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...