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Werewolf vs. Dogman: the evolution of the American wolfman

Settled by both the French and British in the 17th century, Maine has an extensive history of werewolf encounters. These tales of the “loup garou” appeared with the arrival of the French Acadians in the earliest days of European settlement, with few werewolf accounts originating from British settlers. These first settlers and immigrating Quebecois brought this terrifying creature of the night with them from the old country and it has prowled the night here ever since. Witchcraft and dealings with the devil were the most frequent causes of a person becoming a werewolf. But lycanthropy was also inflicted as a punishment from God on people seriously neglecting their religious obligations or committing terrible sins such as cannibalism. But whatever the cause, the werewolf’s existence was considered a matter of fact by many people of French descent in New England up until the 20th century.

Most early loup garou stories in Maine involved the werewolf turning into a large, typically black, wolf and roaming the night stealing farm animals, scaring or attacking people, digging up bodies at cemeteries, and doing other devilish work. These terrifying creatures were formidable and were said to feed upon souls. As a result people never purposely confronted them for fear of death or losing their own soul. However, if a werewolf itself was injured and bloodied, it would always be forced to retreat, soon returning to human form, now recognizable by their injury. Other times people would suspect the werewolf’s identity and later confront them while in human form. This confrontation would often cause the person to flee the area suddenly, and was taken as a confirmation of guilt. Accounts of loup garou encounters were well known in logging camps and in French communities and numerous stories and legends are preserved in French and English books, articles, and folklore records.

The First onscreen wolfman, Werewolf in London, Universal Studios, 1935

Sometime in the 20th century, the loup garou (and its Cajun descendant, the rougarou) and other American werewolves began to take on a new form, the wolf-man. Prior to this period the werewolf transformation was nearly always into a giant canine wolf form. This change in people’s conception and observation of werewolves coincided with a change in how werewolves were portrayed in books and film. In the 1920s and 1930s, as America became increasingly urbanized, film, magazines, and books began to significantly replace oral storytelling as a primary means for conveying cultural tales. It was during this time that popular pulp fiction began to describe werewolves increasingly as an anthropomorphic wolf-human hybrid monster which walks on two legs. In 1935, Universal Studios popularized this form of transformation with the release of “Werewolf in London”. This horror film was the first to feature an onscreen transformation of the werewolf into a hairy wolf-man creature rather than simply into a wolf. At the time it was criticized as being highly influenced by the transformations shown in the 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” rather than traditional werewolf folklore. Yet the transformation was complete, with the hybrid wolf-man becoming dominant in the popular consciousness of America over the full wolf. Many other familiar “traditional” concepts about werewolves also became common during this era, including that the bite of a werewolf caused the affliction to be spread, that werewolves can only be harmed by silver, and that the transformation only occurs during the full moon. None of these elements are commonly found in werewolf legends or accounts prior to this time.

The next great transformation in werewolf lore occurred with the emergence of the so-called “dogman” species. Like the traditional werewolf, dogmen are terrifying and large human-canine hybrids capable of walking on two legs or four. Dogman primarily differs from werewolves in that these creatures are not supernatural and do not transform. Instead they are said to be a true biological species, albeit officially unknown to science, and cryptozoological in nature. The name and concept of dogman was introduced in the 1987 song "The Legend" by Steve Cook, a Traverse City, Michigan radio producer for WTCM-FM. This song was written as an on-air April Fool’s Day prank. According to Cook, the creator, the song lyrics were written in 20 minutes and are completely fictitious. However, after the release of the song, listeners began calling in reporting sightings of the Michigan Dogman. (Listen here to an archive of the history of the song by Steve Cook himself.) While the song itself details several dogman encounters, one dating back to 1887, prior to the song’s creation and release and the subsequent reports of sightings there were in fact no reports of a dogman species existing. After the song’s release, many previous accounts of werewolves were reinterpreted as dogman encounters, including the Beast of Bray Road sightings in neighboring Wisconsin, which began in 1936, just one year after the release of “Werewolf in London”. Today many books and blogs have been devoted to cataloging accounts of dogman encounters and comparatively few accounts exist of modern werewolf encounters. Unlike werewolves, reports of dogman encounters rarely include direct attacks on humans, mostly presenting the creatures as only threatening humans who have invaded their territories. A terrifying but ultimately harmless dogman encounter occurred to a family in Palmyra, Maine in 2007. The family was held hostage in their home overnight by a pack of five dogmen and a 2013 episode of SyFy’s “Paranormal Witness” (The Wolf Pack: Season 3, Episode 9) recreated their experience. Despite some creative liberties producers added to the dramatization, it is well worth watching.

