Monday, November 4, 2013

The Wampus Cat

The people of the Appalachian Mountains have long spoken of terrifying beasts that go bump in the night. These legends often go back centuries to Native American oral traditions, long before the white settlers came from across the seas to stake a claim in a land that they had no right to claim to begin with. Among the Cherokee people, one such legend was that of the Ewah, a catlike demon that could drive men mad with a single, menacing glare. Today, another catlike beast is spoken of in hushed whispers around the fire at night. It is known as the Wampus Cat, a half-woman, half-mountain lion monster that is cursed to wander the dark forests of America forever because of her sacrilegious deeds long ago.

The Wampus Cat has the distinction of being one of the most feared monsters in the folklore of the South. For over two hundred years, this creature has inspired terror and panic in the hearts of the people of Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and even as far away as Florida and the Carolinas (suggesting that there may be more than one Wampus Cat, or that there are supernatural forces of an unknown nature at work in these parts of the United States). Even the lumberjacks encountered this ferocious cat-creature, attributing it to a family of strange monsters that they knew as "Fearsome Critters". And while the appearance of the creature seems to vary somewhat according to eyewitnesses, there are some similarities between each sighting. The Wampus Cat is most commonly described as being bipedal (that is, walking upright on two legs) and as having a body that seems to be half woman and half mountain lion in that it is covered in short fur (with a tawny brown fur on its back and a softer white fur on the belly and the chest), has pointed cat-ears, pawlike hands and feet with claws at the end of each finger and toe, a long tail, glowing eyes (sometimes described as being hypnotic), whiskers on its snout, a catlike mouth filled with sharp, ripping teeth, and is sometimes described as having the face of a beautiful, dark-skinned woman. It is said to stand between four and five feet in height, and emits an extremely foul odor that has been known to cause nausea in those who encounter the beast (it has been described as smelling like a cross between a wet dog and a skunk). The creature has an unnerving hiss, and the beast is known to have an unearthly howl and gives off ungodly screams. It is said to prey on both wild and domesticated animals. Not only that, but the creature occasionally hunts for human flesh, stalking children and grown adults alike who are foolish enough to go out hiking, hunting, or fishing at night. Such people are seldom seen ever again.

The name "Wampus Cat" is derived from the old terms "cattywampus" or "catawampus", which are used to refer to things that aren't quite right. According to Cherokee legend, the Wampus Cat was once a gorgeous woman from a local Cherokee tribe. However, she didn't completely trust her husband, whom she feared was being unfaithful to her when he went out on long hunting trips with the other warriors of the tribe. Although she was more than aware that women were absolutely forbidden from having anything to do with hunting, she just had to know the truth. In order to disguise herself, she covered her beautiful body with the skin of a mountain lion (otherwise known as a cougar). She hurried off into the forest, keeping her distance while she followed the men. Once the men had settled down, she began to listen to their conversations. The men told tales of great hunts and spoke of sacred rites and powerful magic. It wasn't long, however, before the woman was discovered and she was brought before the village shaman. As punishment, the shaman cast a spell over her that bound the hide she was wearing to her body forever. The skin began to spread over her own flesh, bonding with and transforming her body. Her teeth lengthened into sharp fangs, the nails on her fingers and toes grew into sharpened talons, a tail sprouted from her rear end, and her face became more catlike in form. Her nose and lips elongated into a snout, and whiskers grew out of her face. Most notably, her body became covered with tawny fur that was brown on her back, but was white and softer on her belly and her breasts. The poor woman had become a hideous, catlike monster, which is known today as the Wampus Cat.

