In today’s world of fictional vampires, the overwhelming image is that of a creature which looks like a Goth rock-star or an underweight supermodel. Anemic-looking skin, black clothes, and sunken cheeks are very much the order of the day. But, it wasn’t always like that. Centuries ago, vampires were far more monstrous than anything that the world of Hollywood prefers to get its teeth into – pardon the pun. And, similarly, while movie-makers might occasionally still present a vampire shapeshifting into a bat, according to legend, the vampire could take on the disguise of numerous animals. For the vast majority of people, vampires are nothing but fictional monsters designed to entertain and thrill. But, long before the fictional vampire became all-dominating, there was the real monster. Both ancient reality and modern fantasy have one thing in common: namely, the belief that vampires thrive and survive on blood, predominantly human blood, but also that of animals, too – a process known as hematophagy. But, that is just about where the parallels start and finish.
It was in the early part of the 19th century when the vampire went from being a fairly obscure eastern European legend to a near-iconic piece of gothic literature. No, we are not talking about Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. Although it is widely perceived and acknowledged as the definitive vampire novel, Dracula was somewhat of a Johnny-come-lately: it was published in 1897. It was, however, in 1819 that the genre really began. That was the year in which John Polidori’s novel, The Vampyre, surfaced. And to great acclaim, too. What Polidori did, and that Stoker expanded on, was to cast the vampire in a totally new light. This begs the question: what was that light? Well, it sure as hell wasn’t the likes of Twilight and True Blood. A careful study of ancient vampire lore and legend shows that tales of blood-drinking monsters date back millennia: they can be found in the stories and history of ancient Greece, of China, and of Japan. There’s also the Babylonian Lilith. A hideous and dangerous creature with a predilection for invading homes in the dead of night. Very few would hesitate to call a vampire: for her, however, it was male sperm, rather than blood, which she craved. Over millennia, they have had numerous names: Strigoi, Vrykolakas, Empusae, Lamiae, and Shtriga.
It was, however, the deadly creature of Eastern Europe, and specifically of the Middle Ages onward, that led to the development of what ultimately became today’s vampire. And, certainly, “vampire” is the term that has, for at least the last few centuries, really struck a chord – a term first used to describe the terrifying blood-sucker in a 1734 publication, Travels of Three English Gentlemen. This is not surprising: history has shown that from the second decade of the 18th century onward, tales of blood-draining – and blood-drinking - monsters proliferated throughout Austria and Serbia, and with additional accounts coming out of Russia, Croatia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Western Europe soon fell victim to beliefs in vampires, too. Dark tales told of frightened villagers digging up freshly-buried corpses in the dead of night. Wooden stakes were plunged into hearts that no longer beat, and garlic and crosses quickly became the key tools to thwarting the deadly and bloody reign of the undead. The vampires of the past were a grim and gruesome bunch, to be sure. Forget the rock-star look: centuries ago, the blood-drinkers were easily identified by their swollen, reddish-purple faces and their overweight bodies – appearances which were attributed to the vast amounts of human blood ingested during the average attack on an unfortunate victim or several. And there was not a mouthful of large incisors anywhere in sight.
The bat is the animal that most people – whether they believe in the existence of real vampires or not – associate with the vampire, when it comes to the matter of shapeshifting. Hollywood has done a very good job of emphasizing that aspect of the controversy, above all others. But, if one takes a look at what was afoot in Eastern Europe in the 1700s, one sees a very different situation. It is a situation in which the vampire has the ability to take on the form of a veritable menagerie of creatures. The bat aside, a supernatural wolf was the vampire’s most favored form of creature to transform into – something which, to a degree, blurs the lines between the vampire and the shapeshifting werewolf, which was also a monster that plagued and terrified the people of Europe centuries ago. The ancient vampire was a creature very partial to the night sky: not only would it take to a star-filled sky in the guise of a bat, it could also control the minds of both moths and owls. As was noted earlier, the owl is associated with shapeshifting, but in connection to UFOs, flying saucers, and the so-called “alien abduction” phenomenon.
Cats, foxes, rats, and sometimes a large black dog, were all on the list when it came time for a vampire to change its appearance and to harness minds. The vampire was also able to increase its size and body-mass, effectively turning itself into a blood-drinking Goliath. Strangest of all, was the ability of the vampire to shift into a form of fog – usually a localized, but always dense and thick, fog. In view of this latter belief, it is not at all surprising that, hundreds of years ago, when the landscape became filled with mist and fog, fears that bands of vampires lurked within the inky depths abounded. Or, literally were the fearsome fog. Today, the vampire is near-exclusively perceived as a creature of entertainment. Way back when, however, it was a monster of terrifying proportions – one which could change its shape as easily and as quickly as we might blink an eye. Keep that in mind if, late on one dark and misty night, you see a large bat and a wolf coming towards you through a dense fog. The old legends may not just be legends, after all.
