Monday, October 31, 2011

Memoirs of a Monster Hunter

In honor of Halloween, we take a walk with Nick Redfern and hear the story of the Beast of Bray Road which appeared in Chapter 4: Fangs, Fur, and Files of his book Memoirs of a Monster Hunter.

For reasons that have always eluded me, and for as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with strange animals, and particularly with werewolves. When the other little kids at school were reading the British equivalents of Nancy Drew- and Hardy Boys-style adventures, I was deeply engrossed in the study of all things lycanthropic, including learning how to summon up demonic werewolf-style entities from the Underworld, and even how to transform oneself into a salivating, hairy beast borne of a full moon. That never worked, however. In Three Men Seeking Monsters, I revealed the rich history of centuries-long sightings of werewolves in Britain, and detailed my own encounter with such a beast in August 2002, when, in the throes of “sleep paralysis,” I received a visitation from some nightmarish, wolf-like creature that growled and snarled menacingly as it made its ominous way down the corridor to our bedroom. After a tumultuous struggle on my part to wake up, the beast vanished amidst an overpowering stench of brimstone. I decided to cut back on my daily quota of whisky after that. Well, for a while anyway.

And when I learned in early 2003 that a respected journalist was researching a sighting in Wisconsin of a weird, werewolf-like entity that was apparently, and somewhat startlingly, the subject of an official file with the local authorities, I knew that this was a story I had to get my teeth into (or perhaps claws would be a better term, considering the circumstances). Armed with trusty tape-recorder, pen and pad, and a .357 Magnum loaded with silver-tipped bullets (okay, I confess, the latter might be a bit of artistic license), I set off on a quest to uncover the truth about the Wisconsin werewolf and the woman who was about to bring the beast’s infamy to the American public, Linda S. Godfrey.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Godfrey, an author and journalist, was raised in Milton and currently resides with her husband in rural Elkhorn. Godfrey is a professional cartoonist, teacher, and writer whose newspaper articles have garnered several awards, including a first place feature story from the National Newspaper Association in 1995 and 1998. But it was her book, The Beast of Bray Road, and her time as Wisconsin’s very own unofficial werewolf hunter, that has put her at the forefront of one of the strangest stories of modern times.

“Linda,” I began, “What is the background to the story of the Beast of Bray Road?”

She replied: “The story first came to my attention in about 1991 from a woman who had heard that there were rumors going around here in Elkhorn, and particularly in the high school, that people had been seeing something like a werewolf, a wolf-like creature, or a wolf-man. They didn’t really know what it was. But some were saying it was a werewolf. And the werewolf tag has just got used because I think that people really didn’t know what else to call it. And these days you have so much Hollywood influence that it colors your thinking about your observations. So when anybody sees something that’s an out-of-place animal, you get those images.”

“And I guess it attracted your journalistic mind, too?” I wanted to know.

“Well, I started checking it out,” Linda explained. “I talked about it with the editor at The Week newspaper here, and which I used to work for. He said:, ‘Why don’t you check around a little bit and see what you hear?’ This was about the end of December. And being a weekly newspaper that I worked for, we weren’t really hard news; we were much more feature oriented. So I asked a friend who had a daughter in high school and she said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what everybody’s talking about.’ So, I started my investigations and got one name from the woman who told me about it. She was also a part-time bus driver.”

“And what did she tell you?” I asked.

“In my first phone call to the bus-driver, she told me that she had called the County Animal Control Officer. So, of course, when you’re a reporter, anytime you have a chance to find anything official that’s where you go. I went out to see him and, sure enough, he had a folder in his file draw that he had actually marked Werewolf, in a tongue-in-cheek way.”

I laughed. “That’s kind of surreal.”

Linda was careful to state: “Well, it wasn’t, by any means, that he believed it was a werewolf; but people had been phoning in to him to say that they’d been seeing something. They didn’t know what it was. But from their descriptions, that’s what he had put. So, of course that made it a news story. When you have a public official, the County Animal Control Officer, who has a folder marked Werewolf, that’s news.” She added perceptively, “It was very unusual.”

“That must have really kick-started you and the publicity surrounding the mystery.” I offered.

“Yes,” she told me. “It just took off from there and I kept finding more and more witnesses. At first they all wanted to stay private, and I remember talking about it with the editor and we thought we would run the story because it would be over in a couple of weeks. The story was picked up by Associated Press. Once it hit AP, everything broke loose, and people were just going crazy. All the Milwaukee TV stations came out and did stories, dug until they found the witnesses, and got them to change their minds and go on camera, which some of them later regretted. And which I kind of regret—because it really made them reluctant, and kind of hampered the later investigation.”

“Okay,” I said, “so we have the background. But what, exactly, was it that people were reporting seeing?”

Linda’s reply was more than intriguing, to say the least. “They were all mostly saying that they had seen something which was much larger than normal, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four, with a wolfish head. Some described it as a German Shepherd-like head, pointed ears, very long, coarse, shaggy, and wild-looking fur. One thing they all mentioned is that it would turn and look at them and gaze fearlessly or leer at them, and it was at that point that they all got really frightened. Everybody who has seen it—with the exception of one—has been extremely scared because it’s so out of the ordinary. It was something they couldn’t identify and didn’t appear to be afraid of them. It would just casually turn around and disappear into the brush. It was never just out in the open where it didn’t have some sort of hiding place. There was always a cornfield or some brush or some woods. So, that was pretty much the start of it.”

“And it progressed from there big time?” I inquired of Linda.