In another version of this story, the woman spies on the hunters not because she has insecurities about her husband being true to their love, but because she wants to learn the ways of magic that are taught to the men, which of course is forbidden to women. But in the end, the results are the same: the woman is transformed into the hideous Wampus Cat for her sacrilege. But according to yet another version of the story, the Wampus Cat is seen as a protector, not a predator. This tale speaks of the Ewah (or Ew'ah in some instances), the Spirit of Madness, a catlike demon that terrorized the Cherokee long ago. A young warrior by the name of Standing Bear took it upon himself to seek out and kill the creature. However, despite all of his strength and skill as a warrior, he was helpless when he came face to face with the Ewah. Once he had made eye contact with the creature, the demon's gaze drove him into the dark depths of insanity. When the brave's wife (a gorgeous woman named Running Deer) laid eyes upon her insane husband weeks later, she became consumed with anger, and she vowed revenge.

Running Deer went to the tribe's shamans, and told them of her desire for vengeance. They understood her pain, and gave her two things: a mask representing the spirit of the mountain lion, and a special black paste. The medicine men told her that the spirit of this particular mountain cat would be able to stand against the power of the Ewah, but only if she surprised the demon from behind. The black paste, provided by the tribe's warchiefs, would disguise her scent and hide her body. Now she was prepared for an encounter with the Spirit of Madness, and with that, she headed into the woods to seek her revenge.

Running Deer knew the forests as well as she knew her own village, but couldn't find any signs of the Ewah. She ate sweet wild berries over the course of many days to keep up her strength, and she kept hunting. Late one night, however, the woman heard a large animal down by the creek. Exercising extreme caution, Running Deer silently crept towards the creek. Suddenly, she heard a twig snap, and she instinctively spun around. She suddenly realized that her reaction could've easily gotten her killed, or worse. If it had been the Ewah, she would have been consumed by insanity right at that very moment! Instead, it was only a fox running across the trail. Breathing a quiet sigh of relief, Running Deer continued on her way towards the creek.

When Running Deer reached the edge of the creek, she discovered large tracks that didn't belong to any animal species that she knew of. A little further on, she discovered the remnants of the armor that her husband had been wearing. She followed the footprints further and further upstream until she finally came upon the cat-demon itself, drinking from the creek. Fortunately, the beast hadn't seen her yet. Silently, she stalked closer and closer, constantly keeping her eyes on the monster. When Running Deer couldn't get any closer, she pounced! The Ewah wheeled around in surprise. Upon seeing the woman's mask, the Ewah began to tear at its flesh as the mountain lion's spirit unleashed its magic on the demon. It lurched backwards into the pool from which it had been drinking, and then ran off into the darkness of the forest, never to be seen again. Running Deer beat a hasty retreat back to her village, never once bothering to look back.

When Running Deer finally returned home, she sang a quiet song that spoke of her grief for the loss of her husband, but also told of her joy over vanquishing the Spirit of Madness. Her people were overjoyed to hear the good news, while the shamans and the warchiefs bestowed upon her the titles of "Home-Protector" and "Spirit-Talker". To this day, people say that Running Deer's ghost still wanders the forests as the Wampus Cat, viewing it as her sacred duty to protect her tribe's lands and the people who inhabit them from all manner of evil spirits, demons, and the monsters which roam the darkness of the night.

When the settlers from Europe came overseas, they were exposed to the legend of the Wampus Cat, and even the settlers themselves had their own encounters with the beast. Over time, the Europeans developed their own version of the legend, albeit with Christian overtones that allowed the settlers to make more sense of the Native American monster. Long ago, there was an old woman who lived by herself in the hills of West Virginia. The people in the nearby town swore that she was a witch. Locals would complain of someone hexing and stealing their livestock. Everyone’s suspicions fell on the elderly woman, whom they believed had the ability to shapeshift into a large cat with golden eyes. They blamed her because she chose to live like a hermit. Despite this, the witch was supposedly so skilled at making these thefts that she was never actually caught. At least, that was their explanation.

