Beasts among Us
True Story #13
Beasts among Us
Mark Schackelman was in his early thirties, a night watchman at the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children on the outskirts of Jefferson, Wisconsin, when he saw the beast. It was 1936. The home for developmentally disabled youth included a former Franciscan convent. Its sprawling grounds comprised orchards, gardens, a religious sanctuary, stone buildings the color of old teeth, and, allegedly, several Native American burial mounds.
This whole swath of southern Wisconsin is filled with animal-shaped burial mounds, which date back as far as 500 BCE. An estimated 80 percent of the mounds are now gone, built over or plowed under, like the bird that appears to have once had a quarter-mile wingspan near the Wisconsin River, not far from present-day Muscoda. Still, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, this region is America’s hub of “effigy mound culture.” To Linda Godfrey, the Wisconsin cryptozoologist and reporter who wrote about Schackelman’s sighting, the mounds are “astounding,” and their proximity to the sighting “always seemed more than coincidental.”
Schackelman was out walking the grounds, a bit before midnight, when he saw it: a shaggy, dog-faced creature with a muscular human torso. It was kneeling on one of the mounds, digging into the mussed earth.
Slowly, Schackelman backed away. The creature, too, backed away. At some point, it ran, but it ran like a man: two paws on the ground, two in the night air. Schackelman was a heavyweight boxer. He was also a devout Catholic who rarely went to the movies. That is to say: Werewolf of London had come out a year earlier, but who knows if he saw it? What he did see, when he went back to the mound the next morning, was the earth torn by the rake of claws. The echo of a beast.
That night, during his daily rounds, he returned to the area. Again, midnight, but he was carrying a flashlight like a club. Again, the creature, and now it stood up to greet him. It was covered in thick, dark hair and smelled like long-dead meat. It had fangs and was over six feet tall. Its thumb and forefinger seemed shrunken, so that it appeared to have only three fingers. It looked him in the eye and offered him a three-syllable lump of noise, something between human speech and animal growl. Schackelman began to pray to God. He saw the creature sneer at him, and then he saw it start to back away. He prayed again, this time: thank you. Even after the beast was gone, its dead smell stained the night.
Later, Schackelman told the story to his wife, and then he swept up his words and made her promise to keep them secret. That, for a while, was that.
• • •
I visited southern Wisconsin the week after a full moon. I had rented a room in a former frat house in Whitewater, population 14,500-ish, some fourteen miles south of St. Coletta. In our introductory email exchange, I had told the Airbnb host that I was a writer, and she had asked what I was working on. I did not tell her that I was working on a collection of essays about fear, or that my research had led me again and again toward various iterations of the wolf, that oft-mythologized and near-universal archetype for danger. I did not tell her that in college my best friend and I had made a game of asking people what they were most afraid of, but that I had since become a junkie for a different sort of answer, hungry to hear how people lived among the things that scared them. Instead, after a flush of self-doubt, I wrote only that I was coming because I had heard about the local werewolf legends, adding that it was “not my area of expertise.”
“Very interesting,” she replied. “Did you know that Whitewater is called by some the ‘Salem’ of the Midwest? Our house is thought by some neighbors to be haunted.” I did not know how to respond, so I wrote: “Great!”
On my drive from Minneapolis, I listened to a podcast about a man who kept venomous snakes caged in his house. He had been bitten over and over by these snakes—purposefully, methodically, leading to only one short-lived coma—and now he believed himself immune. To keep his power, he received weekly snakebites, which he called “booster shots.” He hoped the antibodies in his blood would someday inoculate Indonesian farmers. The man’s voice was void of fear and rabid with ego, and sometime during the forty-minute show, I learned that he lived in the fist-shaped state I was driving into. I was, I believed, entering an uncanny valley.
It was early March, but when I arrived in Whitewater, the snow was already down to scabby patches. Multiple people told me the area had been a shimmering seventy degrees the weekend before, but by the time I arrived, everything was frozen again, the grass the tawny brown of a rattlesnake’s belly. My Airbnb was in a blond brick mansion from 1873, framed by a stately square porch and trim the color of dried blood. The gray-haired host told me former frat brothers had helped her paint over the beer stains on the walls, and she had since covered the walls, floor to high ceiling, with her personal art collection, which included both DIY sand paintings and some ornate wood carvings she said were chunks of a real Buddhist temple. The host, who did not live there, told me she did not lock the doors during the day. “It’s Whitewater,” she said with a laugh.
Whitewater is two hours northwest of Chicago, less than an hour southeast of Madison. It lies at the western edge of what coastal media call the Rust Belt. It’s a college town, home of UW–Whitewater, and I expected the bars would be alive late on Thursday night, when I arrived. They were not; it was so quiet I asked someone if it was spring break. No, I was told, not for another two weeks. I was also told that Reince Priebus, then in the middle of his brief tenure as White House chief of staff, got his start as a College Republican at this university, and also that the budget cuts of another Republican, Governor Scott Walker, would hit this university the hardest of any in the state: an almost 20 percent drop in funding, a loss of more than $6 million, a slow but inevitable drain of teachers and students.
It was barely twenty degrees out, with a wind that clawed its way into my coat. The town is compact, just a seven-minute walk from the Airbnb to the end of Main Street. I passed two near-empty pizza places and a near-empty taco place and a few empty glass storefronts and a few dark bars and a white clapboard building that said “Brass Rail” with a glowing marquee marked “Cocktails.” I passed a few people bundling down the street, but nobody looked up. It struck me that we all moved like deflated balloons, strung out on wind. I jumped when a pickup truck full of loud college students screamed around a corner, and then, after another minute, I turned home. Above me, a giant plastic banner for the weekend’s Kiwanis Annual Pancake Day breakfast stretched in a flat smile across the road.
