Sep 09, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Shapeshifters: It's About Much More Than Just Skinwalkers and Dog-Men

The article that you are about to read deals with a subject that many people might assume falls solely into the domains of folklore, mythology and legend. They would, however, be wrong. In fact, they would be acutely wrong. Shapeshifting, for most people, provokes imagery of nothing more than centuries-old tales of savage, murderous werewolves and of big-bucks movies, such as An American Werewolf in London, Underworld, Dog Soldiers, and The Wolfman. That is not the case, however. As incredible as it may seem, shapeshifters are not merely the stuff of Hollywood and urban tales of a friend-of-a-friend variety. Rather, they are all too menacingly real. And, they are not all of the man-turns-into-wolf variety, either. Quite the opposite, actually: shapeshifters come in all kinds and sizes and have done so for countless millennia. 

While the traditional image of the werewolf is, without a doubt, the first thing that springs to mind when a discussion of shapeshifters takes place, the truth of the matter is that there is a veritable menagerie of such infernal things in our midst. Were-cats, were-tigers, were-hyenas, and were-coyotes are also near the top of the monstrous list. Then, there are the ancient beliefs that those who died violent deaths – or those who were, themselves, murderers – were often destined to return to our plain of existence in the forms of hideous beasts, including wild and savage ape-like animals, fearsome black dogs with glowing and blazing red eyes, and mermaid-like things. There are also beings from other worlds: aliens, extraterrestrials. Even the legendary monsters of Loch Ness, Scotland, are believed – in certain monster-hunting quarters – to be paranormal beasts that have the ability to alter their appearances at will. As are legendary vampires, who, the old legends suggest, can transform into the likes of bats and wolves. 

(Nick Redfern) Beware of monsters that change their appearances

Collectively, all of these “things” amount to an absolute army of otherworldly creatures, and half-human monsters that have plagued and tormented us since the dawning of civilization. And, they show zero signs of slowing down anytime soon. The things you thought were only fit for campfire tales, late-night stories intended to thrill little children, and entertaining monster-movies, are, in actuality, creatures of the real world. Of our world. Shapeshifters are everywhere: they lurk in the shadows, in the deep woods and expansive forests, in dark and dank caves, and in the murky waters of our lakes and rivers. Maybe even, after sunset, in the recesses of your very own backyard, patiently waiting to pounce. And many of them like nothing better than to terrorize and torment us, the human race. With that all said, it’s now time to take a wild and weird road-trip into the mystery-filled domain of creatures that so many will assure you simply do not exist. I’m here, however, to tell you otherwise. Shapeshifters are disturbingly real. And you’re about to meet them, in all their savage and sinister glory. Let's begin...

Located in northwest Ohio, the small and picturesque town of Defiance is home to around 17,000 people and has origins which date back to the latter part of the 18th century. In the summer of 1972, Defiance became a hotspot for monster-seekers when locals reported a shapeshifting werewolf in their midst. Thankfully, the beast did not stay around for too long; but, from July to August of that year the man-beast most assuredly left its creepy calling-card and, as a result, the town was quickly under siege. Children were kept indoors after school. The local police carefully combed the neighbourhood, by day and night. And werewolf fever was just about everywhere in town.    The very first encounter occurred on July 25, in the early hours of the morning. The unfortunate soul who came face to face with the creature was a railroad employee, working an early-hours shift.

As the man switched a train to another track on the Norfolk and Western railroad – in the area of Fifth Street and Swift and Co. - he was suddenly confronted by a large, humanoid figure that had apparently been stalking him from the shadows. Dressed in ragged clothing, covered in dark hair, and with a face that closely resembled that of a wolf or a German Shepherd dog, it rendered the man frozen to the spot with overwhelming terror. That was most unfortunate, given that the fanged beast had a large brick in its huge paw, which it used to pound the fear-filled man on his left shoulder. Fortunately for the hysterical man, the beast raced off into the darkness, leaving his shaking victim curled up into a ball on the floor. The mayhem continued throughout the summer. Now, let's jump forward.

