The Beast of Gevaudan
Welcome on this Weird Wednesday! Today we’re taking a (rather ill-advised) stroll in the French woods of 1764, looking for history’s most well-documented werewolf.
With a body count of up to 113, the Beast of Gevaudan terrorized France for three years. Occasionally hunters, many sent by the king, would slay the wolf and display its body as proof— and then more people would be killed. It’s thought the creature was finally dispatched by a hunter named Jean Chastel in 1767.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually unusual at the time for people working in fields and tending cattle to be killed by wolves. But the Gevaudan attacks were especially frequent, and thus sparked some supernatural rumors. The wolf was said to be as big as a horse, strangely colored, and sometimes walked on two legs. It could be seen in two places at once and it appeared to defy multiple attempts to kill it.
I think it’s important to point out here that things like so-called “mass hysteria” and the spreading of frightening rumors are perfectly natural human reactions to terrifying phenomena with no easy explanation. Yes, this was undoubtedly the work of normal wolves. But here we are hundreds of years later, still telling stories about it.
Today we are going to look at the main theories about the Beast of Gevaudan, and provide some writing prompts for anyone looking to keep the story going.
- The Big Bad Wolf. We’re going to jump right in with the most plausible explanation for Gevaudan— it was a wolf, or pack(s) of wolves. There are a couple of ways to go if you’re looking to linger on the logical in your writing: a series of fatal attacks by wolves could lend a stressor to a historical novel about the lives and loves of people in the affected area (as in Jaws— the book more than the movie). You could also write an environmentally-focused tale of human encroachment on wolf territory, or a political thriller about the hunters sent by the king to do away with the beast.
- The Big Badass Wolf. Okay, yes, everybody’s here for werewolf prompts. We’re going to start with paranormal romance. Werewolf romances have a lot of the same tropes as those with vampires: you’ve got a cursed hero (gender neutral), a human lover, a specific way to die (blessed and/or silver bullets for werewolves) and an unnatural thirst for blood/tendency to choose violence when dealing with minor inconveniences. You can even throw in a bit of immortal-falling-for-a-mortal if you like. Specific to Gevaudan, you could write a love triangle (or thruple) with the werewolf, a local villager, and one of the soldiers sent to hunt the wolf. Or a werewolf might accidentally turn their lover into a wolf as well and must deal with the guilt.
If romance is not the main driver of your plot (because you are no fun), you could focus on a town where there’s a lot of local love for lycanthropy. Who’s to say a village didn’t create or even just hire a werewolf to go after its enemies? And how rude of the king to send hunters to interfere! What if one of the king’s soldiers is also a werewolf but he’s never had werewolf friends to explain to him how it works or that he doesn’t need to slaughter people if he doesn’t want to? (Or maybe he wants to.) What if all the villagers are werewolves? Maybe they’re travelers from another dimension or werewolf planet and they’re stranded in the French woods trying to pretend that they are Very Normal, thank you.
- Hound of the Baskervilles. Spoilers: in Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale, the Hound is actually a hound, with some enhancements. This type of plot revolves around a person trying to fake supernatural attacks with a natural creature. At Gevaudan, there were suggestions that the Beast might be a dog wearing a lion skin or armored boar hide. It could also be a dog/wolf hybrid, or just a really, really big dog. There are many possible motivations for the human in charge of this creature: causing chaos and murdering random victims, terrorizing and/or murdering specific people, giving credence to supernatural beliefs about werewolves, or killing the beast and getting credit for saving the town. You could also go the mad science route, where somebody cooks up a werewolf in the lab.
* Escapist fiction. It’s possible the Beast of Gevaudan was not a wolf or dog, but another large creature, like a hyena or lion. Local zoos would have been private, so who knows what people were keeping? Obviously, once the killing started, the owner would have taken down the lost pet posters, so nobody owned up to owning the beast. People were not expecting to see anything other than local creatures in the woods, and they might not have had much familiarity with lions anyway, so it would probably make sense for them to call it a “wolf.” As for plots, there’s room for a sweeping historical novel starting in the place where the wild beast was captured, on the ship sending it to France, in the private zoo, and then out into the woods to become the Beast. Or what if it was not one lion that escaped, but a breeding pair? How would the locals cope with a growing population of big cats in the woods?
- The Dire Wolf. (Best name for a cryptid ever.) The Dire Wolf, which was a real animal back in the Ice Age, is now a type of cryptid (unknown animal rumored to exist) known as a relic, which means an isolated example of an animal thought to be extinct.
This is where you get the Yeti as a surviving Gigantopithecus or Nessie as a Plesiosaur. (Also, technically, the Dire Wolf was in North America, so for Gevaudan you’d be talking about some type of Pleistocene Wolf, but that doesn’t have as cool of a name. Or it could be some form of Mesonychid, which looked kinda like a wolf, but was actually related to giraffes.) Anyhow, if you’re going the relic route, you’re going to need an explanation for the survival of the relic and the fact that it’s gone undiscovered (that is: no bodies, no babies, no spoor, no impact on the food chain). And if you’re in the forest, you’re not going to be able to use “the ocean is really big, who knows what’s down there.” It’s the forest, we know what’s in there.
But this is fiction, so it can be done! One of the coolest theories I’ve heard for Bigfoot is that he’s from another dimension and only visits ours once in a while, leading to the sporadic sightings. Other relic explanations include time travel (humans go back in time or wolf comes into the future), as-yet-undiscovered vast cave networks or unknown islands that could sustain a relic population, cloning of extinct animals, or, since we’re talking Ice Age beasties, melting glaciers with frozen wolves that can be revived.
- The most dangerous animal. Which is, of course, a person. There were theories about the Beast of Gevaudan being a serial killer, no actual wolf required. One way to go with this would be a killer imitating a wolf or werewolf, whether to disguise their crimes as natural or to strike supernatural terror into the populace. You could also have someone who kills with enough violence and in such numbers that they are nicknamed “the beast” or “the wolf.”
Or you could have a killer who actually believes himself to be a werewolf. (There is a condition called clinical lycanthropy, but I would urge caution with this approach because mental illness typically does not make people violent.) But you could have a killer attempting to work magic to make himself a werewolf, and believe that it is working when it may not be (unreliable narrator time!). Another approach would be a series of unrelated slayings that are attributed to one shadowy wolf-like killer.
Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday in the woods! You probably should hurry home before the full moon rises.
If you like spooky stories, you can read my story “Branwen and the Three Ravens” in the anthology Clamour and Mischief. The creepy adventures of a woman seeking to free her brothers from a curse.
You can also read my free queer romance Griffin. A man falls in love with his childhood best friend, who happens to be a (really hot) shapeshifting monster.
Sources & further reading:
Maberry, J., & Kramer, D. F. (2009). They bite: Endless cravings of supernatural predators. Kensington Publishing Corp. On Goodreads