I am a light sleeper, and I slept poorly that night. The Airbnb bedroom was upstairs, and a full-time caretaker and her teenage son were on the same floor. They lived in another apartment, partitioned off by a thin wall and a thick curtain, and they accessed their place by a different staircase. Still, in an unfamiliar, creaking house, I was all too aware that while I heard noises through the night and morning, I never saw the people they belonged to. I struggled, in other words, to recognize what was real.
• • •
In 1958, Mark Schackelman told the story of his St. Coletta sightings to his son, Joe. Joe, at that point, was in his early twenties. He remembered that his father told him, “That damn thing came straight out of hell.” Joe was religious too. Devout, spooked by what he heard. He started drawing, and his father corrected him again and again, until the tangle of the son’s sketch-marks matched the tangle of the father’s memory. The wolf-man had ears that looked like pointed devil horns, a row of prominent fangs, and no visible tail. Hair hung off his arms and legs like dark lichen.
In the next decades, Joe became editor of a local labor newspaper in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He got married, and he won awards for his work. Then, in the mid-1970s, the veins in his father’s body swelled until they killed him. The beast, within. When Mark Schackelman died, his eyewitness testimony of the werewolf died too. The years passed.
• • •
I went to Whitewater because I had heard that the surrounding region—largely Walworth County—was the epicenter of werewolf sightings in America. I was curious how this had happened. I imagined some primal unease had bubbled up from the hardwood forests, seeping into the cornfields where the beast was said to prowl, muddying the domestic with the wild.
Shortly before my visit, I watched the 1994 “romantic horror” film Wolf. A few minutes into the film, Jack Nicholson hits a big animal on a snowy, winding back road in Vermont. Watching the film, you are primed for an accident: Nicholson’s character, Will, drives a Volvo with two small, pallid headlights, and he has to paw frantically at the glaze on the inside of his windshield just to see the road. Even the moon—a silver coin smeared in a snarl of skeleton branches—seems to wobble against the backdrop of violins. Still, it’s a shock when the dark shape appears. There’s a millisecond of shadow, and then a swelling thwack as the animal rolls over the windshield, sending the car skidding into the black night.
Of course it’s a wolf. The animal is all fang and fur in the snow, and when Will reaches out a leather glove to tug the body out of the road, the creature wakes up. This uncanny jack-in-the-box move is an old trick. We jump; Will gets bit. A second later—before he’s back in the safety of his car—we glimpse a whole pack of wolves behind the birch trees, a constellation of yellow eyes tracing his movements.
Back in New York City, this graying book publisher suddenly feels alive, fabulously and furiously confident. In the middle of dinner he tosses his wife to the couch and takes the slick sash of her silk kimono in his teeth, disrobing her in front of a bare window. Soon afterward, he notices the cut on his hand is sprouting brown, wiry hair. His senses begin to sharpen. And when he wakes up one morning in a creek bed in the suburbs, his face dripping with blood, we know what has happened: this run-of-the-mill middle-aged white man has, it seemed, turned into a werewolf.
By many standards, the movie is horrible. There is an appalling moment when werewolf-Will tucks into a doe as comfortably as if it were a fried chicken drumstick, and another when man-Will realizes, midday by the office urinal, that he has the bloody stumps of someone’s fingers in the pocket of his suit jacket. Still, watching the story unfold, I was aware that at its crux, Will’s problem was one of belief. He had been swallowed by another reality. He was stuck in the swamp between his lived experience and the rational world.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a husky or a German shepherd?” Will’s white-coated doctor asks him, pumping a syringe of rabies vaccine into his arm. “After all, it was night, wasn’t it? It was dark out.”
Will glares at him. “It was staring straight at me,” he says. “You don’t confuse a dog with a wolf.”
• • •
On December 29, 1991, Walworth County’s free newspaper, The Week, published a Sunday centerfold that included the full testimonies of two Elkhorn, Wisconsin, residents who claimed to have seen a “wolfish-looking creature” on Bray Road at night, in unrelated incidents. Bray Road is a four-mile-long rural road about thirty-five miles southeast of St. Coletta, flanked by cornfields, sparse forest, and green lawns. Between St. Coletta and Bray Road are the town of Whitewater, the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and patches and patches of field, sliced by winding country roads and dotted with old farmhouses and the occasional neon-lit bar or supper club. Today, when you Google “werewolf sightings in southeast Wisconsin,” this swath of earth appears as a red rash of witness testimony.
In the 1991 centerfold, The Week’s reporter, Linda Godfrey, wrote that rumors about a Walworth County beast had been circulating for a few years. Godfrey was not yet a cryptozoologist, and though she acknowledged that “the stories seemed like grist for the National Enquirer’s mill,” she believed there was a powerful consistency to the accounts, and she wanted to grant her subjects anonymity. “It seems society is less than kind to people who claim to have seen werewolves,” she wrote. One woman, a twenty-six-year-old bar manager, told Godfrey about an experience that happened a couple of years earlier, in the fall of 1989: “I was driving home one night on Bray Road, and I saw this thing on the side of the road. As I came up to it in my car, its back was to me so I saw it had ears and the whole bit. It was kneeling! . . . He was brownish-gray . . . and he had big teeth and fangs. And he looked at me. He turned his head to look at me. . . . It was night, and it was quite large, but I know what I saw. You don’t mistake something like that.”
Godfrey emphasized that this woman—later identified as Lorianne Endrizzi—was “entirely serious.”
