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Werewolves—or Weren’t?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 18.1, March 2008

Among those creatures that inhabit the night, or at least the nightmares of the credulous, are vampires, zombies, and werewolves—allegedly supernatural man-beasts. The term werewolf literally means “man-wolf” (from the Old English wer, “man,” and wulf, “wolf”) and describes either a human being who has been turned into a wolf by sorcery or one who makes the transformation (whether by will or otherwise) from time to time. In European folk belief, the werewolf preyed on humankind each night but returned to human form at the light of dawn. It could only be killed by being shot with a silver bullet (Leach 1984, II; King 1991, 114).


The concept that a human could turn into a wolf seems to have originated with the simple wearing of an animal robe for warmth, with people coming to believe that the man wearing the skin took on the animal’s powers. Eventually, the popular imagination conceived of bewitched men who, under the full moon’s irresistible power, grew hairy coats, fangs, and claws and otherwise took on the aspect of a beast. The wolf was a popular form of such metamorphoses in Europe.

In fact, there are two medical conditions that undoubtedly helped foster belief in werewolves. One is a disease, a hormonal disorder known as Cushing’s Syndrome, which can produce enlargement of the hands and face, together with rapid and copious growth of hair on the latter and an accompanying “acute emotional agitation.” According to occult critic Owen Rachleff (1971, 215), “Individuals afflicted with this disease, either because of ostracism or because of the psychotic ramifications of their illness, were, in the past, forced to live apart from society.”

There is also the psychiatric disorder known as lycanthropy (after the Greek lykanthropos, “wolf-man”). This is the delusion that one has been transformed into a wolf, which can cause sadistic and even cannibalistic or necrophilic behavior (Stein 1988, 37).

The moon is not a factor (except perhaps a psychological one) in cases of “real” werewolves (Rachleff 1971, 215); however, something of the concept nevertheless survives in the popular notion of “moon madness.” Also known as the lunar effect, it is the supposed influence the moon exerts on people’s behavior. As psychologist Terence Hines explains:

It is especially held that the full moon accentuates or increases the probability of all sorts of odd and troublesome behavior. Suicides, admissions to mental hospitals, arrests for public drunkenness, and crimes of various sorts are all said to increase when the moon is full. It is also widely believed, especially among maternity ward personnel, that more babies are born when the moon is full than during the other phases of the moon. The moon’s gravitational influence is usually the mechanism used to explain the alleged effects of the full moon. After all, proponents say, the moon’s gravity influences the oceans, which are largely water. Therefore, since the human body contains a great deal of water, the moon’s gravity must also influence the human body. This in some unspecified way results in moon madness. But in fact the moon’s gravitational influence on the human body is infinitesimal—equivalent to the weight of a single mosquito being added to the weight of a normal individual.

He goes on to note that “gravity is a weak force,” and that, in merely holding a book, one is “outpulling the entire planet earth” (Hines 1988, 156–157).

According to Hines, when moon-madness proponents’ studies are scrutinized, invariably “methodological or statistical flaws have appeared that invalidate the conclusions,” and the overall data on the effect “shows overwhelmingly that the moon’s phase has no effect on human behavior” (Hines 1988, 157, 158).

It should come as no surprise that lycanthropy is closely associated with vampirism, including a popular belief that one dying under the werewolf’s curse was doomed to return as a vampire. In Slavic countries, certain names for werewolves were in time applied to the undead (e.g., vrykolakas, volkodlak). Also, French demonologists described a type of werewolf, a loublin, that haunted cemeteries, digging up and devouring corpses (Bunson 1993, 279–280; Thorne 1999, 72, 91).

Witch Mania

Werewolves were part of the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in Europe. There, thousands of werewolf cases were reported from 1520 to 1630 (Bunson 1993, 279).

For example, in France in the early 1500s, three men were put on trial for transforming themselves into werewolves and killing sheep. They were convicted and burned at the stake (Rachleff 1971, 216). Near the end of the century in 1598, a French beggar named Jacques Roulet was also tried as a werewolf. Discovered hiding in the bushes near the mutilated body of a teenage boy half-naked and smeared with blood, Roulet admitted to the murder. However, invoking a popular belief of the time, he blamed a magic ointment that he said caused him to become a wolf (whether physically or mentally is unclear). Although he was sentenced to death, on appeal the Parlement of Paris instead committed him to an insane asylum for two years (Stein 1988, 33).