This shift from the violent attacks of werewolves to an undiscovered animal behaving in more normal biological ways, highlights society’s transition from a belief in a world ruled by inexplicable supernatural forces to one governed by the laws of science. In cryptozoology circles, dogmen are generally considered to be more popular and believable than werewolves. Cryptid enthusiasts explain that because no known biological species has the ability to shapeshift back and forth between species types, this supernatural ability makes the werewolf seem an impossibility from a scientific viewpoint. Alternatively, to many cryptozoologists, an undiscovered canine-humanoid race of top predators seems more biologically plausible. The brevity of most encounters with creatures such as these makes evidence of their existence scarce, but this also makes it difficult to disprove their existence as a species. Additionally, some dogmen proponents believe that a conspiracy exists in which the government suppresses evidence of cryptids including dogmen, often mysteriously erasing digital images of this creature from phones, computers, and across the internet. Some conspiracists further claim that dogmen are an experimental creation of the government and are a genetic recombination between humans and dogs or wolves. Still others propose that dogmen are a race of aliens or multidimensional beings able to cross dimensions humans are unable to perceive.

Despite the growing popularity of the dogman among cryptid enthusiasts, outside of these communities, few people are familiar with dogmen. Most people still think wolf-men to be shapeshifters, just as countless generations of Europeans and early Americans did. Popular fiction, horror, and Hollywood films also continue to portray the werewolf as a transforming creature. An increasing number of storytellers classify transforming wolfmen as a separate race or as an inherited trait with which some humans are born. Notably, the Shapeshifters in the “Twilight” series (2005) and the Garou in the tabletop roleplaying game “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” (1992) both portray werewolves as a species or race unto themselves and not a supernatural curse.

While its name and traits have evolved, the ferocious wolf-man has been an important part of the European ancestral worldview for thousands of years. Werewolves came with the earliest settlers when they arrived in America and they have been with us ever since. As a story and a symbol, the werewolf represents our struggle to control the darker, more dangerous, beast-like elements of our own inner natures. The werewolf haunts us in dark and lonely places, a monster that threatens to consume our humanity and turns ordinary people into fearsome predators, something all too real for some. If nothing else, the stories make us think about our humanity and our vulnerability. It also reminds us to have a wary respect for the night and wild places, where these creatures find refuge.

But with thousands of years of reported encounters with werewolves and hundreds of reported wolf-man encounters occurring in America in just the past two decades surely something more than a story is out there. As a professional science educator and former field biologist, it seems very unlikely that wolf-men creatures are an undiscovered species of huge predatory canine. The population requirements to sustain a healthy widespread population, and the nutrition needs of such a creature make it incredibly unlikely that such a species could exist undetected in the United States. It seems far more likely that if we share the world with undiscovered beings it is because they are supernatural beings with special abilities or traits that make them difficult or impossible to detect with ordinary scientific methods. With this in mind, the transforming werewolf seems more likely to exist than the cryptozoological dogman.

Furthermore, literally all peoples across the world once believed that we share the world with supernatural, spiritual, and magical beings like the werewolf. Many still do. People across the world have believed in these non-ordinary elements of reality for far, far longer than modern science has existed. These supernatural beings and elements of the world were (and are) by all accounts important and real to them. Their lives depended on their understanding of tangible nature. Yet science and most modern thinkers are quick to dismiss this vast pool of evidence as primitive, fanciful, and otherwise false. As a scientist myself, it seems to me unlikely that all cultures were deluded about the existence of such beings when their intimate working understanding of the world was literally a matter of life or death. Even today, traditional people’s knowledge of the world routinely leads to new medicines and new understandings of the world. Science is always expanding its boundaries of our understanding of the world. Perhaps someday we will discover that some of these supernatural beings that humanity has believed in forever are less “super” and more “natural” than current science gives them credit for. After all, modern science only became the dominant worldview very recently.

But no matter what science says, the werewolf is here to stay. It is firmly planted in our collective psyche and we will continue to tell stories of this monster and to look for it and find it in the world around us. We will fear being eaten by it when we are alone, we will fear becoming it if things go horribly wrong. No matter what science might say, it does not change the reality that exists in our mind and our culture. We inherently understand the world is full of unknown mystery more fully than we understand the scientific truth of e=mc2. And each of us can feel that the world is full of transforming magic just waiting to be discovered far easier than we can sense that the Earth is hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour as it orbits around the Sun. Science cannot prove love but it is real, and so are the mysteries your ancestors spoke about - and some, unfortunately, might just be monsters like the werewolf. So remember, be careful out there, take care of each other, and always tell your story.

If you like reading about mysterious and mythical creatures that inhabit Maine, check out “Mythical Creatures of Maine: Fantastic Beasts from Legend and Folklore.” In it you will find details on over 40 magical and cryptozoological creatures found in Maine through its history and across all the cultures that have called it home. From the Wabanaki Native Americans to modern day cryptozoology this book will introduce you to the mysterious creatures Maine has to offer.

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