The other woman—later identified as high-schooler Doris Gipson—hit something with her blue Plymouth Sundance on a foggy October night in 1991. Gipson was driving down Bray Road between stretches of dark cornfields when she felt a bump. She got out to see what she had hit, and then, in her words, “here comes this thing,” running toward her. She leapt in her car, gunning the gas pedal as the creature pursued her. “The way it was running, you could suggest that it was on two legs because you could see the chest so well and it was pulsating as it was coming toward me,” she told Godfrey. Gipson said it was bigger than any dog she had ever seen, covered in long, straight hairs.
These witness testimonies were laced with cautious apology, as when Gipson told Godfrey, “The mind tends to play tricks on people after you’ve been scared, and I admit I was afraid. I’m not going to say it was a werewolf. I’d say it was a freak of nature, one of God’s mistakes.” But while the women’s accounts provided the timber for Godfrey’s story, the reporter’s conviction that the beast existed rested on a foundation of authority: a man with a manila envelope. That man was Jon Fredrickson, a Walworth County humane officer most often tasked with busting puppy mills and animal abusers. Over the years, he had heard from a number of sources about local sightings—including some on Bray Road—of two-legged doglike predators, and so, as Godfrey’s story goes, he was able to pull open a desk drawer and hand her a folder marked “Werewolf.”
“The county is getting stranger,” he told her.
Godfrey, who was also a cartoonist for the Week, had accompanied her story with a sketch inspired by Endrizzi’s description, depicting a werewolf-like creature kneeling in the road and clutching a hunk of meat. The response to Godfrey’s article was fast and furious. The Week—tagline “We’re watching out for your best interests,” a newspaper that then published thirty-five thousand copies every Sunday and made all its money from ads—was owned by a conglomerate of local papers, one of which was the Janesville Gazette, reporting on a town some thirty miles to the west. A few days after Godfrey published her article, a Janesville reporter wrote a recap that got picked up by the Associated Press.
In Godfrey’s 2003 follow-up book about the creature, The Beast of Bray Road, she detailed this maelstrom of public and media attention. All four Milwaukee TV news stations sent staff to Walworth County. One anchor asked Godfrey if covering the werewolf was responsible journalism. Her reply—“Well, you are here covering it, aren’t you?”—never made the news. Radio stations across the country called for interviews, including a San Francisco station that asked her to howl on the air. She refused, but she wrote that she did go on a Milwaukee public radio show called Detective Deadly Dudley to quell the fears of local children who were afraid of the beast.
Meanwhile, The Week started selling “Werewolf of the Week” T-shirts featuring Godfrey’s original cartoon drawing. The boxy cotton shirts were ten dollars a pop, advertised as a way to “support your local beast.” The beast, in this case, was ambiguous. Maybe it was an antidote for boredom. Maybe it was newspaper journalism. Maybe it was the howl of ambition in Godfrey alone. Gipson and Endrizzi both revealed their real names on TV, though it was not clear whether they abandoned anonymity because they decided society could be kind to their testimony, or because they felt they could not stand back while the country regurgitated their stories.
Some local children were scared of the woods. Some local people did not want to drive alone at night. Fear, that is, was present—but also thrill. Someone attached a mock green-and-white highway department sign marked “Werewolf Area” to a Bray Road street sign. Someone also put a plywood cutout of a beast in the front yard of a woman who ran a haircutting business out of her home on the street. The woman told Godfrey the beast was meant to look as if it were attacking a decorative plaster deer on her lawn. In downtown Elkhorn, Lakeland Bakery started selling werewolf cookies, and the historic Jury Room Bar and Grill hosted a “werewolf party.”
Meanwhile, Doris Gipson was teased at school. She would, in Godfrey’s words, have a “horrible time” of it. She would soon regret saying anything at all.
• • •
“When I was a little kid I always wondered if I’d be famous some day,” wrote Godfrey in the issue of The Week that followed her first Bray Road piece. “I never dreamed it would be from writing an article about a wolfish creature sighted in Walworth County, Wisconsin.”
The Bray Road reporting was some of her earliest work at the paper, and Godfrey stayed at the newspaper for ten years. Her work spanned editorial cartoons, chatty columns, and what seemed to be largely animal-focused, reported feature stories, including a piece that took the narrative point of view of Thunder, a best-of-show rabbit at the local fairground. But the delineations between her reporting and opinion-writing roles were often blurry, and reading her coverage, I realized I was dizzied by the ease with which she documented her internal processing. In that first follow-up column on fame, Godfrey quipped that the tale of Bray Road’s beast might soon be “common knowledge in Borneo and Pago Pago.” Later in the same piece, she wrote: “I had a startled vision of airbrushed pictures of the creature and me flung all over the covers of The Enquirer, The Star, and Field and Stream.” I could not tell if this was the “startled” of someone who had just won a free television, or the “startled” of someone who had just found a corpse.
Her writing, which struck me as either lacking self-awareness or a display of high-wired self-curation, reminded me of how people write on the internet, though it came from a time before people wrote on the internet. The week after she first reported the sightings, her column began with what felt like a dribble of a lie: “I didn’t think I’d ever have to write another article on our local beastie,” and ended with an admission of truth: “You may or may not see a werewolf . . . but without doubt, you are seeing the making of a local legend.”
Reading her words, I realized I went to Walworth County not to find the werewolf but to find the legend. Or, rather, to find its maker.
