The Beast of Gevaudan is a fascinating cryptid because unlike its modern counterparts – like Bigfoot and the Mothman – we don’t have any photographic evidence or living witnesses. The Beast terrorised the province of Gevaudan in the 18th century, but it’s likely we’ll never know exactly what it was. It was most commonly described as a wolf or ‘wolf-like creature’, which at first was not as alarming as it might be now.
Wolf attacks were common in that era. They mostly affected young girls who were left alone to tend to sheep, making themselves easy targets for carnivores. So when a few girls turned up dead, no one really batted an eye. It wasn’t until the attacks continued with alarming frequency that the population began looking deeper into these killings.
Description of the Beast
Several victims had been decapitated, a technique which seemed out of the ordinary for wolves. There were several survivors of these attacks that claimed the beast to be “like a wolf, but not a wolf”. Just like a monster in a horror novel, this vague description of what it was not led to some very creative and interesting interpretations of The Beast. It was described as having a black stripe down its back; red fur; glowing red eyes; a broad chest and small ears. Some odder details included a glare that could paralyse a man, hooves, and armour made of boar skin leather. According to those who attacked the beast, weapons bounced harmlessly off of its hide. Hunters sent by the King to slay it claimed their bullets did the same, but that was likely an excuse.
Eventually it was announced that the beast had been killed, and its taxidermied body was brought before the king. All of France was disappointed, as the creature presented to them was no more than a large wolf, a major let-down to the hype that had built up over the past few years.
With all of the strange reported details that mostly added up to a consistent picture, the dreaded beast couldn’t just be a regular wolf, could it? This one had been found with human remains in its stomach, but that didn’t account for the odd colouration, resistance to bullets, and unusual method of killing. The people of France knew what a wolf looked like; if that were all, why were all the eyewitness reports so adamant that there was something more?
Though it’s likely we’ll never learn the truth, there’s no end to the theories of what the Beast of Gevaudan might have been. The most popular belief was that it was the result of a wolf and another animal; likely a large dog such as a mastiff. On the superstitious side, a popular theory was that a werewolf was running loose. The intrigue of werewolves was neither new nor uncommon at that time, and the theory certainly helped to drive sensationalist newspapers.
Examining the descriptions of the beast has led some to believe that it was not one wolf, but a pair of juvenile male lions. During 18th Century France, the aristocracy had menageries of exotic animals shipped in from other countries. The French peasantry would not be familiar with what a young lion looked like, so if someone’s ‘pet’ lion was on a rampage, they wouldn’t know better.
Menageries also account for my personal favourite theory; hyenas. Hyenas certainly have a wolf-like appearance, but are different enough that you couldn’t possibly mistake them for one. They are broader in the chest than wolves, and striped hyenas have the darker stretch of fur along the spine that was described by many witnesses. Hyenas have also been known to tear the heads off of their prey, though it’s impossible to know if the Beast’s victims were decapitated as the method of death or after the fact.
One of the more outlandish theories was that the beast was a trained animal (either a wolf-dog hybrid or a hyena, which are surprisingly easy to train) that was conditioned to kill humans on sight and dressed in leather armour to protect itself from attacks. Even wilder speculations theorise that the beast was actually not a beast at all, but a serial killer wearing animal skins. While this somewhat accounts for the beast’s intelligence, it seems unlikely that not one witness would have recognised the attacker as a human.
The Beast’s Legacy
So many possibilities, but it’s likely we’ll never really know what the Beast of Gevaudan was. The press at the time was itching for something to distract from politics, so it’s not out of the question that many of the descriptions of the beast were exaggerated for effect. There were obviously no cameras back then, so we’re reliant on illustrations to guess what it looked like. While I find the illustrations absolutely charming in an unsettling, macabre kind of way, the anatomical accuracy of 18th Century French artists leaves something to be desired.
The Beast of Gevaudan is a mystery that will likely never be solved. All we know for certain is that over 100 people were brutally killed in the French countryside over the span of a few short years, and that whatever did it was vaguely wolf-like and extremely difficult to kill. While I would love to know what the Beast actually was, I’m more fascinated by how its existence is an example of real-life horror and the fear of the unknown.
To a modern audience, horror monsters might be scary but not necessarily terrifying, as most of us aren’t likely to be hunted by something higher than us on the food chain. But for the people of 18th Century Gevaudan, wolf attacks were a real threat. They couldn’t fathom something stronger and more aggressive than a wolf, so it’s no wonder that the Beast stayed in their minds for so long.