Over the last few months there has been something of a folk panic in Yorkshire, northern England, following reported sightings of an eight-foot werewolf with a very human face.
The werewolf “Old Stinker”, also known as “The Beast of Barmston Drain” is not a recent phenomenon – it was first reported in the 18th century. But these sightings – concentrated around the town of Hull – are especially intriguing considering that English folklore is rather barren of werewolf stories. Most wolves were extirpated from England under the Anglo-Saxon kings and so ceased to be an object of dread to the people (though wolves did in fact survive in the UK up until the 1500s). So what could be behind these new werewolf sightings?
In literature, accounts of lycanthropy – humans transforming into werewolves – can be traced back to the epic of Gilgamesh in 2100BC, whereas wolf fables begin with Aesop’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which was written at some point between 620 and 520 BC. Voluntary lycanthropy does appear from time to time – Virgil’s Eclogues are thought to be the first such account (42-39 BC), but becoming a werewolf is more commonly seen as “a curse” or a sign of bestiality, or at worst of cannibalism.
Most people have heard of witchcraft trials but werewolf trials are less well known – and those who were executed in werewolf trials in 16th and 17th-century France were believed to have a taste for human flesh. But these cannibalistic fears died down with the rise of psychoanalysis in the 19th century, when lycanthropy came to more commonly represent the “beast within” or everything animal that we have repressed in terms of our human nature.
History, then, provides us with two possible answers as to why people might think they’ve spotted werewolves in the English countryside. The first is a fear of violence, manifesting in anxieties around cannibalism. The second is a return of the repressed (perhaps the population of Hull are having a particularly Freudian spell?).
Needless to say, I cannot support these theories. I would argue instead that the answer lies in our cultural understanding of the werewolf and its connection to our native wolves. By reconsidering these primal links, we can begin to understand why people think they see werewolves – and this is pertinent to the appearance of Old Stinker himself.
It is important to consider the werewolf as the spectre brother or shadow self of the wolf and to perceive the history of lycanthropy as being inextricably bound up with humankind’s treatment of wolves. For example, the case of Peter Stumpf, who was executed in Germany for being a werewolf in 1589, gained much noteriety in 16th-century Britain. It is notable that this interest corresponds with the extinction of the wolf in England in the 1500s.
Back to today. In 2015 the Open Graves, Open Minds project hosted the first international conference on werewolves at the University of Hertfordshire. This research drew attention to attempts to rewild the wolf in the UK and scholars began to question what would happen if wolves returned to our forests, as was prominent in associated media reports.
Our collaborations with the UK Wolf Trust generated further discussions around the possibility of rewilding large species in Britain including wolves and lynx. It is in this climate that new sightings of the Hull werewolf had begun to appear.
In July of this year newspapers reported that Old Stinker was terrorising women with his human face and very, very, bad breath (hence his name). The two most recent sightings were reported on in August: “Woman met eight-foot werewolf with human face” proclaimed the Metro newspaper. A full-scale werewolf hunt ensued after Old Stinker was spotted prowling an industrial estate. The werewolf had apparently eaten a German Shepherd dog and was seen leaping over fences like a modern day Spring-Heeled Jack (the folk devil that plagued Victorian London).
Importantly, Old Stinker supposedly inhabits a landscape that is thought to have seen some of the last UK wolves. So the emergence of the Hull werewolf can reopen debates about the spectre werewolf’s relationship to the flesh and blood wolf. This coincides with a phase of severe environmental damage. It has not taken the form of sudden catastrophe, but rather a slow grinding away of species. The result is a landscape constituted more actively by what is missing than by what is present, a “spectred”, rather than “a sceptered isle”. He represents not only a nation’s belief in him as a supernatural shapeshifter, but its collective guilt at the extinction of an entire indigenous species of wolf.
Far from dismissing the myth, my instincts are to embrace it and see it as a response to our cultural memory around what humans did to wolves.
The Old Stinker story tells us that belief in werewolves lives on beyond the actual lives of the wolves that were thought to inspire them. Rather than being dismissed as a rather fishy tale, Old Stinker can activate the wolf warrior in all of us and allow us to lament the last wolves that ran free in English forests. Far from being a curse, he is a gift: he can initiate rewilding debates and redeem the big bad wolf that filled our childhood nightmares, reminding us that it is often humans, not wolves or the supernatural, that we should be afraid of.