The townspeople believed that the old woman would take the form of a domestic housecat and would dart into a house when she had the opportunity, where she would wait for nightfall and for her victims to fall asleep. At this point, she would cast a sleeping spell on the unsuspecting family, ensuring that they wouldn’t awaken while she went about her business. She would then slip out a window and steal an animal. The locals were growing tired of finding their animals missing or dead. And so they developed a plan to put an end to the witch’s depredations. The old woman’s next night of thievery would indeed be her last…

One night, the old witch snuck into a house and, once the family was asleep, she cast her spell of deep sleep on the family. Taking the form of a mountain lion, she leaped from a window and headed straight for the barn where the animals rested. Once she was there, she started reciting the incantations necessary to resume her human form. Suddenly, several of the townspeople jumped out of hiding, taking the witch completely by surprise! The old woman was unable to complete the spell, leaving her half woman and half mountain lion. She was thus cursed to remain a hideous monster, and would never again be able to call herself human. The cat-creature screamed in fright and proceeded to break down the barn doors, and she fled into the night. She was never seen by the townspeople again.

This story was often related to people by a hunter and mountain man, who called himself Jinx Johnston (sometimes given as Johnson), who lived on the Virginia-West Virginia border during the early 1900s. Johnston was a big man who stood over six feet in height and weighed at least two hundred pounds. In other words, he was big, very strong, and wasn’t easily frightened. Despite his tough-guy exterior, the man claimed to have had an encounter with the dreaded Wampus Cat himself. Johnston, like most people at the time, was a good Christian who feared God, and therefore was unlikely to lie or to fabricate a story. Johnston said that he loved to go hunting for raccoons (or ‘coons, as he called them) at night with his dogs, especially on a full moon. On one such night, Jinx learned just how unwise (and dangerous) it is to wander the Appalachian forests at night…

On that particular night, when the sky was lit by the rays of a full moon, Johnston was out hunting when his dogs suddenly ran ahead of him. He called for them, but they failed to return to his side. Johnston suddenly tripped over something, and his rifle flew out of his hands and into the bushes. And then an awful smell hit him, which he described as “smelling like a skunk and a wet dog.” But as he looked up from the ground, he saw it: a horrifying monster with sharp fangs that dripped saliva, and eerie eyes that glowed yellow in the darkness. Picking himself up very slowly, Johnston quickly glanced around for his rifle, but couldn’t find it in the dark. The creature let out a terrifying, ear-splitting howl, and Johnston nearly jumped out of his skin! He slowly backed away from the creature…

Deciding that it was either now or never, Johnston quickly turned around and ran for his life! He recalled that, even though he was running as fast as his legs could carry him, he could feel the thing’s stinking breath on the back of his neck, so close was the beast to catching him. But against all odds, Johnston finally made it home! He flew through the front door and slammed it shut behind him. He then bolted the door shut. Jinx quickly grabbed his Bible and began to read through the Scriptures aloud. Upon hearing the holy words, the monster began howling and screaming terribly. This continued throughout the night. When dawn finally broke over the hills, the creature let loose one more horrible scream and fled into the woods. By this time, Johnston was convinced that the thing he had encountered was truly the Wampus Cat. When he had finally worked up enough courage, Jinx went outside and found his dogs huddled up in the barn, terrified but otherwise unharmed. Needless to say, Johnston never again went ‘coon-hunting at night after his horrifying encounter with the Wampus Cat.

Although Jinx Johnston’s encounter with the Wampus Cat is definitely among the better-known cases, there are others as well. Although such sightings are less frequent, they have continued right up to the present day. One such report was posted anonymously on the Internet a few years ago by a camper who had been camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia with a few friends. While out gathering up firewood, he nearly jumped out of his skin when one of the men screamed. The eyewitness reported that he saw “a thing, definitely not a primate, no Bigfoot or anything, and not a bear.” He claimed that the creature was holding his friend with a single hand, and he described the beast as being “a walking cat, about five feet tall and thick.” When he shined his flashlight on the thing, the cat-creature hissed and ran away on two legs. The monster’s former victim had a small set of five puncture marks (presumably bite wounds) on one of his arms, and there were deep scratches on the victim’s head. The eyewitness says that the wounded man “maintained that the thing was trying to bite his throat.” In the end, the eyewitness himself said “I swear we were almost killed by a walking cat!