• • •
I met Linda Godfrey the morning after I arrived in Whitewater. She had suggested we meet at La Grange, a general store about eight miles southeast of town. It sold $1.50 cups of coffee, gave day-old pastries away for free, and was a favorite of hikers and trail bikers heading to the Kettle Moraine State Forest, more than twenty-two thousand hilly acres of restored prairie and pine woods. The store, Godfrey wrote me, “is the site of the historic ‘wildman’ capture I wrote about in my book.” Later, flipping through The Beast of Bray Road, I found the “wildman”: she quotes a 1929 newspaper report of this “stocky, be-whiskered, unkept [sic] furtive” man who lived in barns around La Grange in the early twentieth century, regularly visiting the store to pick up a food package, but waiting in the road for its delivery, never stepping over the threshold of civilization. If the werewolf lived on the spectrum between wolf and man, the “wildman” did too. Though the Whitewater Register claimed that he “gave women and children a fright,” Godfrey suggests that the presence of a “wildman” could help explain away mysterious sightings of other bigger-fanged monsters. The man who resembled a beast, in other words, might be less scary than the beast that moved like a man.
I arrived at La Grange a minute late. When I opened the pale wood door, a petite woman was waiting right beyond the doorsill, standing so close I worried the swinging door had nearly hit her. We were each “startled” by the other. In her arms, I glimpsed the black cover of The Poison Widow, a title I recognized as Godfrey’s first book, about a real twentieth-century Wisconsin woman and her strychnine-aided mariticide.
“Linda?” I asked with a smile.
“Erica?” she asked at the same time. Her voice sounded like something woven from very fine thread. When I reached out to shake her hand, she extended one small finger. I reached for her hand out of habit, giving it a light shake even as I realized I held only the limp bones of the finger she had offered me. I was immediately swept with shame, though I could not tell if it was for me or for her.
Godfrey was wearing a purple wool sweater, a striped orange and purple scarf, and thin tortoise-frame glasses. Her smile was magenta with lipstick, and her deer-colored hair fell in a straight sheet around the edges of her face. Her presence was immediately disarming, though it occurred to me that this was perhaps strategic. I thought of Joan Didion, who has written about the journalistic advantages of being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive” that people underestimated her.
A few hours later, when we were outside in the slow burn of the March sunshine and Godfrey’s eyes were hidden behind saucer-sized black sunglasses, she grinned and told me that most people who heard about the famous Wisconsin cryptozoologist expected her to be some big guy “rigged out in camo.” Instead, here she was, shrouded in bright wool and barely five feet tall, driving a ten-year-old silver Corolla. She seemed genuinely tickled.
“Everybody says, ‘You? You’re the werewolf hunter?’ I love the outdoors, but I’m just not the big guy with the swagger and the semiautomatic rifle.”
• • •
How many of our stories come from our struggle to make sense of the strange? We turn to physicians, we turn to priests, we turn to the weak tool of our watery eyes. After all, it is one thing to diagnose the man who thinks he has grown claws. But how do we diagnose the man who thinks he has seen another man’s claws? “Everyone wants to believe in something,” Godfrey wrote in her 2006 book Hunting the American Werewolf. But what if you see something you do not believe in, and what if you fear it? Or, rather, what if you see something you do not understand, and you fear you cannot share it? What if the fear lies not in the beast itself, but in not knowing what to make of it? It is unsettling to imagine something strange in the woods. But what about something strange in yourself? I remember that the root for monstrum, the Latin word for monster, is monēre: to warn. An omen. Sometimes the sighting is only the beginning.
Witnessing the beast, Godfrey told me, could change your life. “It sort of breaks up your paradigm of what the world is about,” she said. She said this as if it were a bad thing. I wondered.
• • •
In Hunting the American Werewolf, Godfrey writes about a young man in a Madison bookstore who overheard her telling the cashier that she wrote The Beast of Bray Road and soon approached her with a personal account. This man, whom she dubs Preston, told her that he once walked down a residential street in Madison at 1:30 a.m. and saw a creature that looked like it was both break-dancing and morphing from dog to human. Godfrey described Preston’s storytelling persona as akin to “a wounded baby robin—fear, mixed with a certain knowledge of his own vulnerability. He was afraid I’d make fun of him.” She, of course, would not.
Godfrey is a soft-spoken Lutheran, a mother and a grandmother with a smile scrubbed of judgment. She speaks as if from a wellspring of wonder. Her excitement brings to mind that of a child, but that comparison feels both reductive and diminishing, as if it were a freak of age and not the deliberate, openhearted curiosity of someone who has let her world be opened by her work. “As the ancient Greeks used to say, ‘He who lies down with dogs shall arise with fleas,’” writes Godfrey in the introduction to Hunting the American Werewolf. She later admits that she couldn’t care less: “I have no scientific reputation to besmirch.” She is, she writes, an investigator, hunting for why so many Wisconsinites are seeing “upright Furries.”
After Endrizzi’s and Gipson’s sightings were made public, Godfrey reported that a lot of other sources went public too, including a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employee who, in 1972, had followed up on sightings of an apelike creature that had tried to enter a farmhouse before finally retreating, leaving “a gash” across a horse’s chest and footprints over a foot long in its wake. These eyewitnesses, Godfrey told me, were “rock solid”—“just ordinary people” and, she said more than once, “middle-aged,” “churchgoing,” and “sober.” Though Godfrey noted that she’d heard of sightings from a wide range of people, these emphases felt critical. These were people who lived in Whitewater and Elkhorn and the farmland around, people who “just have no reason to make a thing up.” Logic says that if someone does not believe in werewolves, then that person does not believe those who see them. But if those people are the right sort of apple-pie Americans—churchgoing, middle-aged, sober, say—their eyewitness accounts might carry a little extra weight. Their sightings might be particularly intriguing because they come from their eyes.
Collectively, the string of local werewolf sightings provided an ever-bubbling supply of testimony for The Week to publish, and they also cemented Godfrey’s role as chief collector. She was the gatekeeper of the legend. Her words carved a groove of “what if” in the psyches of local residents, and once-whispered stories began to spill.