Some have speculated that in such cases belladonna, herbane, aconite root (wolf’s bane),1 or other potent drugs were included in the “witch ointment.” One speculator, Dr. H.J. Norman (1966, 291), concluded, “The chief effect was brought about as the result of the high degree of suggestibility of the individuals, who were undoubtedly in numerous instances psychopathic and mentally deranged.” No doubt even more important in many cases was the effect of torture, which may have caused the accused “werewolf” to acknowledge the use of whatever the inquisitors imagined—ointment or otherwise.

In one instance—the case of Peter Stump or Stub who was executed near Cologne in 1590—the catalyst was a “girdle” he supposedly put on and took off, thus transforming himself into a wolf and back. Apparently a serial-killer similar to Jeffrey Dahmer, Stump raped, murdered, and even devoured men, women, and children. His was “one of the most famous of all German werewolf trials” (Summers 1966, 253). Revealingly, when his interrogators could not find the magical girdle where the confessed lycanthrope said he had discarded it, they “supposed that it was gone to the devil from whence it came” (quoted in Summers 1966, 259).

Investigating in Austria

While on an investigative tour of Europe in May 2007, I came across a much later werewolf case in Austria. German skeptic Martin Mahner and I toured a supposedly haunted Schloss Moosham (i.e., Moosham Castle) where many witch trials were held. Between 1675 and 1689, when the witch mania had already decreased elsewhere, some 200 victims were executed, mostly vagabonds.

The werewolf scare occurred still later, between 1715 and 1717, when an unusual number of cattle and deer were killed by wolves in the Moosham district. When attempts to hunt down and kill the predators failed, superstitious folk concluded that the creatures must have been supernatural. Subsequently, two adolescent beggars admitted under torture in the Schloss Moosham dungeon to receiving a black cream from the Devil. Had they put the unguent on their bodies, they confessed, they would have been transformed immediately into wolves. The implication was that people conspired with the Devil to turn into wolves and were responsible for the animal killings. Needless to say, neither the existence of the alleged ointment nor its effect was ever demonstrated.

In this instance, the Devil’s confessed accomplices escaped execution. They were instead reportedly sentenced to lifelong service as Venetian galley slaves, a punishment described as “a slow but sure death” (Bieberger et al. 2004, 157–162).

Further evidence of the Moosham Castle werewolf case turned up (as director of CFI Libraries Timothy Binga discovered while searching online sources) in an archive of werewolf reports from 1407 to 1720 (werwolfprozesse 2002). There are two listings for the year 1717 in Moosham: the first, Philipp Ebmer, a beggar, was noted as having died in detention; the second was Ruepp Gell, who, with Hans Pfaendel and five other codefendants, all beggars, ultimately “died in detention” after being sentenced to Galeerenstrafe, or “galley-punishment” (Werwolfprozesse 2002).

As a replacement for the death penalty, during Galeerenstrafe the condemned man was secured with heavy iron chains to a galley’s rudder. This inhumane punishment typically resulted in death by exhaustion, disease, or shipwreck (Galeerenstrafe 2007).

We like to ascribe such frightening excesses to the magical thinking that pervaded an earlier age, holding our own time as more enlightened. Yet we must acknowledge the surprisingly modern view of lycanthropy found in the sixteenth-century skeptical work, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot (1584, 58). Challenging the basis of claims that men can be transformed into beasts, Scot sums up:

To conclude, I saie that the transformations, which these witchmongers doo so rave and rage upon, is (as all the learned sort of physicians affirme) a disease proceeding partlie from melancholie, wherebie manie suppose themselves to be woolves, or such ravening beasts. For Lycanthropia is of the ancient physicians called Lupina melancholia, or Lupina insania. J. Wierus declareth verie learnedlie, the cause, the circumstance, and the cure of this disease. I have written the more herein; bicause hereby great princes and potentates, as well as poore women and innocents, have beene defamed and accounted among the number of witches.

Conversely, we must also acknowledge some of the unenlightened thinking of today. Consider, for example, the “animal mutilation” cases that burgeoned in the 1970s and continue to the present. They are often popularly attributed to the “chupacabra,” an imagined Draculaesque extraterrestrial, despite repeated evidence that the “mutilations” are the work of predators and scavengers (Nickell 2006, 20–21). Perhaps some of us have not advanced so very far after all.


  1. 1. Aconite, or wolf’s bane, is a very poisonous plant, often “added to protection sachets, especially to guard against vampires and werewolves” (Cunningham 2000, 260). It was also placed before windows and doors (Bunson 1993, 283).


Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at