Maybe I watch too many zombie movies, but the story of zombie raccoons was just too good to pass up. A story by Marwa Eltagouri in the Washington Post described a spate of recent “zombie raccoon” incidents in eastern Ohio, not far from where I grew up. While the likely explanation is distemper, one of the behaviors of these raccoons stands out—they walk on two feet. Since I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book by Linda Godfrey—who’s made a name writing about anomalous animals in North America, particularly bipedal dogs, or wolves—I found this aspect of the raccoons particularly interesting. That’s the thing, you see. Bipedalism suggests other human-like traits. Think great apes. Or penguins. (Although birds are generally bipedal, they tend to be squat and more horizontally inclined than vertical. The penguin not only dresses for our most formal occasions, but waddles around like many of us do after having been a bit too generous at the dinner table.) But bipedal raccoons—now that’s scary.
As a species Homo sapiens seem to have a need to believe themselves unique. Over the centuries any number of traits have been claimed as unique to us. Bipedalism, the ability to speak, being relatively naked so that we have to wear clothing, being able text with our opposable thumbs—we’re not like other animals. We’re special. So when animals that normally go on all fours walk on two legs we instantly think they’re trying to be like us. They want to have all the rights and privileges of our species so they can elect alt-right leaders and destroy everything they’ve built. Uppity critters! We have trouble reconciling ourselves with our animal origins.
Other animals, it seems, are beginning to note the advantages of walking on their hind legs. I’ve watched enough zombie movies to know that it’s the intention that’s the real problem. They want to be like us. Notice the accounts of bipedal animals—witnesses say there’s something in their eyes. Global domination. Yes, they’ve been watching us and now they want the same things we want. They want to take over the world. I know enough about World War Z to know that you can’t save everyone. Hard choices will have to be made. And maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’ve noticed the bipeds are from red states: the dog-men of Michigan and Wisconsin, the raccoon-men of Ohio. If we can’t save everyone, we need to make wise choices. Why not let them have Washington, DC? They certainly can’t be any worse than what we’ve got there right now.
While reading the Hull Daily Mail (don’t ask), I came across an article entitled “Rock legend Alice Cooper ask questions about the Beast of Barmston Drain.” Apart from that lovable Britishism of making groups into grammatical plurals, this brief article gave me much to wonder about. After all, Paul Simon’s most recent album features a song entitled “The Werewolf,” (about which I recently wrote) and here is another rock performer from my youth raising the question about a similar beastie. According to the piece by Amy Nicholson, the Beast of Barmston Drain is a new urban legend about a creature half-man and half-dog. No doubt, werewolf reported sightings have been in the ascendent over the past few years, but how such an insignificant beast drew the attention of Alice remains unknown.
Many who know me—and those are few—are shocked to learn that I grew up listening to Alice Cooper. A fundie kid listening religiously to the father of shock rock? Songs about monsters, spiders, female maturation, and necrophilia? Perhaps it was because Welcome to My Nightmare just summed my childhood up rather nicely. Whatever the reason, to this day Alice Cooper is the only big name rock act I’ve even seen in concert. And that was only about six years ago, when I was still teaching at Rutgers. I had trouble hearing student’s questions in class on the next Monday night. Alice and werewolves in the same headline feels so much like yesteryear that it makes me want to believe in shapeshifters all over again. No wonder Hull is set to be the City of Culture. (Hey, Glasgow had it’s turn, so fair’s fair.)
To me, werewolves reveal much about a culture that strives to be far too civilized. We suppress our inner animal to become tie-wearing, wine-swilling sophisticates only to wonder where the wonder’s gone. And we start seeing werewolves lurking in culverts and drainage ditches. At least people are getting out at night. I’ve followed American tales of the dogman for years now, reading all of Linda Godfrey’s books on the subject. Even if it doesn’t exist, we stand to learn much of the creature that just won’t go away. Of all the transformations people talk about, that to the wolf is the most compelling, and among the most ancient. It may only be a dogman that people are seeing at the moment, but given some time it will evolve back into the wolf from which the story had its very beginnings. The answers, as always, probably lie in our childhood.