• • •
There are many ways that one might become a werewolf. A medieval English cleric said that rolling naked in the sand under a full moon could do it. Other legends said that all you needed to do was be conceived in a full moon, or sleep under a full moon on a Friday, or show a lack of faith in your supposed religion, or eat the greens of the wolfsbane plant, or drink from a stream where a wolf had drunk, or be attacked by a rabid wolf. In its entry on the werewolf, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters clarifies that the victim’s transformation into werewolf is often unwilling, the result of a bite or a curse or a potion. This seems important: the victim is punished. He bears his punishment by victimizing others.
In Godfrey’s Hunting the American Werewolf, I read about an Ojibwe legend local to the Lake Superior region, a legend of an abandoned boy who managed to stay alive by scavenging the pink meat from wolf kills. By the time his older brother paddled back across a lake to find him, the boy was already howling, his face stretching to accommodate the fur and ears of his new form. Godfrey writes that she “can’t help but note the similarity” between the themes of this legend and the contemporary sightings. And whereas Bigfoot sightings tended to pop up in high-elevation, forested regions like the Pacific Northwest, she told me that she thought Wisconsinites might be seeing the beast because it liked the flat terrain of cornfield and prairie. “The canines—I’m just speaking theoretically, this is not scientific fact—are more comfortable, I think, on the flat ground, because that’s what they’re built for,” she said.
Godfrey speculates that some of the county’s animal-shaped effigy mounds might have been made to honor this beast, and she told me that a few years earlier a Ho-Chunk elder had drawn her a rough map to some local caves with petroglyphs of a werewolf-like creature. My eyes widened, but she shook her head, a thin smirk flitting across her face. “Sorry,” she said. “She’s made me promise not to reproduce it.”
I suddenly felt an acute discomfort, a suspicion that white people were drawing both fear and fantasy from the presence of these ancient Native burial sites. The effigy mounds are not part of our history, but we site our legend in them nevertheless, using them to explain the shadows that wobble, darkly, in the night.
• • •
A few weeks before going to Wisconsin, I sent a query email to the Walworth County Historical Society, explaining that I had decided the area’s legendary “beast” was worth looking into. The next day, I received a terse response. It began: “We do not have a great deal of information on the Beast of Bray Road with the exception of the book written by Linda Godfrey and news articles. To be quite honest, there are much more interesting topics in Walworth County.”
• • •
Halfway through our conversation, I realized Godfrey and I were intrigued by the same questions. I had not expected to see myself in her, or her in me. But she, too, had come to the subject because she was interested in why people in the same geographic area were seeing the same thing, a thing that didn’t make sense. She told me she had not meant to take this career path, but that she had become a “strange writer” because there had been strange things to write about. When she said this, her words brimmed into a laugh.
Godfrey had looked in the eyes of those who had seen the beasts, and she had nodded. I imagine the shadowed cornfields and gravel driveways had yawned outward around her, elastic with new possibility. And instead of judging the witnesses, Godfrey had judged her preconceptions. She came to see a world organized by science as a world organized by human hubris: a cop-out to dodge the harder questions. “I don’t think that humans have every last word on what every species of animal or creature on this earth is and how they operate,” she told me. “You can call that supernatural or you can call that just not understood.”
Before she joined The Week, Godfrey had been a part-time art teacher pursuing a degree in library science, dreaming of becoming a syndicated cartoonist. But she was a self-described “information to the people” kind of person. “If there’s something that poses a risk to a local population, it shouldn’t be hidden,” she told me at La Grange, removing her tea bag from hot water and wrapping the white string around it again and again, until the dripping bag was swaddled like a spider’s bundled prey. “Any legend, somebody’s going to write about it. And people want to hear that. To me, that is a service,” she said. “This is not the sort of thing you do for money.”
By “this,” she meant the genre of “niche nonfiction” exemplified by her book titles, which range from her most recent, Monsters among Us: An Exploration of Otherworldly Bigfoots, Wolfmen, Portals, Phantoms, and Odd Phenomena, to older coffee-table titles like Weird Wisconsin: Your Travel Guide to Wisconsin’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. But “this” also included the dollop of prestige that had come with her work: History Channel appearances; a cameo in Sean Hannity’s nine-minute Bray Road segment on Fox News (which, she said, was “one of the very best” and “totally nonpolitical”); interest in a feature film from Mick Fleetwood, cofounder of Fleetwood Mac; and a cold night she spent on Bray Road with the dead bait of a supermarket chicken, at the bidding of the National Examiner. She received a token fee for the final stunt, but other than that, she told me, she did not get paid for any of this; she did it out of love. I did not entirely know what it was out of love for—the intrigue of the beast itself? honoring the witnesses? the thrill of her own name, swelling in national reputation?—but maybe it did not matter. I believed she felt the love was there. “How often do you get to see a local legend in the making and document it?” she asked me.
In the years since she launched her website and blog (Lindagodfrey.com, “Author & Investigator of Strange Creatures”), she had compiled a log of international sightings, and she still received one or two new entries a week from eyewitness sources. When I checked, it looked like something had been afoot in Canada. At some point in our conversation, I realized I was quizzing her about how she quizzed the witnesses. She told me that she tried to establish regular email correspondence with the sources, because she needed to figure out if they would ask for anonymity in a book. If she could, she traveled to check out any relevant geographic features or cultural artifacts. She told me she could not afford polygraph tests, but if a story was “particularly strange,” she asked the teller to sign a paper saying that they were truthful to the best of their knowledge. I did not ask what, in this context, “particularly strange” meant.
“If a witness tells you a valuable experience, it’s really not up to us to edit what they saw,” she told me. Godfrey was a witness, not a judge.