She responded in the affirmative: “Yes. Once that got out, I started finding other people who called me and got in touch with me and I sort of became the unofficial clearinghouse. And we called it the Beast of Bray Road because I’ve always been reluctant to call it a werewolf. The original sightings were in an area known as Bray Road, which is outside of Elkhorn.”

“What are the theories regarding what the beast might actually be?” I asked her, with mounting interest.

“Everybody seems to have an opinion about this that they are eager to make known and defend,” Linda explained. “I personally don’t think there are enough facts for anybody to come to a conclusion. I have a couple of dozen sightings, at least. A few of them are second-hand and they date back to 1936. And they aren’t all around Bray Road. Quite a number of them are in the next county, Jefferson. I’ve had a woman write me who insists it’s a wolf. And I think a lot of people subscribe to that theory; yes, it’s definitely a wolf and can’t be anything else. But that doesn’t explain the large size. A lone wolf can travel by itself. And there are wolf packs in northwestern Wisconsin. Except this has been seen over so many years.”

I continued the questions: “But that’s not the only theory?”

“There’s another possibility: I think a lot of these people are seeing different things. And that when they heard somebody else talk about something, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, that must be what I saw.’ There’s really no way to know. And there are differences in some of the sightings. I’ve had people ask me, ‘Are you sure this isn’t Bigfoot?’ Most of the sightings really don’t sound like what people report as Bigfoot. But a couple of them do. There’s one man who saw it in the 1960s in a different area of the county, who insists positively that he saw a Bigfoot, but he doesn’t want anyone saying he saw a werewolf. And the terrain around here isn’t really the typical sort of Bigfoot terrain of forests where people usually report these things. We do have woods and a big state forest; but it’s a narrow band of forest. It’s a lot of prairie and is not what you would think a Bigfoot would live in. But you never know. I’ve also had the baboon theory, which I find extremely unlikely.”

“And I’m sure there are almost as many theories as witnesses,” I commented.

“We’ve had all sorts of theories: mental patients escaping or some crazy guy running around. A hoaxer is another theory; that it’s somebody running around in a werewolf suit. One or two could have been that but I tend to have my doubts about that [theory] because the incidents are very isolated and not close together. One of the sightings was on Halloween, but that’s also one of the people that got a really good look at it and they’re sure it wasn’t a human in a costume. Otherwise, most of them have been really in remote locations where, if you were going to hoax, the person would have to have been sitting out there in the cold just waiting for somebody to come along. So if it is a hoaxer, my hat’s off to them. But I tend not to think that’s the case. I don’t rule it out completely because once publicity gets out, things like that can happen.”

“Are all the reports of a single creature or has it been seen in pairs or packs?” I asked Linda.

She thought upon her answer for a moment, then replied, “The only report—and it’s a second-hand report—came from two hunters quite a bit farther north who saw what looked like two ‘dog children’ standing up in the woods. They were too scared to shoot when they saw them. They were not tall; they were juvenile looking, standing upright, which is what scared them. But otherwise it’s a single creature.”

Then I posed the inevitable question in a situation such as this: “Is there a tie-in with the werewolf legends about these creatures being seen when the moon is full?”

“Well, most of the sightings I receive aren’t recent, and so people can’t remember too well what the moon was like. But most of the sightings occur around the fall when the cornfields get big and there’s really good hiding cover. So that’s anywhere from late August through November. And I’ve had some sightings from the spring. But there are other theories as well for what is going on.”

Linda continued: “Occasionally I’ll get letters from people who say they are lycanthropes themselves and their theory is that this is an immature, real werewolf and it cannot control its transformation and that’s why it allows itself to be seen occasionally. They are completely convinced of that. And there are people who believe it’s a manifestation of satanic forces, that it’s a part of a demonic thing. They point to various occult activities around here. There are also people who try to link it to UFOs. Then there’s the theory that it’s just a dog. One woman, a medium, thought that it was a natural animal but didn’t know what it was. And there are a lot of people out here that do wolf-hybridizations, and I’ve thought to myself you’d get something like that. But that doesn’t explain the upright posture. Then there’s the theory that it’s a creature known as the Windigo or Wendigo, which is featured in Indian legends and is supposedly a supernatural creature that lives on human flesh. But none of the descriptions from the Windigo legends describe a creature with canine features.”

“And what, after all of your investigations, have you concluded lies behind the mystery of the Beast of Bray Road?” I asked her.

“Well, part of the angle of the book is looking at this as a sociological phenomenon and how something that a number of people see turns into legend. And it has become that, a little bit. Personally, I’m still happy to leave it an open mystery; I don’t have a feeling that it has to be pinned down.”

“With the publication of The Beast of Bray Road, do you feel that you work is now over and—regardless of whether or not the mystery has been conclusively resolved—you can move on?”

Linda responded with a laugh in her voice: “I don’t think people will let me move on. I thought I would have moved on eight years ago but people still continue to contact me and I try to help them as much as I can.” As time progressed, in the wake of the publication of her book, Linda continued to receive countless reports of the beast. Indeed, in 2005 she produced a follow-up title: Hunting the American Werewolf. I was delighted when Linda asked me to write an introduction for the book, which, in my mind, is the finest study of North American lycanthropes. I stay in touch with Linda to this day and, sure enough, Wisconsin’s very own werewolf hunter is still hard at work, still seeking the diabolical beast, whether physical, paranormal, or satanic, that stalks by both night and day the prairies of rural Wisconsin.

Nick Redfern is the author of many books, including The Real Men in BlackContacteesThe NASA ConspiraciesMemoirsof a Monster Hunter, and the forthcoming Keep Out!

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