In his excellent book, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, the author and researcher Bob Trubshaw wrote the following: “The folklore of phantom black dogs is known throughout the British Isles. From the Black Shuck of East Anglia to the Mauthe Dhoog of the Isle of Man there are tales of huge spectral hounds ‘darker than the night sky’ with eyes ‘glowing red as burning coals.’” While a number of intriguing theories exist to explain the presence and nature of such spectral-like beasts, certainly the most ominous of all is that they represent some form of precursor to – or instigator of - doom, tragedy, and death. One of the most infamous of all black-dog encounters in the British Isles occurred at St. Mary’s Church, Bungay, Suffolk, England, on Sunday, August 4, 1577, when an immense and veritable spectral hound from Hell materialized within the church during a powerful thunderstorm and mercilessly tore into the terrified congregation with its huge fangs and razor-sharp claws. In fact, so powerful was the storm that it reportedly killed two men in the belfry as the church tower received an immense lightning bolt that tore through it and shook the building to its ancient foundations.
According to an old, local verse: “All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew. And, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.” Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the beast bounded out of St. Mary’s and was reported shortly thereafter at Blythburgh Church, about twelve miles away, where it allegedly killed and mauled even more people with its immense and bone-crushing jaws – and where, it is said, the scorch marks of the beast’s claws can still be seen to this day, infamously imprinted upon the ancient door of the church. Even more intriguing is the fact that Bungay’s legend of a satanic black hound parallels that of yet another local legend: that of Black Shuck, a giant, spectral dog that haunts the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. Such is the popularity of the Bungay legend, that it has resulted in an image of the beast being incorporated into the town’s coat of arms – and the Black Dogs is the name of Bungay Town Football Club.
The stark, disturbing and memorable image that the infamous devil dog, or the phantom hound, as described above undoubtedly conjures up is that of a definitively sinister beast that stealthily prowls the towns and villages of ancient England by nothing more than silvery moonlight or to the accompanying background of a violent, crashing thunderstorm. It is, however, a little known fact outside of dedicated students of the phenomenon that sightings of such creatures have also taken place in modern times: in both the 20th and 21st centuries, even, as is evidenced by the following reports from my files. First, there is the story of the Bradley family of the city of Leeds who had the very deep misfortune to encounter one of the now-familiar hounds of Hell in early 2009: at no less a site than the English city of Lichfield’s famous and historic cathedral; which has the distinction of being the only English cathedral to be adorned with three spires.
According to the Bradley’s, while walking around the outside of the cathedral one pleasant Sunday morning, they were startled by the sight of a large black dog racing along at high speed, and adjacent to the side of the cathedral. The jaw-dropping fact that the dog was practically the size of a donkey ensured their attention was caught and held. But that attention was rapidly replaced by overwhelming fear, when the dog allegedly “charged the wall” of the cathedral and summarily vanished right into the brickwork as it did so! Perhaps understandably, the Bradley’s chose not to report their mysterious encounter to cathedral officials, or to the police. And then we have the account of Marjorie Sanders.
Although Sanders’ account can be considered a new one in the sense that it only reached my eyes and ears in August 2009, during which time I was on a week-long return trip to England, it actually occurred back in the closing stages of the Second World War, when the witness was a girl of ten or eleven. At the time, Sanders was living in a small village not too far from England’s Tamworth Castle – which overlooks the River Tame, and which has stood there since it was built by the Normans in the 11th Century; although an earlier, Anglo-Saxon castle is known to have existed on the same site, and which was constructed by the forces of Ethelfreda, the Mercian queen and the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. According to Sanders, “probably in about early 1945,” her grandfather had “seen a hell-hound parading around the outside of the castle that scared him half to death when it vanished in front of him.” For reasons that Sanders cannot now remember or comprehend, her grandfather always thereafter memorably referred to the animal in question as “the furnace dog.”
Whether or not this is an indication that the spectral dog had the seemingly-ubiquitous fiery red eyes that so many witnesses have reported remains unfortunately unknown; but, it would not at all surprise me if that was one day shown to be the case. Then, we have the brief, but highly thought-provoking, account of Gerald Clarke, a Glasgow baker, whose father claimed to have briefly seen a large, black-colored, phantom hound with bright, electric-blue-colored eyes on the grounds of a military base in central England – called Royal Air Force Stafford – in the late 1950s, and while on patrol late one winter’s evening. As was the case with so many other witnesses to such disturbing entities, the elder Clarke quietly confided in his son that the creature “just vanished: first it was there and then it wasn’t.” In view of all the above, one can only say: “Beware of the Dog!”