• • •
In his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, the philosopher Stephen T. Asma makes the point that while skepticism can bring a syrupy dose of pleasure (“perhaps the pleasure of feeling superior, of not being had,” he writes), the thrill of belief can be even greater: “It seems to trump the cool satisfactions of doubt.”
• • •
In the 1760s, the “Beast of Gévaudan” terrorized a mountainous region of southern France. Many of its victims were children or female shepherds, and many of them, according to a local newspaper, were beautiful. The creature was that rare combination of animal and legend, myth and menace. Officials confirmed that more than one hundred victims had died at the teeth of a beast. And yet: witness sketches depicted a predator the size of a wolf, with long fur, a horselike tail, talons, and a broad mouth. It was a collage of taxonomy, a composite of nightmares. Some testimonies suggested the animal moved on two legs.
Name a monster, and you have primed the stage for a hero. In France, Jean-Baptiste Duhamel was the dragoon captain who would come to marshal the hunt for the beast. This was a man who often referred to himself, in his letters, as galant. In one fairly typical attack in mid-December 1764, the beast ambushed a woman in the garden alongside her house. According to Duhamel, the creature ripped her head from her neck and departed with her skull. That night, the dragoons stayed watch by her dismembered corpse. The next day, they circled the grounds around a nearby stone chateau, rooting around for the beast. At one point, Duhamel said, he saw it, and he prepared to fire from a few paces away. This was, he later wrote, “the most glorious moment of my life.” Suddenly, his companions charged on horseback, and the predator changed direction. The men chased the beast into a marsh, and then they lost it. Duhamel wrote that he was “inconsolable” about the loss: “If I live for a thousand years, I will never recover from this cruel stroke of fate.”
Around this time, foreign bounty hunters started arriving, chasing the 600-livre cash prize the province offered for killing the beast. According to Duhamel, these “Don Quixotes” had “no knowledge of the locale or of the difficulties involved in finding this animal.” In the words of another wolf hunter: “Many men with guns have arrived . . . and they beat the woods every day with dragoons at their side. This will only cause more trouble, since we have no command over them”
Reading about the beast in Jay M. Smith’s book Monsters of the Gévaudan, I was reminded that fear is viral. Not only can it spread from one person to another—via stories between neighbors, or in the Courrier d’Avignon—but it can also lose its contours, swelling as it infects one noun after another. First you fear beast, and then you fear night, garden, fields, solitude. Soon, you might fear not only the beast that hunts you, but the men who hunt it.
And then, in 1767, local hunter Jean Chastel killed a wolf. Many, many wolves had already been killed. But according to legend, when this larger-than-life carcass was delivered to Versailles, the king ordered it to be destroyed. This bête was allegedly killed with a silver bullet—a bullet formed from the hunter’s melted religious talismans. A monument was erected in the hunter’s honor, and in the centuries since, the silver bullet has become a signifier: it is the thing that kills the werewolf. This means it is the easy answer to the hard question. Like all easy answers, it is clouded with skepticism. It may not exist at all.
• • •
In the spring of 1992, Godfrey saw an advertisement in the local classifieds paper the Shopper Advertiser asking if anyone had seen the Beast of Bray Road. There was a phone number, and she called it. The man on the end of the line was Jose Contreras. Some weeks earlier—at 11:37 p.m. on March 2—a neighbor had called the cops because Contreras was sitting in the driveway of a house that was not his. The house, on Bray Road, belonged to a man who had employed him three years before. When the police arrived, they found a bag with five unopened bottles of Krona beer on the passenger seat of Contreras’s car and a nine-millimeter handgun and fifty rounds of ammunition in his glove compartment. According to the police report, Contreras said “he had read recent articles in local newspapers” and was carrying the gun to “protect himself against the werewolf.” The officer writing the report also noted that when Contreras called his wife in the squad room, he was overheard saying, “There was no werewolf.”
His excuse was and was not as inane as it sounded. During that first year, the cops found people shining flashlights in other people’s windows, trespassing on Bray Road properties, and generally running around trying to hunt the beast. In a letter to the editor published in The Week on January 12, 1992, a local woman named Michele Brauer wrote that though she “fully enjoyed” the story about the wolflike creature, she was “extremely upset” about Godfrey’s choice to name the exact locations of the sightings. “Every unethical gun owner in the vicinity will now flock to the woods,” Brauer complained. “They will want to be the first to put an end to the imagination of these few people.”
Contreras was arrested for holding a concealed weapon. He pled self-defense against werewolves and took out the classified ad in an effort, Godfrey said, to find other believers to testify on his behalf. As far as she knows, he failed. Still, jurors at his trial were screened to make sure they did not believe in the creatures, and—in a final test of Contreras’s claimed supernatural belief—the district attorney asked for an examination of the bullets to see if they were made of silver. They were not. Contreras went to jail.
• • •
Joe Schackelman was watching television at home when he learned about the Beast of Bray Road. When he saw Godfrey’s original sketch, every hair on his body stood up, the way his father’s had bristled decades before. He found his old sketch, and he called Godfrey almost immediately to relay his father’s story. On February 19, 1992, he published the whole account in his newspaper.
Mark Schackelman’s account of what happened at St. Coletta—by then, almost sixty years in the past—would mark a start on a lineage of sightings. Over the next decade, Godfrey would tally some “fifty sane and sober eyewitnesses”; the beast would be cemented as America’s leading werewolf; and Joe Schackelman would publish God Lives: Stories of Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences, a collection of accounts from “ordinary people with big problems” whose lives were changed after encounters with God. I do not know if the werewolf made it in.
