Feb 20, 2023 I Nick Redfern

Monsters That Morph: Just How Many Kinds Are There? There Are Huge Numbers!

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, and Men in Black. 

(Nick Redfern) Beware of those creatures that change their forms

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. 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. Now, let's have a look at some creepy characters. We'll begin with a werewolf, of course..

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. The mayhem and terror went on for a couple of months.

(Nick Redfern) The werewolf is one of the most well-known morphing monster

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 people – 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, as will soon become very clear. As its name strongly suggests, the water-horse spent much of its time lurking in the waters of Scottish lochs – specifically in the shallower, marshy areas of such locales. It would coldly and callously wait for an unwary passer-by to appear on the scene and then strike, mercilessly and without any hint of a warning. 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.  

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.

(Nick Redfern) Animals that alter their form

In a very weird, yet perhaps understandable, fashion, in certain West African belief-systems in the transformative nature of the leopard has led the people of both Nigeria and Sierra Leone to do their absolute utmost to try and emulate the supernatural leopards. They do so by, effectively, becoming leopards themselves, albeit in a very strange, alternative, and even deadly, fashion. Very few people - outside of those who secretly practice it, of course – have experienced this strange form of transformation. One who did experience it was Pat O’Dwyer, a man who held a position of significance in the area, back in the 1930s. He told his story, in first-person fashion, in “The White Man’s Grave.” At the time, O’Dwyer held the position of Assistant District Commissioner in Port Loko, which is located in northern Sierra Leone. For the most part, O’Dwyer’s job was routine and bureaucratic. But, there were exceptions – extremely disturbing ones, too. On one particular day, the rotting and putrid corpse of a slain man was brought to Port Loko, having been found in a back-street in Makeni, a major city in Sierra Leone. “Slain” barely began to describe the situation, however. The unfortunate soul was torn to pieces – something which was evident from the large claw marks that covered his body. The chief of the tribe to which the dead man belonged sent a messenger with the body – a messenger who told O’Dwyer that this was a case of cold-blooded murder. And murder at the hands of a secret society that worshipped leopards of both the physical and the supernatural variety.

Within the history of fairy lore, there exists a longstanding tradition of these magical – and sometimes manipulative, dangerous, and even deadly – entities having the ability to shapeshift into a near-dizzying number of forms. We’ll begin with one of the lesser known creatures that falls into the fairy category. Its name is the Selkie, a beast that is most associated with the people and the old folklore of northern Scotland, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Ireland, and Iceland. It’s fair to say that the Selkie is not too dissimilar to the legendary mermaid, although, as will become apparent, there are significant differences, too. Like the mermaid – and its male equivalent, the merman – the Selkie is an animal that dwells deep in ocean waters and which has a longstanding connection to the human race. Also like mermaids, the Selkie is said to be a seducer-supreme. Whereas, in times past, mermaids and mermen were perceived as being half-human and half-fish in appearance, they were not shapeshifters, per se. Rather, they were a combination of creatures. The Selkie, however, has the unique ability to take on two specific forms: that of a seal and that of a human – both male and female. Whereas mermaids are limited to living in the oceans, the Selkie exists as a seal in the water and as a human on land. It achieves the latter by discarding its seal skin and taking on human form – that of a beautiful, alluring woman or a handsome, muscular man. 

(Nick Redfern) The hare is a legendary morphing creature

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.

Different trees were possessed by – or could shapeshift into – different elementals and vice-versa. For example, according to the Greeks, ash trees were the domain of the Meliai – most well-known within Greek mythology as the protectors and guardians of the mighty Greek god, Zeus, during his very earliest years. Mulberry bushes were cared for by a sub-group of Dryads known as the Morea. The Syke did likewise for fig trees. As did the Balanos for the oak, and Ptelea for the elm tree. There was a very good reason why so much care and dedication went into protecting the trees: should a tree die, then the elemental within it – or, depending on one’s belief system, the entity that could shapeshift into the tree – would die, too. Just like the Selkie of Scotland and Iceland, the Dryads possessed the magical ability to transform themselves into beautiful women and handsome men – with the female entity being the most often reported. Despite the ancient origins of the Dryads, and just like the trees and forests around us, they have never really gone away. For example, they appear prominently in C.S. Lewis’ hugely successful Chronicles of Narnia books and movies, demonstrating that despite the passage of time, the old traditions and beliefs still continue to prevail. 