Although the above case is somewhat suspect because it was an anonymous report and there is no date or year given, it also stands out because of the brutality of the attack. Given that the Wampus Cat is known for its aggressive nature, a hoax seems somewhat unlikely. Witnesses to such things often choose to remain anonymous and omit their names, for fear of the ridicule that their stories may bring. But some witnesses are more willing to share their experiences, putting their reputations and their personal credibility on the line to tell their sometimes terrifying stories. This next encounter is one such story.

One night in northern Florida, during late winter or early spring in 2007, hunter Dean Morris was out with his dogs, apparently with intentions of doing some poaching. Suddenly, the dogs began to whine and ran off into the woods in a hurry, leaving their master all alone on the game trail. Morris then said that he had “smelled a nasty smell, like a wet dog that had come on a polecat.” Then, he heard a loud hiss behind him. Turning around, Morris found himself face to face with the Wampus Cat. The beast’s eyes glowed an eerie orange color in the darkness, while its fangs were exposed and dripped with saliva. Morris recalled that the monster looked “kinda like a really big Florida panther, but it walked on two legs like a man.” Needless to say, the would-be hunter had never seen anything like this before…

Morris was now frightened out of his mind, while his heart pounded in his chest. The monster sneered at him, causing him to feel nauseous and making his hair stand up. Without thinking, he dropped his gun. And then Morris bolted from the creature in a blind panic! It didn’t take the poacher long to realize that the cat-creature, whatever it may have been, was in hot pursuit of him. The hunter eventually came upon an abandoned pump house that didn’t have any windows. Morris burst through the door and barred it behind him.  As the man struggled to catch his breath, he realized that he could still hear the creature as it panted and paced outside of the door. At this point, Morris knew two things: that the beast outside was very hungry, and that he could very well die that night at the claws of a monster...

Throughout the night, the Wampus Cat would begin to “claw at the door and made it shake nearly off its hinges.” But the old door stood strong against the monster, and thus Morris spent a sleepless night, horrified that the old door would give way to the sheer strength of the monster. But eventually, after waiting for what seemed like forever, the first rays of dawn crept over the trees and through the cracks in the roof. With the advent of a new day, the Wampus Cat let out a final horrific scream of frustration and ran back into the woods. Morris could hear the creature as it retreated from the light of the day. His ordeal was finally over.

On a happier not, Morris was finally able to make it home, where he found his dogs on the front porch under a table. The animals were shaking, but were otherwise unhurt. But a couple of questions remain: why did the Wampus Cat attack this man? Was it because Morris was poaching? Or was it merely because the beast was hungry? One might believe that it was because Morris was poaching, as in some native traditions the Wampus Cat is seen as being a guardian. Was it only protecting the wilderness and the animals that live within it? Perhaps. But regardless, nobody knows the truth behind this creature’s motives.

A more recent encounter in Bristol, Virginia suggests that not every Wampus Cat encounter is violent, although these accounts are always frightening. A man by the name of Tim Smith and his wife were strolling down the street in downtown Abingdon one night when he spotted something strange. He distinctly saw two eyes glaring at him through some iron steps, but he could clearly see that they weren’t human. Instead, they were more like the piercing eyes of a big cat. Tim shouted at the beast, but he received the threatening “hiss of a cat” in reply. Then, whatever had been hiding under those steps got up and ran away, quickly fading into the darkness. Both Tim and his wife agreed that what they saw looked more or less like a big cat running on its back legs.

Was this a Wampus Cat? Quite possibly, as there is a shortage of big cats that are able to run or even walk bipedally for a sustained amount of time. The hiss of the creature also hints at the aggressive intentions of the beast. This was obviously intended as a warning. If the eyewitnesses had come any closer, there is no doubt that this encounter would have been much more violent.

