In France, where the loup-garou (“werewolf”) lived among the superstitious, one such creature wreaked horror on residents of the western Gévaudan district during 1764 and 1765, and on to 1767. Approximately a hundred people were killed, while many others were injured to varying degrees. In return, soldiers and professional hunters pursued La Bête Féroce (“The Ferocious Beast”), killing more than a hundred wolves—perhaps twice that—in the process. At least two different slain animals were said to have been the very Beast itself.
One was identified as a large gray wolf 80 centimeters (31 inches) high; the other was more mysterious. It was shot by a man named Jean Chastel who reportedly encountered it while praying, then finished his prayer before dispatching it with a silver bullet through the heart. Despite such romantic motifs from folklore and fiction, Chastel did parade about a dead creature that, unfortunately, began to decompose and was subsequently buried. Later a taxidermist at France’s National Museum of Natural History, in Paris, learned that a stuffed specimen of a very similar description had been in the museum’s collection from 1766 to 1818, and was positively identified as a striped hyena.
I reported this in my new book Tracking the Man-Beasts (2011, pp. 111-12), having begun to research the Béast of Gévaudan in 2008 for Animal Planet’s Lost Tapes series. (I was a consultant and on-camera interviewee—as a skeptical cryptozoologist—for three seasons, 2008-10.) Here I add to my previous, too-brief, discussions on the Beast.
The fact is, the Gévaudan attacks—like many others of the era—clearly sparked a bout of psychological contagion—that is, a period of spreading excitement that can result in misperceptions, runaway imaginations, and hoaxes. Moreover, some European “werewolf” attacks even turned out be the work of psychotic murderers.
Nevertheless, there were real animal attacks in the Gévaudan. Although some descriptions of the predator suggest a striped hyena, that remains only a remote possibility: a far-ranging animal from Asia Minor or an escaped specimen from a menagerie—neither very likely. The most probable explanation of the Gévaudan killings is what Richard H. Thompson calls “the Two-or-More-Wolves Theory”—coupled with eyewitness error and faulty reportage. (See Thompson’s Wolf-Hunting in France in the Reign of Louis XV: The Beast of Gévaudan, 1991, 250. See also the classic work by Abbé Pourcher, Histoire de la Bête du Gévaudan, 1889 [English translation by Derek Brockis, 2006], and Jay M. Smith’s scholarly Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, 2011.)
I will be placing La Bête in the context of Louisiana’s evolved Cajun legends of the loup-garou—and discussing ghosts, vampires and more—when I speak on one of my panels, “Superstitions and Hauntings,” at CSI’s big, big event, “CSICON New Orleans 2011,” October 27-30. Register now at www.csiconference.org or phone toll-free 1-800-458-1366. I hope to see you there! Bring a copy of Tracking the Man-Beasts (available on Amazon.com)—or buy a copy there—and I’ll be happy to autograph it for you!