Now, let's turn to the Phantom Black Dog in the world of exciting fiction: Few people who have read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, can forget those immortal words uttered by Dr. James Mortimer to the world’s most famous fictional detective: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” It may come as a surprise to some people to learn that Conan Doyle’s novel was actually based upon real legends of giant, devilish hounds that were said to haunt Britain's villages and countryside, bringing doom, tragedy and death in their spectral and demonic wake. Yes: Britain has a long, rich and varied history of encounters with what have generally become known as “Phantom Black Dogs.” Usually much larger than normal dogs, they are said to possess a pair of large, glowing eyes (very often red); they frequent graveyards, old roadways, crossroads and bridges; and are almost unanimously associated with the realm of the dead. In some cases, the beasts appear to be demonstrably evil; while in other reports evidence is exhibited of a helpful - perhaps even concerned - nature. But whatever these critters are, they are not your average flesh and blood animal. Not at all. They might just be your worst nightmare. Now, let's make a trip to Latin America.
While the image of the Phantom Black Dog is most associated with the British Isles and mainland Europe, the beast has been seen in many other locations too - including throughout Latin America. The leading researcher in this field is Simon Burchell, the author of Phantom Black Dogs in Latin America. Running at 38 pages, Burchell’s work is obviously very much a booklet rather than a full-length book. But that doesn’t detract from the most important thing of all: its pages are packed with case after case, each offering the reader little-known and seldom-seen information on the definitive Latin American cousin to Britain's more famous counterpart. Notably, Burchell’s publication details the truly startling wealth of similarities between those creatures seen centuries ago in England, and those reported throughout Latin America in the last 100 years. Namely, the diabolical, glowing eyes; the association that the phantom hound has with life after death; how seeing the beast may be a precursor to doom and tragedy; its occasional helpful and guiding qualities; the fact that the animal is usually witnessed in the vicinity of bridges, crossroads, and cemeteries; its ability to shape-shift and change in size; and not forgetting the most important thing, of course: its perceived paranormal origins.
Burchell also reveals how the legends of the phantom black dog of some Latin American nations - such as Guatemala - have been exploited by those with draconian and outdated morals. For example, there are widespread tales of people that enjoy having a drink or several incurring the dire wrath of the phantom black dog - which, as Burchell says, “was certainly popularized by the Catholic Church which used this legend and others as moralizing tales.” Winged hounds - whose appearance and activities smack strongly of the modern day Chupacabras of Puerto Rico - are discussed, as are copious amounts of data that make a link with tales of a truly dark and satanic nature. Burchell also reveals intriguing data suggesting that at least some tales of the black dog might be based upon cultural memories and stories of very real, large and ferocious hounds brought to the New World by the Conquistadors centuries ago – “savage and ferocious dogs to kill and tear apart the Indians.”
That said, however, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of reports of the phantom black dog in Latin America parallel those of Britain to a truly striking, eerie and extraordinary degree - in the sense that they appear to be something other than flesh-and-blood entities. As Burchell states: “Although the Black Dog may appear at first glance to be a British or north European phenomenon, it exists in essentially the same form across the entire length and breadth of the Americas. Much has been written upon the presumed Germanic, Celtic or Indio-European origin of the legend but such an origin would not explain how a highland Maya girl can meet a shape-shifting Black Dog at a Guatemalan crossroads. It appears that the Black Dog, much like the poltergeist, is a global phenomenon.”
In very much the same way that the United Kingdom is home to the eerie Phantom Black Dog, and the United States has the morphing an mysterious coyote, so the continent of African has its very own equivalent. It is known as the were-hyena – a creature that some believe is a human who becomes a hyena, while others teach that it is a hyena which has the ability to take on human form. Before we get to the matter of the supernatural hyena, let us first take a look at its regular, normal equivalent. Widespread across East Africa and South Africa, the hyena is a formidable and highly dangerous animal, one which will not think twice about attacking, killing, and even eating, people if it comes down to it. Muscular and athletic, the hyena can reach a height of around three feet and can live for up to twenty-five years. Now, we’ll examine the far stranger side of the hyena; the one which is dominated by shapeshifting.
As far as the morphing beast of Africa is concerned, it is East Africa and North Africa where the creature is predominantly said to dwell. One of the most visible of the various bodies of African were-hyenas is that which is known as the Bultungin. It lurks and voraciously hunts in the vicinity of Lake Chad, which borders upon northern Nigeria. In 1883, Gerald Massey wrote of this particular controversy in The Natural Genesis: A Short Life: “In the Kanuri language of Bornu (Africa), the name of the hyena is Bultu, and from this is formed the verb bultungin, which signifies ‘I transform myself into a hyena.’ There is a town named Kabultinoa, the inhabitants of which are said to possess this faculty of transformation.” Massey was of the opinion that this belief could be explained away in wholly down to earth fashion, and as a result of “the donning of the hyena skin in their religious masquerade.” But, is that all there is to it: rites and rituals? Not according to the locals, it’s not. Far from it. Throughout Morocco, the Lake Chad area, and Tanzania, there is an intriguing belief that each and every blacksmith has the ability to take on the form of a hyena – chiefly as a result of the same blacksmiths also being experts in the fields of magic and sorcery. Whereas the werewolf traditionally surfaces when the moon is full, the blacksmith-turned-were-hyena is limited to activity during daylight hours. Interestingly, in Tanzania there is a longstanding belief that witches travel on the backs of supernatural spotted hyenas, late at night, and in much the same fashion that the traditional European witch takes to the skies on the traditional broomstick.