• • •
After a few hours in La Grange, shivering from caffeine, I realized I had to let Godfrey get on with her day. We were at a table in the corner, and she was on the far side, wedged against the wall. She had picked a seat with either a view or an escape route. But at this point, our conversation was easy. I didn’t want to let her go. She gifted me a copy of The Poison Widow, now out of print, and offered to ride with me a few miles over to see the nearby John Muir Trailhead, where she said Sean Hannity’s segment had been shot and where there had been a number of sightings. I happily agreed. She climbed into my Toyota.
We wound down the sunny road. At one point Godfrey mentioned an acquaintance who had left an offering for a cryptid in the surrounding woods, and I heard myself asking genuine questions like, “What sort of things make a good cryptid gift?” (The answer: “You know, bread and stuff. But you should never leave food in the forest!”) Still, beneath our conversation about the supernatural, I felt the thick pull of something heavier. It was, I realized, real life: the shock of the atom-and-molecule world around us. Godfrey told me she was struggling to get the next draft of her book out. Her mother had died the previous year. She had recently been knocked back by a flu that “felt like knives stabbing” her chest and back. Her ninety-year-old uncle had called the police to report that his neighbors were pumping poison gas into his mobile home, so she was worried about him, too. If she didn’t get the draft in soon, she feared she would lose her agent. When I had asked, earlier, if she was scared of the Beast of Bray Road, she had laughed. She said she was scared of other things in the forest: bears, mountain lions, wolves, feral hogs, feral dogs, and humans trafficking drugs on public lands. But she was not afraid of the beast. The beast, perhaps, was not the monster after all. It was the silver bullet: an inoculation against the snarl of real life. It seemed a thrilling distraction from those other all-too-real fears of illness, violence, despair.
After thirty minutes or so of touring, I looped back to the gravel parking lot of La Grange and pulled behind the shimmering shell of Godfrey’s Corolla. Her hand was on the door handle of my car when she turned back to face me once more. “You know, I had breast cancer a few years ago,” she said. “My doctor thought I was going to die within a year.” She told me she had surgery, chemo, radiation. She told me she wrote Weird Wisconsin from bed, using voice-recognition software on a laptop. “Some people have said, ‘Do you think there is strange radiation from you going to investigate all these strange sights?’ The fact is, my fast-growing and aggressive tumor did appear a couple of weekends after I went to La Crosse to investigate the giant man-bat. But I have a lifelong history of working with various types of art materials. I guess I tend to blame that.”
As she spoke, the bug-eyes of her sunglasses reflected back the blurred flesh of my own face. I wanted to hug her. A minute later, she stepped out of my car. We said our good-byes through an open window, and then, after a step, she turned back to me. “If you see the werewolf out on Bray Road, you must let me know and I will add you to the witness roster,” she said. There was a “haha” at the end of her words, and I wondered, for a moment, if this was her winking at me. I could not say.
• • •
That night, I went to Second Salem, a supernatural-themed brewery in Whitewater. I ordered the Beast of Bray Road ale and a cheese-curd-dotted poutine made with a gravy of said ale. I wanted to taste the legend on my lips. I thought it might help me understand what the creature had meant to the county.
But the beer was like sweet, liquid tarmac. The poutine was that, with cheese. Everything tasted vaguely chemical. I left without finishing my meal. Later, at the Airbnb, I was reading beneath a crocheted blanket in the living room when the door opened. It was a young man, a rumpled undergraduate with a backpack. He said he was the Airbnb host’s son, and he was looking in on one of the cats. He was endearing and chatty, a political science major at the university. After a few minutes, he admitted that he had heard a werewolf investigator was staying in his mother’s place. “My first thought was yikes,” he said. I tried to explain that I was there not because I believed in werewolves, but because I was studying them. He shrugged.
“Yeah, I don’t believe in the supernatural. But once, I was at a family campfire, and when I turned around there was this eight-foot-tall creature walking at the edge of the shadow. It was bent over with fur, but standing up.” He modeled a stooped walk, then explained that he knew this was probably a trick of both the night and the sludge of accumulated werewolf stories in his mind. Still, he said, it made him wonder.
In her books, Godfrey offers a handful of theories about what the beast might be: a remnant of the Ice Age; a freak genetic hybrid; a visitor from an extraterrestrial portal; a live mutation of atoms that transforms a human. Still, though she does not believe this is a traditional Hollywood “human-changing-into-wolf” werewolf, she defers judgment beyond that. “I think it safest to treat the Manwolf as an idea, for the time being,” Godfrey wrote in Hunting the American Werewolf. “As soon as someone pins the beast down and pronounces it one absolute thing . . . discussion stops because the mind has closed.”
I wondered what “the time being” implied here. Godfrey had alluded to having once seen Bigfoot—when I told her I was from Oregon and had grown up with stories of Bigfoot sightings, she scoffed, like duh—but she had not seen the Beast of Bray Road. For the first time, I wondered if she even wished to see it. Maybe the possibility was enough. Maybe the possibility was everything.
When I arrived in Walworth County, I had assumed that one might see the beast out of boredom, the way the eyes make creatures in the clouds. But what if the beast did not fill an empty space but actually created more space? We all live in broken, finite realities. Who, at some point, would not search for the rabbit hole out?
• • •
It did not take long for me to stumble into more information about St. Coletta, where Mark Schackelman had seen the beast in 1936. First, I learned that as recently as a few years before his sighting, the school had been known as the St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth and the St. Coletta Feeble-Minded School. Second, I learned that about a decade after his sighting, St. Coletta became home to Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of John and Robert, who died there—quietly, in a private cottage on the grounds—in 2005.
