded with our 4-legged friends, we forgo much of our animal senses like hear or smell in favor of cerebral development–you could even say we ‘transferred’ them to the wolf-turned-dog.

    Maybe somewhere deep down our genes there’s something that acknowledges this connection… and can sometimes be reverted. Maybe there’s in some of us a sense of longing for what we once enjoyed, and lost.