From under my cozy Roy Rodgers blanket, I stared with one eye open and the other squeezed shut as Michael Landon changed into a werewolf right there in black and white. I was terrified. The movie, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, was televised by a program called Creature Features (the host dressed up as a different monster every single Saturday night), and it aired after professional wrestling when I was a boy. My parents granted permission for this late-night TV because it was not a school night, and they knew I would never stay awake long enough.
That flickering image, Landon changing into a monster in front of his high school, changed me and led to a now long fascination with shapeshifting creatures: wolves, vampires, bats, snakes, lions, jaguars, leopards, crocodiles and tigers. Oh my! From I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I moved on to the classic wolfman films with Lon Chaney Jr. (still my favorite werewolf though David Naughton in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is a close second) but then in high school I discovered how serious all this shapeshifting was. In Histories by Herodotus, there are numerous accounts of men turning themselves into wolves, and no one giggles at Herodotus.
Shapeshifting, shape-shifting or shape shifting is a process where a human changes into another entity or is changed by some outward process with the result being an altered state. There is shapeshifting in nature. Caterpillars become moths. Snakes shed their skin to become larger or different colors. Octopi can change to match their environment. Hard science is able to offer up endless example, and I am certain you can think of others. But can a human change into something else? In 1983, a Jaguar shaman living in a small forest village along the Rio Napo in Ecuador entered into my dreams after ample fireside ayahuasca and led me on a run through the jungle. That dream of running and hunting was so vivid that I can still remember smells and sensations. But did I shapeshift? Did the shaman shapeshift? In 2000, in Nepal, an old man, who lived in Royal Bardia National Park carefully and patiently explained to me how a man changes into a tiger, and how a tigerman could drive away evil spirits that drift along the nearby river hunting for innocent souls in the night. That man, who knew nothing about teenage werewolves or Herodotus, believed what he told me. You could see it in his eyes.
The Beast of Gévaudan is the name given to a werewolf that terrorized the departments of Lozère and Haute-Loire in France. From 1764 to 1767, the Margeride Mountains were the hunting ground for this formidable beast that killed its victims by tearing out their throats. There were 210 attacks resulting in 113 known deaths. Church records note that the Beast consumed 98 of its victims. In late 1767, witnesses gave accounts of the Beast traveling with a smaller female then the pair faded from history and into legend. The identity of the creature remains shrouded in mystery.
The Njombe man-eaters hunted western Tanzania between Selous National Park and the border with Zambia and Malawi, and this spree is the origin for my novel Dominion. In 1932, a missionary humiliated the local witchdoctor with dramatic consequence. The witchdoctor named Matamula Mangera, shapeshifted into a lion then gathered a pride of real lions that preferred human flesh and soon became the most prolific man-eaters in Africa’s history. Some of the dead had body parts removed, forcing local tribesmen to admit that the lions were trophy taking. In all, more than 2000 people went missing with the killers hunting mainly in the afternoon then dragging their victims to a new location using relays that at times stretched more than 20 miles. In despair, the chief convinced the missionary to apologize (I bet that was a pointed conversation) and once Matamula Mangera’s pride and position were restored, a British game warden named George Rushby was able to kill the pride of 15 real lions and order was restored.
Now here we are in the modern world, and surely, those things never happened or could happen though it is comforting to see that America is still in love with shapeshifting. Twilight series star, Taylor Lautner has replaced Landon but the tradition is alive and well. But is all this real? Can a human change into something else. My answer is, yes. I have seen it in person and what I witnessed terrified me.
Just for fun, here is the link to the YouTube trailer for the 1957 classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf starring Bonanza’s Little Joe Cartwright. Enjoy.