During the 1950s, there was a sighting of what may or may not have been a Wampus Cat in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was originally recorded by author Charles Edwin Price in his book Demon in the Woods: Tall Tales and True from East Tennessee, as told by a man who calls himself H.W., the son of the man who originally saw the creature. H.W.’s father, who was a carpenter by trade, was walking down Spring Street late one night when he came across a huge cat, the biggest he had ever seen. The cat was walking down the other side of the street, as if it “had all the time in the world.” As he was walking behind the beast, it didn’t see him. According to the witness, “the cat was about the size of a large spaniel.” The man thought that it actually was a dog…at first. Then he noticed that the creature had stripes, “just like a big tabby.” Then, things started to get strange…

Every once in awhile, the cat stopped to sniff the side of the building it was walking next to. When it reached the Jones-Vance Pharmacy, the creature rose up on its hind legs, put its paws on the windowsill, and looked in through the window. This behavior stopped the man in his tracks. The man said that the cat “must have been at least four feet tall when it stood on its hind legs.” He tried to convince himself that he must be seeing a tiger, but there was one problem: there was no circus in town at the time. “Then came the really scary part,” H.W. said. “After the cat had seen all that it had wanted to see inside Jones-Vance, it turned and, still standing on its hind legs, continued walking down the street and disappeared around the corner.” The eyewitness said that “his blood ran cold.” Nobody can say for sure what the big cat had wanted that night, and H.W.’s father never found out. When he went to look around the corner of Spring and Main, the beast had disappeared.

One prevailing question about this encounter remains: was this truly a Wampus Cat? It is uncertain at this point. As has already been established, big cats are not bipedal by nature, and cannot walk on their back legs for extended periods of time. In addition, the creature displayed almost humanlike intelligence and curiosity when it peeked through the window (although cats by their very nature are both intelligent and curious animals). This begs the question: did H.W.’s father see the legendary Wampus Cat, or did he see an out-of-place big cat? The answer remains unknown.

Judging from these eyewitness accounts, it is clear that the Wampus Cat is a truly ferocious creature. Not only is the beast hostile towards both humans and livestock, but the Wampus Cat itself has the strength, speed, endurance, and the agility of a big cat, as well as having enhanced senses of sight, smell, and hearing. And in addition to having a great cat’s ability to hunt and kill, the monster has human or near-human intelligence. Additionally, the Wampus Cat is highly territorial and is easily provoked as well. At times, the beast is content to completely destroy an intruder’s campsite as a warning to leave immediately or face deadly consequences. However, the Wampus Cat will not hesitate to attack and kill those whom it deems to be a threat or sees as its potential dinner. It cannot be emphasized enough that the Wampus Cat is extremely vicious, and the creature will absolutely tear apart anything that the beast can get its claws on. The monster is more than capable of outrunning a person, so trying to outrun the creature for a long period is a deadly proposition. Finding a place to hide until dawn is one’s best bet for surviving such an encounter.

As vicious and powerful as the creature is, the Wampus Cat does have a couple of weaknesses. One seems to be an aversion to light, whether it is natural or artificial in origin. This explains why the Wampus Cat tends to flee from its potential prey with the coming of dawn. It is unknown if the light actually harms the creature, but being primarily a nocturnal predator, it is likely that the light is painful to the creature’s eyes (which are most likely adapted for seeing clearly in low-light conditions or even complete darkness). Thus, it is forced to run away when confronted with bright lights.

In some versions of the legend, the Wampus Cat is said to fear the Holy Bible and the recitation of the Holy Scriptures. This is especially evident in the case of Jinx Johnston’s encounter with the beast. Being a creature born of evil and dark magic, it makes sense that hearing the Holy Scriptures would cause the beast pain. Keep in mind, however, that this may not work, given that the settlers added this element in order to give the legend more of a Christian overtone. Still, it is most certainly worth a try.