(Nick Redfern) Me at the site of the first "werewolf" encounter at Defiance, Ohio

In April 2016, a very strange story surfaced out of the north of England. And to the extent that not just the local media, but the national media, too, were busy chasing down the strange and sinister story of what has become known as the “Werewolf of Hull,” reportedly an eight-foot-tall, hair-covered monster. The case was, however, notable for the fact that several of the witnesses claimed the beast shape-shifted from a terrible, foul monster into the form of a black-cloaked old witch. Most of the reports surfaced in and around the vicinity of what is called the Beverley and Barmston Drain, a land drainage operation, the origins of which date back to the latter part of the 1800s. A tunnel that carries the drain can be found below an old bridge on Beverley Beck, a canal in East Riding, Yorkshire, England – a location where a number of the encounters with the hair-covered thing have taken place. The bridge connection is an important one that should not be overlooked.

In her 2006 book, Mystery Big Cats, author Merrily Harpur provides the following words on what she terms “liminal Zones:” “These are the transitional zones between one area and another – the kind of no-man’s-land traditionally regarded as magical.” Harpur’s research has shown that such zones include streams, gates, churchyards and bridges. With that in mind, there’s a good chance something of a definitively supernatural nature is afoot at the Beverley and Barmston Drain. In December 2015, a woman said to me: “It was stood upright one moment. The next it was down on all fours running like a dog. I was terrified.” Of course, this is very similar to the reports coming out of the Cannock Chase in 2007, of a dog / wolf-like creature that had the ability to run on both two legs and four. Now, onto the deep waters of Scotland. For centuries, Scottish folklore and legend have both been filled with tales of a wild and deadly beast known as the Kelpie. The terrible beast, which has the ability to transform itself into numerous forms – even that of a beautiful woman – was greatly feared throughout the 1600s and 1700s, when reports of the Kelpie were at their height. As for its curious name, “Kelpie” is an ancient Scottish term meaning “water-horse.” There is a very good reason as to why that particular name was applied to the beast: the Kelpie could also morph into the form of a horse. The beast’s mode of attack was, admittedly, ingenious, even if the end result for the victim was not a good one. In fact, it was almost always downright fatal.  

(Nick Redfern) Some horses should definitely be avoided

In 2007, a little more than a century after The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in book form, the worlds of reality and fantasy crossed paths in decidedly sinister and unsettling fashion. It would not be inaccurate to say in incredible fashion, too. And, on Dartmoor itself. It’s a story that revolves around one Martin Whitley, a resident of Devon and someone with a very keen knowledge of the area and the old, sprawling landscape. It was a hot, bright, summer’s day in 2007 when Whitley was busily showing a number of American visitors around the area. All was perfectly normal until something caught his eye. Something very unusual and out of place. Something that looked like it had just leapt out of the dark imagination of Conan Doyle, himself. Except this was all too real. Nor was Whitley a character in an old novel. It was the real deal.

 At a distance of around six hundred feet, Whitley saw a large, black-colored mass moving across the moors. Having a camera with him, he focused his telephoto lens on the whatever-it-was and took a good and careful look. He was astonished to see what appeared to be a large dog. “Large,” however, would be an absolute understatement, given that Whitley described the animal as being roughly the size of a pony. He snapped off a bunch of pictures of the beast as it prowled around the old, atmospheric landscape. That was when things got really strange. Actually, things got beyond strange: the fiendish dog began to change its shape. More correctly…it changed species. And, elevating the bizarreness, it did so more than once. Whitley, as he stared through the lens, found himself completely baffled, and more than a little disturbed too, to see the mysterious beast take on various forms. It changed from a dog into what looked very much like a sleek and black mountain lion, from a muscular black bear to a large boar, and even to something that resembled a pony.  So, what was it? In my view, a shapeshifter.

Going back in time: within the practice of witchcraft there exists a creature that few outside of the craft will have any awareness of. It is a strange and often dangerous creature known as a "Familiar." When witchcraft was said to be rife across England in the 1500s and 1600s, it was widely believed that witches used small animals for a wide variety of reasons – such as spying on those who might do them harm. But, they weren’t animals in the normal sense of the word. They were said to be demonic entities that possessed the ability to alter their forms into multiple kinds of animals. For the witches of the Middle Ages, the preferable forms were black cats, black dogs, hedgehogs, hares, owls, and mice. Creature-camouflage, we might say.