Monsters are becoming more mainstream. Or at least it seems that the ridicule factor, with which I had to deal as a child, has moderated a bit. A friend recently sent me a link to Hog Island Press’s Monsters in America map. No doubt, skeptical persons will dismiss such whimsical charts as a load of hooey, but people continue to see unusual things. Although we don’t subscribe to any television service, it has become clear that ghosts and Bigfoot have become pretty standard fare for reality shows. Lake monsters still make appearances from time to time, and since we aren’t always watching the waters, nobody’s terribly surprised. And who knows what’s flying below the radar at night? People have believed in monsters from the very earliest of times. We, however, live in an age when belief can’t exist without proof, and our world of the plausible has shrunk because of it.
Another problem here is the definition of “monster.” The traditional monster was pure fiction—werewolves, vampires, and zombies simply don’t exist. We tell scary stories about them because it’s fun to be afraid when we know there’s really no such thing. American monsters, on the other hand, are based on eyewitness reports, reliable or not. I grew up literally on the edge of the woods in a rural town and never saw anything cryptozoological in nature. At the same time I learned that it’s difficult to see everything in the woods. I would’ve never guessed, for instance, that the number of deer and bear that were shot each season were only a small representative of their populations. The woods, it seemed, should’ve been much more crowded.
Those who’ve spent time in the woods know that nature doesn’t reveal everything easily. Looking at the Hog Island Press chart, I notice some new creatures (to me) and some surprising omissions. Wisconsin and Michigan, both heavily wooded and (I speak from experience here) areas of strangeness, seem devoid of the creatures so commonly reported. Linda Godfrey has written extensively about the dog-men (or werewolves) not uncommonly reported in both states. I suppose that in making such a map there is an embarrassment of riches. People see things all the time, and urbanites have a difficult time identifying species the naturalist finds, well, natural. One need not be credulous to enjoy the monsters of the natural world. It is fun, in any case, to consider the possibilities, now that monsters have gone mainstream.
In one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.
Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?
Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.
The problem with occasional phenomena is that they are seldom empirically verified. Try as we might, no one has managed to be in the exact place at the exact time on Loch Ness to capture definitive evidence that Nessie exists. Of course, it is very difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. I have a creeping suspicion that not all of reality can be quantified. I’m very glad for the parts that can be, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. I’ve just finished reading Linda Godfrey’s Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America. There—I’ve already lost some of you! We all grow up to learn that there are no such things as werewolves and I’ve experienced many a peaceful night in that knowledge. Nevertheless, many people do report seeing upright wolf-like creatures, and many of the people interviewed by Godfrey appear to be entirely sincere. What makes this intriguing to me is that many of these episodes are reported in a circumscribed area (near which I used to live). While reports come from across the country, it is easier to dismiss one person who saw something odd once than it is to discount many people who see a similar thing over many years in the same general vicinity. That’s why I keep coming back to Godfrey’s books.
Being an open-minded writer, Godfrey also considers possible spiritual explanations for what people see. Shamanistic traditions, in this case particularly Native American ones, do not dismiss transformations from human to animal. It is difficult for most of us to accept that a person could bend the laws of physics and biology—for which we suffered through so many tests in our education—to mutate or mix human DNA into or with lupine stock. Indeed, it takes the faith of the world of religion to believe that. And yet, people see beasts.
We have been in the process of sealing the borders to our universe since the Enlightenment. The vaster our universe becomes the smaller the realm of possibilities grows. But we haven’t even explored all of our own little planet yet. The deep-sea trenches remain largely out of our reach, and the sheer volume of the oceans boggles the imagination. Even on land, we can’t watch every place all the time. The possibility of getting to somewhere truly remote is frequently an optimistic illusion. At times with my wife’s family I’ve ventured to places so far from civilization that freedom truly feels palpable. And as we hike down some neglected trail, talking to alert the grizzlies to our presence, nearly always we end up encountering others out here to escape from the likes of us. Yet a whole lot of the woods remain off-trail. It’s not a small world after all. And it’s October. Who’s to say there’s not the occasional werewolf out tonight?