As for actually killing the Wampus Cat, there are no legends or stories that explicitly tell how to get rid of this cat-creature. Therefore, it can be assumed within reason that the beast is as vulnerable to ordinary weapons (i.e. blades and firearms) as any ordinary animals are. Just for the sake of caution, one may always fall back on two tried-and-true methods: decapitation and burning. Decapitation is guaranteed to put an end to any supernatural creature’s depredations, while burning the beast’s remains is the ultimate insurance policy against any monster, as it will prevent any creature from somehow resurrecting itself and beginning its reign of terror anew. Of course, getting close enough to do the deed and avoid the Wampus Cat’s claws and teeth is far easier said than done. In the end, it may be wise to incapacitate the creature from a distance and then rush in and finish the job. It is always wise to use caution, no matter what.

So, what exactly is the Wampus Cat? Because the creature was once human and transformed into a catlike monster against its will, the Wampus Cat could be considered to be a type of werebeast, albeit one that is incapable of reassuming its human form. And since the Cherokee woman was wearing the hide of a mountain lion when the shaman cursed her, one might even consider the beast to be a type of Skinwalker. Ironically, the hide of the mountain lion is considered to be unclean by the Navajo (which are many miles away from the Appalachian Mountains, obviously), and the native Skinwalkers are known for using the hide of this particular animal to spread terror and death among the people. Is this a coincidence? When it comes to monsters, one can never be too sure and must avoid making assumptions when at all possible. On the other hand, if the creature is the Ewah returned from its defeat so long ago, then it could very well be some sort of demon of the forests. The werebeast scenario seems to be the more likely of these two possibilities. But whatever the case may be, it doesn’t make the Wampus Cat any less dangerous.

The legend of the Wampus Cat has persisted to this very day. During the 1920s, the men of southwestern Virginia and some parts of northwest Tennessee would use the old tales of the Wampus Cat to their own advantage in a particularly funny way. Whenever an especially good batch of moonshine had been distilled, a shotgun was fired as a signal for the guys to gather up and have a drink of the illegal booze. To avoid suspicion from the womenfolk, the men told their wives that the Wampus Cat had been seen in the area and that they needed to hunt it down and destroy the beast before it could kill or otherwise hurt anything. In any event, the lie seems to have worked. But one has to wonder how those men managed to keep a straight face when they told their wives this.

To many people who live in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, the Wampus Cat is a myth, nothing more than a scary story to keep children from wandering off alone into the woods at night. But to those who have had encounters with a frightening cat-creature in the dark forests, the beast is a horrifying reality. Nowadays, sightings of the Wampus Cat are few and far between. That doesn’t mean that the monster isn’t still out there, though. The Wampus Cat still haunts the forests, always hunting for its next victim in the darkness of the night…

Acknowledgements

I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank Rosemary Ellen Guiley, L.B. Taylor Jr., and Scott Marlowe for all of their help and for granting me permission to use their books in my research. Without them, this would have been a very short entry indeed. Thank You, guys!! You are great friends, and I don’t know what I would do without you! Thank you all so much for helping me and answering my questions. I greatly appreciate it!

Sources

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. Copyright ©2012 by Visionary Living Inc.

Marlowe, Scott. The Cryptid Creatures of Florida. Great Britain: CFZ Press. Copyright ©2011 by CFZ Press.

Taylor Jr, L.B. Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. Copyright ©2012 by Stackpole Books.

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4 comments:

  1. Never heard of this monster before. Very interesting read, and love the Native Indian legends.

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  2. Thank You, Jenna! This was actually not an easy subject to research. I had to look all over the Internet and look through numerous books just to find four or five eyewitness sightings. But it's done, so please take your time and enjoy it!

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  3. Love the story. Ever heard of the legend of the deer women

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  4. This is a very interesting read and a very interesting legend.

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