From the Middle East to Alaska, and from Norway to Iceland, stories surface of shapeshifters that should be avoided at all costs. They are supernatural, cold-hearted entities that provoke overwhelming fear and dread - for reasons that will soon become very apparent.     The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was someone who had a near-lifelong interest in shapeshifters, and particularly so the traditional werewolf – or wolf-man - of France, Germany, and Austria of the Middle Ages. As Baring-Gould dug further into the controversy of man becoming animal and man again, however, he developed a deep passion for the folklore and mythology of Iceland and Scandinavia – and as well as for the many and varied mysterious creatures that dwelled in such countries. Baring-Gould’s publication, The Book of Werewolves, reveals that of particular fascination to him were the Eigi Einhamir, which, basically, means “of more than one skin,” a phrase which Baring-Gould specifically used in his book. There may not be a better way of describing a supernatural shapeshifter. The saga of the Eigi Einhamir dates far back into history; in fact, to the very earliest years of Pagan times when Christianity had still yet to leave its mark on much of Europe. 

(Nick Redfern) The late Rosemary Ellen Guiley was an expert in the field of creatures that change

The Coyote is one of the most mysterious and magical creatures within the mythology of Native Americans, and is noted for its shapeshifting abilities. Before we get to that issue, however, a bit of background information on the animal is first required. Coyotes are of the dog family and are formidable and deadly hunters. While they typically go for small prey, like rabbits and squirrels, they have been known to take on fully-grown deer and even cattle. They are noted for their swimming skills and for the fact that they can run to the astonishing speed of almost forty miles per hour. That all said, there is another side to the coyote, one which revolves around shapeshifting. Perceived almost unanimously by Native Americans as a trickster-like animal, the coyote is said to have the ability to control the weather, specifically rain and storms. And, like so many other trickster entities – such as fairies and goblins - the coyote can be friendly, playful, and helpful. But, and also like all tricksters, the coyote has a dark side: it can be manipulative, deceitful, and even deadly, and as the mood takes it. As for what Native American lore says of the shapeshifting abilities of the coyote, we are told that the animal can take on human form – usually in the guise of a man with a large mustache. Coyotes are said to be able to transform into the forms of birds, fish and cats. Also according to Native American mythology, witches and those familiar with magical rituals can transform themselves into coyotes. Thus, a coyote seen running wildly late at night may well be a shapeshifting witch or wizard, embarking on some dark and disturbing mission.

And we are far from being done with the coyote and its skills as a shapeshifter. There is a longstanding tradition among Native Americans that the coyote will stalk hunters in the woods and on the plains. Then, when it closes in on its victim, the coyote will supernaturally shed its coat, which it quickly throws over its quarry. It is this action that allows the coyote to shapeshift into the exact appearance of its victim. Typically, legend suggests, this is done to allow the animal to have sex with the wife of the victim – coyotes, in folklore, having a particular liking for women. While many people might relegate such accounts to the domain of legend, the matter of shapeshifting and coyotes continues in the world of today. Moving on: 

“Ronda” is a woman I met with in the early summer of 2007. At the time, she was living in Amarillo, Texas, specifically in Amarillo, located in the Lone Star State’s famous Panhandle. Ronda had a very curious story to relate concerning an encounter she had in Palo Duro Canyon - or Palo Duro State Park, as it is also known. It is a huge canyon located very close to Amarillo. In 1874, a violent battle occurred in the canyon that involved the forces of the U.S. Army – under the control of Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie – and the indigenous Kiowa and Comanche Native Americans. The latter two groups suffered badly: many of them were killed and in excess of 1,000 of their horses were shot dead. According to Ronda, only a very short time before we had an initial telephone chat, she and her daughter had a very odd experience while picnicking in the heart of the canyon. The pair was having a fun time – that is, until a sense of being spied on overwhelmed them. Their instincts proved to be correct.

Not far away was a huge, black dog which stared at them intently. It appeared to be a normal dog, but there was something about it that gave both mother and daughter shivers. As if on cue, the animal suddenly started to bark furiously and growled in savage fashion. And then it moved towards them. That was not a good development. As the huge hound got closer, they could see that there was something very strange about its eyes: they emanated a silvery glow. Bizarrely, the dog seemed to be walking slightly above the ground; almost as if it were floating – which is what the two women concluded is exactly what happened. Then, came the most amazing, and frightening, part of the confrontation: the large dog transformed into an equally large black cat. The two, hardly surprisingly, fled the area and watched with mouths agape as the animal vanished before their eyes.

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 always our friends. They are not always here to help us; even if they assure us they are. And, sometimes, we should avoid them at all costs. On other occasions, though, Shapeshifters can be friendly. But, I would suggest that if you go looking for Shapeshifters, be careful. Very, very careful.

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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