Of all the many and various shapeshifters that populate our planet, in the terror stakes there are very few that can rival the horrific Aswang of the Philippines. A murderous thing that haunts the woods and jungles of the islands, it has certain attributes that will, by now, have become acutely familiar. They include a strong rotting odor, and an ability to change into the form of an upright wolf and that of a huge black dog with glowing, red eyes. Appropriately for a creature that has multiple forms, it also has more than a few names, including the Sok-Sok and the Tik-Tik. The odd titles are derived from ancient legends which maintain they are the click-like noises the Aswangs make when they are about to launch an attack on the doomed and the unwary. Although the Aswang is recognized as being a creature that lurks in the hearts of numerous islands in the Philippines, the overwhelming majority of all the reports on record surface from the island of Mindano, which has a population in excess of twenty million. Just like the Kushtaka of Alaska, the Aswang is noted for its nausea-inducing smell and its sore-covered body. Unlike the Kushtaka, however, the Aswang is often seen wearing clothes – albeit almost always ripped and tattered clothing. And whereas the Kushtaka are both male and female, in most cases the Aswang is described as being female. In contrast to the beautiful woman which Scotland’s Kelpie can turn into, however, the Aswang is almost always described as being a hag-like, ugly creature of grotesque proportions.
Unfortunately for their victims, and regardless of their near-decaying appearances, Aswangs are said to be phenomenal athletes. They can run at incredible speeds and are able to climb trees and scale rooftops with incredible ease – something which is made even easier by their shape-changing abilities. Children and babies are particular delicacies of the Aswangs, who will seek out the young whenever, and wherever, possible when hunger strikes. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Aswang legend maintains that if a person receives a bite from such a creature, but they are not outright killed in the process, the person will themselves then become an Aswang. And very quickly, too. They will turn homicidal, their skin will decay, and they will take on a decidedly dead-looking appearance. And let us not forget that vomit-inducing smell, too. In light of this, it could justifiably be said that the Aswang phenomenon is the Philippines’ very own equivalent of a zombie apocalypse, one of the kind most graphically portrayed in the likes of the Armageddon-driven The Walking Dead, World War Z, and Night of the Living Dead. Except for one important thing: unlike the Aswang of the Philippines, in the hugely popular movies and television series the reanimated dead don’t have the ability to transform into human-like wolves or dogs resembling the rampaging monster portrayed in the pages of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In August 1995, the Canovanas region of the island of Puerto Rico was hit by a spate of very bizarre attacks on farm animals. The unfortunate creatures – typically goat, chickens, and pigs – were found dead with deep puncture wounds to their necks and amid claims that significant amounts of blood were missing from their corpses. Farmers were on edge, the media had an absolute field day, and the people of Puerto Rico were plunged into states that ranged from fear to hysteria. When similar killings began to be reported in numerous other parts of Puerto Rico that fear was amplified to even greater levels. All of which is hardly surprising, when one takes into consideration the physical appearance of the beast that was believed to be behind all of the slaughtering. The first person – so far as we know – to see the beast was a woman named Madeline Tolentino, who lived in Canovanas, the initial scene of all the action, and whose story is told in Ben Radford’s 2011 book, Tracking the Chupacabra. She described it as a fairly compact animal that ran on two legs – in a strange hopping style – and which had what looked like row of feathers running down the back of its head and spine. As media interest grew and grew, so did sightings of the mysterious monster. But, that’s when things became not just interesting, but beyond interesting. There is a very good reason for that: not everyone saw the same beast that Tolentino encountered. Or, at least, it did not look the same.
It is one thing to suggest that, in the 1990s, one unknown and dangerous animal was on the loose on Puerto Rico. It is quite another, however, to suggest that multiple, strange creatures were running wild on the island. And, yet, that appears to have been exactly what was going on. Unless, all of the reports were of the same monster. But, given their physical differences, how could that be? Very easily, that is how, if the Chupacabra is a shapeshifter. As amazing as it may sound, a significant amount of data points in that specific direction. Although the first sighting of the creature in the summer of 1995 effectively dictated how the locals perceived the animal to look, not everyone reported something that resembled the monster seen by Madeline Tolentino, as we shall now see. In the days, weeks, months – and even years - that followed, countless reports of Chupacabra attacks on farm animals were reported. The problem, however, is that the descriptions of the beast varied to incredible degrees.
In some cases, witnesses told of seeing an animal that did not have the feathery line running along the back of its head, neck and spine, as described by Tolentino. Instead, they saw a row of menacing-looking spikes, which stood erect and around four to five inches in length. And, of course, it would be very hard to mistake a line of feathers for a row of vicious spikes! Then, there was the matter of how the animal ran. According to both Tolentino and the majority of the early witnesses, it was a bipedal beast, albeit one which bounced along in a bizarre hopping fashion. Others, however, were sure that the creatures they saw ran on four limbs only. And there was nothing bizarre about its movements: they were likened to the way in which a large cat – such as a mountain lion – would stalk its prey. Now, let us take a look at the eyes of the Chupacabra. Some sightings involved creatures with bright blue eyes. In other cases, the eyes were of a piercing, devilish red and glowing variety. This suggests that the Chupacabra, too, is a shapeshifter.