In the 1760s, a horror movie came to life in the fields and forests of Gévaudan (pronounced je-voo-dan), a remote, isolated backwater in southern France. For years, women, children and even some men were torn to bloody shreds, yet no killer was ever captured, no one was ever jailed.
Instead, survivors of the attacks blamed a monster – a terrifying specter which became known as the Beast of Gévaudan.
Numbers vary, but perhaps 100 people were killed, suffering grotesquely violent deaths, their throats ripped and sometimes their heads torn right from their bodies. What started as a local horror show quickly turned into an international sensation, and everyone wanted to know – what exactly was this beast, and how could anyone possibly stop it?
The First Death
The first death occurred in 1764, as a 14-year-old girl named Jeanne Boulet tended her livestock. The beast attacked and killed her, and then made its escape. In an area rife with superstitious beliefs, no one knew what sort of devil or demon might have done such evil.
It would not be the last death. In the following months, more and more attacks were reported. Dozens of people died, mostly children, women and a few lone men. Witnesses and survivors said the monster was a huge dog-like or wolf-life creature, shaggy and perhaps as large as a horse.
Local authorities rallied the populace. Tens of thousands of people volunteered to help find and conquer the villain. Rewards were offered for its head. Soldiers dressed as women in hopes of drawing the beast into an ambush.
Whatever the beast was, it wasn't imaginary. But what sort of real-life creature could possibly explain this rash of terrifying killings?
"As I argue in my book, I think it's quite clear that the beast of the Gévaudan was a wolf or wolves," says Jay M. Smith, a historian and the author of "Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast," in an email interview. "The rash of killings was turned into a story about a 'monster' because of a confluence of cultural and social factors in the 1760s that created a hunger for a story about an indomitable predator."
Indeed, France in 1764 was a dismal nation, licking its wounds from the Seven Years War. The economy was in ruins and the country was essentially a sinking morass.
A Story Stoked by the Media
The beast created a stir and gave the French something to rally around. And to top it off, the entire ordeal was stoked by an emerging media industry.
"The first known killing occurred in June 1764, but I would say the 'story' only began in October of that year, when newspapers began to report on the grisly killings," says Smith. "By the end of 1764 the story of the 'beast' was an international phenomenon – fueled by newspaper reporting, especially by the Courrier d'Avignon. It was talked about in London, Turin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva [and] Boston."
The beast disrupted life in the Gévaudan for nearly three years. Professional hunters failed to find and kill it. King Louis XV's men couldn't find it, either – and in their failure, they likely made the beast out to be even more cunning and supernatural than it really was to protect their pride and reputations.
Finally, on June 19, 1767, local farmer Jean Chastel shot and killed the animal, a large wolf, suspected of doing much of the killing. The rampage was finally, thankfully, over.
A Big, Bad Wolf or Something Else?
Since then, historians and researchers have debated whether the beast could've been perhaps a hyena, a lion or perhaps some ancient creature that no longer stalks the Earth. But if it was indeed a wolf, how do we account for reports that pegged the monster as being as large as a horse?
Perhaps it had something to do with adrenaline and exaggeration, or simply mistaken recall.
"The size of a wolf is something that is difficult for someone without experience to judge," says Nate Libal, an assistant wolf biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, via email. "This is because all wolves have a large bone structure, are long-limbed, and have considerable variation in coat thickness depending on the time of year. For these reasons, people often considerably overestimate the weight of wolves they see."
But let's be honest – the size of the wolf wouldn't really matter much to an unarmed person cornered by one in a dark forest. And back then, wolves were a truly deadly concern.
"In looking at the data, it does appear that predator attacks in general, and wolf attacks more specifically, were more common historically than they are today, and that many of these attacks occurred in Europe," says Libal. "Given that wolves occur in many myths and stories (often as a dangerous or evil creature), I think it is accurate to say that there was a real fear of them historically in many places."
Scott Becker, a wolf specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concurs with Libal's assessment.
"It's hard to tell exactly how much people feared wolves in the past, but simply based on the mythology and fairy tales that incorporate the idea of 'the big, bad wolf,' those fears were real," he says via email. "These ideologies about wolves were brought with early settlers to the New World and many continue to this day. Seldom do you hear of a story about a good wolf."
Jay Smith thinks that an overpopulation of wolves likely drove them to attack people in a series of statistically rare attacks. And it's also possible that the wolves were sick.
"A large number of historical wolf attacks are believed to have been as a result of rabies, which is a much rarer disease, particularly in wolves, today," says Libal. "Predatory attacks have also been recorded and have generally involved children tending livestock or otherwise being out on the landscape on their own. With changes to society and agriculture in many parts of the world, this risk is much diminished today."
It's easy to see how a populous clinging to supernatural beliefs, and a large wolf population, in a country scarred by war – with a newly burgeoning newspaper business – could be quickly swept up by a tale of carnage and ultimately, triumph.
Now that the beast is long since vanquished, how has its bloody legacy affected the area where it stalked its prey?
"Well, myths about the beast continue to affect local culture today," says Smith. "Most of the people who have written about the story are themselves natives of the region; they grew up on stories of the beast. One of the reasons that the fantastic images of the beast survived the period is that its story feeds regional pride, promotes tourism, and even informs the identity of the people who live in the area."