Spend a leisurely hour at your local commercial bookstore and you won’t be able to avoid seeing vampires. Just yesterday I noticed that a neighborhood bookstore had an entire section entitled “Teen Paranormal.” Zombies also continue to grow in popularity, now having their own line of undead Christmas products. And where is the humble werewolf? Not gone, just lurking in the shadows.
This weekend I finished the third werewolf book by my one-time co-Wisconsinist, Linda S. Godfrey. (She’s still there, but I’m not.) Lest any of my readers think I am casually lumping her work together with the fictional fantasy monsters, I must declare up front that The Michigan Dogman is not a work of fiction. Linda is a careful researcher, a former journalist, and a woman who possesses something many researchers lose over the years: an open mind. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they are almost impossible to test in any empirical kind of way. Since even before the Beast of Bray Road story broke in 1992 occasional reports of bipedal canines had stumbled into the news once in a while, causing headline-happy journalists to push the werewolf button. Underneath the current monster hype, however, is an intriguing question of origins.
Where do all these similar stories originate? While not even close to the number of reported Bigfoot sightings, the dogman/manwolf sightings that Linda has pulled together are impressive for their overall uniformity. Witnesses who’d never heard of the creature repeatedly report fine details that mesh with accounts of individuals otherwise unconnected. The standard answers of hoaxes and misidentifications just don’t cover the three volumes worth of material she had compiled. Few would stand by the assertion that these are shapeshifting humans, but for those with an open mind the werewolf trilogy gives pause (paws?).
The universe is large beyond human comprehension. Simply because we’ve evolved very complex brains doesn’t mean we’ve found all the answers. I’ve never seen a werewolf or any other popular cryptid. But having studied the strange world of religion all my life, I know better than to declare, ex cathedra, that very strange things cannot exist.
It’s the fall of the year when an old man’s thoughts turn to werewolves. Not that I’ve ever believed there were such creatures, but they do have a pedigree in ancient religious ideas, and even today skin-walkers play a role in some Native American traditions. While I lived in Wisconsin I found out about the Beast of Bray Road, a cryptid that is seen on occasion south of Nashotah, where I lived. Unfortunately I learned about the beastie too late to make any attempts to see it, but the documentation of the creature is in good hands with local author Linda Godfrey.
When I moved to New Jersey, scrabbling for a living tended to outweigh concerns about werewolves. Nevertheless, I did hear of an odd account in a south Jersey newspaper from 1925. According to the Woodbury Daily Times (now defunct), a farmer in Greenwich, south of Camden, shot an up-right hopping, dog-like creature that had twice raided his chicken coop early on a December morning in 1925. According to the paper, hundred of people went to view the unidentified animal and some even photographed it. Now, 85 years later, the story is barely remembered. Was this just another gun-toting Philadelphia suburbanite shooting an annoying dog, or had a “werewolf” passed through New Jersey all those many years ago? Periodically accounts of dogs running on hind legs are posted by late-night drivers in the Garden State, but no photographs or other evidence ever seems to be forthcoming.
Werewolves are less about monsters than they are about struggling with inner conflict, according to many psychologists. Our animal nature, deeply sublimated, sometimes makes a ferocious bid for freedom and otherwise sane individuals believe themselves to have turned into wolves. When I look at my crazy employment history, somehow I can relate. Some day I hope to transform into a fully employed academic or editor who has a steady income and an appreciative employer. My chances of seeing a werewolf, however, may be slightly better. I think I’ll head to Greenwich to poke around a bit, but I’m going to wait for a full moon, Friday the 13th, or a full-time job – whichever comes first.