Rosemary Kennedy was born mentally disabled, though the web of history makes it hard to know how impaired she was. By the time she was twenty-three, her parents feared that the combination of her good looks, vulnerability, and volatility put her at risk of getting pregnant, and her father scheduled a lobotomy. It is unclear if she gave her consent. Kennedy was awake while the instrument moved inside her skull, and then, after a while, something changed. A silver tool: a silver bullet. Kennedy was transformed. Her speech was reduced to animal noise, her mental state diminished to that of a two-year-old. In the late 1940s, she was moved to the garden grounds of St. Coletta. It seems her siblings did not know where she was during this time. Nobody in the family visited.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s, after Kennedy’s father had suffered a stroke, that her mother made a trip to Wisconsin. Accompanied by two nuns, Kennedy traveled to Milwaukee to greet her. When she saw her mother step off the plane, she ran toward her, the nuns trailing behind. As her mother opened her arms for a hug, Kennedy raised her arms. Crying, she beat her hands against her mother’s chest. Though she could not form words, she knew she had been wronged. Her fists called only for a witness.
• • •
Shortly after Godfrey’s first Bray Road story broke, The Week published an editorial that both congratulated her for handling the national media fallout and stressed to its readers that, for all its glitz, the werewolf piece “wasn’t the most important story last week.”
“The most important was the story of an area man and his recruiting efforts for the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote editor John Halverson. “One monster was fun to write about; the other—KKK—is deadly serious.” He went on to write about the importance of media in spotlighting these other beings: local white supremacists. “Exposing them for what they are reminds us of the evil that perpetually lurks from within our society and, even, the evil that lurks subconsciously in all of us,” wrote Halverson.
The Beast of Bray Road came from wild, green spaces. When it appeared at the hem of human gaze, it was haloed with the uncanny. It was inhuman; its presence knit humans together. The KKK is another story. Its supporters emerge not from soggy pines but from the sagging doorsills of houses down the block. Beneath their white hoods, these creatures have the bones of you and me. This, of course, is scarier. You cannot see who you are looking at. The beast might be anyone, anywhere.
• • •
I did not leave Elkhorn the way I had arrived, past the welcome sign with “Living in Harmony” carved in looping cursive on its wood face. Instead, I put “Bray Road” in my GPS and beat it out of town on a back route, as if I were trying to shake something, as if I were on the run. I drove past the high school Doris Gipson must have attended, past a sign for the fairgrounds where antiques dealers set up booths in the off-season, past the True Value hardware store and the Land O’Lakes mobile home park. And then, a few minutes later, after a junction for Interstate 43, I turned onto the infamous two-lane road.
It was late afternoon, but the winter sun had almost burnt to the end of its wick, and the sky was an ever-thickening soup of clouds. I watched the road, I watched the stubble of the cornfields, and I watched the bushes that, in many places, huddled near the road, an easy shelter for shadows. I drove slowly, but not too slowly, because Godfrey had suggested the police had a way of finding the beast hunters and thrill seekers who drove too slowly on Bray Road. I was ashamed to realize that I squirmed as much at the thought of being associated with the werewolf hunters as I did at the prospect of a ticket. My eyes found a rusty silo, a mailbox sprouting from a bucket, a red barn, a red Volkswagen bug, skeletal oak trees, and a house for sale. A few cars passed me. And then, after a few miles, the road ended. I left it.
At this point, as I headed back to Whitewater, my iPhone GPS—which sometimes struggles to locate me—fritzed out. Even as I drove the way I believed I needed to go, the map told me only how to get to Bray Road. I pulled over, typed in where I was and where I was going, but nothing worked. I started driving again, stuck in a loop some twenty-two miles from where I needed to go. Outside the smudged windows of the car, a dark mist was settling, and my cell service winked out. A minute later, when I saw the approaching flash of neon-lit beer signs and a sign for a bar called the Blue Overall, I turned off the road.
A plastic “Welcome Bikers” sign flapped outside the building. Dusk had felt ominous outside, but when I opened the door of the bar, the fading daylight sloshed down from giant windows near the ceiling. The walls were wood-paneled and strung with a glitter of twinkle-lights, and no music was playing. I felt, strangely, like I had entered a sort of church. An elderly man in a thick black sweatshirt swiveled around on his bar stool to face me, raising a tumbler of brown liquid as he offered a hello from beneath his baseball cap. A few stools away, two women with straight, shiny hair watched me over their beers. There was nobody behind the bar.
“Hi, who can tell me how to get back to Whitewater?” I blushed at the chirp of my voice.
“Well, somebody’s lost!” the man said, grinning to reveal a chain of dark brown teeth. “That all depends where in Whitewater you want to go.” He looked at me, unblinking. The women glanced at one another, and then one of them raised a hand and gestured to the left.
“Drive left out of the lot, then keep going until the stop sign. Then wait, and look three times before you cross.” She swayed on her seat, grinning toward her friend, who raised a hand in interruption.
“That’s because it’s the intersection where everyone dies,” she added, and then they all laughed, the man too, pausing only for another sip, as if to wash down all that might—if you are not careful—make you cry. I watched the fluorescent roulette of the pinball machines until the room steadied again. After a few more lines of directions, I nodded, swallowing like I might lock their guidance inside me. I thanked everyone and turned to the exit.
“Hey, just remember, it’s one of those things—” said the man. My hand paused at the door, and I turned back to see him squinting at me, his eyes blurred with drink, his arm raised in the direction of my path. “Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s impossible to miss.”
Outside, the shadows had lengthened. As I stepped onto the gravel, the coming night gusted toward me, cutting through my coat, my jeans, my gloves. When I took a breath, it wormed into my bones.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Erica Berry is a freelance writer and an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She is the... read more
True Story #13
Mark Schackelman was in his early thirties, a night watchman at the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children on the outskirts of... read more