Now, to something very different: within the huge continent of Africa – which covers more than eleven and a half million square miles – tales of violent and deadly so-called Leopard Men abound. It is, however, within West Africa’s Sierra Leone and Nigeria that the phenomenon really dominates. It’s important to note that for the people of the area, the leopard has long been perceived as a revered and feared entity. For the most part, this comes from the fact that, according to certain African teachings, the leopard is a creature which, after bodily death, directs the human soul into the domain of the afterlife. When the leopard comes calling, death is very rarely far behind. The leopard, those same teachings maintain, has the ability to perform such a strange act due to it being what is termed a Totem animal. Namely, a creature that can effortlessly transform itself from flesh and blood to spirit – hence, while in that same spirit state, the leopard has the ability to travel from our physical, three-dimensional world to that domain where the soul resides after death.

Most shapeshifting monsters seem to be content with terrifying and tormenting us. But, not all of them. Some of these creatures are deeply cunning and are intent on luring us into their nightmarish realms, quite possibly to try and take our lives. Maybe, even our souls, too. Aside from literal shapeshifting, there is another, related aspect to the mystery that is downright eerie and menacing in the extreme. It is the ability of certain monsters to very closely mimic us. And, specifically, to mimic the stress-filled cries of babies. To attack or kidnap us? To kill us? Maybe even to savagely devour us?

The questions are many. They are deeply chilling questions, too. Of the many and varied kinds of fairies that were said to possess the awesome powers of shapeshifting, certainly one of the most mysterious, and strangest of all, was the Dryad. It was a definitive elemental of magical proportions that took shapeshifting to a truly unique level – as we shall now see. The Dryad was a supernatural entity that features heavily in ancient Greek mythology, and which was exclusively associated with forests and woods, and trees. There was a very good reason for that: the Dryad had the uncanny and eerie ability to transform itself into a tree! In essence, the Dryads were what, today, we would consider to be nature spirits – nymphs, one might be justified in saying. While within the teachings of ancient Greece the Dryads were seen as the guardians and protectors of trees and of the woods, there was a related belief that they were the trees; that each and every tree had its own spirit, one which could appear in the form of the tree itself, or as a sprite-like fairy being.


And, finally: the human mind is capable of many things, including creating the illusion that a person has taken on animal form. For all intents and purposes, anyone seeing a person affected in such a fashion would not notice any physical changes. Although, they would certainly note their savage behavior. For the victims, however, they are absolutely convinced they are no longer human, but something more, something animal-like and monstrous. Clinical Lycanthropy is a strange, and not entirely understood, phenomena that makes a person believe they have the ability to change into wild animals – whether by choice or as a result of circumstances wholly out of their control. While lycanthropes report mutating into all manner of animals, including tigers, jaguars, eagles, foxes, hyenas, and cats, there’s no doubt that the dominating animal when it comes to this curious medical condition is the wolf – which is precisely why the image of the werewolf, as a person becoming a monster, proliferates to such a degree. It’s important to note that Clinical Lycanthropy and Lycanthropy are not one and the same. The former is a delusion that one becomes a monster, while Lycanthropy is, allegedly at least, a literal, physical change.  

Now, with our story at its end, it is time for us to try and make some sense of this strange and sinister band of supernatural entities: who, or what, are they? What are their motivations? Are they entirely separate of each other – shapeshifting being the only thing that connects them – or are they somehow all part of one, specific phenomenon? They are questions that get right to the heart of the puzzle. When we address all of these strange, sinister, and so often highly dangerous things, we see an undeniable pattern that links each and every one of them. It is a pattern that revolves around the manipulation of the human mind, bridges, cemeteries, woods, bodies of water, and the plunging of countless people into bizarre situations that provoke stress, paranoia, and insanity – sometimes even death. Trying to place each of these things – whether Kelpies, Men in Black, Djinn, Phantom Black Dogs, Alien Big Cats, weird balls of light, and the list goes on – into completely different categories does not work. And the reason why it doesn’t work is because it cannot work. As we have seen, the parallels, the near-identical traits, and the sinister motivations of all of these things are so incredibly similar that we are forced to come to one, astonishing conclusion: each and every shapeshifter is a part of a single phenomenon. They are whatever they want to be, and whenever and wherever they want to be. Shapeshifters are not our friends. They are not here to help us; even if they assure us they are. Avoid them at all costs. Or else.  

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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